As Labor labours through yet another period of Opposition federally, it is only right and proper that progressive thinkers around the nation should be debating what needs to be done to revitalise and rebuild.
Too often these efforts start broad but quickly narrow. A debate about renewing Labor quickly descends from consideration of Labor’s core values and themes to a shopping list of disconnected policy ideas.
While many are animated in politics by their attachment to one area of public policy, it is important that we first have a macro discussion before defaulting to the micro issues.
Indeed, our first task is to complete a real analysis of the last election result. The snapshot answer, ‘it was the interest rate fear campaign´ has validity but it is only a small part of what happened. Certainly, fear about interest rates and economic competency generally cost Labor dearly. But when votes are drifting away from Labor in polling booths in some of the poorest parts of the country then much more is as at work in the electorate than just these issues.
While debating that question to finality, we should be considering Labor’s central themes and values. In every period of Opposition since the defeat of 1996, Federal Labor has sent its Shadow Ministers away to develop new policy.
This very approach is a strategic mistake. What has been lacking is sufficient attention to the over-arching themes and values that connect these policies together. Despite being a pretty poor cook, if I might venture a cooking metaphor, it is the equivalent of going to the supermarket and coming home with a dozen high quality ingredients, only to find when you get home you can not make a meal.
Many of Labor’s values and themes are intuitively clear, such as our belief in fairness and in extending opportunity to those outside the traditional bastions of privilege. We love our country, respect diversity and have an independence of thought about our foreign policy.
However, I would suggest that two themes that require examination and may be used as a driver for policy development in the lead up to the next election, are the role of government and the intersections between the Commonwealth and the States.
On these questions our opponents have turned in to eccentrically moving targets. Across the sweep of the 20th century, one of the principal divides between progressives and conservatives, between Labor and the Liberals, was our perspective on the size of government. Labor, like left wing parties around the world, was associated with a belief in big government, larger welfare states. The Liberals, like conservatives around the world, were associated with individualism, always suspicious and critical of big government, always advocating reducing its role and most certainly its tax take and expenditure.
John Howard, often pointed to by the media, as the quintessential conviction politician, was supposedly for much of the 1970s and 1980s animated by his belief in small government. Indeed, many would see that as one of the most firmly established parts of his political identity, along with his drive for labour market deregulation and anti-union legislation.
But something very strange has happened to small government John. Indeed, something very strange has happened to the conservative philosophy of small government all together.
Now, formerly small government John, runs a very big government, a government bigger than the Whitlam government. The Howard Government, notwithstanding the Budget’s tax cuts, loves to tax and it loves to spend. The statistics paint a very clear story. In 1995/96 the Commonwealth Government’s tax take as a percentage of GDP was 23.1 per cent. By 2003/04, it had ballooned to 25.7 per cent.
At the same time, the reach of the Commonwealth Government grows. Can any one imagine the John Howard of the 1970s and 1980s arguing that the national government should be running technical schools or even that the national government should concern itself with the dredging of local creeks and paying for flower arranging classes?
The so-called conviction politician clearly had the courage of his convictions about small government leave him some time ago.
This is a fact Labor should keep hammering, while articulating our own vision of Commonwealth/State relations, a new vision of how we can govern this country which will make sense to Australians and garner their support.
There can be no clearer example of the need for a new vision than the health care system where Australians end up with worse care and wasted health dollars as a result of the irrationality of the current divisions between what the States do and what the Commonwealth does. Nothing that has happened at the recent COAG meeting is likely to make a profound difference.
Australians want to see joined up government with a new sense of the role of government and a new co-operative spirit.
In addition, Labor needs to be painting a new vision for government beyond the old big government/small government debate.
Faced with the ageing of the population and innumerable demands for government assistance, we need to be bold enough to identify those things that may have up front costs but over time will reduce the demand for government.
Our political system is hostage to a short term bandaid driven approach.
I believe Australians are aching to listen to the politics of the long term. To hear about the health prevention measures that will limit later disease and costs. To hear about the infrastructure investments that will build the nation of the future. To hear about the early intervention programs that will stop disadvantage becoming inter-generational.
An over arching theme of Labor’s policy drive could be an unashamed focus on the future rather than appeasing for the present. Doing the things today that will mean government can be leaner tomorrow.
In the coming months, it is this kind of debate, a debate about themes that should concern us as progressive people who care desperately about making Australia a far greater nation for the future.