If Labor want to be taken seriously, its ‘reform agenda’ needs to be more than mere tokenism

February 15, 2023

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Labor have now been in government for almost a year, after winning a very narrow majority at the 2022 Federal Election. The question at the top of my mind, and no doubt plenty of others who were hopeful (yet skeptical) of more, is: what have they actually done in that time?

The answer to that question, to put it simply, is not a lot.

Excuses fly around as to why this is the case. ‘We have 9 years of Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison to clean up after’ is a common excuse, but that’s really beginning to wear thin – given they’ve now had the levers on policy and the legislative agenda for long enough (and substantial political capital and public goodwill to boot) that they could’ve begun to mark their own legacy; but haven’t.

Scratching beneath the flashy PR, and you’ll be seeing that term a lot throughout this piece, the implementation of Labor’s ‘reform agenda’ so far amount to little more than token gestures that fall well short of even the bare minimum (another phrase you’ll see a lot throughout this piece) required to have an impact on people’s lives.

This of course hasn’t stopped Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles from schmoozing with war criminals and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese from doing regular photo ops. Again, flashy PR with no substance that we rightly bemoaned Scott Morrison for during his term as Prime Minister.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of this. One such brazen example was late last year, when the Prime Minister trumpeted that welfare payments had been increased by the largest amount in 30 years thanks to the Labor government.

Amazing news, right?

It only leaves out the fact that it was an automatic increase that happens every six months anyway, and that the increase was only larger than it has been in previous years because of souring inflation and cost of living. Welfare rates still sit well below the poverty line with no increase in real terms for decades, nor is there any commitment by this government to raise welfare rates.

Two other pieces of legislation of note also fall into the ‘flashy PR and little substance’ category: that is housing, and the safeguard mechanism dealing with CO2 emissions.

Let’s break down the housing policy, in which the government recently announced that it’ll legislate a fund of $10 billion, to build “thousands” of “social and affordable” homes over a 10 year period.

“Social and affordable housing” itself is flashy PR talk that Labor have used for years to conflate public and social housing as one and the same (in reality, they’re not). This hides the fact that they’ve been privatising public housing by stealth by selling it off to the social, or not-for-profit, sector; which in turn offers that housing to people on a very narrow set of criteria and circumstances (and is still unaffordable for a lot of people). Unlike public housing which is prioritised to people based on income.

Now, let’s look at the $10 billion dollars bit, which leaves out the fact that this is funded over 10 years, or $500 million per year. This would cover, according to the government, 30,000 new dwellings over that duration and that’s if we’re being generous. It leaves out the fact that there’s a shortfall of some 430,000 houses (2020 figures), a figure which is projected to increase to more than 640,000 in the next 10 years. Meaning, this policy would do very little to put a dent in that figure. Doing less than even the bare minimum.

Not only do these dwellings need to be genuine bona fide public housing, there needs to be a lot more of them, if Labor’s commitment to reducing the housing backlog and to housing affordability is to be taken seriously.

Labor’s ‘overhaul’ of the safeguard mechanism, which it says is intended to cut industrial emissions, also can’t be taken seriously as the policy – as it stands – is not only rebadged Liberal policy; it commits it to new coal and gas projects, is limited in scope and allows for unlimited use of carbon credits, thus negating the whole apparent purpose of the thing to begin with. Once again, more flashy PR to make it look like they’re doing something about the climate crisis, when in actual fact they’re doing very little – not even the bare minimum that the science says we need to do in order to prevent a worst-case scenario.

Even more appalling is the willingness of the Albanese government to use this flashy PR and ‘feel good’ announcements to obfuscate utterly terrible and inhumane policy decisions.

Merely days after announcing that it had signed a new 10 year deal to reinstate Nauru as an off shore detention centre for asylum seekers and put 100 people back in immigration detention – it cynically announced that some 19,000 people on temporary protection visas would be able to apply for permanent residency.

Incredibly convenient timing. But nonetheless, good news right?

Somewhat. If we weren’t already paying attention to the Nauru decision, or the fact that thousands of people rejected for visas under the flawed fast track system, or who arrived in Australia under the Medevac legislation, wouldn’t be eligible for permanency under these changes and would have to apply for exemptions to the Minister, and wait an indefinite period for an outcome or otherwise be asked to leave the country voluntarily. It supposedly took a year only to come up with a frankly half-baked system of dealing with this.

All of this flashy PR, disguising the fact that this is policy that does less than the bare minimum, is intended to quieten discontent as well as to demobilise grassroots organising efforts.

We were told, when Labor were in opposition, that all they had to do was win the next election, get into government, and get their hands on the policy levers to affect genuine change. But that they couldn’t be open or too bold before the election out of risk of succumbing to a scare campaign by both conservative forces as well as their enablers in the media. Making all sorts of under the table promises to placate different interests and being hush-hush about it.

It’s often the case. Labor in opposition make under the table promises to quieten discontent and demobilise campaigns; only for those campaigns to be chewed up and spat out when nobody’s around to make any objection when the government inadvertently do wrong by them.

Indeed, all of this is as should’ve been expected. Labor in government are doing exactly as they publicly promised and because there’s nothing in their election platform (of which is very barebones as it is) contrary to what they’re actually doing – there’s very little that can be used as a basis to hold them to account.

Any criticism or questions asked about ‘why they are or aren’t doing’ a particular thing are routinely met with ‘we’re following our election commitments’ (including its commitment to maintaining the stage 3 tax cuts for high income earners) and they’re correct. Not only this, but any suggestions that they should do better is routinely shot down as obstructing Labor’s ‘reform agenda’ – once again flashy PR to make it look like they’re doing more than they actually are.

The thing is, doing less than the bare minimum – even if that is their election commitment – is quickly going to wear thin on an electorate that voted them in, expecting more than what they’re getting. Under the table commitments made before the election should also be taken with a grain of salt unless the party is willing to come out and publicity back those commitments.

Furthermore, deflection and playing the blame game when others rightly call a spade, a spade, is also going to wear thin as time goes on.

It’s high time to look past the spin for what it is in reality, and scrutinise policy and legislation on its actual merits. It’s also up grassroots groups to continue pushing and not be pressured into being quiet; and to not be sucked in by flashy PR for policy announcements that don’t even come close to doing even remotely enough.

Matt Hrkac

Matt Hrkac is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist based in Geelong and works across Melbourne and throughout Victoria.


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