With the dust settled and the Senate results announced, we can say confidently that the 2022 election result a great win, a cause for celebration and not a small amount of relief.
There is now momentum for change on key issues such as a Voice to Parliament, climate change, women’s rights and a Federal ICAC. If those changes can be won, they will provide further momentum to tackle harder, equally important issues, such as inequality – particularly the tax and transfer system - and housing. On these tougher issues, the new government is constrained by its own limited platform, economic orthodoxy and opposition from powerful, wealthy opponents, such as the mining lobby.
But firstly, progressives can take heart from this win. The Greens are up to four seats, the pro-climate action liberal independents have cut a swathe through the Liberal heartland and Labor has won 77 seats, and lost none to the LNP.
The LNP is devastated and divided, and looking at long-term opposition. Dutton is unlikely to lead them back to government, if only because most post-election Opposition Leaders don’t ever see an election. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke of course. He’s learnt nothing from the defeat so far, but he is doubling down on the idea of appealing to the ‘suburban voter’, the quietly conservative, private-sector employed or small-business-reliant voter, found in places like Penrith-based electorate of Lindsay, which the Liberals retained comfortably. The Liberals and Nationals may yet profit from such a strategy and such messaging, but for now, this is out of keeping with the progressive mood of the nation.
Labor and the Greens will be looking to improve next time on what was a good campaign by the centre-left parties, considering that ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’. Labor's Tim Gartrell (Chief of Staff to Albanese) and National Secretary Paul Erikson deserve credit for a strategy that delivered a majority in the Reps, while only winning 32.8% of the primary vote. Gartrell’s record is now formidable, having been the ALP National Secretary for the 2007 win, a major part of the marriage equality vote and now Albanese’s Chief of Staff for the 2022 win.
The Greens campaigners too deserve credit, albeit coming from a very low base, to win 4 seats. I am not across all the details, but it appears they’re using mutual aid and community organising techniques in Brisbane that are creditworthy by themselves, but also electorally effective. Greens have long had good progressive policies, but that hasn’t always translated into electoral support. It seems that developing deeper connections to local communities and trust among voters in their competence has overcome that, at least in Brisbane.
However, while national and local campaigns make a difference, the ‘mood and mind’ of the electorate is really the determining factor in national elections, and the cause and effect of that is harder to exactly pin down. Everyone can see it post-election but few beforehand.
We were hopeful before, but it is abundantly clear now, that there is a strong progressive majority in the community. There is momentum and a mandate for action across a range of issues such as climate change, women’s rights, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as well as greater integrity in politics, as epitomised by a Federal ICAC.
The makeup of the Senate crossbench will allow the government to pursue a progressive agenda, with the Greens, plus David Pocock and Jacquie Lambie and her former office manager, Tammy Tyrell providing a majority, as long as Labor can keep them onside.
On climate, the government has moved quickly to establish their 43% target. The important thing will be for the Parliament to quickly set up the policy and investment architecture to drive rapid decarbonisation and lower emissions. As initial targets are met and the inevitable investment and sustainable jobs start to materialise, then the targets can be surpassed and re-set at higher levels. Another CPRS debacle is in nobody’s interests.
The Voice Treaty Truth process has the full-throated backing of the incoming government, and Labor's first Wiradjuri Indigenous Affairs Minister, Linda Burney, to pursue it. The liberal independents, and a good portion of the LNP, including the Shadow Minister Julian Leeser, will likely back it.
Again, the rapid development of models and legislation is essential, so that the referendum can be held as early as possible in the first term of the new government. Adam Bandt said during the campaign that the Greens would not stand in the way of progress on this issue, even though they have a position of ‘Treaty first’. That will likely be enough wiggle room for the Greens to get behind a referendum when the time comes, although leftists should keep up the pressure to ensure they do. The vast majority of Greens voters would be appalled if the Greens Parliamentary caucus were to cavil overmuch or overlong on this issue.
The full suite of policies to improve the rights of women will need to be pursued through legislative and bureaucratic action with longer horizons than many other policies. Misogyny and structural sexism won’t be overcome in one term. The ASU had a wonderful win during the election campaign with the Fair Work Commission recognising that 10 days domestic violence leave should be a right enshrined for all workers. That though is just one plank in the policy platform (read about more in the SEARCH activist guide to the 2022 election) for improving women’s rights and standing, but it will be a big and important one to implement early. Technically, of course, it is a universal right, and does not only apply to women - although we all know that women experience DV at many times the rate of men – but it may be the most headline grabbing of all the actual policy changes. In the short term, a new culture of respect, more equal numbers of women in senior positions and a shift in rhetoric may be the most salient to the huge numbers of women who voted to change the government.
Similarly, many will be looking for Federal ICAC to be a priority, and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has stated he wants it operating by mid-2023.
There is hope too for action on the Collaery/Witness K trial and on Julian Assange. The new Attorney General has been critical of the Collaery trial, and there is reason for some hope that the prosecutions may be dropped at an appropriate juncture. However the security and defence bureaucracy hold great power and influence and may yet pursue ‘exemplary justice’ to warn off future whistle-blowers.
On Assange, on 31 May, Albanese made a comment that diplomacy is not always best conducted by loudhailer, perhaps an indication that there are avenues being pursued to bring him home. Campaigning will and must continue on both these issues to keep up the pressure for just resolutions.
These broadly progressive policy priorities, if handled well, will bring great credit to the incoming government, and the ALP has a clear mandate for them.
What is not as clear or obvious is the status of campaigns for ‘economic justice’, (notwithstanding the clearly economic nature of action on women’s rights and climate). Some liberal independents have already shown their true colours, with Wentworth MP Allegra Spender calling for cuts to education and health expenditure in order to ‘balance the budget’.
Labor took welfare and tax policies to the election that will only exacerbate inequality, specifically support for the ‘stage three tax cuts’, which will almost completely flatten Australia’s income tax system and remove real progressivity from it, not to mention cut much needed revenue. Labor will have to change course there or contribute to creating the social distress, social fracturing and despair that leads to the rise of right-wing authoritarianism.
On that basis, the left needs to be relentless in pointing out that the stage three tax cuts for high income earners are completely egregious, not to mention ‘pro-cyclical’ in orthodox terms, by contributing to inflation and raising the deficit when, according to those lights, the richest should be helping to balance the budget. On the expense side of the taxation and incomes equation, Newstart needs an immediate boost, and other assistance such as the Age Pension, rent assistance and disability payments are currently very modest in global terms. A properly funded Federal Budget would and should be able to make these payments far more substantial and secure.
As for income and working conditions for the paid workforce, Labor’s IR agenda is also very modest – again see our Activist Guide for more details - and that is simply not enough to turn around the 40 years of erosion of rights under neoliberalism. We need robust laws to support the right to strike, to support sector bargaining and to stop the wholesale wage theft and exploitation that entire industries rely upon to be profitable.
These income and tax issues hit the proverbial hip-pocket nerve, and will, over the long term, determine the electoral (not to mention ethical) success of any government. However housing affordability is such a huge problem that you can attach any number of political cliches to it. It is the elephant in the room, the BBQ stopper and the third rail all in one.
Labor’s election policies on housing were limited to ‘off-book’ expenditure reliant on returns from an investment fund and promising 40,000 new social houses. This will only scratch the surface of estimated need of upwards of 850,000 low income houses. The policy stands in contrast to Labor’s own 2019 policies, which were to funded by the necessary changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax. With those policies ditched for 2022, the expenditure side has also been scrapped.
Albanese stated in his press conference to announce his Ministry that he has a long-standing interest in housing and a belief in the role of the Federal government in the sector. Labor may yet set in train processes to do something substantial on this issue. There is no shortage of research, policy development lobbying efforts and options in this space, but equally, it is not something that can be fixed quickly. There needs to be broad campaign sponsored by unions, civil society, academics and others, but most of all harnessing the community feeling, so evident and obvious among younger people, for action on housing affordability. The problem is literally and figuratively tearing communities apart. Grandparents, parents and children are separated by great distances against their preference, friends and communities scattered to the fringes of cities. The for-profit housing system has lost its moral licence amongst huge swathes of the community. There is no better time to activate these people to strive for a better way, that involves redefining housing as a human right and a social need. It won’t be easy, however, against the entrenched interests of the real estate and mortgage banking sector.
Similarly skills and labour shortages are not an easy fix, and the Business Council of Australia is already demanding changes to allow hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to come here to work. Labor will be under particular pressure to consider proposals that allow for major gas and minerals projects to go ahead, partly so energy prices can be stabilised worldwide in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting sanctions imposed on Russian petroleum exports. How bosses, unions and the government work through that will dominate much of the upcoming employment summit that PM Albanese has promised.
These problems are just a few that the new government faces under the broad banner of ‘economic management’. We know that it will only be a matter of time before the conservative chorus will begin, from the self-appointed ‘sensible economic commentators’ through to the gutter press, saying that Labor can’t manage the economy, that the red-Greens tail is wagging the dog, that spending/inflation/wages are out of control, that red-tape is stifling the economy, etc etc ad nauseum. And it is true that any government that loses control, or perceived control, over inflation, energy prices and interest rates will likely be a short-lived one. However, taking advantage of any honeymoon period, and a record of achievement on some of the major issues outlined above, of women’s rights, integrity, the Voice to Parliament, will give the new government the best chance of gaining the trust of the community as it grapples with what it can do about the more challenging hip-pocket issues in the medium term. And they should and must deal with these. While many aspects of them are beyond their control and in the lap of markets and multinational corporations, any progressive Labor government worthy of the name must act to extend the interests of working people by ensuring proper income support, well-paid jobs, access to housing, and above all a safe environment.