Labor puts democracy to test

The best prime minister we never had

These are testing times for Australian democracy. Perhaps the biggest calamity of Labor’s loss in May is that the better policies are in danger of being lost with it.

In democracies we quite wrongly assume that the voters’ choice is always the correct one. But when you look back at some Australian elections and what resulted from them it becomes apparent that the people at least occasionally got it wrong.

Former Opposition Leader John Hewson recalled publicly for the first time on the passing of Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke that Hawke had once said to him that he (Hewson) had done a grave disservice to Australia in not beating Paul Keating and Labor in 1993 because if Hewson had won he would have spared Australia the extensive and corrosive consequences of the Howard Government’s 11 years.

Very true. Nearly all of Hewson’s Fightback! policies – against which Keating ran a PR scare campaign that makes Sco-Mo’s 2019 effort look like the warning label on a soft toy – have now come about.

And looking at Hewson’s position on a great range of things since, I think he has easily eclipsed Kim Beazley as the greatest Prime Minister we never had.

So this week Labor’s dilemma became stark. On one hand, former Treasurer and ALP President Wayne Swan said Labor should stick with its tax, climate and other policies because they were right. On the other hand, Labor’s climate spokesperson Mark Butler said Labor should be unsparing about these policies after the loss, and has dithered, Nero-like, over the parliamentary motion to declare a climate emergency while all around NSW and Queensland are burning.

The dilemma goes to the fundamentals of liberal democracy. Does a major party peddle policies that win, or pursue policies that are right? In the middle of this dilemma are the great, unwashed, ill-informed voters. The people of whom Churchill is reputed to have said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The average Coalition voter who has had a family member diagnosed with cancer since the election must be ruing their vote now. So, too, must the average hitherto climate-change denying landowner battling the unprecedented September bushfires in NSW and Queensland.

Labor has a huge dilemma. Having tried to aim at the correct target, it shot itself in the foot. Does it now change weapons, change targets or both?

People do not always buy or chose one thing over another because it is better or better for them or better value for money, they often do so because they are “sold”, “persuaded” or duped.

So the question for a political party is do they accept the human condition (or the voters’ disposition) as it is – driven by fear and greed. Or do they try to lift people beyond that to look for the greater good. Or a third way – play on fear and greed to get elected and then do things for the greater good.

In a stockmarket, fear turns the market down and greed turns it up and rationality ultimately balances them. In politics, on the other hand, fear and greed can work on the same side driving one party higher and the other lower. Irrationality exaggerates the two already dangerous mindsets.

In politics political parties can, and do, command both fear and greed to improve their position.

In short, politics in Australia is in danger of becoming the art of exploiting voters’ fear and greed rather than capturing their hearts and minds.

What does a political party do in the face of this?

Does it agree with all or most of the policies of the Government party because that party won so the policies must be right? Or does it hold most of its fundamental positions?

History suggests that the voters might be a bit slow, but they eventually come around to good policy. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme; opposition to conscription and the Vietnam war; universal health insurance; universal access to tertiary education; gun control; the GST; and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are good examples of solid policies that would not be now unwound by the side of politics that did not introduce them.

Just as universal health insurance took two bites, my guess is that it will be the same for carbon pricing.

History will inevitably vindicate those who want action on carbon reduction and to join other nations in addressing global heating.

On tax, Labor should be more subtle. It should stick to its principle of a fairer tax system, but achieve it without identifying specific big losers. Again, history will vindicate those who seek to arrest the three-decade shift in power and economic strength from labour to capital.

In Britain and the US, power was grabbed by the far right of the Conservative and Republican parties respectively. In Australia the far right of the Liberal Party attempted with only partial success to do the same thing. 

In Britain and the US, as people – including a lot of moderate conservatives –see the ultimate cost of this right-wing radicalism they are resisting.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said, “If you do the same things in politics, you can expect the same outcomes.”

Not so. Sometimes it takes two or more election cycles to move opinion. Moreover, voters act not just on policy but personality. Maybe, for whatever reason, they just did not like Bill Shorten.

In Australia, if Labor does not do its job as the Opposition party pointing out the dangers and pitfalls of radical policies and policies generated by powerful special interests, the right-wing of the Coalition Government will be ever more emboldened.  

If it doesn’t, we will be accepting that human nature makes the effective working of democracy at best a lucky happenstance and at worst an impossibility.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 14 September 2019.

One thought on “Labor puts democracy to test”

  1. Not that it would have made any difference, because I have never lived in a marginal electorate, but reading John Hewson’s articles in the Canberra Times over recent years I wish I had voted for a government led by him for the same reasons as Bob Hawke.

    At the time Dr Hewson gave me the impression that he was foremost an economist wanting to try a grand economic experiment on the nation, with little genuine understanding of the effects it might have on the lived experiences of citizens with far less capacity than himself, for “having a go to get a go”, as Scott Morison puts it. I have often wondered if it was his failure as a politician that was the catalyst for forming the truly liberal values he now espouses. Either way I now agree that ” … he has easily eclipsed Kim Beazley as the greatest Prime Minister we never had.”

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