Nov 17, 2015

Turnbull appropriates Labor rhetoric to appear fair. His policies tell a different story – Opinion – The Guardian Australia

To borrow a great line from Paul Keating, it seems everywhere you go in Australia at the moment, some galah is talking about the need for economic reform.

Economic reform to drive future employment and growth is indeed needed; but it must promote improved living standards, not widen inequality.

Particularly in nations that were hard hit by the global financial crisis, people are looking for a way forward that promises something better for the many, not just the few.

Progressive political parties need to be explicit about their motivation when arguing the case for reform.

For the conservatives, a strong economy is an end in itself. It means more profits for business.

Labor also embraces a reformist instinct because we know a strong economy creates jobs. But the distinction between the Coalition and Labor is that Labor wants economic prosperity so we can share its proceeds.

We must not be afraid to advocate change. However, we must demonstrate how our policies will not only boost the economy, but also how they will improve the way people live their day-to-day lives.

And we must strongly argue the case for long-term reform that will make a positive difference to society beyond the short term interests of any individual member.

A simple example is education.

Labor believes that every Australian deserves access to a fair education because that is just.

But universal education also has a payoff for the entire nation because it lifts our collective capacity as a nation.

The global shift toward progressive politics has manifested itself in a change of government in Canada and a new focus on progressive policy around the world.

The shift has found its way to Australia, where the conservatives have dumped the aggressive and divisive conservatism of Tony Abbott in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Turnbull is now busy appropriating Labor Party rhetoric across many areas and is presenting himself as the conservative you have when you don’t really want a conservative.

But of course, Mr Turnbull has not changed the substance of the conservative government, which still hates trade unions, wants to increase the GST and cut health and education funding.

Because Labor’s reformist spirit is motivated by a hunger to lift living standards across the community, we have a compelling vision compared to our opponents’ emphasis on the individual.

Our vision speaks loudly to people who want their children to grow up in better circumstances than they did, an aspiration held by all parents.

The current shift toward progressive politics is confirmation that the real human mission in the 21st century is not to limit fairness, but to extend it.

In Australia, the competing political visions about how to deal with the end of the mining boom sum up the policy divide.

So far, Malcolm Turnbull has articulated two possible solutions.

The first is to increase the goods and services tax, which will hit pensioners and low-income earners harder than the wealthy.

The second, even more worrying, is to attack the wages and conditions of average workers to boost corporate profits by, for example, abolishing Sunday penalty rates for workers in hospitality and tourism.

There is ample scope in existing enterprise bargaining arrangements for workers and their employers to trade off penalty rates for higher base rates.

But Mr Turnbull is not looking for trade-offs. He just wants lower wages.

In the same way, he proposes to destroy the Australian domestic shipping industry by exposing it to unfair competition by foreign-flagged cargo vessels paying third world wages.

Mr Turnbull has decided that because foreign vessels carry freight more cheaply than Australian vessels, he should run local operators out of business or force them to sack their Australian crews and replace them with cheaper foreign labour.

This treats Australians as though their jobs don’t matter and also exposes our waterways to the increased risks of accidents involving foreign-flagged vessels, such as the 2011 accident involving the Liberian flagged MV Rena, which caused extensive damage when it hit a reef off New Zealand.

Labor takes a different approach.

We seek to balance the legitimate hope of business that governments can reduce costs with the equally legitimate aspirations of average people to access employment with fair pay and conditions.

Instead of a race to the bottom on wages and conditions, Labor wants to develop new, well-paid jobs in new industries, particularly in areas we can support by investing in innovation and research.

That’s an approach that takes people’s legitimate individual aspirations into account while also advancing long-term reform to broaden the economy.

And it’s a whole lot smarter and more sustainable than simply cutting people’s wages.


This is an edited version of the Michael Joseph Savage Address, delivered by Anthony Albanese in Palmerston North, New Zealand, on Monday 16 November.