Coming up surprising quickly in 2022 is the Australian federal election – and Labor has a good shot.
This matters for a whole bunch of reasons to us and on multiple policy fronts, not only the rapid rise of gangs and violent crime in west Auckland. It can simply be summed that New Zealand and Australia are drifting apart in our politics just as our people and economies are ever-more tightly integrated.
Just three years ago previous Labor leader Bill Shorten waged an ambitious big tax, big government, high redistribution campaign and lost badly. The new leader Anthony Albanese has pursued a small target, policy careful, pragmatic approach: his task is to form government.
It will have been 9 years since there was a Labor government at the federal level – as we know over here, that is a long time. To New Zealand there is no international change of government in the world more important than what’s in balance in May 2022.
We should not expect to see a return to big, bold ideological promises from Labor this campaign. I would also be very surprised if they propose a formal alliance with the Greens. The carbon pricing policy that came out of the formal alliance with the Greens did not go over with the electorate well last time. Australian politics does not consider it a surprise if mining companies wage massive and aggressive campaigns against policies and parties it doesn’t like, and mining billionaires are quite happy to form their own spoiler parties. That’s something like the head of Fonterra and Federated Farmers getting several seats in our Parliament with the aim of taking out the Three Waters programme.
If Labor can survive without getting much in Queensland (where the Coalition holds 23 of 30 seats) and gets in somehow, and doesn’t do a formal coalition, independents and minor parties like the Greens are going to be horse-trading harder: sectional interests for specific issues are going to be put up hard against national interests.
Albanese is no giant. He doesn’t have the communicative clarity of Ardern, the institutional credibility and groundbreaking power of Hawke, or even a brainy bilingual Rudd. The Australian electorate needs to be convinced that the party’s convictions and substance reflect the emerging Australia.
Is the Albanese ALP makeover genuine or cosmetic?
Is it just a tactical con job to fool enough people to win an election?
Albanese’s task is to keep the Australian Labor Party loyalists – the public servants, the youth vote, the climate believers, trade unionists, the working families, health, education and community workers, the tertiary progressives – but march back sufficiently to the political centre and persuade the legions of waverers waiting to be gathered up. That will sound remarkably similar to New Zealand in 2017’s election.
There is, after the pandemic response, no electoral margin for Labor doing a standard leftie thing of claiming that their version of the state is bigger and grander and will look after you better … because the Coalition have already done that. State capacity and force has grown massively under Morrison out of necessity rather than ideology, but grow it did.
Albanese’s best shot is simply to make the election a referendum on Morrison, rather than push out anything bold himself. This ‘keep your head down’ move is a tactic and is definitely not a strategy. Should he win he still has to generate the entire ‘where to next?’
Labor’s weakness in its identity is easily exploited by a populist right, because Labor is a party of dual identities – it is the champion of high-educated, high-earning cosmopolitans focused on climate, inclusion and social justice and it is the party of traditional, low- to middle-income workers in the suburbs and regions. Neither Piketty nor Ardern would have any difficulty with that. Morrison has good angles there.
The strongest defence is Albanese’s tactic of reassurance. He wants to bring the country together in a Bob Hawke-type unity pitch. He has ditched the tax/spend framing. He backs the government’s personal income tax cuts, its AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, and its hard line on China, and he prioritises childcare for working mothers. The question becomes: will the voters buy Albanese as an agent of “safe change” or will the voters remain too suspicious of the Labor brand?
Much depends upon Morrison. He has done a shit job in 2021. His mishandling of the COVID epidemic with deliberate disharmony with Labor state governors, his worsening diplomatic relationships with France and China, his inability to confront the misogyny and bullying of parliament itself – he is now deeply unpopular. Can Morrison himself recover? Can Liberal-National support recover against Labor?
With Morrison likely to frame the election as centred around the economy, his appeal rests on the sustained sound performance of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, playing a similarly downbeat but massively successful role to Robertson in our own government. The Australian JobKeeper programme has been successful in assisting the pandemic economic recovery, and that’s on Frydenberg and colleagues not Morrison. Economic management results from federal action is Morrison’s best shot at re-election.
But should Labor win, opportunities with New Zealand abound: closer partnership over aid and development in the South Pacific’s many weak and marginal states; rebuilding the damaged Pacific Forum into a coherent diplomatic force; ever-closer military interoperability; a faster path for citizenship for New Zealanders in Australia; closer Police operations in drugs and financial crime; a joined-up pandemic response; common alternative fuels capacity; more integrated climate policies; piece by piece form enough fields of common endeavour for the Australia-New Zealand national relationship to reverse its drift and better reflect how deeply connected we are as economies and as people.
Maybe, in time, a wee bit of respect that we’re worth engaging with and useful.
So here’s hoping Labor win in 2022.