Pressure is building on leader Anthony Albanese as Labor faces the prospect of another election defeat.
Although Labor is at level pegging with the Coalition at 50-50 in Newspoll, Scott Morrison’s approval has risen through the COVID crisis.
While the government has tried to hose down the prospect, an election in the second half of this year remains possible.
The one area where Albanese has attempted to draw a clear line between Labor and the Coalition is over workers’ rights. Labor is opposing Morrison’s industrial relations changes and promising to increase the rights of casual workers. But its plan contains plenty of qualifications, giving workers little confidence of change.
Albanese says Labor would ensure workers paid through labour hire companies get the same pay as other workers employed directly at the same workplace.
He would also give workers the right to permanent work after two years or two fixed-term contracts in a job. But workers will have to be in the same role continuously with regular hours to qualify, leaving plenty of room for employers to avoid this.
And his pledge to “develop portable entitlement schemes for annual leave, sick leave and long service leave” for casual workers is similarly vague.
Labor has also reaffirmed its commitment to scrapping the anti-union Registered Organisations Commission and the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
All the other signs are that Labor is still moving to the right.
Albanese began the year with a shadow cabinet reshuffle. The biggest shift was over climate change, where the left faction’s Mark Butler was dumped for the right’s Chris Bowen.
Labor claims this is simply a change in salesman, not any shift in policy. But the signal it sends by handing the issue to the right of the party is clear.
Labor has already distanced itself from the climate policy it took to the last election, dumping its 2030 emissions reduction target and simply adopting zero emissions by 2050. It is still debating any nearer term target.
At the last election Morrison used the Coalition’s support for the Adani coal mine to take seats in Queensland mining areas and secure a big swing against Labor in the Hunter Valley.
His pledge to support coal mining jobs was a dishonest claim from a government that wants to strip away workers’ rights. But it worked.
Labor positioned itself as more supportive of climate action. But it failed to offer the funding needed to guarantee alternative jobs for workers in coal mining areas, leaving it open to attack.
Instead of seeking to address this, Labor wants to have a bob each way, saying it still supports climate action but would “respect the role of workers in fossil fuel industries”. In other words, it would allow coal and gas projects to go on operating unhindered.
Morrison is attempting to repeat his scare campaign around climate action as a threat to jobs, talking up government support for a “gas-fired recovery”.
There is no sign that Bowen has grasped how to respond. There needs to be serious public funding to help coal communities and make sure workers’ interests are prioritised as part of the climate transition.
Instead, he told ABC Breakfast that, “I’ll be focused on generating private sector investment” to deal with climate change.
Bowen does hope to present climate change as an opportunity to create jobs and benefit workers. But leaving it up to the free market will consign workers to the scrap heap. Power companies, whether in fossil fuels or renewable energy, are interested only in making profit, not in moving workers into new, well-paid, secure jobs.
There are many examples of workers facing lengthy unemployment and low wages in past economic transitions, from the recession of the early 1990s to the recent closure of car manufacturing.
According to Bowen, “managing economic transitions” is what “Labor does best”. His example is “what Hawke and Keating did” in the 1980s and 1990s.
But this was a ruthless period of pro-capitalist restructuring that drove down wages to boost profits. Nothing shows more how out of touch modern Labor is than Bowen’s efforts to cite it as good for workers.
He risks playing right into Morrison’s hands.
Labor is also set to dump the modest attack on negative gearing tax write-offs for property investors it took to the last two elections.
According to Nine media papers the majority of the Labor shadow cabinet wants to junk the policy, with one frontbencher saying, “The key is Albanese and he’s in the ‘dump’ category.”
Relying on Labor won’t deliver a challenge to Morrison’s stalling on climate and attacks on workers.
By James Supple