Dr Andrew Leigh’s plan for endless Labor opposition

Via The Saturday Paper comes perhaps the the guy who most embodies why Labor lost the unlosable election:

John Howard once called himself the Liberal Party’s most conservative leader. His successors, however, have outdone him. Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott are easily more conservative than Howard, who has now slipped to bronze on the ranking of most conservative Liberal leaders. The brand of “just say no to change” conservatism that has dominated the modern Liberal Party is incompatible with small-l liberalism.

Small-l liberalism means recognising that open markets are fundamental to boosting prosperity and standing up for minority rights. It means valuing both markets and multiculturalism.

…Social liberalism already underpins many of Labor’s achievements. Broad-based income taxation under Curtin. The Racial Discrimination Act under Whitlam. Trade liberalisation and a floating dollar under Hawke. Enterprise bargaining and native title under Keating. Removal of much of the explicit discrimination against same-sex couples under Rudd. Emissions trading and disability reform under Gillard.

…Labor holds true to the belief – grounded in the reforms of Hawke and Keating – that tax reform requires broadening the base in order to lower the rate. This year marks 20 years since the GST legislation passed the parliament, and 20 years since the Coalition was last willing to engage in serious tax reform.

Social liberalism also demands answers to Australia’s productivity crisis. While labour productivity surged under the Rudd and Gillard governments, it has since slumped. As the Productivity Commission reported in its latest Productivity Bulletin, labour productivity growth is now below its long-run rate and fell every year from 2015 to 2018. Spending on research and development is in the doldrums. As the commission notes, “The share of businesses that are innovators – which goes beyond R&D spending – is no longer growing.” A progressive productivity agenda requires smarter investment in education, more targeted infrastructure spending, and updating competition laws to keep ahead of multinational monopolists that threaten to crush domestic start-ups.

One of the things I learnt from my role as Labor’s competition spokesperson over the past two parliamentary terms is the bargaining position of small businesses has a lot in common with the bargaining position of employees. Just as a fragmented workforce can be vulnerable to exploitation by a large employer, so too small businesses often find themselves facing a “divide and conquer” strategy from big firms. Think of companies that sell most of their output to the large supermarket chains, family-owned automotive dealer franchises negotiating with global car manufacturers, or boutique hotels paying a 30 per cent fee to list on online booking platforms. Just as in industrial bargaining, these small businesses often find that their choice is to hang together or hang separately. Social liberalism isn’t just about the freedom to organise; it’s also about the freedom of small businesses to work together to get a fair deal.

…Internationally, social liberalism demands engagement with the world, and a recognition of the value of trade, migration and foreign investment in spurring on Australia’s prosperity. At a time when the World Trade Organization’s dispute system is threatened with collapse, Australia is nowhere to be seen. We should not only be trying to avert the crisis: Australia should be at the forefront of rebuilding the WTO into a body that can strike good-quality multicountry deals. The last all-in trade agreement was signed in 1994; attempts to conclude another one have repeatedly failed. Yet rather than allowing the system to devolve into a “spaghetti bowl” of bilateral deals, why not remake the WTO into an organisation that is focused on helping groups of like-minded nations reduce trade barriers in a way that boosts rather than diverts trade?

A commitment to social liberalism can also be seen in Labor’s commitment to an open, multicultural and multifaith Australia. When I listen to the first speeches of Labor members, I sometimes wonder what my party’s founders would have made of the paeans to multiculturalism and migration that have become central to Labor maiden speeches in recent years.

Many of Labor’s founders regarded Asia’s peoples as the biggest threat to their living standards. But ours is a party that has evolved and changed over the decades through its embrace of social liberalism. Instead of going backwards, it recognises that Australia benefits from immigration, including circular migration. National growth isn’t like the Olympic medal tally: prosperity in China, India and Indonesia will boost Australian living standards, too. And it understands the importance of honouring people of different faiths, as well as those of no faith.

…Alfred Deakin’s liberals joined with the conservatives in 1909 in what was dubbed “fusion”. More than a century on, social liberals have been cast out of the Liberal Party of Australia. Today’s Liberal Party is not the party Menzies founded. It is now the creature of John Howard and his intellectual heir Scott Morrison. It is, in essence, a party of “capital-C Conservatism”. And that leaves social liberalism free for just one party.

The bizarre thing about this speech is that I agree on just about every front yet I cannot vote for it. Indeed, it repulses me. How can that possibly be?

Because it is ideology over reality. That is a problem in itself. It is fundamentalist and therefore dangerous. The corollary is that it is blind to its own shortcomings and hypocrisies and thus in practical and political terms completely unworkable.

Consider the agenda: markets, competition, productivity, multi-lateral engagement, migration and foreign investment. These are all worthy pursuits in themselves.

But out in the real world each has run into all kinds of practical problems that cannot be resolved simply by the restatement of rubric:

  • markets and competition have devolved into protected corporate oligopolies;
  • productivity has stalled largely thanks to capital misallocation though more lately labour productivity has also begun to fall;
  • multi-lateral engagement and foreign investment are history as we enter Cold War 2.0. The future is Balkanisation;
  • mass immigration is very obviously now detracting from Australian living standards as infrastructure fails, house prices rise and wages growth is wiped out.

In Australia’s case these six dimensions of liberalism now interact in a way that systemically lowers living standards and threaten liberalism itself:

  • mass immigration crush-loads suburbs, lowers public amenity, lifts house prices and lowers wages;
  • the retro-fitting of infrastructure cannot keep pace and cash strapped governments rely on rentier corporations to privatise the gains via private taxes applied to the finished product, lowering household incomes further, as well as destroying competition and productivity;
  • multi-lateral engagement and foreign investment are fig leafs under which the Communist Party of China (CPC) has delivered a sharp power push that damn near killed ANZUS and its hegemonic role in protecting Aussie democracy within the US liberal empire.

In short, Dr Leigh’s unfettered liberalism is a recipe for lower productivity, failed markets, economic and political capture by the CPC, shredded multicultural consensus and class warfare on the poorest. That is, Dr Leigh’s liberal extremism delivers only a war on itself.

And the kicker is that the polity can see it. Why? Because it is their lived experience every single day. The Quexiteers, western Sydneysiders and Melbournians that handed ScoMo his victory are right at the coal face of the failures of liberalism. Their real wages are falling. Their infrastructure is failing and they are paying the tolls. Their house prices are unaffordable for kids. Many have immigrated from tyrannies like the CPC and see Labor threatening their new found freedoms. All they see in Labor’s liberalism is more of the same.

Of course we should aim to keep liberal ideas and policies alive as best we can. But if you simply preach to the choir about how righteous are their values then that implicitly alienates everybody on the wrong side of the failings of Australian liberalism. Call them the deplorables if you like. But it was they that handed ScoMo government because he is masterful at appearing to fix their issues while actually making them much worse.

The last point means that there is an opportunity to beat ScoMo quickly. But the path to doing so is to really fix the failures of liberalism and expose ScoMo’s lies. To do that you must recognise the limits of liberalism not ladle out more of it.

It must start with a pragmatic recognition that a national government’s first priority is its own populace, not peoples from everywhere else and, judging from Dr Andrew Leigh’s mutterings, his complete marginalisation within Labor.

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