This is not the ALP National Conference that any of us expected. Indeed 2020 was a year like no other, so perhaps we should be accustomed to things not quite turning out as planned. But just because it’s different, it doesn’t diminish the importance of this moment for Labor and for Australia.
The Special Platform Conference is a critical time for us to come together as a party and outline our platform to take Australia from the pandemic to a stronger recovery.
As we descended into the pandemic in early 2020 many of us had hope that the unexpected and unprecedented changes around would re-enliven our social democratic foundations. To some extent this has been true.
Covid-19 showed us just how vulnerable we all are when there are weaknesses for some. As a Victorian, we saw coronavirus spread like wildfire through communities where insecure work, no paid leave and people working multiple jobs were prevalent, and in industries where privatisation and outsourcing have been the norm for too many years. During our second wave, the virus made its leap from a hastily put together hotel quarantine system, reliant on outsourcing and insecure work, into the wider community with too much ease.
Put simply, the worst features of a neoliberal policy orthodoxy that had permeated so much of our economy and society was now undermining too much of our lives.
As a community we are learning that these policies make us weaker, and sicker, and there is an appetite for a shift away. Labor must harness this mood.
The handling of the pandemic has seen many commentators prophesise the insurmountable value of incumbency. The product of a rush to stability in a sea of uncertainty. I don’t believe this to be true.
While it is undeniable that incumbent governments facing election in the last twelve months have been overwhelmingly returned - Annastacia Palaszczuk, Michael Gunner, Andrew Barr, and of course Mark McGowan - their victories are diminished by analysis that says they only won because they were already there.
The hallmarks of the victories of these State Labor Governments was their willingness to harness the power of government to protect their communities. A willingness to use the strong state systems at their disposal to make sure everyone was looked after.
They won because they are good governments.
The Morrison Government does not share their strengths.
A case in point was the government’s pandemic budget, brought down in October. That budget not only ignored those who had suffered most during the recession - women - but also relied too heavily on hands off business tax incentives and a faith in the neoliberal orthodoxy to bring us readily back to the way things were. We can’t settle for that.
Never forget that the advocacy for a wage subsidy to get Australian businesses and employers through the pandemic was first made by unions and Labor. Scott Morrison opposed what would become JobKeeper, and made design decisions to exclude too many key workers. JobKeeper had nothing for many casuals, local government workers, and higher education. Childcare was the first industry to lose JobKeeper in July, and now this active labour market support is gone, likely to cause hundreds of thousands of workers to be let go and face unemployment. Morrison and co simply don’t appear to care. They don’t get what matters.
This presents us with an opportunity.
An opportunity to show that Labor knows how to use government for the better.
For Labor there is a simple question: how do we convince a majority of Australians that Labor’s vision for the future is one they should support.
They won’t be convinced if we spend our time focused on ourselves, and tearing each other down.
Jobs and job security must be the core of our political agenda.
Headline unemployment rates mean little if there is no job security for millions of workers who don’t know where their next shift is coming from.
We must also harness hope.
Hope that the changes we are seeing around us will bring new opportunities. There are so many opportunities for local employment in industries to support the next generation of cleaner power generation. And that Labor will back them to get those jobs here in Australia.
We’ve learned in the last year that relying on the rest of the world to make the essentials we need is perilous. People should believe that Labor supports stronger local industries, and our policies and platform must deliver them.
Labor can win the next election, and we must all work together to deliver the progressive national government that Australia needs.
Ryan Batchelor is the Secretary of the National Left, and a Labor Party member in Victoria.