In November 2016, progressives around the world were devastated by Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton. The defeat earlier this year of the Australian Labor Party may not have registered as resoundingly around the world as Clinton’s loss, but it, too, was a huge blow to global liberalism, and it deserves attention because it happened for some of the same reasons and compels us to think through some of the same lessons as Americans begin to contemplate their 2020 election,
In the United States, Clinton led the entire way, only to lose in the Electoral College because of 78,000 carefully placed votes. In Australia, the Labor Party led in the polls for three years, during which the Liberal Party (confusingly to Americans, the party of the center-right) dispensed of two prime ministers and installed a third (Scott Morrison) late in 2018. Labor appeared headed for a comfortable victory, and the right toward a resounding defeat, so much so that the governing Liberals only revised their doomsday election outlook in the final few days of the 2019 campaign. But when the votes were in, the Liberal-National Conservative Coalition gained a narrow majority in the 151 seat-House of Representatives. Labor failed to make gains and lost support in key electoral battlegrounds, particularly in the more traditionally conservative outlying states of Queensland and Western Australia, where the coalition won 34 of 46 seats.
What happened? A number of things of course, but I think the main factor was that the sheer plethora of Labor’s progressive policy solutions was used against us, with conservatives arguing that they would surely wreck the economy. Our program offered substantial spending increases across a range of critical policy areas like taxes, childcare, and health, just to name a few. Labor leader Bill Shorten was viciously characterized in all media channels as “the Bill you can’t afford.” My colleague Richard Dennis from the Australia Institute argues that the clearest lesson from this election is that good old-fashioned scare-campaigns work—for example, the coalition’s campaign about Labor’s plans to introduce death duties (inheritance tax) when Labor had no such plans. Although Australia is one of the lower-taxed nations in the developed world, Labor’s fiscally responsible plans to close tax loopholes for higher-income earners and corporations to fund essential spending were turned into a brutal scare aimed at insecure lower-income voters, whose loss of support denied Labor an election victory.
What is clear for progressives from Australia, the United States, and recent elections in Scandinavia is that the rise of the populist right is hollowing out center-left voter support among working-class and lower-income earners.
Maddeningly, this is happening at a time when the right’s solutions only exacerbate the root causes of people’s justified anger at the political system: austerity, the destruction of social welfare, and the turbocharging of inequality. Re-channeling this anger toward immigrants and the already disadvantaged is proving a more durable political tactic than anyone expected.
Clearly, given the narrowness of the result, a close examination of what happened in Australia shows that not everything in a losing campaign was a disaster—and that far from everything in the winning campaign was genius. Labor in Australia did a lot of things right, and a few things wrong. But for our future, and for liberalism’s generally, it’s important to isolate the wrongs and deal with them, rather than throw everything overboard and start again.
In Australia, the Labor Party has always stood for growth with equity, within a social-democratic tradition. The Liberals, like the Republicans, stand for the free market and increasingly, in recent years, embracing a neoliberal trickle-down economic agenda of tax cuts for higher-income earners and corporations.
The core conservative argument was that Australian Labor lost because it pursued the politics of envy—namely, removing tax loopholes that delivered huge tax benefits to higher income-earners and corporations. But ironically, the conservative assertion that Labor’s program was aimed at crushing middle-class aspiration delivered an unexpected result. Swing voters in middle-income areas stayed with Labor. Upper-middle-income earners shifted toward Labor. Meanwhile, lower-income voters in regional and outer suburban areas shifted to the conservatives. In other words, lower-income earners who were the principle beneficiaries of Labor’s program moved away from Labor, while the people who may have lost through our proposals held, or swung toward us.
So where did we fail? First, Labor didn’t do enough to defend our vulnerabilities on taxes. Our policies were ruthlessly demonized by the “surround sound state media” of the Murdoch press and a $60 million spending spree by a single plutocrat, Clive Palmer; one of the biggest in the modern history of Western elections. The combined expenditure of the Liberals, the Nationals, and other minor parties saw Labor outspent six to one.
Parties of the center-left have to accept that we’ll be inevitably outspent by big corporate money, thus making us vulnerable to scare tactics, and that our path to victory is better policy advocacy, design, and political campaigning.
Any political agenda has two aspects to it: First, there is what you might call the shape of your agenda—that is, where you are seeking to take the country. And then there is the scope of it—how many policies you have, covering what topics, and crucially, what you seek to prioritize.
In this context, my view is that the size of our agenda was more decisive than its shape. Put simply, Labor had too many individual policies that, while fully funded, couldn’t be effectively communicated to the electorate and that made it too easy for our conservative opponents to characterize our agenda as big spending and big taxing.
In an era of toxic distrust toward politicians and government itself, progressive parties suffer more because we promise more. Labor’s agenda was large; beyond a certain point, your ideas just end up jostling for limited political airspace and for a claim on the trust of voters.
This is a terrible conundrum for progressives, because the answer cannot be to do less. In other words, I firmly believe that we cannot retreat on either the shape or content of our agenda. But size is another thing. Like it or not—and I don’t like it one bit—we are living in a world where the right’s success in demonizing the whole political class depletes the reservoirs of voter trust progressive parties rely on to shape and win a mandate for change.
This means that we must find a way of communicating our vision through a shortlist of high-profile, easily campaign-able policies. We must also acknowledge that the agenda can only be as large as the voters’ trust in the leader and the party to deliver it. We need to be out every day arguing the case. This is especially true in an age of weaponized social media. In a world of diminished voter trust, progressives must start with a core set of saleable, intelligent reforms that build political capital for the next tranche of reform, and the one after that.
It is for this reason that when I look at the array of progressive policies under discussion in the emerging Democratic primaries, I admit to some queasiness borne of our most recent Australian experience. The policies are all urgent and correct, but they are too many, offering attack angles beyond a Republican strategist’s wildest dreams. The shape is right—but the sizing is wrong. I may be worried about nothing if the Democratic primary process does its job of whittling down the agenda to something more manageable, but I fear for the consequences if the Democratic primaries become a series of purity tests on policy that saddle an eventual nominee with too broad a policy terrain to be adequately defended from Trump and the Murdoch State Media.
More than 50 years ago, one of Australian Labor’s greatest prime ministers, Gough Whitlam, said, in a call to party members to campaign pragmatically for Labor values, that “only the impotent are pure.” There is nothing more disloyal to the sacred mission of progressives in defending the interests of working people than the heresy that says achieving power isn’t our most fundamental responsibility. Winning power to put in place the building blocks of economic prosperity and environmental sustainability is what progressives must focus on.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The world is looking to the United States to overturn the authoritarian right it helped unleash, and to set the progressive forces globally to the urgent task of winning back lost terrain.