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In praise of openness

By Andrew Leigh - posted Monday, 4 November 2013

Labor must never forget that our brand is not interchangeable with that of the Coalition. The two parties play fundamentally different roles in the Australian political system. Labor's role is to take the initiative, to defend those whom life has treated unfairly, to carve out an activist role on the global stage. By contrast, the Coalition parties are defenders of the status quo, more likely to be heard supporting vested interests than those on the margins of society, and largely untroubled if people turn off politics entirely. Australian politics isn't Coke versus Pepsi. To become a Labor version of Mr Abbott's Opposition would be to repudiate the essence of what our party stands for. Labor must continue to be the party of ideas and reform.

There are three possible futures for federal Labor. The first is negativity. One lesson that will inevitably be drawn from recent Australian political history is that the way to win office is by denigrating the government, while minimising your policy differences with the party in power.

Negativity corrodes the sense of hope, idealism and common purpose that is so vital to being a successful parliamentarian. It also crowds out policy development. If your sole focus is on demonising the government, then the hard-heads will argue that putting forward your own ideas will only distract from the main task at hand. Yet we know from history that carrying out policy development in the full light of public scrutiny tends to make for better results.


The second possibility is 'closed Australia'. During the twelve decades since Labor's founding, our party has been wrong on immigration for longer than we have been right. It took Gough Whitlam's leadership of the ALP finally to put the party's worst racist tendencies to bed. A similar story applies in the case of trade.

The pressures of economic nationalism are never far from the surface. While the 1996–98 electoral term saw federal Labor operate as a unified and effective Opposition, it was also a period in which the party too readily distanced itself from the economic reforms pursued by Hawke and Keating. As Lindsay Tanner noted of this period, "Labor has continually offered support to disgruntled producer groups at the expense of consumers. Every time we do this, we take another small chunk out of our economic credibility."

Advocates of a closed Australia come in different flavours. Some oppose imports, migrants and foreign investment. But more commonly, people advocate raising the walls in just one or two domains. Some want higher tariffs but more migrants. Others demand less foreign investment but support more aid. And there are those who believe we should have a smaller population but take more refugees. Whether the "closed Australia" model comes in part or as a whole, this is not a strategy that should tempt the ALP.

The third and best approach for the ALP is to embrace the record of openness that has been the hallmark of Labor at its best. Whether through support for individual liberties or belief in open markets, social liberalism has a prominent place in the story of the Australian Labor Party. This is an approach that is particularly appealing in light of the Liberal Party's steady abandonment of small-L liberalism. To adapt a US quip, theirs is a LINO Party – Liberal In Name Only.

Labor will always be the party of egalitarianism. Too much inequality can tear the social fabric, threatening to cleave us one from another. In also taking on the mantle of social liberalism, Labor states our commitment to open markets as the most effective way of generating wealth. A commitment to social liberalism would also pledge Labor to an open and multicultural Australia.

Over the past six years, Labor has many policy achievements of which we can be proud. On the international stage, we won Australia a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Our economy grew from the fifteenth-largest to the twelfth-largest in the world, productivity ticked up, and inflation and unemployment remained low by historical standards. We moved to cap carbon pollution, and struck an agreement that allowed the Murray to flow again.


Openness may be the right road for Labor, but it is not the easy one. After losing government to what Anthony Albanese has tagged "the Noalition," it will be painful for Labor in opposition to adopt a more positive approach. Perhaps some of our supporters will argue that the real reason Labor lost the 2013 election was that we did not embrace economic nationalism across the board. But if Labor is to serve its core mission – of raising living standards, spreading opportunity and encouraging diversity – then we should pursue openness in our policy settings and our party structures.

Andrew Leighis the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Federal Member for Fraser. This is an extract from Not Dead Yet (Black Inc, 2013)

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This article was originally published in The Australian,  on October 30, 2013

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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