If the party had promised to put 3000 teachers a year through intensive upskilling in classroom technique, there would have been more impact – for a fraction of the cost. Or recruit 500 super maths teachers to lift school performance to that of Singapore and Shanghai. Or a new approach to behaviourally challenged kids to improve school learning environments. Or develop the world’s most compelling science curriculum.
State politics offers a pointer to the value of the concrete over the vague. In 1995, as opposition leader, I promised a more rigorous curriculum backed by 2500 extra teachers to bring down class sizes and wipe out inappropriate composites. In 1999 I made Reading Recovery teachers a major argument for our re-election. In 2003 I promised a fully funded reduction of class sizes in the early years of schooling, and delivered it.
Federal Labor read polling that said people supported higher taxes to fund more programs. The election tested what this meant in practice and, in particular, whether older voters wanted to surrender tax concessions for large but non-specific outlays.
It can be argued, of course, that 5.47 million voted for the Coalition and 5.22 million still voted to endorse bigger spending backed by tax adjustments. Arguments, however, are often resolved at the margin and in parliamentary democracy comprised of single-member electorates a couple of hundred thousand voters, strategically distributed, settle it.
Which is different from saying a gap of a quarter million votes is the final word on whether Australia now belongs to the centre-right. It is more accurate to say we’re still a nation of centrist politics but going through a phase where right-wing populism is making a strong pitch.
Bill Shorten kept his party together over six years – a solid achievement for an opposition leader – and kept his cool during the chaotic media circus of a federal campaign.
It’s unlikely, however, that his successor will adopt the same ebullience about the party’s relations with trade unions. Labor governments must come out swinging to defend workers when they get sacked on the wharves merely for belonging to a trade union, or when James Hardie goes off-shore to avoid looking after people it exposed to deadly white dust.
Labor governments exist to have a collegial – no, comradely – relationship with workers. But the electorate is quick to judge if they are just signing blank cheques.
Or indulging a rhetorical hostility to reputable business. Better the Neville Wran approach that a smart Labor government neutralises “the big end of town” and boasts the investment climate it has nurtured while defending protection for wage earners.
Labor has got to be the party of social justice but of start-ups as well. It must champion the industrial rights for the migrant in a blue collar job but also the aspirations of their their sons and daughters in law and accounting or risking their savings in a plumbing business or a tech start-up.
Leaving Labor open to the charge of being anti-enterprise is as unnecessary as giving the impression we scorn people who may believe in hell as part of their theology.
In a few respects – not most, by any means – we veered away from that deft tacking to the centre that had worked well for Hawke and Keating, and for Neville Wran and those who took him as a model.
Not too much, but enough to cost Labor government. Happily, it’s not too hard to make the course correction.
Bob Carr is a former Labor foreign minister and NSW’s longest-serving premier.