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Labor promised to be defined this year by their ideas. So where are they? By Sophie Morris.

Searching for Bill Shorten’s promised year of ALP ideas

Shadow minister for families and payments and disability reform Jenny Macklin with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

It was a standard Bill Shorten press conference on Tuesday in Mackay. The subject line on the transcript released by his office says it all: “Tony Abbott’s broken promise on pensions; Tony Abbott’s unfair budget; Tony Abbott’s $1 billion cut to childcare”.

Welcome to Labor’s year of ideas, the one Shorten promised. “2014 was defined by the force of Labor’s resistance,” he told the National Press Club last November. “Today I commit to you that Labor will be defined in 2015 by the power of our ideas.”

Opposition MPs and advisers get defensive, or even downright tetchy, at the following observation, but so far – seven weeks into the year – we have seen nothing from Shorten to back this up.

Behind-the-scenes, though, the opposition’s policy wonks have been busy, even recruiting high-profile former secretary of the treasury Ken Henry to help Labor renew its social policy agenda.

Henry, who wrote a review of taxation policy for the Rudd government, is among scores of experts who have been consulted in a comprehensive review of social policy led by frontbencher Jenny Macklin.

Shorten is aware of the risk of making promises at a time when voters hold little faith they will be kept. He was not available for interview but in comments provided to The Saturday Paper, he says Labor is consulting widely and will offer “a plan for the next decade, not just a list of promises for the next election”. 

“The last thing I want to be like is the Liberals, who have decimated trust with the Australian people with their litany of broken promises.” Labor, he says, stands for “decent healthcare, proper education, action on climate change and spreading opportunity”.

Former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan, now a backbencher, bristles at the suggestion Labor is taking a risk-averse “small-target” strategy. He argues that, in standing against the budget, Labor has stood for something.

“We had the political courage to stand up for Labor values at the budget and throughout last year, for economic and social policy based on growth which is fairly shared, and a rejection of Tony Abbott’s trickle-down economics,” he says. “You could rewrite the history of politics through the past year if we hadn’t done this.”

‘We can’t sit back’

But Shorten has promised he will do more than just reject Abbott, more than just oppose.

“We can’t sit back and hope that the cruel cuts of Liberal governments will deliver us an electoral dividend,” said Shorten last March, in a speech to the National Policy Forum, which draws up ideas for changes to Labor’s policy platform to be considered at its conference this July. “We need to offer a positive alternative vision.”

So, where is this alleged vision? 

The year is still young and it may seem a bit harsh to castigate Labor for just criticising the government when the government, which is supposed to be governing, generally prefers to attack Labor. And it would be early to release policies already, barely halfway through an electoral cycle. After all, an opposition can’t make detailed commitments before knowing what cash will be available. It’s also hard to blame Shorten for not wanting to wrest attention away from the Coalition, as Abbott struggles to hold on as prime minister. 

Yet the government’s woes also put pressure on the opposition. Polls suggest there is now a real prospect they could be returned to power next year, astonishing though it would have seemed when a dysfunctional Labor government was booted out 17 months ago.

As the Victorian and Queensland elections show, voters will not hesitate to kick out an unpopular government, even in its first term. But will federal Labor present a realistic alternative or simply seek to ride a wave of voter discontent back into office?

Shorten warned his troops last week that the federal election, expected in 2016, could come sooner. “We can’t assume the government will go full-term, because of its instability and divisions,” he told caucus. It was important, he said, to have policy announcements and local campaigns ready to go.

Last year Shorten laid down some policy markers, vowing that Labor would pursue an emissions trading scheme and would make higher education an electoral battleground. Otherwise his public statements give every impression he is following a similar script to the one that served Abbott well as opposition leader. Just substitute those cringe-worthy “zingers” for Abbott’s three-word slogans.

Macklin’s preparations

What is refreshing about talking to Macklin is that her policy development process is not a response to the Abbott government’s budget but is instead an attempt to use time in opposition to prepare a foundation for government.

“I don’t mean to be political about this but, to be honest, their budget didn’t have any foundation in good policy,” she says.

The shadow minister for families and payments and for disability reform has a reputation as a policy swot, dating back to her days as a researcher in the parliamentary library.

Over the past year, she has quietly held seven invitation-only roundtables with policy experts, including Henry. About a dozen academics, business people, union leaders and community representatives have attended each roundtable for confidential discussions with Macklin and other Labor frontbenchers. She has also held more than 100 consultations on policy. 

“There have been huge changes in society in the past 30 years, for instance, in women’s workforce participation, the length of time young people spend at school, the huge amount of insecure and casual work now, just to mention a few of the really big changes,” she says.

“We need to make sure the way the social security system supports people is responsive to the real circumstances that people live in. At the end of this year, I will deliver a report outlining future directions for social policy that canvass options in a range of areas which I believe are critical to Australia’s future.”

The overarching framework as Macklin talks about social and economic policy is the idea of “inclusive growth”, eschewing the politics of austerity in favour of investment in human capital. 

She identifies five priorities: tackling poverty; investing in early childhood development; lifting employment participation, particularly among young people; balancing the competing challenges of work and family, for those with caring responsibilities; and, finally, managing increasing job insecurity.

Paul Smyth, a professor of social policy at the University of Melbourne, drew Macklin’s attention to the growing international interest in “inclusive growth” and has helped co-ordinate her roundtables. “This is probably the first time in terms of social policy you have this breadth and depth of renewal happening before the party is in government,” he says.

Peter Whiteford, a professor in the Crawford school of public policy at the Australian National University, attended two roundtables, making the case for increasing the Newstart Allowance. “The unemployed and lone parents clearly need more assistance,” he says.

None of that comes cheap. Macklin, who sits on Labor’s election policy committee and its expenditure review committee, says she is conscious all policies will need to be properly funded. 

Revenues measures

When shadow treasurer Chris Bowen was grilled on Sunday on Sky News, he insisted Labor would announce policies “fully costed and in detail well before the campaign”.

“What we won’t be doing is playing the small target opposition. We won’t be rolling into a little ball,” he said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint … We won’t be backwards in coming forwards with ideas and policies.”

The main policy clue he ventured was that Labor was looking at not just spending but also revenue measures, singling out tax concessions on superannuation. He talked of the need for “fair tax concessions” for those on low incomes, but implied Labor would also seek to wind back concessions available to those at the top end of the scale in search for extra revenue.

Labor still suffers from the common perception that it is less adept at managing the economy than the Coalition, so unless Bowen can prove Labor has a plan for budget repair, its social policies may hold little sway with voters.

It will be up to the leader’s office ultimately to decide when and how policies are released. Shorten runs a tight ship. All media requests for interviews with frontbenchers are co-ordinated with the leader’s office. His office also vets and distributes all media releases for Labor frontbenchers, except Anthony Albanese, who was the other leadership candidate following Labor’s election loss.

In that leadership ballot, the rank-and-file members preferred lefty Tory-fighter Albo, but enough Labor MPs backed Shorten. 

And so he became Labor leader, at a time when the party had been reduced to 55 seats in the 150-seat house of representatives and presumably faced a long time in opposition.

Then the political winds changed.

Shorten’s stint as leader has been shaped by extraordinary gifts, from prime ministers past and present.

Kevin Rudd gave him the gift of stability that has been denied Labor leaders for more than a decade, by changing party rules to make it almost impossible to remove a leader.

Then Abbott gave him the 2014 budget, which has proved, for Labor, to be the gift that keeps on giving. Shorten is determined to hang this budget around the neck of whoever leads the government.

Shift in focus

Indeed, as the odds shorten for a Malcolm Turnbull prime ministership, Labor has shifted its focus. No longer are its attacks directed solely at Abbott. Now it is trying to establish the case that Turnbull, as part of Abbott’s cabinet, was complicit in devising and supporting unpopular budget measures.

Turnbull, for his part, is already honing his pitch to be leader, using an appearance on Q&A on Monday to goad Labor to reveal how it would fix the budget.

When The Saturday Paper wrote last April about Labor strategy, the focus was the pursuit of a “betrayal moment”, when voters would realise the government they had was not the one they thought they had elected.

That moment came soon enough with the budget in May.

The next challenge Shorten has set himself and Labor, to present a “positive alternative vision”, will not be so easy. But it’s one three-word slogan that voters will want to see substantiated before they consider giving Labor another chance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Mission in action". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.