The sentimental socialist
Review of Bill Shorten’s For the Common Good, recently published in The Spectator.
Having done something similar myself, I wondered how Bill Shorten would handle the challenge of a campaign biography. My book, Battlelines, published in 2009, not long before I became opposition leader, was part biography, part political philosophy and part policy manifesto. For the Common Good is Shorten’s attempt to show that he has the substance to be prime minister. In my judgment, it’s too glib and self-serving to make that case but the mere fact that he’s done it is another reason not to underestimate him at the start of this long campaign.
There are some moving passages about his parents, especially his mother, and a tribute to the Jesuits who taught him at Xavier to be a ‘man for others’. There is a rousing celebration of what unionism is supposed to be – but not the slightest concession that the reality does not always match the ideal.
He opens with the declaration that he wants ‘all Australians empowered to take control of their own lives… (and) every Australian to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential’. ‘I want to lead Australia to a better place’, he says: ‘… “the Good Society”… a modern, prosperous, “fair go” Australia where all of us have the opportunity to enjoy long, healthy, stable and meaningful lives’. And fair enough too; that’s what all of us want for our country. But then the caricature starts. A Coalition government, he says, will ‘hurt the economy, worsen the budget position and fail to create jobs’. It will ‘lower living standards’, ‘end the great Australian dream of owning your own home’, threaten Medicare, and fail to respect education and science. Gosh! Yet on the very next page he claims that ‘it’s time to move past the cycle of division that’s characterised our politics for too long’.
Anyone looking for an honest and self-aware appraisal of the Rudd-Gillard years and Shorten’s part in them; or an intelligent unionist’s response to the Heydon royal commission’s damning findings; or an insider’s account of the complex and never-quite-satisfactory balancing acts that all leaders and governments must manage will search in vain. It’s probably more than could be expected from such an author at such a fraught time in the political cycle. Still, some indication that he’d learned from his predecessors’ mistakes would make him a more plausible candidate for the top job.
The book does show how far contemporary Labor has moved beyond the Hawke-Keating model which served our country so well. Once, Labor’s leaders appreciated that you needed profitable businesses for well paid workers. That meant government’s job was to keep taxes low, regulation down, and competition strong. Hence, the Hawke-Keating government (with John Howard’s support) floated the dollar, deregulated finance, cut tariffs, and privatised Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. Shorten pays lip service to Hawke’s achievements but clearly would never have emulated them. The only part of the Hawke-Keating agenda that Shorten clearly would like is compulsory superannuation because that’s good for unions.
In Shorten’s book, there’s nothing wrong with education that more spending won’t fix and nothing wrong with the economy that working with unions won’t improve. Climate change, naturally, gets far more attention than wealth creation. And Labor’s way forward on everything invariably boils down to more taxing, more spending and more government-knows-best liaising, facilitating and coordinating. It’s no wonder that the Rudd-Gillard era achieved so little. The pity is that one of the smartest operators from that time appears not to understand.
Consider this passage:
High speed rail technology and infrastructure works. Around the world millions of people use it. High speed rail systems now operate in fourteen countries…It would be a game changer for our nation and will revolutionise interstate travel. In government, we commissioned the most detailed study on high speed which showed that the economic benefits outweighed the costs. On the Sydney to Melbourne section alone, high speed rail would return more than two dollars for every dollar invested…(with) the capacity to turbo-charge the economic potential of regional communities… It’s a project that stacks up. We just need a government with the vision and courage to make it happen.
In just one paragraph Shorten demonstrates an inability to appreciate how our circumstances differ from those of other countries, a willingness to credit garbage-in-garbage-out modelling, a pandering to the cargo-cult mindset that bedevils much local politics, and a refusal to test wishful thinking against reality. Of course it would be good if our trains were faster. If a very fast train really were economic, though, private sector proponents would be demanding permission to build it, not subsidies to make it happen. It’s a baffling notion that we should spend tens of billions of dollars to get people from Sydney to Melbourne by train in double the time the plane takes. Such a proposition would be alarming in a national leader except that Shorten is plainly striking a pose rather than putting forward serious policy.
For the Common Good is replete with references to a dollar of government spending generating two or three dollars of economic activity. It’s as if education ‘investment’, innovation ‘investment’, and clean energy ‘investment’ is cost free. I don’t think Shorten really believes this. What’s scary is that he panders to it in order to make more secure his leadership of a party drifting back to sentimental socialism.
Still, there’s no doubt that Shorten does have a plan – albeit a bad one: ending negative gearing for most investment housing; massively increasing Capital Gains Tax; hitting superannuation for higher earners; bringing back the carbon tax only with much more ambitious emissions targets; and making the traditional ‘smoko’ much more expensive. That’s $100 billion in tax-and-spend over the decade ($4000 for every man, woman and child) but it doesn’t matter because only the so-called ‘rich’ will pay.
The real Shorten is better than the Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn think-alike that wrote or ghost wrote this book. In parliament, for instance, he is sometimes capable of speaking for the nation. In this book, alas, the smart and pragmatic Shorten is well and truly buried by the relentless point-scorer and sell-out to the green left that threatens to make any Shorten government a re-run of the Rudd-Gillard disaster.