The Australian Labor Party’s Official Election Review Learns All the Wrong Lessons

Six months after the Australian Labor Party lost what was widely regarded as an unlosable election, the party released its internal review of the defeat. The document refuses to face the real reasons for the catastrophe, while proposing a potentially disastrous shift to the right.

Labor MP Bill Shorten puts a question to the government during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on November 25, 2019 in Canberra, Australia. Tracey Nearmy / Getty

In answering the question “why did Labor lose?,” Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill’s election review points to three main failings: weak strategy, poor adaptability, and an unpopular leader.

No one will dispute Bill Shorten’s relentless unpopularity. It’s also true that widespread confidence in a Labor victory lulled the party into complacency, partly explaining the failure to develop a united strategy or basic infrastructure, like campaign committees, that can sustain flexibility.

Yet while superficially true, these findings prioritize conflict avoidance over reality. Worse, by endorsing the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership’s tilt to the right, their proposals threaten to accelerate the party’s decades-long war against its social base.

The Slow and Lingering Death of Triangulation

The neoliberal era that Labor helped build in Australia is at its end. The new era is yet to be defined. Consequently, Labor will only succeed if it adopts a transformative political vision addressing the economic and ecological crises of our time.

Superficially, it may seem that Jeremy Corbyn’s loss to Boris Johnson contradicts this.

Yet in Corbyn’s defeat, a new foundation for future victories was laid. Although his leadership was consistently internally eroded and subjected to ceaseless, vicious smears externally, Corbyn won 10 million votes.

As Godfrey Moase has correctly observed, the difference between the two defeats couldn’t be more stark. He writes that “the salient difference between the Australian and UK elections results is that Labour begins its rebuild with 400,000 additional members. This is the real legacy of the Corbyn period.”

And anyway, even if the path to a genuine renewal of the ALP is long and unclear, we can nevertheless be sure of one thing: triangulation has no future.

This failed strategy is what Emerson and Weatherill gesture toward when they propose Labor abandon “divisive rhetoric, including references to ‘the big end of town’” and instead suggest “drawing upon and expanding on its past economic reforms,” namely, Hawke and Keating’s introduction of neoliberalism.

This is to be sold as part of a “a coherent Labor story” that stresses “improving the job opportunities, security and conditions of working Australians,” as well as fairness and opposition to discrimination.

It’s classic Third Way social-democratic triangulation. This strategy presupposes a stable base and recommends presenting a small target while attracting marginal votes. Notwithstanding the moral and political price, it used to elections. Since 2008, it has failed consistently.

Having discarded its determination to meaningfully advance workers’ interests, the ALP gradually lost its ability to renew its base. Its credibility to campaign on progressive policy fell shortly thereafter. Instead, the ALP has come to rely on the media, on the coalition’s unpopularity, and on support from sections of business. In short, their success is tied to the fortunes of their natural enemies.

This means defeats will worsen over time while pushing policy to the right.

The Adani coal mine is a good example of this trajectory. Emerson and Weatherill’s report surmises that “inner-city voters expected Labor to oppose the Adani mine while Queensland regional blue-collar voters expected Labor to support it, but Labor did neither.” Both of these constituencies are key to Labor’s long-term success. Yet Bill Shorten’s attempts to hedge his and Labor’s position backfired spectacularly.

Worse, there is no pursing the middle ground on the climate crisis. The stakes, both politically and environmentally, are too high. The habitability of our planet is not a voting constituency to be weighed up against another. When Shorten endorsed the false opposition between workers’ interests and the environment, he showed that he doesn’t understand this.

However, the dilemma only applies within a neoliberal worldview. It also risks accelerating the rapid growth of far-right parties who win votes whenever environmental reforms are seen to lower living standards.

By contrast, the proposal for a Green New Deal radically and popularly connects improved livelihoods with protecting the environment. The only problem is that endorsing policies like these would require a break with neoliberalism.

Clinging to Neoliberalism and Offering the Wrong Reassurances

Instead of rising to the challenge of articulating a genuinely transformative reforming vision, the ALP’s election review recommends more neoliberalism.

The authors take for granted Labor’s long-held and irrational fear that budget deficit spending leads inexorably to electoral wipeout. Policies such as the Australian Investment Guarantee, a tax break on capital expenditure for large companies, are defended as flagship economic programs. The review proposes that “Labor should adopt the language of inclusion, recognising the contribution of small and large businesses to economic prosperity”.

Perhaps more concerningly, Emerson and Weatherill pit the “disparate” interests of “gender equality, the LGBTQI+ community, racial equality and environmentalism” against “working people” and “traditional Labor voters.” They caution against “Labor becoming a grievance-focused organisation.”

At best it is lazy to characterize the demands for gender equality or LGBTQI+ rights as “grievances.” To oppose them to “working people” is downright dangerous; this reproduces the discursive framework of the Right.

Rather, Labor must confidently assert that immigrants, women, the LGBTQI+ community, and environmentalists are workers; they are impacted by precarity and inequality as much, if not more than, an imaginary white, straight, and male working class.

In contrast, Emerson and Weatherill suggest that “building common ground with what, on occasion, appear to be competing constituencies” should be “approached pragmatically on an issue-by-issue, region-by-region basis.” This is naive and implies voters can be manipulated. A pro-refugee stance taken by one MP in a progressive electorate cannot make up for mandatory detention. Pro-environmental policies in Victoria cannot make up for a mine in QLD that will export vast amounts of emissions.

Worse, the review occasionally expresses resentment toward progressive social movements. The authors characterize social movements as a threat to, rather than a source of, Labor’s power, arguing that “Labor’s policy processes were too attentive to [the] efforts” of external advocacy groups.

Instead, Australia needs a Labor Party that can stand in solidarity with progressive social movements, rather than see them as competitors. This — as well as ongoing efforts from those who are active in social movements — is the only way to rupture a disengagement from politics that generally advantages the Right.

Take the ongoing survey from the Museum of Australian Democracy that found that trust in our democracy has plummeted from nearly 86 percent in 2007 to a historic low of 41 percent in 2018. Over that same period, the primary vote for major parties has been in steady decline, from 86 percent to just 75 percent at the most recent election. These figures help explain the electoral growth of right-wing populism, especially in politically important outer suburban and regional areas.

At the same time, bold progressive policies are popular. A recent poll commissioned by Unions NSW shows that 67 percent of Australians support a jobs guarantee. Concern about climate change is extremely high and likely growing.

The ALP’s review does, to some extent, recognize the growth of insecurity: “the election was conducted in a political climate shaped by rising perceptions of risk at the international and national levels, which demanded reassurance.”

In the same section, the economic forces underpinning insecurity are briefly cited, including the global digital economy, the financial crisis, and the outsourcing of jobs. Yet as these are regarded as beyond control. No reassurances may be given here.

Instead, the review suggests that “economically insecure, low-income workers are receptive to messages their plight is the fault of foreigners and their political supporters.” So the authors conclude that while Labor “supported both offshore detention of asylum seekers and boat tow backs . . . the Medevac Bill gave the Coalition a fresh opportunity to portray Labor as supporting foreigners over Australians.”

Evidently, the only reassurances sought by Emerson and Weatherill are that Labor will stand strong against migrants and refugees. Their repudiation of the Medevac Bill, a law that guaranteed medical transfer for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, suggests just how much lower they wish to see the ALP sink.

Models for Success

Labor cannot build a story of “fairness, non-discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender” while working hand in hand with the right to worsen an already racist immigration system. Labor can’t claim “care for the environment” as a core value while continuing defend fossil fuels.

Instead, the ALP should take inspiration from Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Their examples show that an unapologetically transformative socialist politics can begin to rebuild from decades of degeneration and retreat. Not only is this far closer to the story that once made the Labor Party an inspiration to workers everywhere , it may be the only way to preserve the Labor tradition in Australia.

Especially following Corbyn’s loss, it must be admitted that this road to success is long and may pass through electoral setbacks. Yet the all-consuming obsession with polls and short-term voting trends is another symptom of neoliberal pragmatism.

But still, the picture is not as grim as it might seem. Corbyn’s British Labor Party has close to half a million members. Corbyn’s policies, including nationalization of key infrastructure and an increase in direct public projects, were overwhelmingly popular. His campaign shifted politics far to the left. Momentum organized nearly 50,000 people, with some volunteering for weeks. Even adjusted for population, the number is probably higher than the ALP’s membership.

In the United States, Bernie Sanders has drawn on the work of the Sunrise Movement and others to make a Green New Deal a centerpiece of his campaign. He has shown how the cause of workers can be supported through bold climate action rather than threatened by it.

Both Sanders and Corbyn have pushed socialist ideas into the mainstream of the political debate and built lasting campaign infrastructure that will serve well into the future. Although setbacks are inevitable, this shows a politics of transformation is a long way from electoral suicide, as those in the Australian Labor Party might fear.

The only proposals that will categorically lead to electoral suicide are found in the ALP’s election review.