Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
The building blocks for a new Labor model, which updates some parts of the Hawke-Keating policy structure and discards others, came into clearer view this week on economic management, foreign policy and the Voice.
Each piece contains an existential question for Australia that will shape how Anthony Albanese’s government is seen by history, however long it holds office. Will we continue to dodge global economic shocks? Can we play a role in ensuring peace in the Asia Pacific region? Will the Voice provide a unifying national story for the 21st century?
Illustration: Simon Letch.Credit:
The answers to the first two questions are subject to forces beyond our control. But it is that very uncertainty that appears to be underpinning support for the third one – the Voice – despite the determined obstruction of the Liberal and National parties.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers wants to tackle the first question as a renovator of the Hawke-Keating model. His reform plan for the Reserve Bank of Australia released on Thursday will introduce a check on the power of the bank’s governor through the appointment of a board of specialists to set interest rate policy. It is the single biggest change to the operation of the RBA since its independence from government began under Labor in the early 1990s and formalised in 1996 by then-treasurer Peter Costello under the Howard government. The emphasis from Chalmers is on continuity with the open model.
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, on the other hand, is leading a wrecking crew. Her speech to the National Press Club on Monday pointedly downplayed the diplomatic legacies of both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. The rupture appeared unavoidable following Labor’s embrace of Scott Morrison’s AUKUS defence partnership to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the UK. Keating’s characterisation of the pact as “the worst deal in all of history”, and his personal attacks aimed at Senator Wong, were bound to provoke a formal response from the minister.
Nevertheless, Senator Wong’s reply went further than many of the old Labor guard might have anticipated. One line in particular stood out when she nominated Labor’s “greatest statespeople” as John Curtin, Doc Evatt and Gough Whitlam. Thirteen years of Hawke-Keating engagement with Asia, from the APEC forum to the Cambodian peace process, was seemingly erased in that statement – whether by accident or design.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday.Credit: AAP
By coincidence, Chalmers and Wong were speaking on rare bipartisan turf, on which Peter Dutton happens to be supportive of the government’s general policy direction. Shadow treasurer Angus Taylor reiterated that “it is the coalition’s intention to continue to approach the implementation of (the RBA) review with a spirit of bipartisanship”.
Taylor’s response was routine in the ’80s, when the Coalition backed Labor on three of the four elements of the Hawke-Keating economic reform program – the floating of the dollar; the deregulation of the financial sector with an independent RBA setting interest rates; and the removal of the tariff wall. The fourth element, on workplace reform, was always the point of difference. Labor included a safety net for vulnerable workers after it abolished centralised wage fixing, and a role for trade unions in bargaining with employers. The Coalition wanted to go all the way with market forces.
The argument was finally settled by voters in 2007, when the Coalition’s WorkChoices policy proved the main driver of the swing that defeated the Howard government, and cost Howard his own seat of Bennelong, in Sydney’s inner north-west.
On the Voice, the opposition leader is relying on two apparently timeless precedents to validate his negativity. The first, is that no referendum has succeeded without bipartisan support. The second, is that while voters are strongly in favour of reconciliation, they are wary of empowering First Australians.
Keating’s thwarted republic, and the electoral backlash against Mabo, which helped shape Labor’s landslide defeat in 1996, are the rocks on which Dutton bases his hard No campaign. But there is something else going on here; an unconscious bias in the Coalition approach that may actually help the Yes case.
Every trip that Dutton takes to Alice Springs, and every attack he makes against the so-called elite “Canberra-based Voice bureaucracy”, comes with an unstated paternal assumption – that the white man gets to define the First Australians who are deserving of protection, and those who no longer need it because of their tertiary degrees. If Indigenous “academics” want to influence policy, they should join a political party and make laws, not seek to change the Constitution.
When Dutton says these things, he repeats, without thinking, one of the oldest colonial fallacies that a “black” person can be made “white” by education and property. In other words, the architects of the Voice are somehow unable to speak for First Australians in remote communities, or townships because they have climbed the ladder of opportunity.
But the facts on the ground do not easily fit into Dutton’s binary narrative of real versus elite First Australians because the Indigenous population is as diverse as the nation itself. Consider how First Australians compare with the migrant populations in each state. They outnumber the largest overseas-born community in three states – NSW, Queensland and Tasmania. But in the state considered most likely to vote Yes for the Voice, Victoria, they have five groups ahead of them – the Indians, English, Chinese, New Zealanders and Vietnamese.
First Australians, regardless of location, are overwhelming in favour of the Voice, based on the published opinion polls.
The risk for Dutton, underlined by the Resolve survey this week, is that the Yes vote has stabilised, in part because his switch from a soft No to a hard No, and split his own party.
He may have even helped the prime minister defuse the booby trap of racism. Labor was always in danger of over-egging its case by tagging those who are thinking of voting No as bigots. Labor can now let Liberals like Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff, former federal shadow attorney general Julian Leeser, and former Liberal Ken Wyatt make the conservative Yes case, without chipping in with their own prejudices.
One of the reasons for the Yes vote’s apparent resistance to Dutton’s best efforts to undermine it, based on private research, turns on the question of national identity. There is a new pride in our Indigenous heritage which non-Indigenous Australians see as a positive expression of how we are; our point of difference as a people in a world of rolling shocks. This reverses the assumption of the nineties that Australians are wary of the pace of economic and cultural change.
The Hawke-Keating model of an open economy and society had a foundation stone missing while the Howard cultural model prevailed. Although it remains too early to tell, the Yes vote for the Voice is showing a resilience more akin to the Marriage Equality survey in 2017 than the republic referendum in 1999.
The irony if the Voice does prevail is that it will resolve the national identity argument in Keating’s favour, even as Labor walks away from his foreign policy.
The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in Politics
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article