Maxim Salvador Otten-Kamp
I want to preface my case today with an admission. Not one of guilt, but one nonetheless. I am a card-carrying member of the Australian Labor Party and member of one of their notorious factions. But, let’s get started.
On the 18th of May, we were shocked by the election results and the Liberal-National Coalition’s shock win. Scott Morrison, a man that campaigned on almost no policy platform, would be Prime Minister another day. For Labor supporters, it was a crushing blow. As one of the hundreds of Labor supporters across the state that devoted hours upon hours to door-knocking, phone calls, and speaking to thousands of constituents, it was deeply disheartening. We thought we had this one. We thought that the years we had devoted campaigning for a better government would not be for nought.
The election results came in late in the night. I had spent twelve hours at my booth and hoped to end the day seeing a wind of progressive change sweep Australia. Instead, entering Labor’s election night watch party, I was told not to look at the screens. The room was filled with the sight and sound of people grieving. Some young, some old, small business owners, unionists, university students, retirees, and of course, our candidate.
We weren’t hurting for ourselves. We were hurting because we felt we had missed a real opportunity to make our country a better place. One of our candidate’s key election promises was to upgrade and renovate the Logal Hospital. Disregarded for so long under successive Liberal governments, wait times in the emergency department could sometimes be as long as five hours. That upgrade and renovation was no longer possible. And we knew that this was a life-or-death issue for poor families in the electorate. Those were the kinds of stakes we faced at election. And those were the kinds of challenges that would go on being ignored by our current federal government.
The shock of the night brings the Brexit referendum result and Trump’s victory to mind. But of course, with hindsight, the signs of our impending loss are so clear now. We never countenanced just how effective Scott Morrison’s fear campaign would be. For example, we thought Australians would laugh off Scott Morrison’s dark warnings of a Labor introduced ”death tax.” Labor had no plans to introduce an inheritance tax in government. But it resonated with voters.
During the last week of the campaign, I spoke to a lifelong Labor voter when door knocking. She asked me: ”Why is Labor not looking out for the little guy? What’s this death tax proposal?” I remember feeling shocked. Where had this idea come from? Who was behind it? I quickly reassured her that Labor had no plans to implement a ”death tax” in office. But there were thousands of voters we never managed to reach.
This wasn’t the only factor. United Australia, One Nation and the Greens ate the Labor primary vote and many preferences flowed straight back to the Liberals. Across Queensland, United Australia and One Nation protest votes regularly worked to the benefit of LNP candidates. The Greens targeted Labor in seats they felt they could win, targeting Labor Left’s Terri Butler with a strong insurgent campaign. Labor was forced to commit resources to defending seats like Griffith, resources that had to be diverted from target seats like Dutton’s Dickson.
The Greens attacked Labor as corporate shills. This was despite the fact that the Labor Party’s biggest donors were and always have been unions. This despite the fact that Labor was the target of a massive smear campaign by the corporate Murdoch media. Labor has always been the underdog, having won office from opposition just three times since WWII. Ultimately, Labor could not win office from opposition a fourth time under Bill Shorten with the Greens robbing the party of the support of enthusiastic left leaning voters.
Ultimately, the Liberals were cannier than they had been under Abbott. Scott Morrison didn’t run a campaign saying he would cut health, education, uphold the removal of penalty rates and attack industrial relations legislation, though this will be his government’s agenda. He knows he can’t change the hearts and minds of Australians in one big go. His small target campaign, audacious for a sitting government, was politically ingenious. He won’t make significant cuts to education and health right before an election; he will wait to tear these institutions down methodically, like Howard did before him.
Bill S horten failed to respond to this, especially in the state of Queensland, which sealed his fate. Queensland has always had a history of entrenched conservatism – it was of course the state that gave Australia such lowlights as Sir Joh and Campbell Newman. But the picture here is more complex than it lets on. This is because Queensland is best thought of as two constantly shifting states. The densely populated South Eastern corner is closely intergrated in the global economy and enjoys a job boom, whereas the left behind regional areas of the state languish in obscurity. They haven’t felt much of the economic growth wider Australia has enjoyed since the Hawke-Keating area. Many parts of the state are still struggling to recover from devastating cyclone events such as 2017’s Debbie. One of the last remaining industries available to young people in the North, mining, is in terminal decline and facing immense political pressure from those on the left concerned by global warming and climate change. These regional voters stuck it to the left at the election, and while it is easy to derride them and label them stupid, their position is a desperate one and their politics reflect that.
Where do we on the left go from here? Now is a dark time to be a progressive in this country. I know it is easy to give in to despair. But we can’t give up. We don’t have the privelege of stopping now and giving up the fight for a better country and world. As the great Gough Whitlam said after his infamous Dismissal: ”Maintain your rage and enthusiasm.” Speak to your friends, your family, your work colleagues and anybody you can. You need to start organising towards action that can help make a change. We need to speak to as many people as possible across this great land at every possible moment.
We need to organise as one force for change in this country. Left-wing division only serves to benefit the right. The Australian Labor Party is not perfect, and as a party member, I can tell you that first hand. But there is no room for ideological purity in politics; there is no purity in the Greens, as there is no purity in life. We don’t need ideological purity; we need change. We need real action now. Change that helps the people of this country. Change that supports our amazing abundance of nature. Change that is representative not just of a narrow slice of inner-city Australians. We need change that brings as many of us together as possible. It should no longer be acceptable to abandon your fellow citizens in the fight for a better polity.
Join the ALP to help it be better. Join your local branch. Vote for local candidates, run as a Labor candidate in races for municipal council, run for positions inside the party. If you don’t like where the party sits on certain issues, fight to mould it your image. There are groups within Labor such as the Labor Environmental Action Network that have fought to shape Labor’s 50% carbon reduction targets, and there is room for improvement here. The Labor Party is a party of its members, shaped by its members. It can be as good as we make it.
Though we need such leaders in this country, Albanese is no Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. He is a leader only as good as we make him. We don’t have the luxury of being saved. We have to save ourselves and use the ALP and Albo as vehicles for this change. Hold Labor and Albo to the fire if they refuse to fight for the progressive policies we care about. Together, the Labor Party can be a vessel for a broad coalition, one that can bring the rest of Australia to that place Ben Chiefly described as “the Light on the hill.”
Many don’t believe in this vision for Australia, such as One Nation, United Australia, the Liberals, Nationals and even the Greens. The anti-Labor forces are powerful in this country. But history is on our side. It’s time for a change, and it will always be time for a Labor Party devoted to principles such as fairness and progress. This election was more important than any of the others – I wish I could say otherwise. Scott Morrison will get the chance in government to cement cuts to the health system and push us towards a privatised model along the lines of the United States. Those workers up in north Queensland will not be taken care of when mining inevitably becomes less and less profitable. Is this the Australia we want? One that holds us back, forever in the thrall of what Keating called the “Cultural cringe”?
We have to choose and fight for real change for Australia. We have to fight and beat those forces that hold us back. As Robert F Kennedy would say with words that ohave often been a comfort to me:
”We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people – before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous – although it is; not because the laws of God command it – although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”