I’m the kind of person who takes voting very seriously. Who you vote for is an expression of who you are and what you think is the right thing to do. I’ve thought about this a lot over the course of my adult life. I decided to be a Labor voter, as opposed to a Greens voter, back in 2010. I was disappointed with the way Labor were going. Rudd had seemingly abandoned his commitment to fighting climate change. Gillard had taken over but had watered down the mining tax and had embraced offshore detention. My naïve faith was shaken. Nonetheless when I woke up on the morning of the 2010 election I decided to stick it out. I liked my local Labor candidate, Cath Bowtell, and wanted to reward her for her great work in leading the fight against Howard’s “Work Choices”.
Needless to say I wasn’t happy about the result later that night. As election night 2010 wore on it became clear that Labor had not secured a majority and it looked very much like Abbott would be able to form government. I was upset and decided to drink my sorrows away at the pub. Sitting at the bar, chatting sombrely (not soberly) with a friend I recall very vividly looking up at the television at the Grand View Hotel to see that Cath Bowtell had been defeated in Melbourne. Adam Bandt was the winner. And the Greens went wild. And I was confused. Fair enough to enjoy a win but surely any progressives out there would be as downtrodden as myself that night? The prospect of an Abbott victory was hanging over our heads and the Greens were celebrating. It seemed then, as it seems now with their attacks on Albanese, that they’re more interested in victory for themselves irrespective of what’s good for progressive outcomes. It was jarring and it reaffirmed my decision to go with Labor that day.
A lot has happened in our country since then. Abbott didn’t win that election after all but he did win the next one. Labor continued to stuff around, sometimes doing good things, sometimes doing bad. I continued to support them – I even became a member after the carbon tax was passed and after the ALP officially switched its position in favour of marriage equality. Yet it was a rough relationship. At times I was excited, others uninspired. I became interested in Marx and grew increasingly frustrated with mainstream politics. Eventually I let my membership quietly lapse, though not until I had the chance to vote for Albo in the leadership contest. Again I would be disappointed. Again moderation would win out. Or so I thought.
I met Bill Shorten once – briefly. He shook my hand and asked me my name, which was enough to impress me. Still, when Shorten won the leadership against Albo I never dreamt that he would be as impressive as he’s been.
Shorten and his team have reflected, done the policy work and come with a vision that renews Labor’s purpose. I now feel utterly comfortable supporting them. Proud even.
Firstly, Bill Shorten is probably the most socially progressive leader the ALP has ever had. His attitudes may simply be a reflection of these modern times we live in. Nonetheless, there are still very powerful conservative forces in our society and it wouldn’t surprise if he, like others before him, tried to neutralise them. After all, as recently as three years ago we had an atheist unmarried Labor PM try to avoid a Catholic and ACL backlash by voting against equal marriage. But Shorten is not trying to neutralise their attacks, he is taking them head on. In 2014 he agreed to speak to the Australian Christian Lobby much to the disappointment of all progressives. When he got there though he threw the Sermon on the Mount in their faces and argued passionately for marriage equality. I was stunned.
Labor under Shorten is advocating for the ending of discrimination against LGBTI Australians, not just through marriage equality but a whole host of measures including introducing a full time LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Shorten Labor is also fighting discrimination against women with a whole host of policies including a National Family Violence Summit, more funding for domestic violence services and implementing paid domestic violence leave from work.
Bill Shorten is probably the most passionate republican of any Labor leader since Keating. I love that he consistently talks of the need for a modern, egalitarian and multicultural country to abolish our ties to the British monarchy. He even gave the green light to a treaty with indigenous Australians on Q and A the other week. The first political leader since Hawke to endorse the idea. It’s big picture stuff and I like it.
Secondly, the federal Labor party under Bill Shorten’s leadership, for the first time in a generation, is challenging neo-liberalism. The neo-liberal consensus has dominated western politics and economics since the eighties. The idea that lowering taxes (especially on business and the rich), slashing government spending, privatising core government services, promoting free trade and reducing regulations on business will lead to endless economic growth which will create wealth that will trickle down from the top to all, was taken as gospel by most policy makers. It has always been a clear lie to claim that Labor and Liberal are just as bad as each other. However it is true that Labor seemed a little too quick to embrace these neo-liberal capitalist assumptions. When people saw Hawke and Keating privatising QANTAS and the Commonwealth bank they became rightly confused about what Labor stood for. When people heard Keating tell them that they lost their job because of the “recession we had to have”, the feeling was exacerbated. Labor had been taken over by hardnosed economists who dealt with numbers and theory but not with reality. Rudd did save us from the global financial crisis (no small feat of economic management). Yet both he and Gillard failed to call out the Liberals on the lie that their government’s deficit was a terrible thing. They remained beholden to neo-liberal arguments.
But neo-liberalism has failed. Mindless consumption of goods and services didn’t make us happier. As Bill Shorten points out in his recent book For the Common Good, Australia has had twenty five years of uninterrupted economic growth yet Australians are not any happier. In any case, deregulated big businesses threw the world into depression in 2008. Australia managed to cleverly avoid the worst of this global financial crisis, but we would be foolish to continue pursuing the same policies that allowed Wall Street bankers to take the world to the brink of collapse.
There is a growing international consensus among economists that neo-liberalism was too extreme. You can’t allow businesses to put profits first at all costs and simply hope they act in a way that will benefit the majority. It’s not a recipe for sound economic management. It’s not a recipe for a good society. Even the International Monetary Fund – an organisation which has forced countries to adopt neo-liberal policies in exchange for loans – recently conceded that it’s not working. In this recent IMF report, it was admitted that while neo-liberal economics made a few people very rich, it exacerbated inequality with terrible results. Indeed in Australia today, the top twenty percent of the population earn five times as much as the bottom twenty. Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking work in 2013 proved that inequality creates economic, social and political instability. Economists and politicians like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Yanis Varoufakis, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are leading the international movement to change the way things are done. They are correctly highlighting the fact that equality is not only a moral issue, it is actually necessary to underpin real, sustainable, long term growth.
Bill Shorten may not elicit the same excitement that Bernie did in the US, but he and his team are articulating a similar vision. And let there be no doubt – there is a clear vision. In his Press Club debate with Turnbull, Shorten said that “the Labor view is that you can’t separate economic growth into one column and fairness in the other. To have sustainable growth you need to have fairness.” Preach. This theme has been core to Labor’s election pitch. It was most clearly articulated in Labor’s Growing Together report, launched earlier this year by Jenny Macklin and Bill Shorten. At that launch, Macklin declared that “the old myth that inequality was the price you pay for economic growth has been shattered. There is now widespread recognition that for economic growth to be strong and sustainable, it must also be inclusive… reducing excessive income inequality is not just sound social policy, but sound economic policy as well.” The report correctly concludes that neo-liberal economic policies like those being peddled by Turnbull lead to “an over-concentration of wealth and an underinvestment in human capital”. And “if wealth is in the hands of fewer people” then “inequality rises (and) economic growth falls.” Wealth doesn’t trickle down, recent history shows that it is hoarded – with disastrous results. Governments need to play a strong role in the market to make sure it is benefiting everyday people, and to make sure no one is left behind. In his book, Shorten wrote that his government would aim for full employment – an aim that neo-liberal governments long ago abandoned.
Labor’s vision is a vision that I can proudly get behind. Labor’s policies at this election all work towards this vision. Expose the corruption of the big banks, oppose tax cuts for big business, raise taxes on the rich, and use the money to invest in education, health, infrastructure and other social programs that will reduce inequality and make the lives of the downtrodden better. And, as Bill Shorten said on Q and A, “investments in health and education drive a sustainable economic story”. The promise to fully fund the Gonski education reforms is a game-changer in education policy. The commitment to ensure that fifty percent of Australia’s energy comes from renewable sourced within fifteen years is ambitious and should be applauded. Despite the destructive anti-carbon tax scare campaign that the last Labor government endured, the ALP has not shied away from the idea that economic growth should be, not just inclusive and fair, but environmentally sustainable.
Political scientists sometimes divide political leaders up as either ‘transactional leaders’ or ‘transformational leaders’. Transactional leaders offer a shopping list of promises that will benefit voters and voters are then expected to vote for the leader in return for getting the stuff they’ve been promised. Transformational leaders, however, offer a grand and coherent vision that people vote for because their inspired by the vision. People believe in the story being told and they want to help change the country. I don’t want to oversell him, but I see elements of the transformational leader in Shorten. Certainly my faith in Labor has been transformed.