How Australia’s Labor Party Lost an Un-Losable Election

Pundits are blaming the Australian Labor Party's left-wing turn for its shocking defeat in Saturday's election. But the failure lies in the fact that this leftist program came too little, too late.

Leader of the opposition and leader of the Labor Party Bill Shorten, flanked by his wife Chloe Shorten concedes defeat following the results of the Federal Election at Hyatt Place Melbourne on May 18, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. Scott Barbour / Getty Images

It was a bright morning, the Sunday after Australia’s 2019 federal election. At Melbourne’s Trades Hall, the home of the unions and the Left, the late-autumn sun slowly reddened the face of a passed-out Labor campaigner. Champagne bottles were strewn around him; some empty and some containing dregs. Is there anything sadder than champagne meant for celebration, drunk in consolation?

The night before, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), led by Bill Shorten, lost an unlosable election. Virtually no one predicted that come Monday, Scott Morrison, leader of the Coalition (the long term alliance of the conservative Liberal and National Parties), would form the government.

It is a profound setback. Few on the Australian left were expecting four more years of cruel, vindictive mediocrity. Worse, the ALP went into this election with an agenda well to the left of their usual offering. The obvious — but incorrect — conclusion to many will be that this was the cause of their defeat.

In the coming weeks and months, forensic analyses of this monumental failure will proliferate. Without wishing to predict the balance of discussion, there is already a clear danger that ALP moderates, not to mention small-l liberals, will draw elitist or conservative conclusions.

Describing an interjection made at the ALP election night party, Guardian columnist Brigid Delaney wrote:

It’s not Morrison, it’s not the Liberals, it’s not the policies, it’s not Queensland, it’s not Dutton. It’s the country that’s rotten. The call from the floor chilled me to the core. This is it, I thought. This is the hardening of the arteries, the cleaving of the country in two, the thing that Australia has largely avoided so far.

To Delaney, this was Australia’s Trump or Brexit moment. This is not an apt comparison, except in one sense: Delaney’s piece, and the many others like it, may as well be carbon copies of opinion pieces published by Clinton supporters following her defeat. The whole gamut of small-l-liberal elitism, despair, incomprehension, and self-indulgence is on display.

Other sub-par hot-takes abound. Some have called for Australia to excise Queensland (the state that was decisive for Morrison’s victory). Others have blamed the Murdoch media for running a hysterical scare campaign against Labor (which they did). Others have blamed baby boomers (admittedly more satisfying). All of this is like blaming the sun for global warming. These are facts of nature; good political strategy should take them into account.

As with every conservative victory, much of this commentary feels scripted. Twitter leftists are accusing Coalition voters of ignorance, stupidity, and of voting out of greed and self-interest. But precisely why would someone vote against their self-interest?

We need to do better than this. If we are going to beat Morrison in three years’ time, we need hard-headed analysis that explains how Labor lost the unlosable election.

The Wrong Reasons

Tanya Plibersek, senior member of the ALP left and short-lived candidate for top job, suggested that Labor “bit off more than it could chew.” Anthony Albanese, also from the ALP left, has so far struck a similar tone. At a press conference confirming his leadership tilt, he said: “I have as much respect for the blue-collar worker as I do for the homeless person and the businessman. I fit in as well in the boardroom as I do in the workroom.” This narrative is sure to be echoed by the neo-liberal right of the ALP, whose favoured candidate is Chris Bowen. Shifting to the right after a defeat is something Labor is good at. Since at least 1966, it’s been their standard play.

This election was remarkable for the fact that for once, Labor tacked to the left, briefly raising hopes. To blame this for their loss would be a disaster. In fact, the opposite was true: their tilt to the left was far too little, far too late.

As Osmond Chiu has convincingly argued in Tribune, Bill Shorten was less Jeremy Corbyn and more Ed Miliband.

If Labor’s moderately progressive economic agenda failed to resonate, it’s not because Australians are comfortable. Although we did not experience the 2008 economic crisis in anything like the same intensity as other nations, there are important parallels with the United States and Europe. Workers in Australia have endured close to four decades of neo-liberalism. This is our paradox: economic prosperity amid declining living standards.

Across the country, in cities and in rural areas, you can find profound unemployment. In Townsville, in northern Queensland, the youth unemployment rate is over 17 percent. Although overall unemployment is closer to 8 percent, this figure regards anyone working for one hour per week as employed.

On the other side of the continent, in Broadmeadows, a multicultural and working class suburb of Melbourne, the unemployment has topped 25 percent in recent years. The Newstart payment (the unemployment benefit) has not increased since 1994, and sits well below the poverty line. Insecure and casual work is rife and disproportionately affects younger workers, as does wage theft.

The housing market is artificially inflated by speculative investment, largely driven by high-income earners who purchased their first home before prices skyrocketed in the late 1990s. The overall rate of homeownership has been in decline since the 1960s. Based on Australian Tax Office figures, only around 9 percent of Australians own one investment property while less than one hundred thousand own four or more properties. These ownership patterns are pricing new buyers out of the cities, creating sprawling, alienated, and under-serviced new suburbs. Again, this disproportionately affects younger generations, many of whom are priced out of the housing market all together.

Simultaneously, privatization of basic services like transport, toll roads, infrastructure and amenities has failed badly, inflating prices and degrading service. Although Australia’s health system is the envy of many Americans, huge gaps and out-of-pocket expenses give lie to the idea that we enjoy a free and universal health system. Dental work is not covered. Similar inequalities exist in education. In many cases, private and Catholic schools receive more government support than state schools.

You could easily add to this picture. On face value, Labor’s policy package, which offered moderate redress to some of these problems, should have won. However, there is no one-to-one connection between economics and politics. Depressed living standards do not automatically lead to left-wing conclusions. Take the examples of Townsville and Broadmeadows, mentioned above.

In Townsville, as in Queensland more generally, economic hardship fostered resentment and racism as well as support for the agricultural and coal mining industries (the Adani mine, in particular). By implication, this leads to hostility towards the Left and environmentalism. The result was a landslide swing against Labor and a strong result for the hard right. The viciously racist One Nation dramatically increased its vote, appealing to deeply alienated Labor voters and bolstering the Coalition’s considerable victory in the state. Although Labor’s loss was most devasting in QLD, the result was echoed in W.A., Tasmania, and parts of rural NSW.

It is important to be nuanced when reading these results. Clive Palmer, millionaire and leader of his personal United Australia Party, is the closest parallel in Australia to Trump. He did not perform well, including in his home state. Despite spending upwards of $60 million on advertising, the UAP failed to elect even one candidate, many of whom were bottom-of-the-barrel material. The extent to which Palmer’s largely negative campaign hurt Labor is also disputable.

Without wishing to play the “won’t someone think about the racists” card, there is an important insight in this: the constituency for right-wing politics in QLD are often alienated poorer voters. These people distrusted Palmer. In comparison, they favoured candidates who are like them: Pauline Hanson in Queensland, or Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania. This is part of the reason why this result is not Australia’s “Trump moment,” although it did catch the polls and experts off guard.

The greater point is that Labor bears much of the blame for having created this constituency, through decades of neglect and betrayal.

On the other hand, in Calwell (the electorate of which Broadmeadows is a part), the Coalition polled only 24.4 percent. Labor won comfortably. The fledgling Victorian Socialists polled fourth, beating a gaggle of hard-right parties combined. In some parts of Broadmeadows, the Victorian Socialists outpolled The Greens and the Coalition. Of course, the Victorian Socialists — who were founded only in 2018 — can’t take credit for Broadmeadows’ progressive character.

Rather, the point is that the broader left in Victoria has consistently fought racism, denying it a basis in this state. The union movement is also strongest in Melbourne: for example, the NUW has played an important role organizing warehousing workers and farm workers in Melbourne’s north, both undermining racism in this ethnically diverse industry and proving that solidarity can win.

This, combined with Melbourne’s naturally multicultural makeup and a Labor party that is among the more progressive in the country, led to a rout for the Liberal party in the 2018 state election. This has also so far denied the far right an electoral home in Australia’s south.

In short, the bitterness that first manifests in a hatred of politics and second latches on to racist populists has not put down the same roots everywhere.

The Real Reasons Labor Lost

On paper, Labor’s progressive economic agenda should have resonated. As Ben Hillier explains in Red Flag, there is a strong sentiment in favor of spending on social services, even if it means higher taxes. Labor’s proposals would have placed the burden squarely on the shoulders of the top 20 percent of the population. Equally, support for meaningful action on climate change is at its highest point in a decade.

So, why did Bill Shorten fail so badly? In the most general sense, it was a case of far too little, far too late.

A few weeks out from the election, you could spot stacks of mass-printed placards targeting the 1 percent (with text in a “handwritten” font) around Melbourne’s Trades Hall. They were used at a set-piece rally, called by the unions, that barely made the headlines. And that’s about it. There were no town-hall style election rallies. No angry speeches. After years and years of alienation from politics, most people just didn’t pay attention. Consequently, there was no influx of donations or volunteers. Shorten copied at most 10 percent of Bernie Sanders’s substance and zero percent of his style, about two weeks out from a general election.

This general failure can be broken down into four more specific ones.

Firstly, Bill Shorten’s “class warfare” was vague, obscure, and low-energy. One of his key tax policies targeted “franking credits.” I’m not going to try and explain them, I barely understand it myself. All you need to know is that unless you are a very wealthy investor or self-funded retiree, you most definitely do not receive franking credits. From the point of view of policy, it was a sensible tax proposal. But from the point of view of political communication, it was incomprehensible to those who were expected to support it and provocative to those it would tax.

Compare this with Bernie Sanders’s approach. He does not go after cashed-up tradies or baby-boomers. Instead, the targets of his rhetoric are crystal clear and politically indefensible: the billionaire class. When Sanders proposes to fund education, he does not propose defensive half-measures. He does not vaguely promise that his government will “address the issue.” Instead, he promises to take away tax breaks for billionaires.

Or, take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Like Shorten, she has made the affordability of life-saving medical treatment a rallying cry. Unlike Shorten, she knows how to where to target the blame: medical companies who astronomically inflate the cost of medicine, placing profit above human life.

In short, Labor’s campaign didn’t target the top 1 percent. It targeted the top 20 percent and it did so in an unclear and hesitant manner. It did not offer voters a key, signature reform (like Sanders’s Medicare for all), but instead vague promises to maybe, if time allows, perhaps one day look into raising Newstart.

This leads to the second point. Labor’s environmental pitch was hypocritical. On the one hand, Shorten endorsed the essentially meaningless declaration of a “climate emergency.” On the other, he steadfastly refused to block the Adani coal mine while also promising to unlock gas reserves that would, according to experts, release even more emissions.

Shorten also failed to outline any measures linking action on climate change with improved living standards. That is, he did not attack climate scepticism at its root. This is why wherever mining and resources were a factor, Labor was punished badly.

Again, Ocasio-Cortez is a strong counter-example of how to get it right. Her Green New Deal, as I have argued, explodes the false dichotomy between living standards and the health of the planet. Instead, it promises an historic restructuring of the economy that will lift people out of poverty by massively investing in renewables and infrastructure. Instead of shutting down industry and agriculture, the GND promises to reform them from head to toe, making them sustainable. This is why it is popular among even a majority of registered Republicans.

What would an Australian Green New Deal look like? It might nationalize Clive Palmer’s failing business empire (already dependent on government handouts), as well as essential services, while heavily taxing billionaires and tax-evading corporations. By targeting the top 1 percent, a vast pool of funds could be gathered to fuel a “Green Industrial Revolution” (or some suitably named Australian equivalent.)

Manufacturing high speed trains, electric cars, and solar or wind power would revitalize regional industry. Nationalizing electricity production and de-linking it from profit would both cap prices and render the market case against renewables irrelevant. Super-profits from mining companies could be used to rebuild Aboriginal communities, close the gap in life expectancy, and to fund conservation. The list could easily continue.

Shorten’s agenda was not even remotely close.

The logical objection is that a more radical platform would have met with stiff resistance from the capitalist class. This is true. In 2010, Kevin Rudd (then ALP Prime Minister) introduced a mining super-profits tax. This tax proposed to redistribute mining profits to other sectors of capital, by funding a cut to the company tax rate. This generated a savage backlash from the big mining companies. Rudd’s days were, from that moment, numbered. Australia’s not-so-endangered billionaire miners were saved.

The ALP has neither forgotten this nor have they learned. To win a class war, you need an army. Lacking one, Shorten tried to duck and weave. Even had he been elected, he would have faced withering resistance from the rich once in power, like Rudd in 2010 or the Tsipras government in Greece, in 2015. Only mass power — social movements and trade unions — can give a genuinely reforming government the social and political power needed to resist capital.

It would have been necessary to build such a movement at least four years in advance. Shorten didn’t build one at all.

This leads to the third point: the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) mobilization, branded “Change the Rules,” failed. Granted, “Change the Rules” did raise important demands, calling for an end to restrictions on unions and the right to strike and highlighting the erosion of collective bargaining, endemic casualization, and wage theft.

The last time the unions brought down a hated conservative government was in 2007, when the “Your Rights at Work” campaign saw hundreds of thousands rally in a series of one-day political strikes. These were directed against then Liberal PM John Howard and his hated Work Choices legislation.

At the time, there was an important left-criticism of the unions: a one-week general strike would have forced Howard to his knees. Instead, the anger was channelled into a parliamentary campaign. Even so, this led to a resounding electoral defeat in which Howard himself lost his seat. This showed that the unions, although weakened, still had some social and political weight.

Imagine you make a pot of pea and ham soup. It’s not amazing, but it does the job. That was “Your Rights at Work.” Now, imagine that six months later, you find a single serving, crusted over with ice, in the back of your freezer. You microwave it (but not all the way through — you are in a hurry) and eat it, feeling a bit ashamed. That is “Change the Rules.” Sadly, but predictably, it failed to win much resonance from voters. After all, in the thirteen years since Howard’s defeat, union power has eroded even further.

This leads to the fourth long-term factor behind Shorten’s loss: the years between 2007 and 2013, in which Australia was led by the ALP’s Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard and then (briefly) Kevin Rudd once more. When commentators look back on these years, they usually bemoan the “chaos” and the “revolving door” of party leadership. This is like a drowning man blaming the water. The simple reason the ALP was incapable of stable leadership under Rudd and Gillard was that they attacked their base and mirrored the Liberals, politically.

I’ve mentioned the failed mining tax. This wasn’t the worst of it: Rudd’s industrial legislation (“Fair Work Australia”) preserved much of Work Choices. He also legislated to raise the retirement age to sixty-seven by 2023. Julia Gillard — remembered as a feminist and Australia’s first female prime minister — cut the single parent benefit, a move overwhelmingly affecting single mothers.

The only real exception to these cuts was Rudd’s “Keynesianism for dummies.” His occasional stimulus packages delivered one-time direct payments to poorer Australians. Admittedly it’s nice to be given free money. But this hardly rebuilt the welfare state or reversed wage stagnation. My “Rudd Bonuses” were usually eaten by my credit card. I also remember when he funded private contractors to install energy-saving light bulbs in homes. I quite enjoyed having someone from the government change my light bulbs until I discovered the new ones issued soul-crushingly harsh white light. Worse still were Rudd’s botched initiatives, like installing highly flammable insulation in private homes, leading to deaths and a Royal Commission.

Rudd and Gillard were not much better on non-economic questions. They steadfastly refused to legislate for same sex marriage (which was only won under the Liberal PM, Malcolm Turnbull). Perhaps most viciously, they out-bid the Liberals’ cruelty towards refugees, excising the mainland from the migration zone and re-opening off-shore detention centers.

It’s not just that these moves were evil (they were) or that Bill Shorten’s shadow cabinet, without exception, went along with them (they did). Rather, these moves ruined what little base the ALP had left. This is what explains the “revolving door” of ALP leadership. Subsequent changes to the party’s rules, making it more difficult to topple a standing leader, have only reinforced the ALP’s status as one of the least democratic social-democratic parties in the world.

Even had Shorten wished to lead the kind of fight I outlined above, his ALP may have found itself too hollow.

Third Way Labor Loses Again

The upshot of all this is that the ALP has not left the Hawke, Keating, Rudd, and Gillard years behind. They are trapped in Third Way Labor.

An article describing Labor’s post-election party in Crikey recounts an anecdote that captures this well. In response to the defeat, one Labor strategist suggested that they ought to have ditched the franking credits policy and simply snuck it in later: “‘Why be honest?’” she said, laughing with a touch of anger. “That’s a lesson for the kids of Australia: never be honest, ha!’”

This is more than patronizing cynicism. It is a hangover from the bad old days of “triangulation,” in which center-left parties presented a small target and tried to woo the middle ground while reforming by stealth (which generally meant not at all). This was never a path to a better world, but it was electorally viable. Now, it is positively dangerous.

Notwithstanding shuffling to the left, the party and the campaign that Shorten led was Third Way Labor through and through. This is why they lost the unlosable election. Bob Hawke was the first great Third Way leader of the ALP. Under his leadership, Labor (and the union movement) built Australian neo-liberalism, as Liz Humphrys has argued, both here and in her recent (and effectively titled) book, How Labour Built Neoliberalism. Despite its superb timing, his death two days prior to the election, was in vain. Clearly, Australians did not remember him as fondly as did the commentariat or the political class. Tony Abbott was correct to describe him as having had a “Liberal head.”

Today, we are at the end of the neoliberal era that Hawke built. Any politician or party that does not realize this dooms themselves over the long term.

Neoliberalism was a hegemonic project. This is to say, it was not simply a set of policies or poor ideas. Rather, to build hegemony, it is necessary to construct class power through alliances. These are founded on a combination of force and consent. This, in turn, draws upon and articulates a political, social, and cultural vision: a hegemonic project produces its own ideology which, if unchallenged, can color the historical dynamic of an era.

In Australia, uniquely, neoliberal hegemony was first built by Labor. This is the reason why, retrospectively, Bob Hawke has been praised as a strong leader. Of course, personal charisma is a factor; Hawke did seem to genuinely enjoy beer. But personality is not enough to explain his strength and the legacy he left. Rather, Hawke — previously the leader of the ACTU — had the strong backing of the Australian capitalist class.

Hawke built a cross-class alliance. The superannuation system and mandatory industrial arbitration created mechanisms to reward loyal union bureaucrats. This built consent. By affirming restrictions on strikes and by de-registering militant unions (like the Builders’ Laborers Federation or the Pilot’s Federation), he threatened the unions who stepped out of line. This demonstrated force.

Every hegemonic project goes through what might be described as a “heroic” period, an intermediate period of plateau, and a period of decline and degeneration. Hawke led the “heroic” period of Australian neoliberalism (which, to be clear, is not to praise it.) Paul Keating and John Howard led the intermediate period, in which neoliberalism was consolidated and extended, but not dramatically altered. Rudd and Gillard, and after them, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, and Scott Morrison have presided over its period of decline. This explains the divisions in their parties, their inability to inspire, and their incapacity to initiate reforms, either good or bad.

Where does this leave us? Well, if Bob Hawke was the Robert Baratheon of the Australian left, Bill Shorten was its Stannis Baratheon: a weaker, less likeable, and less powerful candidate, whose claim to the throne was based on lineage and not on worth. It’ll take more than this to overthrow The Liberal Party.

What Next for the Australian Left?

The leadership contest in the ALP will play out over the next few weeks. It does not look promising. There is no Sanders or Corbyn in sight. Every candidate is another Ed Miliband or worse, Pete Buttigieg.

Anthony Albanese, the likely candidate and the most senior ALP left leader, has so far downplayed his left credentials, calling for a focus on growth (which no one has ever suggested before) while emphasizing his common touch: “What you see is what you get with me, for better or worse. I am a bit rough at the edges, but I think that Australians don’t want someone who just utters talking points. So from time to time, I will not be as articulate as someone who is simply reading from a script.”

How do you do, fellow kids. I don’t recall Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders ever feeling the need to explain that they are a bit rough around the edges.

The main alternative is Chris Bowen, from the right. It doesn’t look promising. Of course, I hope I’m wrong. I hope the ALP finds a leader who can lead a real political transformation. But as I’ve argued before with Ivan Mitchell, while this is a theoretical possibility, it is hard to see where it will come from.

While the Left can take heart at a strong Green vote in the senate, it’s increasingly clear that they are on a one-way bike path to becoming a party of Tree Tories. This election, they targeted blue-green seats while further marginalizing the party’s left.

It’s more likely that the unions will shoulder the work of rebuilding. “Change the Rules” needs to become “Break the Rules.” While it’s too simple to just say “more strikes, more often,” perhaps this defeat will finally convince union leaders that relying exclusively on the parliamentary ALP is a dead-end. Meanwhile, militant unions, like the NUW, and the more powerful left unions, like the CFMMEU, clearly possess the initiative and muscle (respectively) to turn things around. The questions is whether they will.

At the same time, there are reasons to feel positive. The generation of school kids who led the climate strikes earlier in the year will be university student radicals before the next election. All the indications point towards a growing politicization among young people who will bear the burden for climate destruction while enjoying none of those sweet, sweet franking credits. They understand, as Jeff Sparrow has argued in Overland, that environmental moderation today means nihilism tomorrow.

Equally, while there is clearly a growing constituency for the hard right, this fact will create crises in the Liberal Party. Tony Abbot was decisively thrown out by north shore Sydney Liberal Party members who like their lawns green, their boardrooms diverse, and their racism discreet. More generally, Morrison has no mandate for cuts or attacks.

In my view, the biggest danger for the activist and socialist left is that we capitulate to anti-political cynicism, retreating into private life, moralistic identity politics, or other strategies of despair. Even so, this danger isn’t what it once was. Australia may well be five or ten years behind the rest of the world politically. But we aren’t cut off. A victory for Sanders or Corbyn would resonate profoundly.

What’s more, on an international level, we are at the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. Those on the Left who grasp this will enjoy a profound intellectual advantage. Of course, it will be an uphill battle to bring genuine socialist politics back to the electoral mainstream. Yet Sanders, AOC, and Corbyn (and to a much lesser extent, the Victorian Socialists) show it can be done.

Until then, optimism of the will: socialism will win. Also, on the bright side, we now have an elected prime minister who shat himself at Engadine Maccas in 1997.