Labor Legacies: What can we expect from an Albanese government?

No, this wasn’t a win for the ‘True Believers’, nor for the ‘Quiet Australians’, ‘Battlers’, ‘Aspirationals’ or even ‘The Forgotten People’. When Anthony Albanese made his victory speech in Sydney on 21 May, he said that his government would be there for everyone. It was a message about ‘we’ and ‘us’, more than about ‘you’ or ‘me’, even as he again reminded the audience of his own story—of being raised by a single mother on the disability pension in public housing. In Albanese’s disclosure of himself, this experience remains the origin and foundation of his values, beliefs and role in public life.

After early errors and slips and a sense of vacancy at the heart of Labor’s message, his campaign gained moral ballast from his endorsement of the very modest proposition that low-paid workers should not suffer a further cut in their real wages. It is difficult to know what is more disturbing about the neoliberal order in which we now live: that this is all a Labor leader running for office thought he could offer after a decade of stagnant wages, or that the commercial media immediately framed this modest preference—for it was little more than that—as yet another Albanese gaffe. On ABC radio, Phil Coorey of the Australian Financial Review summoned the ghosts of hyper-inflationary Weimar Germany. Here was a powerful insight into who the system is designed to benefit, and who is expected to be satisfied with scraps and crumbs. But it soon became clear that the public mood was more receptive to the idea of better wages than the nation’s media, or its Liberal prime minister, and Albanese probably managed to make Morrison look mean-spirited in opposing an extra dollar an hour for poorly paid workers.

Albanese also made it seem as if his party still had a Labor soul when he turned his attention to childcare. It is true that in deference to the insatiable demand of our political culture to express every innovation as a contribution to that abstraction known as ‘the economy’ he claimed that childcare was not a welfare measure. Labor promised larger subsidies for the first child in care while maintaining the existing subsidy for second and subsequent children. There is less tapering of subsidies for families higher on the income ladder. It is true that high-income families will do better than under current policy, but low- and middle-income families will do better again. Those earning $75,000 or less a year will get a subsidy of 90 per cent (currently 85 per cent for those on $69,000 or below). This policy is not free and universal childcare but its expansion of public subsidy will be a step in that direction, especially for low- and middle-income families. Albanese saw off critics who claimed it was providing the wealthy with taxpayer support—some level of subsidy can be claimed even by those on up to $530,000 per year. The policy, he said, was about increasing workforce participation, especially women’s, and it was about improving education for the very young. In offering the largest support to lower income earners, it is broadly progressive and redistributive in its design.[1]

I have dwelt on this policy not just because it was possibly Labor’s largest new commitment in financial terms but because of how Albanese framed it. Asked why he was offering subsidies to families on more than half a million a year, he spoke—haltingly at first, when I heard him in a morning media conference—in a language reminiscent of Whitlamite universalism. Childcare was a public good, which created benefits for society as well as the economy. Historically, this has long been one of two broad strands in Labor’s approach to welfare (and we can call it that, even if Albanese doesn’t). On the one hand, payments are means-tested, targeted at the needy, and an adjunct to what Francis Castles called the ‘wage earners’ welfare state’.[2] This has arguably been the dominant strand. But there has long been a universalist strand too, going back to 1912 and the £5 maternity allowance offered to all mothers –at least all white mothers—on the birth of a child, dead or alive, in wedlock or out of it. Albanese referred to Medicare as another example of the party’s universalism; why should we not seek, eventually, to treat childcare the same way?

Whatever one thinks of the substance of the policy, its framing indicates an effort to connect with some sense of Labor tradition, a belief that it is government’s role to create public goods that individuals—or most individuals—are unable easily to create for themselves. Stuart Macintyre called these kinds of ideas, in their Australian context, ‘social democracy’, which he saw as having had only a short history in the Whitlam era, to be contrasted with labourism’s stress on protecting the family through a breadwinner’s living wage, combined with a miserly social-security safety net. For Macintyre, social democracy involves ‘a shift of resources into the public sector for the purposes of social welfare, education, and urban and regional development, and an attempt to provide greater access to these services among under-privileged sections of the population’.[3]

It would be naive and simplistic to suggest that this is where Labor is about to take the country. Yet the mention of urban and regional development in Macintyre’s definition is a reminder that Albanese’s key political mentor—a father figure to him, in his own words—was Tom Uren, for whom the young Albanese worked as a research officer. This doyen of the NSW Left was Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam government.[4] Given the influence of Uren, and Albanese’s background as a Sydney working-class child of the Whitlam era, it is unsurprising that this vision should be attractive to him. Although Albanese grew up in public housing in the care of a single mother on a disability pension, he attended one of the best universities in the country for free, under a regime established by Whitlam. He is likely to be acutely aware of how important public goods are to the most socially vulnerable.

Nonetheless, Albanese and his ministers will also appreciate that he inherits a fiscal and economic climate unlikely to be supportive of expansive and expensive ambition. Here, the incoming government faces a massive debt, continuing deficits and the return of inflation. Its stress on various forms of government intervention designed to increase productivity and workplace participation, while having about them the atmosphere of think-tank wonkery, is its way of dealing with these challenges while maintaining a commitment to spending—indeed, to increasing modestly the size of budget deficits. It is possible that Labor’s policies might combine to increase productivity in the manner hoped for, but it is notable that the evidence for a direct relationship between the famous economic reforms of the 1980s and the rather short-lived improvements in productivity in the 1990s remains ambiguous.[5]

These observations point to a likely mismatch between stated ambition and actual policy. The major issues of the campaign, from Labor’s point of view, were climate change, cost of living, wage stagnation and government integrity. On climate, Labor’s targets are more ambitious than those of the previous government—by 2030, emissions reductions of 43 per cent versus the Coalition’s 26to 28 per cent —and it benefited from a perception that it is less wedded to fossil fuels and more sympathetic to promoting renewables. How perception translates into action must remain uncertain, not least because Labor spoke out of two sides of its mouth in dealing with different constituencies. But the strength of the Greens vote, that party’s power in the Senate and stronger presence in the lower house, and the remarkable successes of community independents backed by Climate 200, all point to a political environment in which there will be pressures for more forceful action. International opinion, including in the Pacific, will also provide momentum, which an Albanese government might not entirely welcome as it seeks a pathway to a second term and beyond.

On cost of living, Labor identified a point on which it could attack the Coalition, but it is difficult to see anything much that it might do. It is not going to seek price controls, and Albanese’s talk of Australia ‘making things’, while attractive to many voters weary of the running down of manufacturing capacity, is hardly a short- or even medium-term project. On wages, it might do more. It could commit to policies that strengthened unions so that they might bargain more effectively. It might support industry-wide bargaining. But its campaign message, inevitably designed to ensure it was not seen as a tool of the fabled ‘union bosses’, was milquetoast. It would support applications for wage increases, among the low-paid, and especially among those working in aged care. This was an attractive electoral pitch at a time when it is widely agreed that aged care demands greater resources, and its exhausted,  demoralised and underpaid workforce needs both better wages and more help.

An Albanese government will also deliver an anti-corruption commission. Fortunately for Labor, it seems to have been forgotten that key figures within the party opposed Bill Shorten’s commitment to establishing such as body ahead of the 2019 election. The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time that the opponents included Penny Wong, Tony Burke and Albanese himself.[6] But a further three years of government under the Liberal and National parties—which have engaged flamboyantly rewarded friends and donors with government contracts and appointments, pork-barrelled for political advantage, and flaunted a lack of accountability—amply demonstrated the need for an anti-corruption commission. In response, changes in the public mood as well as the pressure from independents—both in the old parliament and more recently on the campaign trail—will ensure the creation of a powerful investigative body.

The strength of Labor’s appeal at the 2022 election is that while its pitch initially had a miscellaneous quality, it increasingly looked like more than the sum of its parts. Bill Shorten’s campaign in 2019 was criticised for being a large grab-bag of promises without a central thread—‘a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky’, as the party’s own internal review put it.[7] Albanese’s was less cluttered, less risky and linked to a wider story about what he and the party stood for, including how its values differed from those of its opponent. Albanese himself was a more popular figure than Shorten, even if not some kind of popular hero.

It was particularly important for Labor to achieve a measured differentiation because on key issues its policies were indistinguishable from the Coalition’s. So, Labor emphasised its policy to chase multinationals for tax, which gave it something to talk about when it was asked why it was supporting the government’s third tranche of income tax cuts—a change that will have people on $200,000 a year paying the same rate as those on $45,000. On tertiary education, it has abandoned its earlier policy of provision of university places driven by demand. On welfare, it has not committed to a higher JobSeeker payment. On foreign policy, it sought to minimise any differences with the government over relations with China, instead turning the Coalition’s usual strength on national security matters back on it by pointing to an alleged failure to counter China’s efforts to influence the Solomon Islands.

In his victory speech, Albanese signalled his support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart; given the Coalition’s long-standing opposition to implementing that, stretching back to Malcolm Turnbull’s dismissal of a constitutionally enshrined voice as a ‘third chamber’, Labor has again identified with Whitlamite social democracy. There is perhaps something in Richard Flanagan’s post-election analysis: that on this issue, as well as others, the result brings the Howard era to its end.[8] That point was underlined by Morrison’s desperate stunt on election day to scare voters back into the Coalition ranks by engineering a scare over refugee boat arrivals.

The Rudd and Gillard governments both thought they were making a new departure, in 2007 and 2010, but the ghosts of the Howard era soon came back to haunt them. The resumption of boat arrivals leached voter support for Rudd and then Gillard. The Liberals also weaponised climate policy. Marriage equality got nowhere, misogyny flourished, and mining magnates showed the country who was boss. Labor should have been able to claim much credit, not least for  avoiding a recession in the face of the Global Financial Crisis while also managing to raise pensions. But after Rudd’s honeymoon with the nation’s progressive intelligentsia via his Australia 2020 Summit, Labor never gained command over public debate or national culture. Murdoch media filled the vacuum. When Rudd proclaimed the age of neoliberalism over early in 2009, his claims already lacked credibility because Labor had failed to use the power of incumbency to promote the ascendancy of social democracy through the nation’s political and cultural institutions.[9]

If Albanese shows a similar indifference to challenging the amalgam of cronyism and populism that ruled the political roost for a decade—essentially a favours system based on enrichment of the favoured few at the cost of rising public squalor—Labor will be returned to opposition soon enough. It is hardly surprising that Albanese has signalled that he wants to govern more like Bob Hawke. His call for an employment summit recalls the Hawke government’s use of similar instruments. But in Hawke’s day, half the workforce was still unionised, the media ecology was drastically less complex than today, and it was easy to imagine that you could build a consensus between key economic interests such as capital and labour, business and unions, who just happened to be represented by men in suits.

Albanese’s world is a more complicated and diverse one. Women’s electoral clout has never been more evident, and while his party now benefits enormously from this gender gap—Labor does well among women voters—women are also exercising influence through support for Greens and independents. Many of the candidates now making their way into parliament outside the old party structure will be women. Labor has quietly signalled that it is on women’s side but burned by the misogyny of the Gillard era, it has seemingly done its best to make its pitch in a low-key manner, such as by promising to support higher wages for low-paid workers, who are disproportionately women, and improving workplace protections against sexual harassment and assault. Albanese’s stress on ‘care’—whether aged care, childcare or Medicare—was the projection of a softer image seen to be in harmony with women’s taste for a less combative politics, for an end to the political strongman fetish, and for policies that move beyond helping along men in high-vis clothing.

There will be other complexities involved in forging consensus. Intergenerational theft is now so embedded in Australia’s policy architecture that young people will need a lot of cultivation. Many vote for the Greens, endangering metropolitan seats once traditional Labor territory: the Greens gained three lower-house seats in Brisbane. Others voted independent, securing the election of seven new members, six of them associated with Climate 200. Young people feel locked out of the housing market—Labor proposed a modest system of government equity in homes to alleviate the problem—and have been especially vulnerable to stagnant wages, the rising costs of tertiary education in many courses, and a continuing racket in which ever-more tax concessions are offered to middle-aged and older Australians, many of them in more than comfortable circumstances.

And then there is the country’s ethnic diversity. There will be ten First Nations members of the new parliament, which is now approaching the proportion of Australians who identify as Indigenous. On Asian-Australian representation, the old parties have a poorer record, and the NSW Labor machine’s effort to foist Kristina Keneally on the voters of Fowler in the city’s south-west resulted only in the election of a Vietnamese-Australian independent, Dai Le. That richly deserved disaster—for Labor—was, in turn, a product of the party’s often rancid internal factional politics, a problem that will not disappear with the election of a new government. Factionalism helped destroy the Labor governments of 2007– 2013 and it has the potential to do so again,  with the unravelling to begin at the moment the first jobs are handed out.

But it would be unwise to end on a sour note. In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the election of the Whitlam government, the 2022 election arguably saw the most significant shift towards a progressive politics since that time. The repudiation of the government was severe: a massive swing in the primary vote, at the time of writing, 5.3 per cent. While Labor’s vote went slightly backwards, the Greens achieved a swing of 1.3 per cent and ‘Others’, predominantly independents, just over 2 per cent. Once preferences were distributed, Labor’s vote of 51.6 per cent was about a point behind Whitlam’s in 1972, and Rudd’s in 2007 (both 52.7 per cent), although further behind Hawke’s in 1983 (53.2 per cent). If there is a left or progressive vote, it is fragmented, but that does not make it something other than left or progressive. On issues such as Indigenous affairs, clean energy, public integrity and women’s rights, that body of opinion will give an Albanese government some leeway. On wider issues of economic distribution and justice, it faces a more perplexing task. Here, its strategy of promoting economic growth, renewal and productivity will depend heavily on matters—many of them global—that lie outside the control of any Australian government.


1 Kate Griffiths, Owain Emslie and Danielle Wood, ‘Is Labor’s Childcare Policy Welfare for the Well-off?’, Grattan Institute, blog, 12 October 2020,  https://grattan.edu.au/news/is-labors-childcare-policy-welfare-for-the-well-off/ and Owain Emslie; ‘Explainer: Everything You Need To Know about the Major Parties’ New Childcare Policies’, Grattan Institute, blog, 4 April 2022, https://grattan.edu.au/news/explainer-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-major-parties-new-childcare-policies/; Australian Labor Party, ‘Labor’s Plan for Cheaper Childcare’, https://www.alp.org.au/policies/women_economic_recovery.

2 Francis G. Castles, The Working Class and Welfare: Reflections on the Political Development of the Welfare State in Australia and New Zealand, 18901980, Wellington (NZ) and Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with Port Nicholson Press,  1985. 

3 Stuart Macintyre, ‘A Short History of Social Democracy in Australia’, Thesis Eleven 15, 1986, p. 8.

4Tony Wright, ‘“I love the boy”: The Gift Our PM Received from a Bamboo Prison’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 2022, https://www.smh.com.au/national/i-love-the-boy-the-gift-our-pm-received-from-a-bamboo-prison-20220526-p5aotw.html.

5 Ian W. McLean, Why Australia Prospered: The Shifting Sources of Economic Growth, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 235–241.

6 The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 2019.

7 Australian Labor Party, Review of Labor’s 2019 Election Campaign, chaired by Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill, Australian Labor Party, Canberra, 2019, p. 7, https://alp.org.au/media/2043/alp-campaign-review-2019.pdf.

[8] Richard Flanagan, ‘Morrison Government’s Fall Marks End of Howard-era Ascendancy’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May 2022, https://www.smh.com.au/national/morrison-government-s-fall-marks-end-of-howard-era-ascendancy-20220525-p5aod6.html.

[9] Kevin Rudd, ‘The Global Financial Crisis’, The Monthly, February 2009, https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/february/1319602475/kevin-rudd/global-financial-crisis.

A LIGHT SHINING IN THE SHIRE

GUY RUNDLE, MAR 2022

The last decade has seen the failure of the centrist form of neoliberal progressivism that occupied the left parties in the face of an onslaught by right-wing populism, which mobilised forces old and new to present themselves…as a response on behalf of the people against the entire ‘political/media’ class, as represented by those in power.

About the author

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University. His latest book, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia, will be published by Black Inc./La Trobe University Press on 1 November 2022.

More articles by Frank Bongiorno

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