Brett Gale
Saturday, 25 August 2018

Speech: Why Good Policy is Good Politics

Thank you Natalie, for that introduction. It’s great to be here today, so thanks to the Community Action Network and Vic Labor for inviting me.

Today’s a great day for Labor activists in terms of picking up tips for campaigning, and working out the practical steps to bringing about the progressive change we seek.

But, what I’d like to talk about, is the other lens to our political activity. Why the primacy of policy is important to an election winning narrative.

In particular, I’d like to give an analysis of the policy challenges we as a party of the centre left face in fighting off globally resurgent right-wing populism.

Now, during the US President’s annual state of the union address its customary for the President to declare, using some anodyne adjective, that “the state of the union” is strong or very strong or some such thing (or in Donald Trump’s case the most strongest ever).

Unfortunately, if one looks around the world one could only draw the conclusion that the state of the left is not quite so robust as the state of the union.

In fact, social democracy is under serious threat across the globe.
Although there is one notable exception that I’ll come to later.
In Europe, parties of the left and centre-left have rarely been in such a poor position.

In Germany the Social Democratic Party has recently been polling at just 17%. This is a fall even from last September’s German elections where the party received 20.5% of the vote, which itself marked a record low for Germany’s oldest party.

In Italy a Populist-right wing coalition now governs, with the Centre-Left Coalition having finished third in voting in this year’s elections.

And in France the candidate of the centre-left – the party that held the Presidency – received only 6.4% of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential elections,

And we only breathed a sigh of relief at the election of a union attacking neo-liberal because his opponent was an actual fascist.

In Britain while Corbyn Labour seems to have the momentum, (yes that pun was intended), under Britain’s new fixed election rules the next election will not be held until 2022. And four years is a long time for the Tories to continue to do a lot more damage.

Indeed, while the 2017 election saw UK Labour enjoy the biggest increase in its vote since 1945, it did so following the worst performance for the left and centre-left in the postwar period.

And, Labour still needs to win almost 70 more seats to form a majority Government.

On the opposite side of the coin, as the centre left has fallen, the populist right has risen.

In Sweden for instance, there is every chance that a party descended directly from pro-nazi sympathisers, will hold the balance of power in the Parliament following next month’s elections.

In America of course, an enabler of white-surpemacists and groper in Chief, runs rampant across all social norms, and has systematically set about shredding the achievements of his Democratic predecessor.

Although a so-called “resistance” is forming to Trump’s Presidency, and there is every chance the Democrats could retake the House or Senate in November, the truth is the Democrats have never been in a weaker state nationwide.

Over the course of the 8 years from 2008 through to 2016, Democrats lost 1000 elected offices across the country, from seats in Congress to governorships and members of state legislatures.

So, it would be fair to characterise the current state of the left as poor.

Without a doubt, across Europe and throughout America, the rise of populist nationalism has been a key factor in the fading fortunes of the centre left.

But what has led us to this dismal state of affairs?

In my view, even 10 years on, there has been a failure by the centre-left to reckon with the effects of the Global Financial crisis.

By-and-large European and American social democrats have failed to effectively engage with the disenchantment of the populace since the GFC.

Mainstream centre-left parties have been caught flat footed in their response to the changing world.

They have not responded quickly enough to voters’ changing expectations of what they want from government and society today.

In his book on the new populism, “The Rise of the Outsiders”, UK author Steve Richards points out, that, in order to win elections in the 90’s and early 2000’s, “the mainstream left moved towards what they considered to be the vote-winning centre ground, largely defined by the right – only to become trapped as the orthodoxies they embraced became outdated”.

It was this caving into the right’s definition of what made a good society that has directly led to the collapse of the social democratic vote across much of Europe in recent years.

The deliberate political strategy of the mainstream left throughout the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s’was one of playing down the role that the state could, and should play in creating a better society.

However, in practice what this meant was that following the GFC, at the exact time that state intervention was warranted, the centre left in the US and Europe had neither the words, the vision nor the policy bona fides to make a renewed case for a way in which the state could temper the worst excesses of capitalism.

As the GFC hit, the third way soon became the wrong way.

The global financial crisis required bold action from Governments of the Centre Left who were in power at the time.

Instead, except for Australia under Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, the response of most centre left parties to the GFC was straight out of the expected neo-Liberal playbook. This was the case with both Britain under Brown and the US under Obama.

Globally it has in fact been the populist right that has stolen the clothes that social democrats used to wear.

Given his margin in swing states was so small there are numerous reasons for Donald Trump’s victory – with both misogyny and racism playing very ugly roles.

But undoubtedly one of the key ones was that in policy terms he spoke directly to the concerns of (white) working class Americans – those who’d lost out from the GFC and the neo-Liberal project.

Although simplistic in approach (and not likely to be implemented in practice) Trump said things no Republican candidate had dared say before.

He railed against trade agreements that were perceived to have cost people their jobs.

He promised a massive program to fix America’s failing infrastructure.

Here’s Trump in his own words:

“It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities. The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our

country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you, the American people.”

Sounds like a great left-wing appeal to me.

Indeed, as a candidate, Donald Trump appealed to those swing voters who valued jobs and job security in a way that no Republican had done since Ronald Reagan won those same mid-western working-class Democrats.

There is another facet to this support as well – clarity of message.

As a recent podcast I listened to said, one could easily argue that part of the outpouring of enthusiasm for Trump and Sanders in the US, and for Corbyn in the UK, is a direct result of their willingness to proffer big solutions to big problems.

In contrast both Hilary Clinton and Theresa May offered small solutions to the same big problems.

What is the way out for progressives against this rising tide of brown shirt populism?

The answer is relatively simple – indeed it almost seems too simplistic but it’s one I fervently believe in.

It’s almost to take a leaf out of Trump’s playbook.

We must offer bold policy proposals to those people that Bill Shorten has called the left behinds.

And we must offer them a clear message.

This is actually where a possible happy ending to this sorry tale of left-wing woe comes in.

I mentioned before that geographically there was one outlier to this fall into despair of centre left parties.

That geographic region is of course the Antipodes.

Once again social democratic parties in New Zealand and Australia are leading the fightback against the forces of darkness.

Once again it falls to the Labor parties of Australia and New Zealand to trail blaze a way back to Government – just as we did with Hawke and Keating, and as NZ Labour did under David Lange at a time when the UK and US were under the dead hands of Thatcher and Reagan respectively.

Back then our success down under paved the way for success up over. But what are we doing to lead that charge back to relevancy today?
To bastardise Bill Clinton’s famous phrase – it’s the policy stupid.
Or as Paul Keating said, “good policy is good politics”.

The most recent elections in Australia and New Zealand saw the parties of the centre left offer bold policy visions and stick by them.

The result of this policy boldness, was, that NZ Labour claimed victory, and Australian Labor turned Abbott’s massive majority into Turnbull’s wafer margin.

Actually – it may also still be the economy stupid, because it is on progressive economic policy that left wing parties have been making up the most ground.

For instance, ten years ago people would have thought scrapping the sacred cow that was negative gearing was electoral suicide rather than as it turned out a vote winner.

That’s the other important piece of this policy puzzle – the need to adapt to the times.

Australian Labor hasn’t turned its back on the reforms of the 80’s that we initiated, but unlike our European counterparts we haven’t become so beholden to them that we can’t update our policy positions for the changes the times demand.

This approach by Shorten Labor stands in stark contrast to our approach during the Howard years.

Throughout the 90’s there was one great article of faith that was constantly repeated as to the approach that Australian parties should take to winning elections from opposition.

It is what one might call the “Opposition don’t win elections, Government’s lose them” belief.

Indeed, ever since John Hewson released the Fightback manifesto in 1993 – dubbed the longest suicide note in political history – it’s been accepted dogma that too much policy from an opposition is a bad thing.

And, ever since John Howard as Opposition Leader three years later, crawled into a tiny little ball and didn’t release any policies but still won the 1996 election by a landslide, it’s been a touchstone of elections that Oppositions should make themselves a small target, and concentrate all their firepower on the Government’s faults, rather than on their own policy positions.

The belief was that if you didn’t make yourself a target, if you didn’t release too much policy that could be shot down, you’d be right.

As we all know from the historical record, this small target approach didn’t work for us then and it won’t work for us now.

In fact, it should be a truth universally acknowledged, that social democratic parties only win when they have a strong policy agenda and show policy courage.

It’s not enough to simply wait for the other side to become unpopular.

Let’s just think of Labor’s own history – of the times we’ve come to power from opposition in the last 50 years.

Has there ever been a greater platform for reform than that Gough Whitlam presented to the Australian electorate?

When Bob Hawke took the leadership he benefitted from a massive body of policy work that had been worked up and argued over, in public, during the preceding dark years of opposition.

And while Kevin Rudd may have at first appealed to average Australians as a sunnier John Howard the bold policy agenda of apologising to the Stolen Generations, taking action on Climate Change and addressing the cost of living pressures so bedevilling working families showed a Labor party in touch with the policy beliefs of the electorate.

Even the phrase working families showed a clarity of message that talked to the actual concerns of ordinary voters.

What those Labor Oppositions all have in common with Bill Shorten’s is that they set out a clear vision for the future.

They were bold on policy

They were not a small target.

It is a common refrain to hear people say that the system is broken.

That the neo-liberal economic system is stacked against them.

That’s because it is.

And it is the feeling of powerlessness in the face of that that broken system that makes people vulnerable to the siren call of right wing populism.

In a sense we’ve had a unique form of right wing populism in Australia. It hasn’t been particularly embodied in one individual but spread out through a variety of parties protesting the system.

That’s why we’ve lurched through Hanson, to Xenophon, to Palmer and now back to Hanson.

We’ve also been somewhat protected by our combination of compulsory voting and preferential voting, which means that Australia’s populists are unlikely to ever form government here, such as has occurred in Hungary, Turkey, Poland or of course the United States.

But one needs only to remember that, “the anyone but the major parties vote” remains at historic highs, and to see the damage that people like Fraser Anning and Pauline Hanson want to cause to our social fabric to be worried about this trend here too.

And with the Frankenstein’s monster that is the Liberal party now lurching further to the right under Morrison, we need to ensure that we have a social democratic policy agenda that directly goes to the concerns of those that are pissed off with the current system.

What does that social democratic policy agenda entail?

A key part of progressive politics has always been to ensure an expanding and prosperous economy benefits all.

This means tackling head on the causes of economic inequality, it means addressing climate change and coming up with real solutions to people losing their jobs through technological change.

It means championing the role of Government and of Government intervention and redistribution, and it means giving workers back their rights to demand wage increases.

Poll after poll shows that people are opposed to business tax cuts, that they want more government intervention on the banks and other oligopolists, that they support renewable energy, that they support a progressive tax system funding schools and hospitals and that they strongly support renewable energy.

These are popular policies – not populist ones.

These are Labor policies.

These are social democratic values.

That’s why Australian Labor’s policy solutions are successfully tapping into the zeitgeist of our current angry age.

It’s why Labor’s ongoing fight against trickle-down economics is resonating so well with the Australian electorate.

Its why our stance against growing inequality shows people – that Labor does have their best interests at heart.

Its why, while we should hate the messenger in Hanson, we shouldn’t hate her voters, because their economic concerns are our economic concerns.

That clear policy message was one of the key reasons for our victory in Longman. Our victory in beating back Hanson’s hordes, as Matt Lawrence will outline after I finish talking.

It is through such a bold policy agenda – one that talks to both the aspirations and the fears of voters that social democrats win.

The words Ben Chifley applied to his Labor Party are a guiding principle for the work of us at the Chifley Research Centre.

Chifley said, “We must not only desire to win, but we must deserve to win”. Those words must remain the guiding principles of the Australian Labor Party. Because that is how we defeat the forces of right wing populism.

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.