The ALP’s existential dilemma will become more conspicuous next year, especially with the rise of four young Liberal MPs on a mission.
Young Liberal powerbrokers, from left, Tim Wilson, Andrew Bragg, James Paterson and Jason Falinski at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Sean Davey
Maybe Labor members still drink beer. But as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews signalled a few months ago, these days Labor leaders go higher up the shelf. Indeed, when federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese made it clear that the frontbench no longer caters for the likes of Joel Fitzgibbon, it brought back memories of the final scene in the old comedy-drama Boston Legal.
At the end of each long day, the two main characters, played by William Shatner and James Spader, lounge in imposing sofas on a balcony high above the teeming masses below. A fat cigar between their lips, a glass of top-notch whisky at hand, they quietly applaud themselves for filling their pockets while pretending to look out for the little guy.
Political parties that lose sight of their moral purpose cannot hope to make much of a contribution to national life, let alone win elections. The ALP’s federal leadership rules may provide superficial shelter for Albanese, but they do nothing to solve Labor’s existential battle that daily pits the party’s traditional voting base of workers against the vested interests of big institutions tied to Labor.
No longer able to rely on a guaranteed gravy train of money from a diminishing trade union movement, Labor’s search for cash is steering it away from ordinary Australians to do favours for mates at rich law firms that donate to Labor and industry super funds that direct more than $10m of members’ money to unions, which in turn donate millions to ALP coffers. That workers lose more than $32bn in fees — the equivalent of 2 per cent of gross domestic product last year — to the superannuation sector does not appear to concern Labor.
Labor’s existential dilemma will become more conspicuous next year, especially if a group of modernising Liberal backbenchers — let’s call them the Squad — continues to look out for the interests of ordinary Australians. Mercifully, the Aussie Squad has little in common with the woke women in the US congress who are trying to steer the Democrats to the far left.
These relatively young Liberals — James Paterson (33), Andrew Bragg (36), Tim Wilson (40) and Jason Falinski (50) — are on a mission to revive the Liberal brand. Their aim is to build a wider constituency for the Liberal Party, especially among younger Australians, just as Labor is losing theirs.
While it’s a safe bet that the Opposition Leader won’t be encouraging Fitzgibbon to advance policy ideas from parliament’s nosebleed seats, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have provided plenty of support for the Squad. Each of them chairs one of four major economic parliamentary committees.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has hit out at Anthony Albanese, declaring the Opposition Leader is on the path "to the dark side of politics". Defending the federal government's Industrial Relations reform Bill in Question Time on Thursday, Mr Porter took aim at the Opposition leader. "If Yoda were here, he would remind us that fear of leadership tensions leads to the dark side," Mr Porter said. "Leadership fear leads to anger. "Anger leads to wildly untrue assertions in Question Time. "That is the path to the dark side of politics ... and that's the path that this leader of the Opposition is on".
Paterson chairs the parliamentary committee that oversees the administration and finances of government agencies, and the parliamentary joint committee that covers private sector corporations and financial services. Wilson chairs the standing committee on economics, Bragg heads up the select committee on financial technology and Falinski chairs the standing committee on tax and revenue.
All of them will rightly covet the future frontbench. But no one should underestimate what can be done from the back rows either. Former prime minister John Howard, whose own long record on economic reform hardly needs repeating, tells Inquirer that during the evolution of policy during Fraser years, “We were stimulated and set in the right direction by Liberal backbenchers such as John Hyde and Murray Sainsbury (who) challenged some of the economic orthodoxy of the time.”
To be sure, the appetite for economic reform changes. Forty years ago a documentary series called Free to Choose turned a balding economist into a TV celebrity. Each of Milton Friedman’s 10 hour-long episodes attracted an average audience of three million American viewers in 1980. The series went global and was followed by a bestseller companion book.
The Squad understands that economic reform in the 21st century is different, more micro than macro, but is convinced that the outcomes will transform lives for current and future generations.
The Squad is especially united on fixing superannuation. Abolition is a Labor lie, members say, right up there with Labor lying about the Libs wanting to abolish Medicare. The Squad wants a modernised super system that meets the challenges and choices of workers who, in their 20s and 30s, may want to save for a home before they save for retirement.
“We are currently prioritising policy to suit the capital interests of superannuation funds at the expense of people being able to make choices about how they live,” Wilson tells Inquirer. The author of The New Social Contract: Renewing the Liberal Vision for Australia, published in July, says it is madness to force Australians to save for retirement before they can save for a house. Give them a choice, he says.
Proving Howard’s point about policy evolution from the backbench, not long ago only a handful people, including the Aussie Squad, talked about fixing super. Now it is fashionable among leading economists and the Grattan Institute to oppose lifting compulsory super because it forces poor workers to forgo more of their wages.
Bragg’s book, A Bad Egg, shows how the Squad’s members work together, not formally but as kindred spirits. Published in May, the book rips apart the powerful, rich and cosseted industrial relations club that has seen industry super funds grow into financial giants, sending money to unions which in turn donate to Labor.
Bragg, who entered the Senate last year, was keen to write the book in his first year because “I had all this inside knowledge, having spent almost a decade in financial services and then at the Business Council of Australia … and I wanted to influence my colleagues. My stance is that there had been too much influence over the Liberal Party from big super, which on our side was from the financial services sector. And today big super has way too much influence on the Labor Party that comes from the union side.”
In a debate this week in the House of Representatives, Falinski didn’t hold back: “(The retirement income review) shows that the superannuation system that we have in Australia makes workers worse off over their lifetime. It is not an accident. It is the specific policy design of this system.”
Some claim the Liberals will be spooked by Paul Keating entering the fray to defend the system he set up. The Squad seems unfazed. Wilson’s view is that “the constituency for home first, super second is Australians under 40, and I doubt most of them even know who he is”.
Bragg tells Inquirer that while he admires Keating for many of his reforms, “his views are tired. He is out of touch and has forgotten how hard it is to buy a first home. We will win the arguments on super for housing and cutting super fees. His defence of super tycoons won’t work. So far he’s helped us.”
Howard says the passing of time has revealed the influence of conflicted interests within Labor. “The power that industry superannuation funds have at the present time is something that has preserved the power of the union movement out of all proportion to what it deserves to have, given the union membership,” he told Inquirer this week. Asked if he thinks Keating understood this when setting up super, Howard says: “I’m sure he did.”
Josh Frydenberg has nothing but praise for Wilson, Paterson, Falinski and Bragg. So, with a reshuffle slated for next week, when will there be promotions for the Squad? The shrewd Treasurer won’t say, of course. But Labor, whether under Albanese or a new leader next year, won’t enjoy their rising influence.