News Politics Australian Politics Wayne Swan: How the pandemic has reshaped our politics

Wayne Swan: How the pandemic has reshaped our politics

Wayne Swan opinion Mark McGowan
Mark McGowan's election win showed voters supported his prioritising the health and welfare of citizens over the economy. Photo: AAP
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Once or twice a century, nations experience cathartic events that shift their very foundations and the general public decides that things must change.

2020 and 2021 will go down in history as a period where hundreds of thousands of Australians switched their vote to Labor premiers who prioritised the health and welfare of their citizens over the survival-of-the-fittest economic mentality.

The actions of Labor premiers changed the trajectory of the pandemic and effectively routed 30 years of the neoliberal trickle-down economics burned into the DNA of the modern Liberal party.

The Murdoch media has unsuccessfully tried to airbrush from history the conservatives white-anting and undermining of premiers Annastacia Palaszczuk, Mark McGowan and Daniel Andrews.

In Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s humiliating July 30 post-national cabinet press conference, he endorsed earlier Victorian lockdowns as a model policy.

Surely this was an endorsement also of Labor’s primary belief that the greater the success against the virus, the greater the success in protecting jobs and the economy.

The unprecedented Queensland and Western Australian election results were an expression of belief from everyday people that by wearing masks, observing lockdowns and heeding the advice of medical experts the things we do together make us strong.

Yet the unfolding pandemic disaster in New South Wales still hasn’t silenced the “let it rip” brigade that has captured sizeable sections of the Liberal party in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference following a national cabinet meeting, at the Lodge in Canberra, Friday, July 30, 2021.
Scott Morrison conceded in his July 30 press conference that going hard and early was the best way to approach lockdowns. Photo: AAP

Labor stimulus vindicated

The Prime Minister’s verbal gymnastics on the evening of July 30 have, for the time being, camouflaged the grassroots conservative reaction to what they see as a repression of personal freedoms and budget irresponsibility.

There is seething resentment at a Liberal Prime Minister putting on lay-by their budget surplus at any cost, and temporarily endorsing Labor’s Keynesian fiscal policy.

Recall that Australian Labor’s response to the GFC was denied, derided and trashed, then investigated by a royal commission, and then vilified again following the Liberal’s disastrous 2014 austerity budget.

No doubt the Liberals’ success in demonising government intervention as a virus, along with their subsequent success in 2019 scuttling Labor’s bulky but highly progressive offerings, has made them victim to their own propaganda campaigns.

The classic social democratic response of our state premiers to this health crisis is a reminder that modern Australia takes for granted the significant Labor policy platforms embedded in our political and economic life – think Medicare, think national superannuation, think fiscal stimulus.

Labor found out, much to our cost, at the last federal election that the conservatives will never stop spreading misinformation to destroy and remove progressive platforms.

Why else over the past eight months would the Trumpified Liberals, along with significant sections of big business, refuse to concede going early and going hard with lockdowns was the only way to protect the people and the economy?

Activist government has been demonised in Australia and around the developed world with increasing ferocity over the past 40 years.

This pandemic, here and also in the United States, has seen the people temporarily put an end to that, but these campaigns will not stop.

Support for Labor premiers has reinforced Labor’s traditional position that government should step in to reduce economic insecurity and inequality.

Next steps

In the next decade, the pandemic and its aftermath, along with climate change, is going to completely reshape global, national and local politics.

Just as the conservatives internationally are in deep trouble on the pandemic, they are as deeply in trouble on inequality and climate change.

The pandemic deniers and the climate deniers think they are having a traditional argument with Labor about government intervention, but they are really arguing with a more formidable and less sentimental foe – health science and the laws of physics.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to this time win the argument that ordinary people understand these challenges and only politicians that don’t care about working people and their communities will deny them.

The right’s success in demonising the whole political class over the past 20 to 30 years has depleted the reservoir of voter trust.

Progressive parties rely on voter trust to shape and win a mandate for change. The leadership of Labor premiers has gone some way to restoring that.

In this world, federal Labor must start with a core set of saleable intelligent reforms that build political capital for the next tranche of reforms and the one after that.

Anthony Albanese understands Joe Biden’s success in the US presidential campaign avoided the trap that his predecessor Hillary Clinton, and Labor’s unsuccessful 2019 campaign, fell into: Offering too much too quickly.

Labor is ambitious for progressive reforms in tax, health, superannuation, industrial relations and climate.

But if the 2019 election taught us anything, it’s that we can’t do them all at once.

The truth is, old-fashioned scare campaigns work.

Payments for fully vaccinated Australians
Anthony Albanese has learnt from the mistakes of the 2019 federal election. Photo: AAP

Lessons learnt

Labor’s election review concluded that Labor must have a strong message centred around growth and jobs.

A once-in-100-year pandemic and net zero by 2050 surely suggests that our agenda will centre around health, job creation, industrial relations, re-industrialisation and emissions reduction.

All of these reform areas are challenging. Leaving tax in the mix would simply take us back to 2019.

That election loss was narrow and deeply disturbing.

To win in 2022 Labor understands that our approach must be radically different. We have a democratic obligation to build the broadest possible coalition to win and set the scene for a broader debate in the years ahead.

We know that when the going gets tough government really matters and we simply can’t fight on too many fronts.

There are many paths to a fairer and more sustainable society and, as our Labor premiers have demonstrated with unity, the things we do together are the things that make us strong.

Australians are always at their best when times are tough. They fight hard to look after each other and they want leaders prepared to take difficult decisions and be honest with them.

That’s why premiers Andrews, Palaszczuk and McGowan are highly regarded and the Prime Minister is not.

Wayne Swan was Australia’s Treasurer from 2007 to 2013 and the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013

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