What is federal Labor’s top priority today? Ask a dozen politicians and party members, and you’ll probably hear that it’s to oppose the industrial relations reform package, critique the way the immigration department has implemented our tougher border protection policy, and stoke the fires of dissent over Australia’s continuing involvement in Iraq.
When your top priorities are to reject the other side’s top priorities, you know you’re in trouble. Admittedly, recent few weeks have seen occasional flashes of policy insight from the ALP, with new ideas from Kim Beazley on expanding trade training and building our capacity to fight terrorism. But if Labor is to win in 2007, the party needs to offer much more in this ilk. The only way for an opposition to deflect the perennial accusation that they are the nattering nabobs of negativism is with a deluge of positive policy proposals.
In forging an optimistic agenda, the Labor Party may benefit from looking across the Pacific, where the American Democratic Party are facing the same dilemma. With the Republicans facing voter ire over their handling of Hurricane Katrina, former House Majority leader Tom De Lay indicted on charges of money laundering, and charges of cronyism against Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, the temptation for Democrats is to keep kicking their opponents while they’re down.
Yet as Bruce Reed, a former staffer in the Clinton White House, argues in a column in the online magazine Slate, the best news for the Democrats is that their rising stars are focusing instead on ideas for a better America. New congressman Emmanuel Rahm is proposing a plan that would see all young Americans attend university. Union leader Andy Stern has established a national competition, with a US$100,000 prize, for the best idea to promote economic opportunity (see www.sinceslicedbread.com). And Senator Barack Obama has argued that Democrats need to be more innovative and unorthodox in their policy proposals, trialling new ideas, and jettisoning those that fail. As Obama points out in the case of the Democratic Party, “Whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”
This mantra applies equally to the ALP. Today, only one in ten voters give politicians a high or very high rating for ethics and honesty, half the level of trust that prevailed in the 1970s. Declining trust in government ultimately damages both political parties. But because distrust of government and small government go hand-in-hand, it hurts Labor most.
How can we counter distrust? One way is to play to voters’ hopes, not their fears, presenting a positive vision of a stronger Australia, coupled with concrete policy proposals to bring it about. Most of us spend our daily lives trying to make things better for our families, so it’s only natural that we warm to politicians who offer a way of creating a better community. The finest politicians are those who enlarge the public debate.
The challenge for the ALP today is to become the party of ideas again, using its second year of opposition to engage in an ongoing conversation with the nation about policies to forge a better nation. Labor should attack those ideas with which it disagrees, but the job of opposition is much more than opposing. The foundations of modern Australia were forged in optimism, and the challenge for all political parties is to continue this legacy.
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