Evolution not revolution

Joe Hockey’s remarkable “my Budget is fair” speech to the Sydney Institute this week shows that Labor is reframing the national economic and political debate around the values that matter most to us and to Australians. This is great news.

But for the long term, it is two very fine speeches by Bill Shorten in 2014 have given Labor’s supporters great heart.

One was his Budget Reply in Canberra in May, when he challenged Tony Abbott to fight for his conservative Budget in the country as a whole:

If you want an election, try us. If you think we are too weak – bring it on.

In a speech with many strong moments – from Bill’s reflections on the lessons he learned from his mother’s life in education, to his calling out of the Government’s hubris with their “this is just the beginning” statements – these were the words which brought the house down.

Why? Because Bill showed not only that Labor has ideas for Australia which are different from and better than the conservatives, but that Labor has a leader prepared to revive our culture so we can successfully make the case for those ideas, and then govern well. Indeed in boiling the argument down to Labor’s preparedness to fight an election on pensions, petrol and GP taxes, he makes clear that the future-policy question and the party-culture question are inextricably linked.

Labor has no choice but to walk and chew gum at the same time.

This is where the second speech comes in – Bill’s Towards a Modern Labor Party address to the progressive think tank Per Capita in Melbourne in April.

His words there – that he proposes “evolution, not revolution” for Labor – are a powerful metaphor. A change in culture, gradual and sustained, drawing many people in to the project; a change which begins with an understanding that what matters most is ideas about the future of Australia.

Why evolution?

First, because it speaks of organic growth and progress, by contrast with the traumatic overturning of a regime. Yes, the rules must change; but the rules are only tomato stakes. The real fruit is the Labor people and Labor ideas which will grow in a healthier progressive movement. We need to straighten them up, not tear them down.

Second, because yes, evolution is incremental and gradual. The eye wasn’t grafted on to sightless creatures fully formed. If it takes Labor time to change its rules, and if the results are widely differing practices for preselection in Barcaldine and Kwinana, that’s part of the point.

Third, because evolution marries a central logic with dispersed activity. No one is in charge of evolution and that is precisely why it can’t be stopped. You can’t have top down leader-driven reform to fix the problem of a top down leader-dominated party – but the leader can lead and take the initiative by sharing responsibility and sharing the work.

But above all, evolution is the right way to characterise what must happen next for Labor because it powerfully captures the drama of adaptation for survival in a contested environment. Here is the key point: Labor must evolve because the nation is evolving.

Any political party is ultimately an instrument, not an institution; as a progressive party, a “party of initiative”, the Labor Party exists only to change things about Australia. When the nails change, the hammer has to change, and that means Labor must comprehend economic, social and political change. If the most important adaptation for Labor is precisely to become more adaptive, that means the most important feature of Labor’s culture change has to be openness to new ideas – and not mostly new ideas about Labor, but new ideas about the future of fairness and prosperity in Australia and new ideas about the role of the state.

The changes Bill Shorten has proposed mean that new candidates and members of Parliament will have to spend more time talking about the fact Australians are living longer, the fact that mining investment has peaked, the fact that we live in the Asian century which define the jobs and lives of the next fifteen years; people who don’t understand the future, or who don’t care, need not apply. That’s the key test. If Bill Shorten’s rules changes mean that the issues most hotly debated within Labor are the issues most important to Australians when they vote, he can win the next election. He knows this.

The rules only matter because of the things people do who are governed by them. The evolution of Labor culture has begun.

About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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