During the 2019 federal election Scott Morrison responded to a busy and arguably misplaced Labor policy agenda by promising to change nothing. COVID-19 responses aside, it’s a promise he’s pretty much kept.
The status quo is fine for those doing well. But it’s not so good if you’re struggling. The Australian Labor Party was born to change things for the waged workforce – to lift wages and improve working conditions. It did so in an era in which change in our economy and society was glacial.
Today change is all around us. Technology is changing the way we live and work. For many, these changes bring opportunity and happiness. For others it brings fear and insecurity.
This latter group is looking to their political parties for comfort and reassurance. They long to know their government will do what it can to protect them from any adverse impacts of change. Unsurprisingly, their greatest concern is the impact it might have on their financial security. It has always been Labor they’ve turned to and so they should still. But we can’t lift them up from our seemingly permanent spot on the opposition benches.
This is the challenge for progressive parties around the world. Being a party of change at a time of rapid change is not easy. Ironically, this challenge is greater because of the success of earlier change. While we still have too many disadvantaged people and inequality, we are a wealthier and better nation than we were 40 years ago.
Much of that improvement grew out of the economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating era. Reform that gave birth to a whole generation of people the political and media classes call “aspirational voters”. These are the people who, like those before them, work their guts out every day to provide for their families. There was a time when for most, this simply meant putting food on the table, putting clothes on their backs.
But for the many who have benefitted from the reform of recent decades, aspiration extends to a bigger house, a second car, a second and negatively geared rented house.
These “aspirationals” are typically economically conservative. They save hard, invest smartly, and they expect their government to reward them for their efforts. They can be sympathetic to those who need a hand-up but hate big government and dislike debt and deficit. That’s why it would be crazy for Labor to fiddle with the already-legislated tax cuts coming their way in 2024.
Those arguing we should do so fail to understand that only in government does a political party have the luxury of determining the spread of the tax burden. Taking back legislated tax cuts is an unlikely path to government. The irony of it all.
Buckle up for a long and drawn out internal Labor arm-wrestle on tax policy. An exercise sure to be marked by frustration, media leaks and counter leaks. Open debate will be discouraged and therefore, community consultation limited. Most MPs will only learn of the reaction of their electorates once any change is announced and will then be expected to toe the line in the name of Party unity.
This highlights a big and ongoing problem for Australian Labor. A party with possibly the strictest party discipline in the western world.
Whatever the tax debate outcome, the results will have different impacts in different towns, suburbs, and regions. Local Members need the freedom to have a local debate and to represent the views of their communities.
More generally, Labor candidates must be free to give voice to the views, fears, and aspirations of their electorates. The Adani mine debacle should be a reminder that Labor should not expect our candidates in the Hunter and Central Queensland to be parroting the same lines as those in inner Sydney or Melbourne. Not if we want to win.