Sitting Pretty: Even if Australia's incumbent Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, somehow manages to scrape together a ramshackle government, Bill Shorten has almost certainly done enough to keep his ALP colleagues’ daggers in their sheaths. Labor’s voters are especially delighted that Turnbull’s discomfiture is the result of Shorten turning the Liberals’ own weapons against them.
BILL SHORTEN’S FOREWARNINGS may yet ensure a rich electoral harvest for the Australian Labor Party. His prediction that Medicare, Australia’s public health system, would be at risk if Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Coalition were returned to office certainly focused the minds of Australia’s poor. Fear of losing Gough Whitlam’s greatest legacy to the Australian people, combined with Compulsory Voting (which ensures that poor Australians actually vote) may yet be enough to make Shorten Australia’s next prime minister.
Even if Turnbull somehow manages to scrape together a ramshackle government, Shorten has almost certainly done enough to keep his ALP colleagues’ daggers in their sheaths. Labor’s voters are especially delighted that Turnbull’s discomfiture is the result of Shorten turning the Liberals’ own weapons against them.
Election after election, the Liberals and their right-wing media allies have employed scare tactics against Labor. This time, however, it was Labor doing the scarifying. What’s more, those scare tactics contained a sizeable kernel of truth. The Liberals would relish the privatisation of Medicare. Why? Because it’s an article of ideological faith among Australia’s “economic rationalists” that the private sector is better at supplying services than the state. To claim, as Turnbull did – repeatedly and with growing exasperation – that his party harboured no such intentions raised disingenuousness to new heights.
Shorten’s tactics recall those employed by Helen Clark in the New Zealand general election of 2005. On that occasion the warning issued was about housing and the likely consequences for state house tenants of a Don Brash/National Party win. It was enough to see the large South Auckland polling booths tip the balance in Labour’s favour.
Twelve years on, and Labour’s 2005 warnings concerning housing and the fate of state house tenants are being vindicated almost daily. That it has taken so long is because National’s ideological antagonism towards state housing, which Don Brash displayed openly and honestly, has been camouflaged and concealed by John Key’s government.
It has been National’s intention, ever since winning power in 2008, to eliminate the state as New Zealand’s default housing provider. According to the economist, and author of “Generation Rent”, Shamubeel Eaqub, New Zealand’s stock of state houses – proportional to its population – is at levels not seen since 1949. At the core of National’s housing policy is the all-too-familiar neoliberal negation of the state’s capacity to respond to social need. In terms of practical policy, this is expressed by facilitating the entrenchment of the private sector as the only legitimate provider of housing – even for the poor.
The radicalism of this new policy regime is only slowly being recognised. Much easier to spot has been the sudden emergence into public view of the consequences of the state abdicating its role as housing provider of last resort. The grim spectacle of families living in their cars has stimulated public outrage and forced the National Government’s hand.
At the National Party’s 80th annual conference, held in Christchurch over the weekend, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a billion-dollar Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) to kick start what is intended to be a local government-administered housing construction programme. This latter effort seems likely to become the responsibility of a new legal entity – the Urban Development Authority (UDA). The first cities to receive a UDA will be those currently experiencing the fastest population growth: Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Christchurch and Queenstown. The HIF will not, however, be empowered to issue genuine grants to these cities, only loans, and the funds expended are to facilitate the plans of private property developers exclusively.
Dismissed by Labour Leader, Andrew Little, as “a rushed, piecemeal policy that hasn’t been thought through”, Key will, nevertheless, be hoping that voters receive these announcements as evidence that his Government is, at last, “doing something”. It is nowhere near enough, but unless Labour executes a radical overhaul of its own, very similar, housing policies, Key’s latest efforts will be compared not unfavourably with his opponents’.
The extraordinarily close finish in the Australian general election is, in part, a reflection of the extremely drab selection of colours in which both the Left and the Right were content to paint their country’s future. What most Australians experienced was an overlong campaign characterised by limitation, negation and fear. Without the enforced participation of Compulsory Voting, Turnbull’s Liberal-National Coalition would have been returned handily. The self-interest of the “Haves” would have seen to that.
To ensure the participation of the “Have Nots” in 2017, New Zealand Labour will have to offer much more than Shorten-style scare-tactics. To compensate for the lack of compulsory voting, Little needs to devise a campaign that is expansive, affirmative and chock-full of hope.
If a broad programme of state house construction does not lie at the heart of that campaign, then a hung parliament will be the most that Labour deserves.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 July 2016.