It was the week before Christmas and Adelaide was alive with Labor Party people, as well as journalists, unionists, protesters, fellow travellers, interested observers and the men and women of business and civil society, there to network assertively with what was likely to be the next federal government. It was the Australian Labor Party National Conference, held every three years, at which Labor updates its platform and policies, showcases its leaders and tries to speak to both base and electorate. This 2018 conference had to radiate unity and readiness to take power. And it seemed to do just that.
It was my first conference in about fifteen years. I was intrigued to see who stalked the corridors of the Adelaide Convention Centre. Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre was there, hoping that the party would endorse more compassionate policies on asylum seekers. Tim Winton floated in and out, attracting admiring stares from political animals who read fiction, hoping to get a commitment from Labor to protect his beloved Ningaloo Reef. These two issues – asylum seekers and the environment – have derailed Labor many times in the past twenty years, assisting in the bleeding of votes to the Greens in inner-city Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and worrying the hardheads of the Right focused on marginal seats in Queensland and western Sydney.
In 2018, Labor politicians and delegates talked about how a Shorten Labor government would make Australia a fairer, more compassionate, greener and smarter place. I thought to myself that this was, in fact, not quite true. The majority of Australians already inhabit such a place, at least in their beliefs and outlook. In that respect, they have been ahead of the political class for many years now. The role of a new federal Labor government would not be to change hearts and minds. All a Labor government would have to do – if it were to fulfil its election commitments – is update policy and law to reflect the views and desires of the democratic majority.
In the week before the conference, my father asked me about the Labor leader. What would a Prime Minister Shorten be like?
I paused to reflect, then said, “You know, it’s going to be fine.”
My sister retorted, “Well, there’s a decline for you. The Labor Party has gone from ‘It’s time’ to ‘It’s fine’ in three generations.”
It’s not surprising that voters like my sister have scaled back their hopes for a visionary government, after the disappointments of Kevin 07. For a moment then, it seemed a modern Labor government under Kevin Rudd would fuse the traditional politics of social and economic justice for working- and middle-class people with a new politics of belief in action on climate change. And remain in government for numerous terms to cement its vision for the future.
The only grand visions Australians see nowadays are beamed to us across the Pacific, the erratic ideas of an extreme-right populism, which mostly provoke fear and loathing here. And yet the conditions exist for Labor to be something more than just an “It’s fine” government, for it to do more than merely catch up with the people. There is an opportunity to renew social democracy, Australian-style. The main aim of social democracy – to “reconcile capitalism, democracy and social cohesion” – is even more relevant after the global financial crisis, the banking royal commission and with rising economic inequality.
A revived democracy is possible – if Labor is willing not only to follow through on its policy pledges, but also to enact and embed a new social-democratic tradition with environmental concerns at its core. If it has the guts to respond to public anger about corruption and corporate influence on the political class. If it has the determination and skill to use a different political rhetoric to frame the issues that matter to Australians – not just by what is merely profitable, but by what is right. And if it can muster the gumption to argue creatively and consistently that the social-democratic policies that many of us want require not only reform of the taxation system to make it more equitable, but also higher taxation across the board. That is what a truly progressive politics would look like. In many respects, it would be the expression of the wishes of the majority of Australians, who are desperate not just to “move forward,” but to see genuine progress, in our country and our politics.
The views of this democratic majority – on issues such as housing, the environment, immigration and aspects of our democratic system – may or may not surprise the reader. But understood in their complexity, these views show clearly that the opportunity is there for an incoming Labor team to be bold in its approach to government, unapologetic in its advocacy for the public sector, and courageous in its leadership on the environment. Even on the vexed issue of immigration and asylum seekers, there is potential for a less defensive, more open approach. All in all, Australians are ready for reform, and more ready for the revival of social democracy than many assume.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY