There is little doubt that this decade has seen some major seismic shifts in the global political landscape. Despite commencing optimistically with the Arab Spring and a growing awareness that raw, international capitalism had failed – forced to rely instead on statist intervention – the fault lines soon shifted.
Evidently, this decade will now be sadly defined by the chaos of Brexit, the subversion of Trumpism, the ‘fake news’ phenomenon and a concerted fightback by forces defending neo-liberalism, promulgating a brand of racist, misogynistic and xenophobic nationalism – all deeply hostile to humanism, science and rationality.
The 2019 Australian federal election can now be added to the growing list of electoral events which have seen this retreat from progress. At the outset, the election was shaped as a stark contest between one side that relied on deceit, greed and fear as opposed to another that offered hope, compassion and inclusion.
In the lead up to 2019, Australians expressed clear concerns about climate change, increasing corruption, declining housing affordability, cuts to health and education, loss of penalty rates and working conditions, the failing NBN, the NDIS, an unfair tax system, tax avoidance and increasing social and economic inequality. To these concerns, Labor listened. Indeed, during the election, Federal Labor provided one of the most comprehensive and progressive policy platforms ever placed before an electorate that addressed all of these matters – and then some.
However, the political voice of the privileged, the ultra-wealthy, the corporate elite – all reliant on an inherently unfair and unbalanced economic system – had other plans. Labor was clearly seen as a significant threat to their interests. They weren’t going to lay down without a fight. And fight they did.
Without doubt, the ALP faced one of the most concerted campaigns based on blatant and deliberate deception ever faced by a political party in a modern federal election. A hysterical corporate media played a key role in allowing these lies to go unchallenged. In fact, the media, led by (foreign owned) Murdoch’s Newscorp, were ferocious and relentless in their false claims about Labor’s policies. Add to that the constant barrage of dishonest Coalition and Clive Palmer advertising focussed only on Labor, barely mentioning their own policies – if they indeed had any.
Unfortunately, it appears that the age of post-truth politics has swept across Australia. With such success it is doubtful that we will see its demise in the foreseeable future. It is this new axiom of electoral campaigning that Labor needs to confront if it is to have any possibility of winning government in three year’s time.
It is not surprising that we arrived at the final result. Most Australians rejected Labor’s agenda, overwhelmed by the myriad of policy positions and convinced by a campaign of lies that they would be somehow worse off. Labor offered a ‘Fair Go for Australia’ but this ‘fair go’ was seen as existing for ‘someone else’.
Now that the election is over, it is important for the ALP to learn the lessons behind this loss. The coming weeks, months and beyond, will see a plethora of views about Labor’s policy positions, tactics and campaigning.
At the outset, on one matter, let’s be clear. Unfortunately, for the Labor Party, their fight was on too many fronts. The proposed changes to the tax system were seen instead (and unjustly) as a tax on just about everything. People feared that they were losing something, even when they weren’t. Pensioners, renters, investors, retirees and just about everyone on a low income thought they would be worse off, when the opposite was true. People paying mortgages thought that the value of their homes would collapse overnight. In all, this was too much for Labor to counter. Faced with such dishonesty from its opponents, it was impossible for Labor’s message (and rebuttal) to cut through. Clearly, the campaign failed.
However, there is some light. In the end, over 48% of Australians identified with Labor’s vision. Labor (at present) has only a net 2 seat loss from its 2016 haul. Hardly a wipe out. This is not to say that the task ahead of Labor is small. The Party needs to reconnect with those communities who were persuaded by the message of fear. Labor needs to craft policies that address the key issues but do not become the target of a fear and smear campaign. Some reforms may need to wait a bit longer.
However, more than ever, it is important for Federal Labor to remain true to its core values. Labor must never recoil from the fight to build a fairer, more inclusive society. We must continue to be the political voice that stands against exploitation, discrimination and oppression. We must be the voice that ensures everyone has an opportunity to live a dignified life and benefit from their own efforts.
Importantly, human compassion and need must triumph over selfishness and greed.
Our historical partnership with the trade union movement must certainly continue, but we also must build long lasting relationships with others who share our values. Our tent must be enlarged.
For the large part, the ALP has woken from the hypnotic trance that saw a flirtation with neoliberalism. We cannot allow the Party to close its eyes again.
Of course, there will be debates and disagreements about the next steps for the Party. This is something, however, that should be welcomed. As a political movement we should never shrink from having an open and robust contest of ideas. The big challenges of the coming decades remain on the horizon – such as climate change, the fourth industrial revolution, the fragility of democracy and growing economic and social insecurity. The Labor Party must address all these challenges.
Finally, let me finish with this point. We hardly ever see our opponents turn their backs on what they defend. Neither should we. This battle was lost, the next one is ahead of us. Let’s prepare for it with all the energy, passion and dedication we can muster.