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The politics of redistribution and envy

By Mikayla Novak - posted Friday, 5 November 2004

One of the most mystifying aspects of the fall-out from the Australian Labor Party’s massive 2004 Federal election loss has been the reiteration of the false proposition that Mark Latham conducted a “brilliant” campaign effort which only failed because the Australian people were enticed by a Liberal Party campaign “heavy on fear” on matters of economic management, and which pandered to “greedy self-interest” and “conspicuous consumption”.

Apparently the ALP offered the electorate a viable mix of economic and social policy to enable individuals and families to climb their own “ladder of opportunity”.

So, for Labor insiders and their allies, including trade unionists, media commentators, State Labor Governments, anti-war protestors, feminists, multiculturalists, refugee advocates, the arts community, welfare state defenders and the radical environmental lobby, the hand-wringing and expressions of hatred towards the Howard Government and the 2004 election victory is likely to continue unabated: especially since the Howard ascendancy has translated into an historic Senate majority.


As Labor pores over the entrails of its defeat, and seeks answers for its mediocre performance, it need look no further than a speech made by the Prime Minister to the National Press Club two days before the election. In that speech, John Howard said the philosophical divide between the two major parties was a fundamental determinant that would drive voter sentiment. He emphasised the Coalition’s commitment to a “golden thread” of choice running through the Liberal policies, compared to the “behavioural policeman” approach of the ALP, which rewarded preferred behaviours and punished alternative, and legitimate, actions.

The philosophical differences were particularly evident in the following areas.


The release of a school’s “hit list” funding policy, comprising absolute and real funding cuts for a range of non-government schools. A key trend over the past decade has been the movement in student enrolments from government schools to Catholic and independent schools, where aspirational parents are increasingly prepared to pay substantial private school fees, taking second or third jobs if necessary, to ensure their children are provided with the best possible educational opportunities. However, the ALP’s schools policy proposed to reduce or freeze public funding to children in 178 non-government schools, which would have placed additional cost pressures on these schools, resulting in raised fees and more students in the government school system.


The Howard Government has successfully taken the pressure off public hospitals by the introduction of the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate. However, support from the ALP came into question when Mark Latham and Julia Gillard announced the ALP would not support the Coalition’s election commitment to provide an additional private health rebate scheme for the over 65’s. Removal of the rebate would have had the long-term effect of forcing many private health insurance members back into an overcrowded and inefficient public hospital system. Furthermore, the Medicare Gold policy, which proposed publicly subsidised free hospital treatment in the private health sector for those people over 75 years of age, would have increased queues for other Australians in need of private hospital services. Health service delivery would be based on age and not medical need.

Family payments and child care benefits

The ALP’s failed tax and family benefits package, which proposed to abolish the Coalition’s Family Tax Benefit (Part B), would have effectively penalised stay-at-home mothers. Labor also planned to rescind the Coalition’s $600 per child per annum payment, as well as restricting access to a range of current family benefits. Families with children under the age of three, and who benefit from child care services, would have also endured restricted benefits under Labor, compared to the Coalition’s 30 per cent child care rebate.


In an extraordinary concession to the minority Greens Party, and in an attempt to secure the “post-materialist” environment vote in mainland capital cities, Labor sought to reserve 250,000ha of Tasmanian old growth and regrowth forest on public land and up to 150,000ha on private property. This policy would have cost significant numbers of jobs in Tasmania, including employment for mature-age workers in the forestry sector and reduce economic security for thousands of families in that state.


Industrial relations

The implementation of the ALP’s industrial relations platform and policies, including abolition of individually negotiated Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), increasing Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) powers, greater complexity in awards, and restricting the use of casuals and independent contractors in the workforce, would have effectively led to the reintroduction of a “one-size-fits-all” model of workplace relations. This would favour the special interests of trade unions and dramatically reduce the prospects for increased productivity and wages for ordinary workers.

When critically assessing the likely effects of Labor’s economic and social policies it is difficult to reconcile these against Mark Latham’s “ladder of opportunity” rhetoric. A close examination of Labor philosophy and its 2004 election tactics reveals that the “ladder of opportunity” was only a hollow device designed to mask finer policy details grounded in the base politics of fostering envy towards the exercise of freedom of choice.

In other words, Labor aims to promote government involvement across the full spectrum of Australian economic and social life, and a levelling down of individual aspiration by promoting equality of outcomes, using the agency of government to forcibly seize resources from one group and redistribute to another.

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About the Author

Mikayla Novak is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. She has previously worked for Commonwealth and State public sector agencies, including the Commonwealth Treasury and Productivity Commission. Mikayla was also previously advisor to the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Her opinion pieces have been published in The Australian, Australian Financial Review, The Age, and The Courier-Mail, on issues ranging from state public finances to social services reform.

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