The big word on the Left in response to Anthony Albanese’s Gough Whitlam oration was “nothing”. Bill Shorten observed that “there was nothing in the speech that caused me offence at all”. Twitter was full of observations that there was nothing to suggest any kind of split or leadership challenge.
I have a mixed reaction. The Press gallery always loves leadership stories and sees everything through that frame, even though Labor’s rules make a leadership challenge virtually impossible between elections. So, the pushback is understandable.
On the other hand, I think we could shorten (sic) Shorten’s response to “there was nothing in the speech”.
Reading the transcript, it’s something that could have been delivered any time in the last 30 years, by any career Labor politician determined not to give offence to anybody except the LNP. In this version of the story, Labor has always been in the right, and always will be. That’s a position that leads to some obvious contradictions, given the massive shift from Whitlam’s social democracy to the neoliberalism of Hawke and Keating, and the recent move back to the left by Shorten.
A particularly striking contradiction is Albanese’s statement that “Floating the dollar, reducing tariffs and opening the Australian economy to the world” were great decisions, combined with his claim that Labor will ensure that railway carriages are built in Australia, thereby developing advanced manufacturing.
Albanese says that “Labor must always be in the ideas business”, but the speech gives little evidence of this. After talking about all the good things people want, all he offers is a generic commitment to education and a marginally more specific commitment on infrastructure.
There’s no mention of rising inequality, wage stagnation, or the gig economy, let alone any ideas to respond to them. The massive transformation wrought by computers and the Internet is dealt with by the observation “Technological change affects where and how we work.” That’s typical of the general level of analysis in the speech.
The contrast with Shorten is striking. Shorten’s public image is that of a convictionless machine man, but he has taken more and bolder policy stands than any opposition leader has dared to do since the failure of John Hewson’s Fightback! Yet he nearly won the last election, and Labor remains well ahead in the polls.
And that, in a sense, explains the media response to Albanese’s speech. It reads naturally as advocacy of a small target strategy, to be used as an “I told you so”, in the event of a Labor defeat.
Since Shorten would inevitably leave if he lost a second election, the real target of the speech is Tanya Plibersek, his most likely successor. She wisely responded to reporters by claiming not to have read the speech