The Right Side of History

When Labor won power in Queensland after 32 years in the wilderness, loss after loss had sapped our confidence and our ability.  We seemed powerless to stop an authoritarian and dictatorial Government.

The victory in ’89 was never certain. An outrageous gerrymander made the mountain look too steep to climb, and a crooked National Party machine ran a massively funded scare campaign against an inexperienced Opposition.

Wayne Goss took a Labor Party obsessed with the spoils of defeat and made us a governing party for most of the next 30 years.

The legislative changes of the ‘90s were lasting and enduring. 

Electoral reform and voter equality, the clean up of the police force, the abolition of the Special Branch and the entrenchment of the right to protest, anti-discrimination legislation, massive environmental reform, the creation of national parks, the end of sand mining on Fraser Island and a massive boost to education and training were hallmarks.

In the wake of our recent unexpected Federal defeat it’s difficult to remember that in 1991 Labor in Brisbane was in Government at all 3 levels for the first time in 100 years. 

All those campaigns demonstrated the capacity of the ALP to win, even when all the pundits declared them unwinnable, and Labor has done this from both Government and Opposition.

The Goss Government was elected in the final years of the Hawke-Keating Governments and governed in an environment where Labor policy and ideas were dominant.  Both State and Federal Governments built support based on progressive policy and electoral pragmatism.

We should be proud of these achievements and they point to the solutions our movement has for the future.

Recently our review of the 2019 Federal campaign concluded that we made mistakes but we did get a few things right.  In particular we stuck to our core Labor values.  As we look forward to the 2022 Federal election campaign and the 2020 Queensland election campaign I believe there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

So much of what modern Australia and modern Queensland takes for granted are policy platforms embedded in our political and economic life.  This tells me our social democratic values are in sync with the hopes and aspirations of working people. 

Nationally think Medicare and national superannuation.  Think Labor’s macro-economic policy during the Global Financial Crisis.

In Queensland we are busy rebuilding the social safety net and the drivers of social mobility in health, in education and training.  At the same time turbo-charging the generation of renewable energy and massive infrastructure projects to build productivity and protect our lifestyles.

If we learned anything about this election it’s that we cannot assume economic discontent will push political support our way.  For Labor Members of Parliamnt, and Labor party members more generally, nothing should spur our imagination and activism more than matters of economic democracy – how wealth is created and distributed fairly, wage setting, the power of monopoly, distribution of the benefits of technical innovation….the list is long and frequently our voice is not loud enough.

As our election review concluded:  Labor must always have a strong message centred around growth and jobs.  With Australia now in its 28th year of continuous growth, only possible because of Labor’s stewardship during the Global Financial Crisis, its galling to see Morrison taking credit for this world leading outcome while at the same time criticising Labor for spending too much.  This opportunistic performance reminds us that we must never stop working to dispel the myth of trickle-down economics and take the tough decisions to deal with growing inequality.

In the 30 years from 1989 to 2019 Labor governed federally for 13 years, almost half.  And at the state level for more than 50% of that time.  Indeed in Queensland we have held Government for 25 of the last 30 years.

You can cut numbers any way you like but the truth is Queensland is just more volatile and the two party system on both sides is breaking down more quickly here than in the rest of the country.

So here in Queensland, as in the rest of the country, we have a big battle of ideas to win.

The success of social democrats here and around the developed world since WWII and the success of Labor and Wayne Goss in 1989 tells us this can be won. 

However globally in the last decade we have seen the rise of the extreme right and strong-men dictatorships. 

In the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall democracies have dwindled and there are now more people living in countries where democracy is threatened and gone backwards than live in those that have full democratic rights.

Nothing about this trend should be pre-ordained.  It is all man-made. 

For those who lived in the Bjelke-Petersen era of voter suppression, intolerance of dissent and hand-outs to cronies we are seeing a familiar pattern re-emerging in countries like Hungary, Poland, Thailand and the Philippines. 

Here, ridiculous and damaging characterisations of Goss Government legislation enabling and protecting protesters and protests and characterisations of the Palaszczuk Government as a throw-back to the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen era are wildly inaccurate and damaging to the social democratic cause. 

On climate change and democratic rights Labor in this state has an enviable record and such ill-informed criticisms make it hard for a party of the centre-left to hold the line against the radical right who have largely taken over conservative parties in Queensland and nationally.

Just consider some of the crack-pots that the LNP has elevated to Senate representation from Queensland and their alliance with One Nation.   Look at LNP Senator Gerard Rennick, who just last week accused the Bureau of Meteorology of fiddling its measures to fit a climate change agenda.

All of these conservatives have climate change denial embedded in their DNA .

Then there is their continuing hostility to the rights of workers, straight out of the SEQEB days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and the current legislation in the Senate to cripple the capacity of unions to organise at all.

This is all out of the playbook of the populist right around the world which is hollowing out centre-left voter support among working class and lower income earners.

So how do we as a social democratic party win the battle of ideas and not meet the fate that many of our social democratic sister parties overseas have suffered in the last 30 years?

In the next five to ten years climate is going to completely reshape global, national and local politic.  And just as conservatives internationally are in deep trouble on inequality, they are going to be in deeper trouble on climate.

Those climate deniers in the Coalition think they are having an argument with Labor about climate.  Not really.  They are arguing with an even more formidable and less sentimental foe:  the laws of physics.

Change isn’t happening because of climate targets set in Canberra or what politicians think.  It’s coming because global markets are shifting capital from high to low carbon.  It’s coming because renewable energies are now cheaper than fossil fuel energy.

These are just facts.  Only politicians who don’t care about working people and their communities will deny them.

The radical right offers populist denialism but no answer for growth, jobs and living standards in a world dramatically impacted by climate change and growing inequality.

The experience of Goss, Hawke and Keating, Rudd and Gillard, Whitlam and Chifley is that we are always the movement that has the answers to our generation’s greatest challenges.

Today those challenges are climate and inequality.

In the Federal election we were right when we argued for a fair distribution of wealth and when we argued to stand up on a pivotal issue like climate.  We may not have gotten every bit of messaging and campaigning right, and our defences could have been constructed better, but we were where it mattered, when it mattered.  And we will be again in the future.  That’s in our DNA.

Labor didn’t do enough to defend our vulnerabilities on tax and climate and our policies were ruthlessly demonised by the “surround sound state media” of the Murdoch press and the biggest advertising spend ever seen by a single plutocrat in the modern history of Western elections.

Labor was literally outspent six to one so we couldn’t hope to compete in dollar terms.

I firmly believe we didn’t focus enough on defending our vulnerabilities – especially on tax measures and the negative characterisations of Labor’s economic management credentials.

Conservatives offered a massive tax cut for high income earners while Labor proposed modest tax cuts for low and middle income earners and the closing of gaping tax loopholes to spend on the social contract, particularly health, education and child care.

I agree with the election review that we cannot retreat on the progressive shape of our agenda on inequality and climate change.  But we are living in a world where the right’s success in demonising the whole political class depletes the reservoir of voter trust progressive parties rely on to shape and win a mandate for change.

In a world of diminished voter trust progressives must start with a core set of saleable intelligent reforms that begin to turn back the tide – reforms that build political capital for the next tranche of reforms and the one after that. That’s been the experience of all our post-war Labor Governments.

Wayne Goss’s legacy is that he made Queensland respectable after the dark days of corrupt National Party rule.  His sweeping reforms are still with us today.  In Wayne’s time there were plenty who underestimated the size and durability of the agenda and who criticised its speed.  Well I think that agenda looks pretty good in retrospect.

As his friend Denis Atkins remarked, he had a determination that didn’t know the meaning of defeat or quitting. 

I would suggest to Party members in particular that the lesson of this period, as we are increasingly surrounded by authoritarian right wing mini-Joh’s, is we can win the battle of ideas once again and be on the right side of history.

Federally the dark conservative agenda of the past is with us again, and its knocking on our door in this state. 

But there is reason for optimism, as we pursue the light on the hill.

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