Our Country book launch

September 09, 2019

(Acknowledgments omitted)

It’s a great pleasure to help launch this latest contribution to Labor thought, Story of Our Country, by Professor Adrian Pabst.

As you may know Adrian is a well-established political scientist. He clearly thought that British politics was too boring and took on a visiting fellowship at the Australian Catholic University to study the Labor Party – in particular from the perspective of its Catholic tradition.

He liked Australia so much apparently that he now describes it as “Our Country.”

Now, some might find it strange that I’ve been asked – and agreed – to launch this book as a longstanding member of the Labor Left, about which it’s fair to say Adrian is a little unkind; and responsible for our climate policy, whose role in May comes in for some detailed attention.

Well, the reason I agreed is because I deeply value all of the traditions of our Party and the perspectives on our future.

I noticed when reading the book that Adrian’s not a fan of this phrase. But, Labor is a broad church, and we should always welcome the frank and sometimes fierce debate that flows from that breadth.

Or, as Jim Chalmers describes it on the cover – our diversity.

And if we can’t have a full-throated discussion about our direction now, when on earth would we?

We just lost our 3rd election in a row.

The only majority we’ve won in the past 25 years was the majority of 8 seats in 2007.

And let’s not sugar coat the result in May.

We got our lowest primary vote in a century, against a Government the Prime Minister himself described as The Muppet Show.

When you get your backside handed to you by Fozzie Bear and Kermit the Frog, it’s time for some serious reflection.

Adrian’s book is by no means a neutral, dispassionate treatment of the complexity of Labor traditions.

It’s brutally clear whose side he’s on – and it’s not what he describes as “The statism of the Labor Left.”

But this is a detailed and really valuable study of the influence of Catholic social teachings – and other non-conformist religions, like the Methodists in my state of SA – on our Party.

All the way back to the Papal Encyclical on workers’ rights in 1891 – Rerum Novarum.

The broad thesis isn’t new – that this influence was an important counterpoint to the radical insurgents from The Wobblies in the Party’s formative decades, and to the Communist Party in the post war years.

Its ballast has kept the Party close to the moderate centre.

But the detail in Adrian’s treatment of this old thesis is engaging and important.

Adrian’s verdict on Labor today is brutal.

He argues that Labor in 2019 fell into the trap that has captured most modern social democratic parties:

  • Our personnel are narrow cast and out of touch.
  • We’re too wedded to market liberalism, albeit in a more civilised form than our opponents; a system that many of our traditional supporters feel has betrayed them.
  • And we’ve strayed too far towards a rights-based social progressivism, and away from more traditional values of family, community and country.

Again, the charge that Labor has got the balance wrong is hardly new.

Since society started atomising beyond the neat division between the wealthy and ruling class, this has been a complex challenge for Labor.

And there is no scientific “true North” to guide us to the perfect balance.
It’s a highly contested concept, found usually in the eye of the beholder – and some of Adrian’s prescriptions are deeply contestable.

But none of that means that we’re not bound to continue to always strive for it, because – as Adrian points out – that’s the pathway to electoral victory, and our ability to make a difference to this nation and its people.

As we reflect on what went so horribly wrong in May – and prepare for 2022 – we need in my view to do two things:

  • Remember how hard it is for Labor to win federally
  • And – connected to that – conduct a deep, broad and ruthlessly unsparing review of our recent electoral platform.

Labor is arguably the natural party of government in State politics – focused as it is on the delivery of services.

But – rightly or wrongly – we face a much harder task when it comes to the bread and butter of federal politics: national security and broad economic management.

Our only three victories over Liberal Governments since World War II all involved an immensely popular leader, a compelling national vision and a superior campaign.

The truth is – everyone thought this year we were cruising to victory on the back of a steady 2PP of 52 or 53% and a primary in the mid to high 30s.

But remember, right through 2001, Beazley’s primary never dropped below 40% – reaching 48 at one point, even with the Democrats and Greens capturing a steady 9 – 13%.

Granted, with some major external events, we still lost badly.

Latham’s primary was consistently above 40% through 2004 with a 2PP vote of 52-54%, right up until the election campaign – and we all remember how that went.

And Kevin 07’s primary never dropped below 45% that year, reaching more than 50% at some points. Our 2PP averaged more than 56% but even then we only managed a majority of eight seats off a 2PP of 53%.

Every federal election is monumentally tough for Labor and 2022 will be no different.

That’s why our policy and campaign review must be ruthless and unsparing.
It will – and it should be – deeply uncomfortable.

As Anthony has said, the review involves hastening slowly and resisting knee jerk conclusions.

But nothing should be excluded or treated as sacrosanct.
The area I had responsibility for – climate change and energy – must be part of that thorough examination.

As should all of our taxation policies and the spending commitments they were directed at funding.

Of course, any review will be guided by our values as a Labor Party.
But all of us should welcome it being utterly thorough.

Congratulations Adrian on a well-written and detailed examination of our Party.
I have great pleasure in helping officially launch it here in Parliament House.