Paul Bongiorno
Labor’s small target syndrome

One of the great advantages of Labor’s national conference is the access it gives media to the party’s leading figures. When they are cabinet ministers, what they say has even greater weight.

When Tanya Plibersek was collared on the sidelines of last weekend’s conference, her assessment of how the government sees itself was particularly interesting. She fobbed off criticism that the old party of passionate firebrands from the left had become a conservative shadow of its former self.

She said, “We are a party of the centre. A government that governs for all Australians.”

What is especially relevant is that Plibersek, like Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, is a long-time member of the Left faction. The group prides itself on being the engine room of progressive policies, challenging the status quo.

Albanese attended a dinner the Left faction held during the conference and told his old colleagues he would be rejoining them when his prime ministership ended. He said he had no regrets not attending their meetings in the meantime, probably a reference to how tedious intrafactional jockeying can be.

The irony of all of this is the spot on the political spectrum vacated by the Left has been taken up by some prominent old warhorses of the Right. Former prime minister Paul Keating was a noted absentee from the gathering. Earlier in the year he launched an excoriating attack on the Albanese government for signing up to Scott Morrison’s AUKUS agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom.

Keating said Albanese embraced the arrangement too quickly and it was not in Australia’s best interests. In government, Labor has deepened the commitment. The former prime minister’s concern was the ceding of Australia’s sovereignty to our key ally, the US, which at the same time was an unnecessary provocation of our biggest trading partner, China.

Conference organisers say neither Keating nor the other living former Labor prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, were snubbed. I am told they all would have been welcomed as “honoured observers”. None were delegates and none were up for the special recognition of party life membership that enticed Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke to show up to earlier conferences. Keating in fact has spurned the honour, telling the party his life membership of the New South Wales branch is “sufficient” for him.

Albanese’s biggest win at the conference was the overwhelming endorsement of the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. He put his authority on the line and in effect was daring the delegates to repudiate the cautious and more conservative stamp he was putting on the Labor government. He is out to steal the Coalition’s clothes on security and economic management and the party is more than happy for him to do so.

Some saw Albanese’s intervention in the debate as one of his more impressive speeches. Others found his arguments less convincing. In an unscheduled intervention, Albanese said there was “no security in isolation” and he saw this “enhancement” of the US alliance, first forged by wartime Labor prime minister John Curtin, as consistent with Labor values. He was supported in this by Wong, who said the acquisition of the nuclear submarines was aimed at deterrence, not war.

Another of the prime minister’s close allies from the Left, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, was applauded by many and jeered by some when he likened those questioning AUKUS to “appeasers” before World War II. Western Australian MP Josh Wilson questioned the cost, feasibility and value of the arrangement, and described Conroy’s view as “ridiculous”.

It was the most passionate of any of the debates and when the motion to include nuclear submarines in the party’s platform was carried overwhelmingly on the voices, party president Wayne Swan emphatically declared it “passed”.

Albanese’s judgement, supported by Labor’s research, is that the Australian public is well aware that the strategic circumstances have changed dramatically in recent years, with a more assertive China embarking on the biggest military build-up since WWII. Defence Minister Richard Marles stressed this as he built support for the mammoth cost of proceeding with the submarines.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton made the lame assertion that Labor’s divisions were an “outrage” and Labor was split on national security. Yet Albanese has ensured this is far from the reality. His cabinet is in lock step with him, supported by the strong democratic vote of the party conference. This is a message his intervention in the debate was designed to send to Washington and London.

There are, however, significant Labor voices besides Keating who are far from onside. Former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr wrote a searing criticism of AUKUS developments in The Sydney Morning Herald this week.

“A vote wrung from a conference doesn’t deliver the cash for what is the biggest transfer of wealth outside this country in its history,” he wrote. “The government places the cost between $268 billion and $368 billion. That gap of $100 billion is a warning that nobody knows and bureaucrats are taking stabs.”

Carr says developments in Washington and London confirm that the capacity of either country to supply Australia with new nuclear subs is highly doubtful. This would leave Australia hosting US and UK nuclear-armed submarines, forward-deployed here. He cites Lowy Institute researcher Sam Roggeveen’s description of Australia becoming a US military stronghold, offering targets to China if war comes.

Even though it’s more than 80 years since the US came to Australia’s aid and repelled the Japanese invasion sweeping southward, it’s hard to believe that in the event of a war Australians would not want to be on the side of the US. The hypotheticals of how that war might start and what it would look like, however, don’t fit into the construct of the 1940s.

Would a belligerent China even bother with land troops or naval engagement when it could fire missiles from its own territory at targets in Australia?

Then there is the ability to launch cyber attacks that could knock out so much of this country’s essential infrastructure and communications.

What is clearly worrying Keating and Carr is whether the Albanese government would be prepared to differ with the US, as senior ministers in the Hawke government were, notably Gareth Evans and Kim Beazley. Times have changed but the need for nuance and sophistication has not.

It is as if Labor prime ministers from the Left, like Gillard and now Albanese, have to appear more conservative than the Coalition to prove they can be trusted by mainstream Australians. On marriage equality, the declared atheist Gillard lined up with the same miscalculation as the most fervent in the religious right.

One theory is that Left luminaries such as Albanese and Wong, who have been factional activists for years, fear their opponents and the media have bulging files of quotes on positions they have taken in the past that they have now repudiated or moved beyond. Not everyone is worried, though, as one older campaigner put it: “The fact is no one could give a shit. We’ve all changed now.”

Those looking for a more vigorous policy approach on climate and economic equity can’t be blamed for thinking Albanese has overcompensated, especially when it comes to ruling out tax reforms that would abolish or modify the grossly unfair stage three tax cuts.

Greens leader Adam Bandt is not alone seeing the cuts as “a dismantling of Australia’s progressive tax system”. They massively benefit high income earners at a cost to revenue beginning at $20.4 billion a year, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office, and rising to $42.9 billion annually in 10 years. It is money that could be spent on the very things the treasurer identifies as under more strain in coming decades: affordable housing, aged and disability care, defence, and even paying the government’s debt interest bill.

Sure, “no new taxes” and leaving stage three in place were headline commitments at the election; but Albanese wouldn’t be the first prime minister to break promises because there were better ways to serve the national interest.

Stage three is hugely unpopular within the Labor Party and it took some furious wrangling behind the scenes to head off a motion being put to the conference calling for its scrapping. Even arguing about it in public was judged too risky, which is at the very least a vote of no confidence in the government’s advocacy.

Albanese’s own appraisal of the conference is that it was a great success. He has “never seen such a sense of unity and a sense of common purpose”. He says it was an important step, “readying us for the 2025 campaign and beyond”.

One of Labor’s more formidable operators, Graham Richardson, now a Sky News commentator, marvelled at the party’s conference discipline and welcomed the fact it was boring. Bandt says “a small target government can’t fix Australia’s big problems”.

The intergenerational report, released on Thursday, with its dire predictions about catastrophic climate change, demands stronger national leadership to cope with this predicted future shock.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "A sitting small target".

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