Why It’s No Contest On The Economy

Written by:
18 April 2022
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The ALP of the 2020s has lost interest in Australia’s economic future. And the Coalition appears to be following suit.

It says a great deal about the condition of Australian policy and politics that the biggest story of the first week of the 2022 federal election campaign was Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s inability to name the level of unemployment and the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate.

Some people might say that’s not all bad – and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Protesters in Brisbane on Monday during Anthony Albanese’s visit to flood-damaged properties in Brisbane. Alex Ellinghausen
Protesters in Brisbane on Monday during Anthony Albanese’s visit to flood-damaged properties in Brisbane. Alex Ellinghausen

Given there’s a war in Europe, and America – the country to which we’re most often compared – appears economically and culturally irreparably cleaved in two, Australia is doing well if the defining issue of the election so far is the party leaders’ knowledge of a few economic statistics.

The events of the beginning of the election campaign and, more broadly, the lack of any meaningful difference between the parties’ policies could be seen as a testament to the moderation and reasonableness of Australian politics. Our way of politics is not that of America or Europe.

The result of the French presidential election on Sunday could define the fate of France and potentially the entire European Union. Perhaps thankfully, the stakes here on Saturday, May 21, are not so high.

If there truly were a contest of economic visions between Labor and the Coalition, you can be guaranteed Albanese would have known the unemployment rate. But there isn’t and he didn’t.

The reason there’s no such contest is two-fold.

There’s no substantive plan to reduce either the budget deficit or long-term government debt.

First, other than at the margins, in the wake of COVID-19, the economic policies of an Albanese government would not be dissimilar to those currently pursued by the Coalition. There’s no substantive plan to reduce either the budget deficit or long-term government debt. The Coalition’s commitment to limit the level of tax to 23.9 per cent of GDP is meaningless if government expenditure continues to be funded by debt.

Second, the ALP of the 2020s has simply lost interest in economics. As the Coalition’s economic policy has come to approximate that of Labor, the Labor leadership has turned its attention to the politics of cultural phenomena and social movements. In this regard the ALP is not much different from many other former social democratic parties in the West.

What appears to motivate Labor activists (and Albanese is much their preferred candidate) at this election are things like the personality of the prime minister, the perceived misogyny of parliamentarians, the supposed need for a federal integrity commission, and comments on social media about gender from a Liberal candidate in a seat the Liberals are unlikely to win.

(For a party that often complains about conservatives fighting the so-called “culture wars”, it seems the ALP is not above fighting a few cultural battles itself.)

All of these topics provoke outrage on Twitter but don’t matter as much to the average voter as the price of petrol at $2 a litre.

Such is the challenge of building a constituency for economic reform.

The problem with the Labor Party’s small-target strategy is that in the absence of anything else for the media to talk about, the answers Albanese gives at his press conferences are what the media will talk about.

Beyond the unemployment rate

Attempting to excuse Albanese, Greg Jericho in The Guardian was right when he wrote, “There is no moment ever in the job of prime minister where someone is going to rush into the office and yell ‘we need to know the unemployment rate right now, prime minister, don’t look at the internet, tell us now!’ And if there is, then we are all truly stuffed.”

That’s true – but the problem for Albanese is that his answer, or lack thereof, completely fulfilled the Coalition’s portrayal of the ALP is an alternative government that can’t be trusted and doesn’t quite know what it’s doing.

In The Sydney Morning Herald, Sean Kelly a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, tried to put aside Albanese’s economics mistake and his confused response on whether the ALP supported offshore detention by asking: “How can you determine the import of each for an actual Albanese government? This depends entirely on speculation. Did his failure on jobless figures tell us something about the sort of prime minister he’d be?”

The answer to that last question is: Yes.

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