Here is the second part of a letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, written by an ardent Labor supporter, Ad Astra.
The Hon Bill Shorten, MP Leader of the Federal Opposition
Dear Mr Shorten
Health and disability
Labor has a proud record in health care, one acknowledged by the electorate. It introduced Medicare, which LNP governments so far have been too timid to dismantle, so popular has it been, although the Commission of Audit would have it emasculated. Last term it introduced its groundbreaking and highly applauded Disability Care, which the Commission of Audit would slow down, leaving the disabled waiting yet again.
Australia has one of the best health care systems in the world. Its maintenance and improvement is Labor’s task. The LNP’s focus is on the sustainability of funding for health and disability care, a laudable enough objective, but we know ‘sustainability’ will be used as a lever for cuts to services, as the Commission of Audit so vividly exemplifies.
Labor should be formulating how it would sustain funding, rather than harping on LNP cuts. It should be leading the way, but so far we have seen almost no proactive leadership on health from Labor since the election.
Aged care, dementia care, disability care and hospital care are becoming major areas of concern. The need for, and the cost of supportive services will rise inexorably. Labor must stress the importance of basing our health care system on first-rate primary care that offers emergency care, preventive care and chronic illness management via the nation’s well-trained general practitioners. This nation must prepare for these areas of escalating cost now, but not through counter-productive penalties such as a co-payment on bulk-billed services.
Recommendation: That Labor seizes the initiative on health, aged and disability care, and not only widely promulgates its plans for enhancement, but also its detailed plans for sustaining funding in the decades ahead. It must take the lead in this, its traditional area.
Here is another area where Labor has a fine record, which is consistently acknowledged by the electorate. Its Gonski initiative was widely applauded, so much so that the LNP was forced to endorse it pre-election, only to seek to dilute it post-election to suit its ideological position, and delay it, purportedly for budgetary reasons. Labor has always insisted on enabling education for all who might be capable of benefitting from it, be it at in the pre-school, school, tertiary or trade sectors. The LNP sees education as being for those who can pay for it, for the ‘better class of kiddies’ who deserve it most. The Commission of Audit would have the Gonski reforms disabled or even abandoned, and education handed to the states. Labor must counter this, knowing that education for all enhances the individual, increases productivity, and lifts the nation up.
This nation simply cannot afford to fall behind its Asian neighbours.
Recommendation: That Labor re-asserts its preeminence in education, insists on the full implementation of the Gonski recommendations, and fashions a funding schedule that will enable this, even if that requires additional levies or taxes.
Taxation and transfer payments
Labor has traditionally been sympathetic to the needs of the elderly, the retired, the disabled and the less well-off. It has supported and increased pension payments and other benefits. The cost is projected to rise inexorably. Labor must develop a plan to sustain these benefits where they are justified. That will not be easy. It will almost certainly require stricter means testing so that those who most need support receive it, and those who don’t, do not. Moreover, increased taxes are certain to be needed. Instead of pretending that Labor can manage to support transfer payments without tax increases, it should advocate increasing direct and indirect taxes. It should not play a political game by opposing discussion of GST changes. Whilst acknowledging that the GST is a regressive tax, which most hurts the less well off, it cannot be beyond the wit of Labor to propose changes that do not hurt the poor. For example, a GST on food, education and health care could be offset by a graduated discount system for those below certain income levels.
Balanced economists identify PM Howard’s use of the deluge of revenue during the mining boom to buy votes through middle class welfare and tax cuts as a major cause of our current difficulties. Labor should make this clear whilst acknowledging its own contribution to the escalation of welfare. It should acknowledge that structural defects in the federal budget simply must be remedied.
Labor ought to be echoing Joe Hockey’s mantra that the age of entitlement is over, but focus its attention on corporate welfare, welfare for those who do not need it, and other tax refuges of the wealthy, specifically negative gearing. Instead of shrinking from addressing this thorny issue, it ought to have the courage to insist its enormous cost to the budget be exposed, and that steps be taken to phase it out gradually. Superannuation needs graded boosting to 15% so that the less well-off become less reliant on the aged pension. Superannuation tax concessions that unreasonably favour the wealthy should be reduced and gradually phased out. Increasing the pensionable age, and taking steps to take into account the value of the family home and other assets in allocating a pension, must be considered. Let’s not play political games with tax issues, even if the LNP does. They are too crucial to be the subject of point-scoring skirmishes.
Recommendation: That Labor takes the lead in addressing the structural defects in the nation’s tax and transfer system, and insists on open debate to find lasting solutions.
Labor ought not allow Tony Abbott to brazenly steal the mantle of ‘the infrastructure PM’. Labor has always given due prominence to infrastructure, and should ensure that its strong record and its future commitment to infrastructure is widely publicised. Anthony Albanese has been a vocal advocate for the infrastructure this nation needs. Labor should avoid the pointless ‘road versus rail’ debate that the LNP seems to enjoy. Recommendation: That Labor re-asserts its preeminence in infrastructure development and wrests the initiative from the Coalition and its ‘infrastructure’ prime minister.Public debate
The electorate’s perception of politicians is governed mainly by their public utterances inside and outside of parliament.
Question Time, even for those who do not have the time to watch it directly, is publicised on every TV and radio outlet. Perhaps more than anything else, QT has weighed down politicians with the unseemly cloak of adversarial discord, abuse, anger, shouting, lies and deception. Politicians are seen simply as ugly point-scoring street fighters. Yet politicians ought to be admired and respected. The fact that they rate with used car salesmen and journalists as the least respected professionals shows how lowly they have sunk in the public’s estimation. This demeans our democracy.
Labor should take the lead in elevating public discourse. In QT, instead of always seeking to score points that will be seen on the 6 o’clock news, why not ask questions of profound importance to our nation, and ask them in a sincere yet inquisitive fashion, free of angry rhetoric, nasty innuendo and finger pointing. If Labor must embarrass the government, ask penetrating questions that probe weaknesses in policy, dishonesty, lack of clarity, inefficiency, and malign intent, and do so benignly with everyday words uncontaminated with venom and anger. In my view, that would have a more shocking effect on the government and a more enthusiastic acceptance by the electorate. It would contrast with the angry outbursts and the sarcastic words we see from LNP politicians almost every day.
Labor spokespersons should talk as statesmen do. They ought to move the standard of discourse from gutter talk to the uplifting language of the statesman and the diplomat. It can’t be that hard. This is not to say that exuberance, enthusiasm and passion should not suffuse Labor talk. These attributes are essential, but they can be conveyed without venom, nastiness, sarcasm, rudeness and disrespect. Recommendation: That Labor reviews all the avenues it has for making public utterances, and refashions them in a way that will garner public respect. This is urgent.Messaging
Getting Labor’s messages across will not be easy. It will require skillful ‘marketing’ if I may use that awkward word, of the Labor ‘brand’, another uncomfortable expression. The LNP has been quite brilliant at marketing its brand and framing the political debate. It has used weasel words, words devoid of substance but with a glossy exterior, just as weasels suck eggs dry, leaving only the shiny shell. What Labor needs to do is expose the substance of its progressive policies, and dress it in attractive garb with words that are understandable, appealing and memorable. It can’t be that hard, yet Labor has regularly failed to do this. The result has been that good policies have been misunderstood, or not understood at all, have been poorly ‘sold’, have been countered with ease by Labor’s opponents, and have too often been rejected by the electorate.
Labor simply must
do better. There must be advisers out there who could help Labor fashion its messages, its purposes and its plans in a way that would match Coalition slogans such as: ‘stop the boats’, ‘axe the tax’, ‘we must live within our means’, ‘budget emergency’, and ‘we must all do the heavy lifting’, that have served the LNP so well.
Words count. Persuasive words garner support. They don’t have to be erudite, only plausible. Framing the debate in a way that advantages Labor is essential.
Labor’s advisors need to study the works of George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist, particularly Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think
; The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics;
and Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate -The Essential Guide for Progressives.
The insights these works provide ought to be applied to every aspect of Labor’s policy, but perhaps most of all to the economy, which is so central to the electorate’s thinking. Recommendation: That Labor takes the initiative in framing the debate on all policy issues.A final comment
I could write on and on, covering other policy areas, but this letter is already long enough.
Suffice it is to say that in the view of this Labor supporter, and I suspect many, many others, Labor needs to make profound changes to its organisation, its governance, its membership base, its financial support, and the way it presents its policies and plans to the public. People like me support Labor because it is built on an ideological foundation stone of fairness, equal opportunity, equity, concern for the less well off and the disadvantaged, full employment, sustainable economic prosperity, and concern for the environment and the pursuit of its sustainability, and because its policies seek to make possible those worthy aims. These progressive ideals contrast starkly with many conservative ideals, which seem to favour the wealthy, disadvantage the poor and the weak, and foster a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset, with those at the bottom of the pile receiving only the crumbs from the rich man’s table, a phenomenon glorified by the discredited theory of ‘trickle-down’ economics.
You are the appointed leader. Although the wider membership preferred Anthony Albanese, seeing him as a dyed-in-the-wool Labor man who performs so well in parliamentary debates and public speeches, your colleagues preferred you. So it has fallen to you to resuscitate Labor. You can be assured that this is what Labor supporters desperately want. They will support you as you restore Labor to its proper place in the political spectrum.
Your task is difficult. You need all the encouragement and help you can get, and you need it from all Labor supporters. The purpose of this letter is to offer that support, and to offer some observations and advice from one who cares deeply about what progressive parties stand for. In Australia, Labor is such a party. The conservatives do not share Labor values. Although the Greens share many Labor values, they are too radical, too uncompromising, and too inflexible in their policies and politics. For me, it is Labor.
Over to you! We have great expectations; we trust you are equal to the task. Help us help you to achieve Labor’s great potential as a force for good in this nation.
To me, Ad Astra, “Time to say goodbye” are among the saddest words in our language. Yet say them now we must.
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