It’s time – for courage

Almost a year into its first term and the Albanese Labor government has managed to deliver some worthwhile changes. They include action (though not yet enough) on dealing with climate change, an integrity commission (though likely not as effective as it might have been), and substantial progress on the First Nations Voice (though at risk through inability to ensure bipartisan support). There are other changes in train for labour law and wages, immigration, disability support, environment, and more.

Nevertheless, despite continuing support in opinion polls (driven at least partly by the ineptitude of the Coalition), there have been both outright blunders and inadequate responses to pressing needs. The problem appears to stem from the combination of a loss of guiding vision to set direction and lack of courage to implement substantial change.

As many commentators have noted, Albanese’s apparent pride in having taken less than 24 hours to acquiesce to Morrison’s AUKUS trap is absolutely misplaced. Fear of being labelled as less strong than the Coalition on national security led to adoption of an illogical and expensive policy without any serious debate. China is our largest trading partner but the AUKUS plan is to acquire SSNs to protect our trade routes, mostly to and from China, from China. The illogicality of that is multiplied by the decades it will take to acquire those SSNs. The Chinese will have ample opportunity to prepare counter measures or take whatever action they are contemplating long before the SSNs arrive. Any reasonable assessment should have concluded that Morrison’s plan was nonsense and that the hundreds of billions of dollars could be better spent. Acquiescence without challenge by the ALP was gutless dereliction of duty to the nation. It may have helped rid us of Morrison but should have been reassessed and dropped once in government.

Much the same applies to the ‘stage 3 tax cuts’. This was another Coalition trap into which Labor walked to avoid accusations of being the party of higher taxes. Now, despite the evident need for taxes to fund necessary services and to reduce the growing national debt Labor insists that an election promise must be kept. That despite many who would benefit from the tax cuts favouring their cancellation or reduction. The problem has been compounded by the phasing out of the LMITO leading to accusations of increasing tax from the Coalition, that introduced the LMITO as a temporary measure and is responsible for its phasing out. Perhaps we can hope that on this one the government are simply waiting until the outcry from the electorate is so loud that they can no longer resist the calls to abandon or substantially curtail the tax cuts. If they had the courage of their presumed convictions they would have done it already.

There is an urgent need to increase the grossly inadequate unemployment benefit. In 1970 the unemployment benefit matched the poverty line but over time it has drifted lower and the single rate is now almost $170 per week below the poverty line. The supplement introduced by the Coalition during the COVID pandemic briefly took the benefit level above the poverty line and showed what a difference that could make to those forced to live on it. As the Coalition and the ALP have both said, the best solution is a job but neither is prepared to do anything about the RBA applying an outdated economic theory that effectively requires 4% to 5% unemployment supposedly to limit inflation. That theory is looking less tenable and it is time that government did something to assist the 5% or so of our fellow citizens who they effectively force into poverty. That will require courage to increase unemployment benefits to at least the poverty line and, ideally, adopt policies that will provide for real full employment.

Historically Labor has been the party with some semblance of progressive policy and a sense of social justice. Sometime in the past few decades they have swallowed the neoliberal line and their vision has been dimmed. After the electoral defeat in 2019 they resolved to present a small target, becoming effectively ‘Liberal Lite’. That probably contributed to their success in 2022 though it is difficult to see how the discredited Morrison government could have been returned. Now it is past time for Labor to rekindle their vision and find the courage to move the country forward.