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Australian Labor’s Miliband Moment

After losing what many believed was an unloseable election, Australia's Labor Party is learning what Britain's did in 2015: it's hard to build enthusiasm for compromise and moderation.

The word ‘shattering’ comes to mind when describing the result of Australia’s federal election on Saturday. Beforehand, a number of us on the Labor left had warned that Opposition leader Bill Shorten might be cast in the role of Ed Miliband. Unfortunately, the parallels with Britain in 2015 are now striking.

After what was seen as an “unloseable election”, Labor will not be forming a federal government as many expected. Instead, it looks set to achieve its second worst primary vote since the Second World War. Labor experienced massive swings across Queensland, lost seats in outer suburban Sydney and in northern parts of Tasmania.

Notable were the swings in carbon intensive regions in central and north Queensland and the Hunter. These places have been at the coalface of economic disruption because of the need to act on climate change. Overall, Labor may only gain a single seat after taking into account redistributions.

The shock felt in Australia owes to a result that did not match any public polls from the last three years, which consistently showed Labor in the lead. Psephologists had raised questions about the polling in the days before the election, but few seriously countenanced the outcome.

The usual rules of politics feel upended. In Australia, political disunity did not mean political death. The Liberal-National coalition had a revolving door of three different Prime Ministers over six years of government, a paralysed agenda due to internal conflict over climate change policy and were forced into minority government after a by-election loss in 2018. Yet, they still made a net gain of seats from Labor.

Instead of a Labor victory that would have cleared out the divisive, hardline ideologues in the coalition, who have deliberately mimicked the US Republican Party in recent years, the shock result is likely to embolden them. Absent a clear agenda granted a mandate by the election, their instincts for tax cutting, doubling down on coal mining and attacks on the trade union and environmental movements are likely to come to the fore.

Unlike Britain, Australia did not experience a recession after the global financial crisis due to the then-federal Labor’s government’s stimulus program. While the conservative Liberal-National coalition confected a narrative of a “budget emergency” and attempted to dismantle Australia’s limited welfare state through an austerity push in 2014, it was not able to pass many of its changes through the Senate. The radicalisation driven by austerity and long-term wage stagnation that has occurred in Britain has not occurred here, which means a very different polity.

In many ways, Australian Labor’s platform mirrored Miliband’s. It was modest and centre-left, with policies that combined traditional labourism with greater action on climate change and gender inequality. It said encouraging things about wages, cost of living pressures, job security, opposing cuts and investing in public services like health and education, but without ever articulating a clear or radical narrative of redistribution.

Reforms were to be funded through reducing tax concessions for the wealthy. The heavy lifting on wages and inequality would occur through technocratic fixes that increased bargaining power and tweaked the industrial relations system. And even these were offset by commitments to cut taxes and increase budget surpluses to reduce national debt.

There were egalitarian impulses, but little by way of ambitious core policies to excite the base. Nor was there an overarching framework analysing the current economic situation, or providing ideas to tackle the big structural causes of inequality. It could have been worse, but it sought to tinker rather than to transform.

As an offer, it felt transactional. Even the good individual policies came across like a long shopping list, in a way similar to British Labour in 2015. It felt like what it was, an attempt to compromise modern social liberalism with a more old-school Labour Right. This was reflected in its cheerleaders in the UK, from former chairs of Progress to Blue Labour columnists. If Shorten had won, Australian Labor’s platform would have become an alternative blueprint for the right-wing of social democracy. Now, it will serve as a cautionary tale.

While some have sneered at voters for the result, the fact remains that Australian Labor’s offer was not one that captured the public imagination. Labor was unable to convince enough voters that their lives would be better off under its government. There was no public affection for the coalition but nor was there excitement for the prospect of the Labor Opposition winning under Bill Shorten. Many speak of a “lost decade” of political paralysis and toxicity, initiated by federal Labor’s own revolving door of Prime Ministers and internal disunity when in Government, leading to distrust in politics.

The personal unpopularity of Opposition leader Bill Shorten had also been seen as a drag on Labor’s vote. His role in previous leadership changes, public perception of him as wooden and his history as a union secretary have all been cited as reasons.

The right-wing Prime Minister, meanwhile, ran a targeted, Presidential-style campaign with a tight message focusing on tax increases under Labor. He often appeared as if he himself was not in government but rather the insurgent, while the Opposition leader outlined and defended a comprehensive and costed policy platform.

The most striking domestic parallel is the 1993 Australian election where an unpopular Labor Government faced a Liberal opposition that put forward a detailed free-market programme known as Fightback! Seen as “unloseable”, the right-wing coalition’s surprise defeat saw the end of detailed platforms from Oppositions.

Labor’s campaign was not helped either by the megaphone of criticism from the Murdoch-owned media, a raft of lobby groups and an underhanded barrage of misinformation on social media suggesting Labor would impose a “death tax”. According to party officials, the biggest swings came from those over 65.

Mining billionaire Clive Palmer also played a role, with reports that his campaign spent up to $60 million on advertising against Labor. He was aided by the anti-Adani coal mine campaign, which sent a convoy from more liberal southern states into Queensland coal mining regions. Predictably, that didn’t come across well.

The fight is now on to define this loss. The party’s right-wing will say that Labor was “too bold”, especially on tax. The apparent success of the fear campaign about taxes will lead to calls for a more moderate approach. The policy of removing tax concessions for the wealthy will come under pressure, but in truth there was an abject failure to connect this to the social measures it could fund. That is what allowed a scare campaign to develop.

Australian Labor is at a critical juncture with many still coming to grips with what has happened. Was it a question of leadership, or policy, or both? For the Labor Left, the immediate battle will be to fight against any internal push to abandon redistributive policies, to break links with trade unions, or to scale back ambition on climate and inequality.

Bill Shorten stepped down on election night, forcing a leadership election. While a few potential candidates associated with the party’s left have been floated, Labor’s more restrictive election franchise, short campaign period and electoral college that is 50% membership and 50% MPs make the election of an insurgent candidate more difficult.

There is no comparable figure to Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders within the parliamentary party, nor has a wider radicalisation occurred within the unions or social movements. Australian Labor is arguably the least democratic of any labour or social democratic party in the Western world, meaning the potential for the Labor leadership election to become a catalyst for transformation is limited.

With three years until the next election, the challenge for Labor and the new leader will be how to re-engage voters in outer suburban and regional electorates to overturn the coalition’s narrow majority. The elections that 2019 most resembles, those of 1993 and 2004, were followed by a change of government. That gives at least some cause for hope.

The times require a popular leader with a vision for a better future that can excite voters. This will have to include an agenda that seriously tackles the climate crisis and has a credible answer for those who might lose their jobs and livelihoods. It is no easy task given the internal tensions implied by such a political coalition. But it is the only way Australia’s left can reclaim its future and win again.