Will Labor change it all? Should they?

A “gaffe” in Australian politics normally consists of speaking the truth when it is politically inconvenient. So, are Peter Garrett’s remarks that Labor would “change it all” after the election a “gaffe” in this sense, as suggested by the reporter in question, a joke, as Garrett said, or something in between.

My view is “something in between”. That is, there is no secret plan to junk Labor’s promises, but a lot of people wish there was.

In most elections, parties make promises, to secure electoral support, that they would rather not keep, either because they regard them as bad public policy or because they reward interest groups that are not seen as actually deserving such rewards. This election has seen plenty of that from both sides, with the biggest single example being Labor’s decision to match Howard’s tax cuts. Most Labor supporters would regard this as a bad promise in several ways. First, large advance commitments of this kind are bad macroeconomic policies. Second, it would be better to allocate more money to services like health and education. Finally, the tax cuts mostly reward the upper income groups that are the natural constituency of the Liberals.

Following the last two changes of Federal government, the incoming party fabricated a crisis and junked their inconvenient (“non-core”) promises. Much though I dislike a lot of the (com)promises Rudd has made, I hope Labor does not do the same. Democratic processes are more important then getting the best policy outcome in the short term.

Over the fold is an excerpt from a Fin article I wrote in September, suggesting that, despite the “me-too” nature of the campaign, the outcome will make a difference. I think the analysis is still right, except that the ferocity of the government’s anti-union campaign has shifted the ground a bit. If the government gets back in, even with a narrow majority, they will clearly feel justified in pushing through their maximal anti-union agenda. Conversely, the unions now know they have to stick with Rudd come what may, and he has an obvious interest in demonstrating his supremacy. So I suspect he’ll give them nothing more than the minimal changes that have been promised.

The similarities with the forthcoming contest between Howard and Rudd are obvious. Both leaders have made a rush for the centre, to the extent that, on many issues, they appear indistinguishable. And yet, on a whole range of issues, a Labor victory would make a huge difference.

Kyoto is one example. Iraq is another. Until now, Australian forces have been allocated mainly to relatively low-risk roles, with the remarkable result that we have suffered no combat fatalities. It is now clear that the war will outlast the Bush Administration, and that the scarcity of troops will become acute by mid-2008 as Britain and others pull out. If Australia stays, the pressure to take on a frontline role will become irresistible.

Even more significant will be the long-run effects on the labour market. While both sides have sought to soften the edges of their policies, the resulting compromises are unsustainable. Labor will surely come under pressure to remove more of the restrictions on unions embodied in the system.

On the other hand, the government’s expanded fairness test has proved unworkable, as indicated by the decision of the retailer Spotlight to return to the award system. If re-elected the government will surely feel justified in simplifying the system and stripping away many of the additional protections. The end result, inevitably, will be the kind of labour market exemplified by the US under Bush. Great opportunities for skilled and educated workers coexist with a low-wage sector, encompassing around half the workforce, where, with the exception of a brief upturn under Clinton, real wages have been stagnant for decades.

26 thoughts on “Will Labor change it all? Should they?

  1. It’s to be hoped that Mr Rudd recognises that keeping troops in Afghanistan, treating arrested persons as dishonestly and badly as was Dr Haneef, offering no lead in CO2 reduction (i.e. not signing any post-Kyoto agreement that only binds developed countries) etc. etc. are policies that need changing promptly for the benefit of Australia. This would not be a matter of ‘breaking non-core promises’ but of evaluating policy from within government, not from opposition.

  2. Gawd, what a depressing farce this way-too-long election has become.

    The idea that Australia could ever take a “frontline role” in a war like Iraq is really just laughable. We have over-hyped our contribution to WWI and WWII for generations. OTOH the front line in Iraq is really just a media campaign, so maybe the birthplace of Murdoch is the ideal contributor…?

    As for Garrett’s Gaffe, the idea that the Liberals will not back-track furiously on everything they have promised is just as farcical. Howard and Costello are both now warning of a US-led economic tsunami, even as they pledge billions more every week to their re-election campaign. Save us puh-lease!

    BTW: I was trying to make an important point at L.P. over the weekend: a Rudd Labor govt won’t even be able to “change it all” (as Garrett said), or “unravel” everything (as Howard puts it), even if they want to, if the Libs still control the Senate. If you really want things to change, vote Green in the Senate, give them the balance of power, and let them force Rudd in the right (i.e. left) direction.

  3. Actually, maybe I’m the only one, but I thought Peter Garrett’s comment wern’t so bad. It basically puts a wedge in the me-too campaign (by both parties), by suggesting that the outcome of who gets elected will matter. Thus, whilst I think you are too optimistic about how much difference who gets elected will make (especially given the US is going to get the boot in Iraq anyway, getting rid of that as an issue, and the Liberal party has to do something about climate change due to popular opinion, getting rid of that as an issue also), suggesting that there really will be differences is probably not such a bad thing. Its a bit like a Christmas present. Perhaps Labor will turn out to better than expected, or perhaps it’ll be another dissapointment.

  4. Crikey (I think, maybe not) was speculating that it’s curious how little Labor has done to try and hose this story down, by pointing to Steve Price’s marital links to the Libs, and Dicky Wilkins contrary story. Maybe they’re dogwhistling their left?

    But really, I’m quite sure that economically there is zero between the parties. Perhaps Labor is slightly better in the long run because they will focus more effectively on skills shortages.

  5. will labor change it all? doesn’t that question strip bare the pretense that the electorate participates in management of the nation, at all?

    “non-core” promises, “christmas present”… why not admit that you’re children begging for lollies? at least then you could change things.

    i suppose that simulating self-respect requires that you refer to oz as a ‘democracy’, and yourselves as ‘citizens’, but i wonder if, in privacy.. you understand that parliamentary monarchy is not democracy, and you are still subjects of the crown.

    or is oz a good working model of what can be achieved when academics, politicians, and media conspire to be a ministry of truth, establishing doublethink and newspeak as the philosophy and language of the land?

  6. The Labor attitude to the unions was well demonstrated by Bob Hawke who asked (rhetorically) “who else can they vote for?”

  7. The important differences between the two parties are not just in their policies, perhaps not even mainly in matters of policy.

    We have a government of ministers who have called a child in an Australian prison an “it” because it is OK to inflict psychological torture on the children of unmarried foreign women, who have condoned the use of foreign military-trained strike breakers, who have coined the phrase “core promise”, who have instituted a race-based military take-over of towns, who have connived at the deaths of hundreds of women and children on SEIV X, who have denied a generation of young adults the chance of going to university then buying a home, who have instituted a Stalinist system of workplace relations, who …

    Within two or three years, the Labor Party will also be corrupted by power, but in the meantime we have the chance to enjoy a short springtime in which we need not be ashamed of our government.

  8. The Industrial Relations system has become a core issue of this election because the situation outlined by Prof Q is all too real. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know that if the workers’ legal protections are stripped away and the union movement is decimated, because it is unable to operate and is therefore no use to workers, that those with high skills will do well while the majority will be on Struggle St.

    It is not the union officials that are making the difference in this campaign but ordinary workers who have seen the impact of pre Workchoices legislation or who have felt the brunt of Workchoices itself and are letting others know about the potential future.

    The difference between the two parties is that whilst change can be very slow at least Rudd has not proven himself to be a bully and the Labor caucus system allows other voices to be heard. Those who point the finger at others are shown again and again to recognise qualities in others that are in themselves – Abbot’s performance last week was vintage in this regard.

    Under Workchoices it is as if the PM has decided that bullying is the best way to run a business and the country. Voters see it and understand that if he is re-elected there will be no stopping him as his hubris will be so great. His whole party will be cowed by the election win which would be ” the sweetest of them all”.

    The PM has asked that the Australian people be kind enough to let him continue to live in his rent free digs at Kiribilli whilst we all suffer. We might be a kind nation but that doesn’t mean we are stupid.

    Peter Garrett’s remark may be used endlessly by the Liberals but it can only reinforce that we are being distracted from the real issues which are being discussed by ordinary workers in workplaces across the country. It is not only the Liberals who are out of touch but much of the commentariat is as well.

    It is time for a change because an experienced government is also the kind of government that is most likely to be corrupted by power. After all why aren’t the corporate criminals being sent to jail eg AWB Board members and Visy execs?

  9. One area that I hope Labor will change everything is in the area of Freedom of Information. This is an area of difference between the ALP and the Coalition.

    Granted the ALP policy is just rhetoric at the moment, but they may well do the right thing, every if the probability is low. Against that we know with certainty the Coalition’s intentions based on their demonstrated attitude towards FOI and open government.

    The “Australia’s Right to Know Coalition”, made up of all the major media groups, including Fairfax Media and News Corporation, has produced a report report authored by a team lead by Irene Moss, which makes for very depressing reading if you care about the democracy and accountability in Australia. It draws on a lot of sources, including “Silencing Dissent” by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison. I imagine the only people happy with the report would be ministerial staffers and senior bureaucrats.

  10. Actually, “it” has for generations been the pronoun to use for a child of unspecified or unknown sex. Think of “it” as the number-correct equivalent of today’s ungrammatical singular “they”.

  11. Nice post John – I’m inclined to agree. Sort of captures the feeling that I have at the moment as an ALP member.

  12. “..Iraq is another. Until now, Australian forces have been allocated mainly to relatively low-risk roles, with the remarkable result that we have suffered no combat fatalities. It is now clear that the war will outlast the Bush Administration, and that the scarcity of troops will become acute by mid-2008 as Britain and others pull out. If Australia stays, the pressure to take on a frontline role will become irresistible.”

    Actually I’m not so sure about that-
    http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Read.aspx?GUID=BF4338A6-172B-4ABE-B1B3-18C37E6573CC

    With the Taliban on the move and many EU forces with strict limits on their operations to minimise casualties and now countries like Portugal beginning to pull out troops, are the tables quietly being turned re Iraq and Afghanistan? Our casualty figures are seeming to indicate they are. That’s why noone’s talking about ‘the wars’ in this campaign.

  13. Least of all John Quiggin before Nov 24th, nor on his Kyoto cap and trade stance and whether he believes in handing out welfare to big unionised carbon or retaining the property rights in ‘our’ hands as I previously suggested. Could that be because John Quiggin doesn’t want to see a MSM article beginning- “John Quiggin thinks…”

  14. The real perversion of democracy is the way that the corporate newsmedia has been able to lean on Rudd in order to get him to ditch about 80% of what was worthwhile in the Labor Party platform. Had he not done so, Garrett would not have been placed in the position he was.

    Rudd had no right to do this. If Labor had been a democratic party and the members had been consulted, there is no way that this would have been agreed to.

    That said, the choice is still very important. If Howard is able to cling onot power in spite of all of the outrages he has committed against democracy, then it could well be the end of any possibility of meaningful democracy in this country.

    In doinf so, Rudd was not

  15. Jill said,

    Unions are “no use to workers”

    Couldn’t agree more. It was the same in the 1970s,80s & 90s also.

    No ticket No start. I remember having to join two unions to get onto a site. Bring it back….great fun for the guys in the BLF.

    After the revolution on the 24th of November there will be a politburo in every parliament in the land….

    Have fun living in the USSA….

    The United Socialist States of Australia.

    Unfortunately the USSA can’t break its main promise. Like its comrade the USSR; the USSA promises to collapse the economy….eventually!

  16. I think we forget that the way policy is implemented is almost as important as the policy itself. For example, the situation with Haneef was not a problem with policy as written down. It was a problem with implementation and a problem of the culture of the AFP, the DPP and the ministers. Many of problems in hospitals are due to poor management. Some new policies will help, but most of the problems will need to be fixed by better management. Many would argue that the differences in management structures for hospitals proposed by the coalition and labor are trivial things and so feel there is no real difference on health between the parties. But hospital management is a lot more important than policy on say the Medicare safety net. And the Medicare safety net is another illustration of the importance of implementation. The idea of a safety net is good policy and has always been part of Medicare. The bad policy part of the current arrangements is that the benefit paid relates to whatever fee the doctor chooses to charge. Labor should have modified that. But although it has chosen to continue with a bad policy, it can limit significantly the abuse of this scheme by various administrative measures eg publicity with regard to excessive charging by particular groups of specialists in particular regions. So in the end the result may not be so bad.

  17. The world according to PM Lawrence, where grammar is a bigger issue than the incarceration of children.

  18. But, P. M. Lawrence, the sex of the child (a boy) was widely known.
    Watching Ruddock talk about a young boy as if *he* were an object was one of the lowlights of the Howard years. Ruddock’s objectifying spin during that little episode said more about his own humanity than the boy’s.

  19. Tony G – quoting out of context is a great sport – however the scenario you paint is very likely if the Howard government feels its anti worker legislation is supported by a majority and feels it can finally destroy workers uniting together to share the profits they help to create.

    The secrecy, the increase in spying on citizens and the threats of secret imprisonment are very like totalitarian governments areound the world. When the institutions in a democracy are weakened the democracy itself is in danger. Just look at Pakistan.

  20. Please just ignore Tony G, he’s not actually trying to discuss the topic, merely to troll.

  21. Jill;
    “the democracy itself is in danger”

    What democracy?

    The elite political ruling class and the ever expanding dysfunctional public sector that sponge off the community, are accountable to no one.

    Pollies aren’t accountable to the people that elect them and public sector isn’t accountable to the public they are suppose to serve.

    You are worried about totalitarianism; “a centralized government that does not tolerate parties of differing opinion and that exercises dictatorial control over many aspects of life”.

    Yet you put forward nothing different.

    Please point out how living in the United Socialist States of Australia (USSA) under Rudd will instil a party of “differing opinion”?

    “Will Labor change it all? Should they”
    They will, because politicians from both persuasions make it up as they go along to suit themselves and their related interests.

  22. That’s right PML, we will decide how people are addressed and the circumstances by which they are addressed.

    As long as we don’t refer to people as fat Westerners because that would be offensive.

  23. Tony G,
    Thanks for the compliment. I never realised I had the power to change the direction Australia is travelling. I think you overestimate my powers.

    What is self evident however is that by changing the leadership there is hope in a democracy that other things can be changed for the better. A party new to power is far more likely to listen to what the population wants than one that has been there so long that it believes it was born to rule.

  24. sdfc, he was probably just using the turn of phrase was used to, with no hidden coded meaning. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    Matt, I missed your comment the first time through. Something similar applies; consider how unremarkable this would have been if the child had been called “they”, despite being a specific male; it would have been an unnecessary generalisation, that’s all.

  25. WHILE THE JUDGES OF THE HIGH COURT OF AUSTRALIA MAY HAVE DECEIVED THE PEOPLE WITH THEIR 14-11-2006 JUDGMENT ABOUT WORKCHOICES IT IS A MERE MATTER OF TIME BEFORE THIS JUDGMENT IS OVERRULED, AS OCCURRED WITH THE THEN CROSS VESTING ACT!
    HANSARD 27-1-1898 Constitution Convention Debates
    Mr. SYMON.-
    The relations between the parties are determined by the contract in the place where it occurs.
    And
    Sir EDWARD BRADDON (Tasmania).-
    We have heard to-day something about the fixing of a rate of wage by the federal authority. That would be an absolute impossibility in the different states.
    And
    Mr. BARTON: If they arise in a particular State they must be determined by the laws of the place where the contract was made.
    And
    Mr. BARTON.-We do not propose to hand over contracts and civil rights to the Federation, and they are intimately allied to this question.
    And
    Sir JOHN DOWNER.-
    The people of the various states make their own contracts amongst themselves, and if in course of their contractual relations disagreements arise, and the state chooses to legislate in respect of the subject-matter of them, it can do so.
    .
    sEE ALSO MY BLOG AT http://au.360.yahoo.com/profile-ijpxwMQ4dbXm0BMADq1lv8AYHknTV_QH

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