15 April 2016
by Waleed Aly
Against the odds the stars line up for LaborPrime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Increasing inequality has allowed Labor to start doing something it hasn't done for decades - articulate a worldview.
As budget headlines go, anything involving the Australian Securities and Investments Commission is a real bore. It's nothing like, say, GP co-payments, or cuts to education or kicking unemployed kids off the dole. So, no one's blood boiled when the Abbott-Hockey budget of 2014 stripped $120 million from ASIC over five years, or when it lost more than 12 per cent of its staff from 2013.
And yet this week that snore-inducing item suddenly mattered. It mattered so much that Scott Morrison began talking about reversing them, even as he is gleefully restating his determination to rein spending in.
This attracted scarce attention but it's a genuinely revealing moment. It arises, of course, in the context of Labor's call for a royal commission into our banks: a call the Turnbull government (some backbenchers aside) instinctively rejects. ASIC is the figleaf for this. "Tough cop on the beat"; "greater powers than a royal commission" – all that. And yet in making this argument, the government immediately invited a smacking on how it gutted this very institution. Hence the attempt to neutralise the line of attack.
And so the government is now making policy in response to an agenda led by Labor. That's about the best thing you can ever say of an opposition. It's also one of the most telling things you can say of a government. It happened to John Howard when Kevin Rudd arrived, and to each incarnation of Labor that Tony Abbott bludgeoned.
Abbott's own collapse was a different matter – the result of endless self-inflicted wounds – but now Turnbull has restored the pattern. And in this is distilled the essential difference between Abbott and Turnbull's leadership: Abbott pursued a surprise agenda that offended the electorate; Turnbull has so far refused to offer one.
It's a simple enough idea that Shorten might fill Turnbull's vacuum. But what makes this astonishing is how Shorten has ended up filling it. I date Labor's revival to somewhere near the launch of its negative gearing policy, to which it has since added the whiff of reducing capital gains tax concessions. Before that it announced its intentions to close superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy. Now it is rounding on the banks, buoyed by the accumulated scandals and mini-scandals from within the industry.
It's remarkable enough that Labor would return to contention at the same time as it is releasing policy. That often doesn't work for oppositions as John Hewson could explain to you uninterrupted for days.
But now think about this suite of policies. Superannuation loopholes aside – which even most in the industry accept aren't sustainable – they read like what, only a few years ago, would have been a checklist of crazy ideas. Negative gearing used to be the kind of thing over-enthusiastic letter-writers would scribble about. And banks? These were the inviolable behemoths of our corporate ecosystem. We could grumble about them, even fashionably hate them.
Politicians would join in when, say, it suited them as a diversion from bad news on interest rates. Occasionally there might even be an inquiry, as with the Campbell Inquiry in 1981 and the 1997 Wallis Inquiry. But a royal commission? Calling them seriously into question as though they were unions? Madness, for the last 30 years at least.
It's easy to see the ghost of revenge in all this. A royal commission into banks is the negative image of Abbott's one into trade unions. That incensed Labor, which thought it outrageously political. But there's more going on here because it's not an isolated jab. The thing about Labor's policies is that they're mutually reinforcing. Like them or not, they're coherent.
Labor's begun doing something it has resoundingly failed to do for decades now. It's discovering a worldview, even if not yet in a very detailed way. And it's slaughtering sacred cows to do it.
This is no small thing for Labor. Much has been written (including by me) about the pointlessness of Labor after Keating; of how the Hawke-Keating reforms transformed the country, but also annihilated labour politics; of how it ushered in a liberal consensus that left Labor with nowhere to go and nothing to say. But now that consensus is cracking.
As the inequities of capitalism have become clearer, and as crises like the global financial meltdown seem to have dealt out pain mainly to those who had least responsibility for creating them, we've witnessed a growing popular sense of disillusionment. And every now and then, something like the Panama Papers comes along to refresh this sense that the whole thing might just be a rort: that gaping inequality doesn't mean everyone's doing better, and might instead mean money and power keep flowing to those who already have it.
That's a global cynicism, visible in a diverse range of movements from Occupy to Thomas Piketty's criticisms of 21st-century capital, to Donald Trump. But in Australia it was weirdly accelerated by the Abbott government's first budget, which the electorate immediately, irrevocably and viscerally condemned as unfair. In a stroke it seems Abbott recast Australian politics.
Where Howard had made principally a game of surpluses and cultural security, the backlash to Abbott's brief premiership suddenly made "fairness" the cardinal virtue. Indeed, Turnbull is trapped by it. By his own admission, every policy idea will have to pass that test. But that leaves him with precious few options that will please his constituency and his colleagues.
In this way, the stars have aligned for Labor. Domestic politics is now centred on a Labor-ish concept at precisely the same time that a new global scepticism of the free market is emerging. As a result it finds itself roughly in tune with the domestic mood, while it has a steady stream of international stories about, say, corporate tax avoidance to bolster its campaigns.
Of course, these things are only properly tested in government. But if the times came to suit John Howard, it's possible they're slowly coming to suit Labor. That's probably why it's now unafraid to call time on the liberal consensus that has made it an irrelevant political force. A consensus, ironically, it helped create.