The Oz fires up on Labor’s ‘retrograde’ thinkers

The Oz weighs in! Savour this top shelf rant from the Australian newspaper’s editorial column, responding – though we use the word in a broad sense – to the launch of Chifley’s Inclusive Prosperity Commission.

Some 18 months after Labor’s election defeat, the party’s think tank, the Chifley Research Centre, has come up with an idea.

Will this new thinking help the party rebuild its economic credibility, win back the trust of voters and return it to government? We doubt it. It is not a new policy or political strategy. It has nothing to do with loosening the union chokehold over the party, improving the calibre of its candidates or invigorating its links with the community. The big idea, proposed by executive director Michael Cooney, is to establish a commission. That’s right; the party’s “think tank” is now outsourcing ideas development. But wait, it gets better. It is to be called an “Inclusive Prosperity Commission”. Yet it is not even a new idea. It has been copied from the US Centre for American Progress, which has its own so-called “commission”.

So who will drive the commission’s work alongside Mr Cooney? None other than “the world’s greatest Treasurer”, Wayne Swan. This is the man who blew the budget, ratcheted up debt and promised to deliver multiple budget surpluses but delivered none. He waged a class war against the private sector — the engine of growth — and implemented a mining tax that raised next to no revenue. Mr Swan, who idolised multi-millionaire US rocker Bruce Springsteen, will use the commission to propagate his “us and them” approach to economic policy. It will provide another chance to implement his manifesto, Postcode, for redistributing wealth.

Labor once understood that a rising tide lifts all boats. Paul Keating used to say that government’s role in economy was to steer, not row the boat. So rather than provide opportunities for working people, which Labor did in the 1980s and ’90s, Mr Swan and Mr Cooney want to unleash an “assault on growing wealth concentration”. Instead of focusing on the disadvantaged, and developing ideas to help the middle class, these thinkers want to attack the wealthy. Their priorities are wrong. The Centre for American Progress was founded by “third way” gurus from Bill Clinton’s 1990s US administration. This is apparently OK. But anything that recalls the overlapping Hawke-Keating “third way” must be spurned.

We remember Mr Swan leading a caucus revolt against the 1993 Keating-Dawkins budget. Today, Mr Cooney is the cheerleader for the anti-Hawke-Keating pathway. Unsurprisingly, he advised Mark Latham and Julia Gillard. He says Labor should not be “Bob and Paul’s dumb-arse step-kids”. He believes Labor has nothing to learn from the 80s and 90s. Given that period saw Labor win five elections and usher in a reform program that gifted 25 years of prosperity, it would be silly to ignore it. But Mr Cooney argues long-term economic challenges cannot be met by “a reheated serve of trade liberalisation, deregulation and domestic competition”. Labor can’t go back to the future. However, balanced budgets and freer product, capital and labour markets, here and abroad, drive innovation, lift productivity and energise employment and growth. It is the only way to guarantee a growing economy with economic opportunity and improved standards of living.

It is encouraging that the Swan-Cooney world view has been largely ignored by Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen. They champion the Hawke-Keating years and would never denigrate the former prime minister and treasurer. Mr Bowen’s book, Hearts and Minds, promotes their legacy. On Monday, Mr Shorten said Labor’s economic policies would provide a “pragmatic, not dogmatic, approach to driving prosperity”. He warned that “unfettered ideology will always be the enemy of reform”. Labor should ignore the Inclusive Prosperity Commission’s backward ideological fetish and focus on real policy development. But Mr Shorten needs to lead more strongly on policy. Candidates for Labor’s national presidency are talking up the prospect of higher taxes and more spending. Former senator Louise Pratt has made gay marriage a core part of her platform. It is time for wiser heads to prevail and for stronger leadership from Mr Shorten and his frontbench team.

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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