Where was Labor in the past couple of weeks? When the Government was flailing badly on vaccinations and integrity, Labor barely squeaked.
It takes two to change a conservative government – a decrepit or deceitful government AND an opposition that is ready with a credible grand vision. History tells us that poor government is not enough for voters to change rulers; nor is an Opposition with a credible plan.
To change from a conservative to a progressive government, you need both. Whitlam-McMahon, Hawke-Fraser and Rudd-Howard tell the story.
So, it is now time for Labor to seize the moment. It is not a matter of who is the leader – Albanese, Plibersek or Chalmers – but the policies.
They should be the four policy horsemen of the apocalypse for the Coaltion: integrity; the pandemic, nationhood and energy. But unless Labor saddles up, the Coalition will breeze past all four and get re-elected.
Dealing with corroding integrity at the federal level is critical. Without that, it is impossible to deal with other policies.
This week the corrosion of integrity took another form. The exposure by the Auditor-General of the Coalition’s corrupt park-and-ride new carpark scheme under which money was lavished in marginal electorates it wanted to hold or take, irrespective of merit, was similar in kind to half a dozen similar schemes – both Coalition and Labor – going back to the 1990s.
But there was a difference. Past responses have ranged through fudging, dissembling and ministerial resignation. But when the Coalition was caught out handing out public money just before the 2019 election on the say so of Coalition candidates without proper processes and possibly illegally, it tried to portray the corruption as normal politics.
Candidates promise things, get elected and deliver the promises, was the way Trade Minister Simon Birmingham put it. The whole exercise was somehow legitimised by the re-election of the Coalition, he argued.
Under that theory, it would not matter how maladministered, illegal or corrupt the conduct, upon re-election, it all goes away.
This is worse than cover-up. With cover-ups there is at least a tacit admission that there is something wrong to cover up.
The new corrupt way of administering these grants also came another step closer to becoming the new normal this week with the return to Cabinet of the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie who resigned 18 months ago after the Audit Office found marginal-seat hand-outs in the sports grants scheme she was supposed to administer.
The sports rorts was just $100 million. The carpark scheme was $600 million.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese missed a big opportunity. He uttered the clever line that it was a “pork-and-ride” scheme, but did not promise to end all discretionary grants schemes, saying instead that governments “are elected to make decisions”.
In short, Labor would do similar things, though perhaps not so blatantly. After all, the original sports-rorts scandal came when Ros Kelly was Labor’s Sports Minister in the Keating Government. At least she was forced to resign, albeit after a fair amount of time squirming.
The Keating Government also began the use of Government-paid advertising to push the party line. The Howard Government turned that into an art form as it did handing out money in marginal electorates under discretionary schemes.
True, Labor is committed to a Federal commission against corruption, but this week would have been an ideal time for Labor to have laid out a full integrity plan.
It would include an anti-corruption commission with teeth. The Auditor has no power to prosecute or punish. This is necessary because shame is obviously not working. It would end discretionary schemes and the use of Government advertising for party purposes. It would end corporate donations and curtail the power of lobby groups which drive so much bad policy.
It would increase public funding for political parties. And it would reinvigorate the Public Service as the repository of policy generation and administration and restore funding to the Audit and Tax Offices.
Without these things it is impossible to do anything about energy and climate policy as the sorry tale of policy failure since 2007 attests. While the fossil-fuel industries pour money into the major parties’ coffers (especially the Coalition), Australia will remain a climate pariah and miss the economic opportunities of renewables and cop carbon tariffs from countries we export to.
On corruption, energy and the pandemic, Labor has been far too timid. Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Liberal leader John Hewson have done a far better job articulating the corruption and mismanagement of the Morrison Government than Albanese.
Labor should be setting out what should be done about public quarantine stations and mass public vaccination centres, and what should be put in place permanently to meet future pandemics. It should be articulating that it understands that public health has to be run in the public sector, and not, as the Coalition has done, contract it out to its mates in the medical profession and the hotel industry and to head up public-health programs with military personnel.
Labor should be bundling these things up with a coherent message that it is wrong to assume that the Liberal and National Parties are the best economic managers and administrators. Time and again the Coalition gets taken for a ride or mismanages things when it deals with the private sector. Whether it is buying vaccines; paying three times the going rate for carparks; selling water rights; setting mining royalties; and the list goes on.
The message should lay out how Labor would do things better with a better balance of public and private involvement, underpinned by a commitment to integrity in government.
And this all leads to nationhood and Australia’s place in the world.
Labor should put a plan to end the environmentally destructive idea of a Big Australia, which not only costs Australia but deprives other countries of the skills they need. The plan should commit to our international climate and other obligations. It should cut the apron strings with Britain and give Indigenous people an effective voice in the nation’s future.
If Labor is too timid to chart a better path for Australia, it cannot expect government to fall into its lap. The only hope then would be to wait for the Liberal Party to change course and reform itself. But the last time it looked as if that might happen with the election of Malcolm Turnbull as leader it all ended in tears.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 10 July 2021.