In political history, 2019 will be remembered as the year Labor lost the unlosable election due to wrong-headed tax policies. But in the flurry of post-election analysis, a bigger problem for progressive politics has been overlooked. Its theory of social justice has become dysfunctional, producing perverse outcomes across the electorate.
The clearest example of this process is in the Labor/Green embrace of identity politics, judging people by race, gender and sexuality. Poor people with the wrong skin colour (white), gender (male) and sexuality (straight) are automatically excluded from social justice consideration.
One only needs to visit a public housing estate in Western Sydney to know that straight white men are a big part of Australia’s underclass. Restructured out of manufacturing work and forced into welfare dependency, identity politics has no solution for their poverty. Even worse, it sneers at them as an example of ‘white male privilege’, creating enormous resentment among one of the most disadvantaged groups in society. Social justice never works well as a zero-sum game, when one disadvantaged group can only prosper at the expense of another.
Labor has lost the support of a generation of straight white men (perhaps a quarter of the electorate) who see their needs being wiped by the emergence of employment quotas, workplace discrimination and accusatory domestic violence propaganda aimed at them. That’s a massive constituency shedding, driving the ALP primary vote into the low 30s.
Throughout my adult life I have studied the theory and practice of social justice and reached the conclusion that only one thing works: merit.Judging individuals in society on the merit of their socio-economic circumstances and making an effective, targeted policy response to help them.
The rise of identity politics has divided Australia into competing identity groups, making people less inclined to trust in the collective role of government and fair allocation of public resources. It’s been a social justice disaster that Labor should abandon immediately, returning the party to the principles of meritocracy.
A second inconsistency is in the ALP’s attitude to climate change. Working people in coal-reliant communities have figured out that the much-fabled ‘transition to a clean energy economy’ is actually code for throwing them onto the welfare scrapheap. In the absence of clear replacement jobs for coal, voters in the Hunter Valley and Central/Northern Queensland flooded away from Labor at the May election. They weren’t going to be turkeys voting for Christmas.
Climate change advocates need to put their ambitions on hold until such time as they develop detailed, proven plans for job creation in communities otherwise gutted by the end of fossil fuel production. Social justice on climate change cannot mean the social injustice of consigning entire working class towns to a life of welfare.
Labor had a third strategic muddle in May. It positioned itself as an anti-asset party at a time when Australia has become a great asset-owning democracy. We have always had high levels of home ownership but in recent decades, access to small business, sharemarket and retirement asset ownership has increased exponentially. Most of the ALP’s $400 billion in tax increases were going to come out of the pockets of these people – the most productive part of the economy.
This ran counter to an important social democratic ideal: that a growing number of families should have the comfort of asset ownership, giving them financial security and peace of mind. Once households have reached this status, they can move on to more progressive, non-material causes.
It was no coincidence that the seats where people cared most about climate change (such as Warringah) had the highest level of asset ownership. Yet Labor’s tax policy was deliberately designed to attack savings and assets, meaning that fewer people would care about climate change. Hadn’t Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen or any of their advisors thought of this contradiction?
Labor needs to become a party of lower taxes – on assets and income. Hard workers in the economy hate tax increases as they punish effort and the personal legacy we all want to leave for our children.Labor and the Greens, by contrast, love taxes – all taxes, ever-higher taxes. This is an intensely unpopular policy in the outer suburbs and regions: an anti-effort, anti-family, anti-fairness brain explosion. Labor should be encouraging ownership for all, not destroying it. Maybe its policy direction will change under the new leader, Anthony Albanese, but given his history in supporting failed, bleeding-heart Left-wing causes, this is unlikely. The folly of identity politics, anti-coal sentiment and tax-and-spend government seem embedded in the modern ALP ethos.
At no time since Gough Whitlam overhauled Labor’s policies in the late 1960s has the party looked so distant from a coherent, relevant program of social justice that working Australians can support.
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