The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, took on the role this week of adviser to Federal Labor. He is perhaps the most successful and powerful Labor leader at present. He is down a bit in the polls, probably coming off Labor’s federal loss, but he does not face an election for well over a year and has every chance of picking up and winning a third term.
Mr Carr pointed out that one of the reasons for Labor’s loss federally last year was the Labor was seen as a poor economic manager. Voters felt the low-interest-rate environment might be threatened by a Labor Government. So the thrust of Mr Carr’s advice to Federal Labor was to go for economic growth which meant keeping public spending under check which in turn ensured low interest rates.
One of the most significant achievements of the Howard Government has been its ability to control debt, keep inflation in check and therefore cause interest rates to fall. This has done more to improve the living standards of middle Australia than any number of government programs. It has enabled more younger and lower-income people to buy their first dwellings. True the Coalition began to erode those policies with a grab-bag of vote-catching, big-spending policies at the beginning of 2001, when it was staring at electoral defeat, but come election time, the thought that Labor might squander the low-interest-rate environment must have been in those voters’ minds which were not otherwise clouded by the Tampa issue.
It seems Mr Carr is on the right track in advising Federal Labor to push for investment, economic competitiveness, economic growth and controls on government spending and debt. Ultimately this will generate the wealth for investment in education and health.
Mr Carr has warned against Federal Labor against going down the path of New Zealand Labour – re-regulation, more government spending and more government ownership. Indeed, Mr Carr points out the need to reduce regulation and the number of regulators, calling for the amalgamation of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission to streamline regulatory ports of call.
Federally, Labor is under-going a re-think. An inquiry into the party’s federal organisation is being undertaken by two of Labor’s most electorally successful leaders: Bob Hawke and Neville Wran. That will concentrate on attracting better candidates and getting them pre-selected. Some care is needed here. During the Hawke period, the despondent Liberals often favourably cited Labor’s capacity to train candidates through the ranks, giving them long experience in public debate before they became MPs. This made them less likely to put their foot in their mouth than the bright young things who joined the party one day, zipped through pre-selection the next and found themselves as greensticks in the Parliament.
Getting good candidates is important, but policy and leadership are of greater moment. And selecting the right people from among those on the backbench to sit on the frontbench is more important still. In a Parliament of up to 226 MPs, each party is bound to have a certain amount of dross, but each party should be able to muster a capable frontbench.
So Carr is right in indicating that once the Hawke-Wran exercise is over (and it should be done quickly), Labor must stake out where it stands. Asylum-seekers and the war against terror will not dominate the political landscape all the way to the next election. If Labor is to spell out a less hard-line policy on the social front – particularly health and education – it must, if it is to be successful, show how Australia’s fairly good economic performance in recent years will not be jeopardised.