Twilight of the gods

Like Roman emperors of old, Labor has deified itself.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

The sweeping nature of the Liberal National Party victory in Queensland on Saturday (March 24) is going to take a long time to digest. Had such a thing, unprecedented in Australian politics, taken place in, say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, our commentariat and political class doubtless would have cried foul.

The problem for the Australian Labor Party and its leadership, both state and federal, is who we are. Unlike the fashionably attired protestors of Moscow and St Petersburg, Australians do not have the luxury of claiming electoral fraud when a political party wins 77 seats in an 89 seat parliament.  It’s real.

For us the challenge is greater.  We have to come to grips with the stupefying authenticity of the results.  There is no dictator more ruthless, apparently, than a free electorate that believes it has been cheated and lied to.

For me, however, the even more astonishing thing, was ex-Premier Anna Bligh’s concession speech.  It explained a lot about Labor’s defeat in Queensland and about the general crisis of the party.

Bligh unbending

This was the substance of Bligh’s speech: Labor had created a new Queensland; it had governed brilliantly and in the best interests of the people; its policies were beyond reproach; true, they’d not always been fully appreciated by the common people; at worst, then, Labor’s higher wisdom had not stooped sufficiently to conquer folksy voter opinion.

That’s all.

There was not a flicker of compunction over the way Labor had tried to destroy the reputation of LNP leader, Campbell Newman, and his family, on the basis of evidence that did not exist, as Anna Bligh admitted a week before polling day.

The verdict of the electorate was a matter of process: indisputable, unavoidable, compelling but otherwise empty of moral content.  Legendarily conceived immaculate in Queensland in 1891, the still unsoiled Labor Party has been caste out and bowed, with stoical contempt, before the fates.

Bligh’s riveting performance represented in miniature what Labor has become. It is a self-referential ruling élite disconnected from the people by most things except the practical necessity, during election seasons, of harvesting sufficient of their votes.  Otherwise, Labor is closed upon itself. There is no objective standard — neither philosophy nor moral code — by which it can be evaluated. Labor must be judged only by its own standards.  Like Roman emperors of old, Labor has deified itself.

In the months and years to come millions of words will be spent as Australian political historians, party apparatchiki, social researchers and journalists struggle to understand 24 March 2012. The essence of the problem, however, is essentially simple: the party as god.

Labor is a self-referential ruling élite disconnected from the people by most things except the practical necessity, during election seasons, of harvesting sufficient of their votes.

During the days leading up to the Queensland election my attention was drawn to something which now pales almost to insignificance.  And yet it has a relative importance — as an illustration of how Labor chalks up more political problems for itself in the federal sphere.

Super reform

Last week Bill Shorten, the Federal Minister for Superannuation and Employment & Workplace Relations, signalled that the Gillard government does not buy the union idea that the increase in the Superannuation Guarantee Charge — from 9 to 12 per cent, to be phased in over seven years – should be on top of any wage increases that the unions might win in the meantime.

Shorten, writing in The Australian on March 22, reckoned that employers and employees will “take the increase into account in future wage negotiations.”

Employers might try, but key unions, like the AWU and the SDA, to name but two, and the union peak body, the ACTU, have made it clear they won’t do any such thing.

Given that the lift in the SGC was made law last week without the Gillard government first cutting a deal with the ACTU that would lock unions into absorbing the increase, it is hard to see how Shorten’s logic will bind the union movement.

By way of an aside, Abbott has done the right thing to commit the Coalition to backing the Labor initiative, despite reservations among his senior colleagues.

His decision, in fact, shows a real capacity for statesmanship.  Abbott has an instinctive hostility toward governments forcing obligatory savings upon cash poor workers.  The fact that he can rise above his visceral reactions in the national interest shows a side to Abbott all too often obscured by his zeal for the art of parliamentary pugilism.

The new “super” package not only offers employees an increase in their total remuneration, albeit in the form of tax-favoured deferred savings.  It also delivers

• abolition of the 15 per cent Super contribution tax  on people who earn less than $37,000 per annum; and the

• abolition of the Superannuation Guarantee age limit – presently set at 70 years.

These are reforms in the Hawke-Keating-Howard-Costello mould.  For the Coalition not to have backed them would have amounted to a loss of faith in the ground-breaking reforms to superannuation made by Peter Costello in his 2006 budget.

It is also sound politics for the Coalition.  It reaffirms the Coalition’s identification with low paid blue-collar workers and with the new generation of older workers who want to keep making a contribution from within the workforce.

Yes, “super” is forced saving.  And, yes, it’s tough love for the workers.  But the way the design of superannuation is evolving, it is real love nonetheless. Labor and the Coalition are as one on this, and that’s all to the good.

Super pain

But back to Labor.  Unfortunately for the “true believers”, they will get little electoral advantage out of their policy virtue on “super”.  Meantime, the Coalition will remain uncontaminated by the needless workplace conflict Labor has just triggered.

First, the deeply flawed mining tax will not pay for the SGC increase, as Shorten has admitted. The mining tax will pay only for the federal Treasury’s so-called “tax losses” incurred by extending “super” concessions.

What will actually happen is that the government will raise extra money through the Mining Tax under the pretence of paying for the SGC, while passing the full cost onto business and keeping the tax firmly in its Treasury pocket.

While I have no problems with the SGC being paid by business, I do have a problem with a government implying that it planned to make the super contribution itself, then to dump it on employers. That’s either confusion or deceit.  In either case, it is a thing abhorrent in any government; and we have just seen in Queensland how saying one thing and doing another can be punished by the voters.

Sure, coming clean about who will pay for the SGC increase is not in the same category as “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” It does, however, display the same insouciant approach to truth and falsehood, to candour and deception that just destroyed Queensland’s Bligh Labor government.

Secondly, business will be forced to bear the full cost of the SGC reform plus any additional remuneration increases that unions can extract from employers.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this, the politics for Labor are bad. Business great and small will be completely united in their opposition.  They will resist a union campaign to exclude the SGC from wage negotiations and workers will be cheesed off by a predictably bolshie union campaign and much less extra cash in their pockets than they might otherwise have hoped for.

Thirdly, the SGC con – and it is a con — will unite business in opposition to the government in a way that the Mining Tax cannot.

Unsatisfied, it seems, with how the Carbon Tax is welding together business and private interests that often have little in common – big polluters with mum and dad electricity users – the Gillard government appears determined to create a second layer of political animosity to itself by uniting big miners with small businesses all of whom must suffer the pain — as they see it — of the SGC sting.

Yet it could all have been so easily avoided by some foresight, deliberation and Labor statesmanship in the mould of Hawke and Keating.

But then, once you have become a god, there are no penalties for failing to exercise the natural virtues.


Gods new to Mount Olympus would do well to consult the older, greater ones who inhabit that place so unhappily.

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