The Labor party has everything to lose. Come September, not only could they lose the Federal election, but also many of the hard fought progressive reforms that they’ve implemented over the past two terms. It’s getting to the point where every poll report, every news item and every taxi driver in the country has already called the election for Tony Abbott. Julia Gillard is blamed for everything that goes wrong in everybody’s life. It seems that no matter what she does or says, she is painted as the villain. If I were Gillard’s campaign manager, I would make the call that Labor has nothing to lose. Sometimes when you have everything to lose, it’s time to go for broke. It’s time to take the turkeys on.
One of the many criticisms you hear about Julia Gillard is that she isn’t a good communicator. I agree that in short staccato questioning, she comes across as being too woodenly on-message. Sound bites are not her thing. Yet, when she is given the chance to talk directly to people and not microphones, and when she has a chance to finish her sentences, she shines. When she is talking about something she is passionate about, such as when she called out Abbott’s blatant hypocrisy and misogyny in her famous speech, she was on fire. If I were Gillard’s campaign manager, I would unleash this passion with a campaign that goes to the heart of the Labor party’s purpose. I would concisely outline why those who say Labor and Liberal are the same, are manifestly wrong. I would show how only the rich will benefit from Abbott’s plans and how Labor supports everyone else. I would use statistics, evidence and comparative examples. I would scrutinise who is donating to the Liberal Party, why they are donating and what they expect for their investment. I would ask voters who they trust with their working conditions – unions or big business. I would roll out the concept of the 99%. And I wouldn’t shy away from an accusation of class war. I would say bring it on.
As much as I wouldn’t wish a US election campaign on my worst enemy, there are some aspects of the recent battle between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney that Gillard can learn from. With all the hoopla and media narrative spinning around the candidate’s campaigns, one thing was understood by voters from the start. President Obama stands for the 99%. And Mitt Romney represents the 1%.
In a crucial moment during the campaign, which still gives Peta Credlin anxiety attacks, Mitt Romney addressed a group of one percenters and also accidentally showed the 99% what he really thinks of them. Just to refresh your memory, he said:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”
It’s no wonder Credlin has warned Liberal MPs to watch out for waiters with recording devices. There’s a reason why Abbott and his colleagues are going to great pains to avoid being asked tough questions by journalists, and are generally running and hiding from requests to release policies or costings before the election. That’s because Abbott is a Romney. The more you find out what he really thinks, the less palatable he is to everyone but the very rich. Even Abbott’s supposably ‘progressive’ policy of paid maternity leave benefits the rich over everyone else. No one has ever been able to explain to me why a mother who earns $100,000 in the job market should be paid twice as much to look after a baby by tax-payers as a mother who earns $50,000. Equal pay for equal work surely? If I were Gillard’s campaign manager, this is the sort of topic I would be tackling head on.
Why is that American voters so quickly understood Romney’s political economic philosophy, but most Australian voters seem to totally misunderstand, or not even care about Abbott’s? It’s Gillard’s job to communicate why and how Abbott’s economic ideas are different from her own. Romney’s trust in an unregulated free market is built on the misguided theory of a ‘trickle down’ economy. Abbott’s economic theories are less clear-cut. He offers a muddled mix of small government in some instances (sacking public sector workers, less spending on health and education) and big government spending in others (his Direct Action Plan and middle class welfare, otherwise known as election bribes). But the one consistent theme of Abbott’s ideas are that they will help a distinct sub sector of our community – those who are already well off. Not those with an aspiration to better their situation. Once you understand this, it’s impossible not to see Abbott’s political philosophy oozing out of every statement he makes. Gillard and her team need to find a way to explain this to voters. If the American populace can understand this concept, there’s no reason why Australians can’t.
Romney and Abbott reason that by making the rich richer (with lower tax rates than the poor), the rich will be more entrepreneurial and will employ more workers. Abbott is lovingly devoted to Gina Rinehart’s growing fortune because it helps to fund his political campaigns. But if he was ever scrutinised by the mainstream media and had to explain why he wants to delete the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, he would no doubt use the justification that a richer Rinehart means more jobs for miners. There’s just one problem with this ‘trickle down’ theory. It doesn’t work. Wealth doesn’t trickle down. It goes into unproductive speculation on the money markets. It gets caught up in numerous Rolls Royces, in the third beach houses, in the Canary Island tax havens, in the private jets, in public legal spats with one’s children. Sure, some retail employees might keep their jobs as the very few rich buy more stuff. Sure, some gardeners and cleaners might be needed to maintain the multiple manors. But large scale job growth is not, as evidenced by the US example, stimulated by lower tax rates for rich companies and individuals. Jobs come from middle-class spending, not upper-class tax breaks. As I saw so powerfully explained on a placard by an American Occupier:
‘The rich have had their tax breaks for three years. So where the fuck are the jobs?’
The idea that a small government and an unrestrained free market will lead to a healthier economy has been debunked over and over again. Apart from anything else, when the comfortable middle class disappears, so does the consumer market that the rich rely on to keep the economy running. A strong middle class needs to be paid a fair and equitable share of national wealth, which is not necessarily always the first priority of rich capitalist business owners and their shareholders. Hence the need for collective bargaining. Hence the need for unions, both blue and white collar. It’s time Labor stopped fearing their allegiance with workers unions. It’s time Labor embraced the very essence of what the Labor party stands for. The Labor party stands for workers. Not multinationals. If it was up to me, this would be the centrepiece of Gillard’s campaign.
President Obama might be handcuffed by a hostile Congress in his promise to restore the middle class and to reduce the gap between rich and poor. But Gillard is not only able to sell such a concept, her government also has evidence of reform successes to support this message. Policies such as tripling the tax free threshold for the lowest paid workers, the increase in compulsory superannuation payments, introducing the mining tax, increasing access to Commonwealth funded tertiary and vocational education, increasing funding to the health sector, working towards a National Disability Insurance Scheme, introducing a plan for education reform that prioritises spending for the disadvantaged and the recently announced policy to improve the health of the manufacturing sector are all impressive reforms that will benefit the 99%. Obama’s campaign offered hope to the millions of Americans too poor to feed their families, let alone to afford healthcare and a college education. He wasn’t scared of the ‘small government’ arguments from the Republicans and their Tea Party extremists. If I was her campaign director, I’d urge Gillard not to be scared of having similar arguments with Abbott and his extremist front bench. In fact, not only should Gillard not be scared, she should be proud. She should remind voters what is happening in Queensland under Newman, Victoria under Baillieu and New South Wales under O’Farrell – the slash and burn of public sector jobs, rampant privatisation, reduced spending on health and education. These Liberal Premiers are doing exactly what Abbott hopes to have the chance to do. It’s all about benefiting the ‘haves’ and disadvantaging the ‘have nots’. I would tell Gillard she needs to make more of this.
It’s time for progressive voters to stop banging our heads against the wall and hoping that the mainstream media will do a U-turn and start reporting policy outcomes. This is just not going to happen. I would encourage Gillard to bypass the vested interests supporting Abbott’s campaign and go straight to voters via any direct platform available. I’d emphasise social and independent media, town hall forums, street stalls and advertising. It’s time for Gillard’s campaign team to stop pandering to the ‘undecided voter’ by being wishy washy. There’s no point holding back because of the fear that saying something bold might jolt people. Gillard should aim to jolt people! To jolt them awake! It’s time to take the reins on the ‘narrative’ of this election. Show the voters of Western Sydney what Abbott really thinks of them. Explain why his priority is the likes of Rinehart and not the future of the 99%. It might seem simplistic. It might seem crass. But if the Labor Party don’t do something different soon, they will only regret after the election that the opportunity was missed.
There are two distinct paths that Australia can take come September. It’s time to show just how different these two paths are. It’s time to say this loud and proud. Gillard needs to let go of the beige. The Prime Minister should behave like she has nothing to lose. She has everything to win.