The two most significant acts so far of Albo’s ALP have been to attack the leader of the party’s largest left-wing union and to wave through the government’s regressive and upwardly-redistributive income tax changes.1 Both of these actions, but particularly the latter, are indicative of a party which hasn’t properly understood the lessons of the 2019 election. The problem is not and has never been that Labor was too left wing under Bill Shorten and now needs to pivot to the right, the problem was that Bill Shorten was an unpopular automaton and that Labor couldn’t sell water to a desert nomad. Labor is now obsessing that its checkers pieces are red when it should really be concerned that their opponent is playing chess instead.
Firstly, they fixed the problem of the leadership. However, that they actually did that is arguable since Shorten resigned right off the bat so there was no effort on the party’s part to correct course on that matter. Furthermore, the caucus’s active decision to decide the leader behind closed doors to avoid a party membership ballot allowed through a leader who obviously does not understand how to beat the Coalition, has little charisma,2 and doesn’t connect well with the party base outside of Sydney. Secondly, they’ve totally side-stepped the problem of their marketing and communication. They spent more time in the lead up to the 2019 election defending their tax policy than spruiking their expansions to Medicare. They released their tax policy more than two years ago so that the Coalition and their media allies could spend the whole time reshaping and characterising Labor as all-tax-and-no-benefit.3 They put the cart before the horse and didn’t come out with their proposed expansions to Medicare around cancer and dental treatment until two weeks before the election. By then the election was already lost, voters had already made up their minds, and the prevailing winds are all that whistle through the ears of the low-information voters that decide every election.
The decision by Albanese and co to wave through the income tax cuts with minimal intervention is an outright attack on their previously held policies. Again, it was never their policies that were the problem. If they fail to differentiate on policy then their base has no reason to volunteer for campaigning, swing voters will see them as a cheap imitation of the Liberal party and instead vote for the “real deal” and it narrows the Overton window such that any policy push back towards the left becomes exceedingly difficult and will draw fire from the media for their hypocrisy and open them up to attack using “red in the bed” style rhetoric. I would also mention that though there is some tactical basis for Labor to encourage the Coalition to cut deep on taxes as it implies later austerity which is deeply unpopular, this tactical benefit is outweighed by the drawbacks which will cause the party to continue to leak voters and activists to the Greens. It also threatens to leave Labor with nothing to sell voters when the next election rolls around and no plan for government if they win, as they will have no money to spend and will have shifted all their policies to the right.
So what now? Well, it depends on what Labor does in the Senate. In my opinion, the only way to make up for what they’ve done in the House is to outright oppose the entire tax package in the Senate. Stage one may be permissible as it primarily benefits lower income workers, but any support for stages two or three would be a clear indicator that they have miscalculated their political strategy and are on the path to defeat in 2022. I look forward to and hope that Labor’s election post-mortem addresses their communications and marketing issues and signifies to the party the need to preserve much of their existing progressive policy. As a strategy it can work: look at Victorian Labor, who have spent most of their public airtime aggressively pushing their most popular policies whilst keeping revenue measures in the background. They also waited until they were actually in government before putting forward their most ambitious policies instead of just putting it all on the table at once for attack from their opponents. In summary: Australian Labor, check yourself before you wreck yourself (again).