An Australian Turn to the Left? – Radical Prospects for the next Australian Labor Government

Jenny McAllister interviewed by Martin O’Neill


Senator Jenny McAllister of the Australian Labor Party represents New South Wales in the Australian Senate. Coming from the Socialist Left faction of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Jenny previously served as National President of the ALP (2011-15), and is one of the founders of the Labor Environment Activist Network. Jenny’s website is here. Renewal caught up with Jenny at The World Transformed Festival during the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, to discuss Australia’s economic and political trajectory since the Great Financial Crisis, and the prospects for a turn to the left with the next ALP government.

Martin O’Neill:    Jenny, welcome to Liverpool! It’s lovely to see you over for a Labour Party conference again. Let me start by asking about the current state of play in Australian politics. It seems that, with Scott Morrison ousting Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party government seems to have learnt a bad lesson from the Australian Labor Party in deciding to go through a period of blood-letting and self-destruction. That has to be very good news for the Australian Labor Party that your rivals are at each other’s throats. So how are people feeling at the moment on the Left in Australia? Is there a lot of optimism that Labour are going to be able to get back into power in 2019, at the next election? For those of us who aren’t following things as closely as we might be, can you give us just a very quick sense of the current state of play?

Jenny McAllister:    Well, in Australian politics, like everywhere else, we are coming to grips with a dramatically different economy to the one that might have existed a decade ago. Now, unlike the UK and many other places, Australia actually had a very good Left policy response from Labour to the Global Financial Crisis. We didn’t go through the same kind of recession as the UK did. But we have experienced a continued period of slow, near negligible wages growth. And that is causing a range of economic consequences that are still playing out politically.

I think there’s an appetite in Australian politics now for change, and a move back to a more muscular left politics, and it shows up all the time now in published research on public opinion. The polls suggest that Australians now want more public sector spending, a greater role for the state, a greater concern about inequality and its impact on Australian society. There’s a real appetite for an activist government in a way that there may not have been, say, a decade ago. And all of the parties are responding to that in different ways. 

On the conservative side of politics the response to this change in public mood is really driving a terrible division within the Liberal Party. So you have a range of people who are absolutely determined to stick to their old orthodoxy about austerity, with their hostility to working-class organisation, hostility to trade unions, hostility to wage increases, and their enthusiasm for corporate tax cuts. And then you’ve got a range of other conservatives within the Liberal party who recognise that this would be electorally poisonous, and who want to offer something like a populist conservative response instead. And that tension is really tearing the Liberals apart. And so, the change that we had three weeks ago, where you have a change in Prime Minister really is the result not just of personality questions but of fundamental ideological disagreement within the conservatives in Australia, in how to respond to changing political and economic circumstances.

On the Labour side, we are more united than we have been in a very long time. You’re right that the last Labour government suffered from disunity and we were ultimately punished for that at the ballot box. One of the lessons learnt has been that people are determined not to let that kind of personal disunity disrupt our ability to govern again. But the other thing that’s happened, is that there’s been a really thoughtful investment in policy-making during that period of opposition and so there’s a really clear sense of purpose amongst the Labour caucus about what it is we’d like to do should we form a government.

Martin O’Neill:    That’s a very helpful answer. One very simple question to which I should already know the answer, but what’s the timing for the next Australian election?

Jenny McAllister:    It could be as late as May next year. But as we don’t have fixed terms, it really could happen at any time.

Martin O’Neill:    So, no matter how things play out, we’re getting towards …

Jenny McAllister:    … a period where there will be a General Election. That’s right.

Martin O’Neill:    You’ve said there’s now a lot of unity of purpose within the Australian Labour Party about what the programme government would be, and that you’re going to take to electorate at the next election. What are some of the main elements of that programme?

Jenny McAllister:    So there’s a very strong focus on economic justice. And we have made a series of commitments around tax reforms to make sure that, in government, we would have the resources that we need to invest in public services. And so the tax propositions include removing particular subsidies that are available for investors in the property market that are not available to owner-occupiers, they involve tackling the way that trusts are treated in the tax system to prevent tax avoidance through the clever use of trusts; and we’ve been very strong around opposing the  conservative agenda for cuts to corporate tax, to make sure that we don’t see the tax base so undermined and so compromised that we can’t invest in the things we want to invest in.

We’ve got a pretty basic Labour agenda on the investment side: investment in  health and education. We have also a very particular attention to women’s position within the economy, and we’ve also got a commitment to changing the balance of rules for working people in the economy to draw a line under flat-lining wages growth. We’re working through precisely what that industrial relations programme will look like.

The interesting thing about having such a clear policy agenda on economic justice, and such an ambitious agenda from my position, is that it changes the nature of the party’s dynamic internally, and our relationship with our members, and our relationship with the public. Because there’s this very clear positive agenda, that parliamentarians can campaign on, that members can campaign on, and that the public can engage with. And that is a very healthy dynamic for the party.

Martin O’Neill:    Obviously the British Labour Party over the last three years has undertaken a tremendous shift in its positioning…

Jenny McAllister:    A huge, huge change.

Martin O’Neill:    Right. And one way of understanding that change in UK Labour is that, as the consequences of the financial crisis have played out and worked their way through the economy, the need for more radical, systematic change to the economy has become clearer. You’ve said that, although in some ways the responses to the financial crisis was different (and much better handled) in Australian, there has been the same long period of stagnant pay, with the economy no longer delivering for working people as well as it would have been expected to do. So I wonder whether there has been, if not on the same scale, but perhaps at least a similar shift towards a more Left centre of gravity within the ALP?

Jenny McAllister:    I think that we started from a very different place in 2007 than British Labour. We had a really activist response to the GFC from the Labour Party and that’s something of which Labour people remain very proud. So we had a very big stimulus intervention, and it was cleverly constructed in that it was a short sharp injection of cash a the household level in the first wave, followed by a medium term investment in schools infrastructure, and then a longer term investment commitment to what were termed shovel-ready infrastructure projects like road and rail. And having those three types of interventions ,which were sequenced, meant that there was a visible and sustained demand able to be projected into the Australian economy and it did a great deal to ensure that business confidence didn’t collapse. And so (a) that is something Labour people remain very proud of and (b) it generated a certain level of confidence that as a group of people, our economic leadership had the right skill set to respond to a change in economic times.

Martin O’Neill:    It’s such an interestingly different path to the British case. Here in the UK the response to the economic crisis had been patently inadequate. Notwithstanding the fact that Gordon Brown did very impressive work in terms of the short term stabilisation of the economy, there wasn’t an adequate longer response. For a number of years Labour really didn’t do enough to counteract the Conservative narrative around justifying austerity. And that we then we’ve ended up politically with a strong backlash to Labour having been seen as the left wing of austerity. And so it’s then interesting hearing about the very different path that the Australian Labour Party has gone through, with a stronger initial response to the crisis, then setting you on a different political trajectory since then.

Jenny McAllister:    Yes. It is worth noting that there was a very strong conservative reaction to our intervention, and it was characterised as “waste and mismanagement” very strongly by Conservatives, commentators in the press, and conservative politicians. We held our nerve in the face of that, and that was the right decision not to capitulate to that criticism. But you shouldn’t think that it was without political conflict. It’s been a very conflictual time in Australian politics. But what’s been more significant has been that the Labour Party has held its nerve, and looked straight into the eyes of the people who sought to argue with us. And we’ve said, “No, we were right”, and we’ve held our ground since.

Martin O’Neill:    Control of the broader economic narrative is so important. What we had here, for example under Ed Miliband from 2010-15, was that there were a lot of good ideas towards having a more equal economy, but within a context where there had been a loss of control over the central economic narrative. It was difficult to fight against the story that went, “well there’s no money left, we maxed out the collective credit cards, now we have to tighten our belts”. And that story that the Conservatives had pushed early on got such a grip that the battle was almost lost before it was fought. So one difference in the Australian case, presumably, is that your opponents weren’t so successful in defining the main economic narrative?

Jenny McAllister:    As you know, we lost an election in 2013. We’ve had five years of conservative government. They have completely failed to meet the test that they set for themselves around fiscal management. They have increased the deficit and increased debt despite promising austerity, because I think the economic reality that they were confronting was too powerful for them to resist it.

Martin O’Neill:    Looking ahead to the election, the ALP agenda that you’ve been discussing seems like, in some senses, a traditional kind of Labour agenda of being concerned with median wages, public services provision, health and education, and so on. So what are its more radical edges? One thing you mentioned was looking at particular ways of dealing with forms of gender equality, especially within the economy. Looking at gender equality and also looking across at other policy areas, what the more radical edges of the next ALP programme might be?

Jenny McAllister:    I think the Labour Party always has to pay attention to the fundamentals. And if you get that right, you may gain permission to work on some of the other progressive issues that are important to you and to your constituents. We’ve had a highly polarised debate around climate change and energy in Australia and it’s very different to the UK where, as I understand it, the Conservatives are essentially agreed that climate change is a challenge and that energy transformation is an imperative.

Martin O’Neill:    Right, even if that commitment is often more rhetorical than real…

Jenny McAllister:    Right, but even in terms of what’s accepted, that is not the case in Australia at all. We have seen, in five years of conservative government, three different attempts by conservative Energy Ministers to develop some sort of energy policy that would deliver on our Paris commitments. And on each occasion they’ve been shot down by the right in their Party. Again the Labour Party has been very consistent over that five year period in putting the view that there is both an ethical and actually a technological imperative to transform the energy system. Renewables now generally represent the cheapest form of new generation in the Australian context and where there is a lot of ageing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.

The conservatives’ response to that has been to propose public subsidies for new coal fire generations. They have floated the idea of using public money in coal fire generation, public money to buy existing coal fire generators and keep them open longer than their operating life, public contracting to underwrite the financing of private sector financing of these coal fire generations. They have an ideological obsession with coal, essentially as a feature of the culture wars from that conservative perspective. So, against that, we will go into the election with a pretty clear position around renewables being a core part of the energy infrastructure of the future and the need to update the energy system more broadly.

We’ll also go in with a set of propositions around women, particularly women’s economic security and that’s been an area of policy focus for me in particular. Our baseline commitment would be to have a women’s budget statement which makes an assessment about the way that the budget initiatives impact on women. And a commitment to reviewing all major economic initiatives to test the gender impact of each policy, to check that we don’t accidentally impose economic measures that disproportionately disadvantage women.

And we also we have a series of questions around the relationship between indigenous Australians and the parliament that we will need to work with. Indigenous Australians have made a really compelling set of claims about the kind of relationship that they want to have in our nation’s government: that’s the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And it will be a very important priority for the Labour government to work with First Nations people, to work through that set of claims and arrive at a settlement that is satisfactory and meets those claims.

Martin O’Neill:    Thanks, Jenny. It certainly seems that, as in the UK, the choice for the Australian voters at the next election will be a clear one, and a stark one. Let me just ask you one final thing. As a regular visitor, what do you make of the Labour Party Conference and The World Transformed, so far?

Jenny McAllister:    Well, British Labour is the greatest show on earth. The British Labour Party is such a big, diverse, amazing entity. And I genuinely love coming. It is energising, it’s exciting and it always has been actually, and so I come here again and again. 

Martin O’Neill:    Wow. What a lovely thing to say! And a perfect note on which to end. Thanks very much indeed for talking to Renewal. And all best wishes for the electoral campaign ahead!