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If ever a seat was not a litmus test for Labor it’s the Upper Hunter. Still the byelection reveals some truths | Peter Lewis

As pundits breathlessly seek to build a fresh “Labor disaster” narrative around the weekend New South Wales state byelection in the Upper Hunter we should be wary of the lure of the false portents.

Byelections are particularly crude instruments to build out a bigger story of how a general election will play because they harness the intensity of a diverse national conversation within the narrow parameters of one geographical region.

If ever a seat was NOT a litmus test for Labor it is the Upper Hunter. Held by the Nationals for close to 100 years; the vote split by three credible alternatives (Shooters, One Nation and Independent); the Nats running as de facto opposition to a state government whose climate-friendly minister was effectively placed in protective custody for the duration of the campaign.

Upper Hunter was also ground zero in the fossil fuel industry’s proxy climate war, benefiting from the federal government boondoggle of a taxpayer funded gas-fired power plant and a local Labor federal representative who spends most of his time campaigning against his own party. If winning this seat was your bar, you were doomed for failure.

Regardless of the fate of the NSW opposition leader Jodi McKay, this is not the sort of contest that reveals deeper truths about the state of federal Labor and the approach they should be taking to the next election, due sometime in the next 12 months.

Where Upper Hunter does have relevance is that it underscores Australia’s new post-pandemic political dynamic: the massive value of incumbency; conservative governments using investment as the key economic lever and an open embrace of isolationism.

At state and federal levels, the public is prepared to turn a blind eye to the usual politics of government – even, it seems, the scandals that become endemic in third terms – so long as they feel the government is keeping them safe.

The federal opposition’s political challenges are, if anything, more challenging than the Upper Hunter’s particular peccadillos because we are witnessing a Labor model of government being deployed to maximum political advantage by conservative governments.

This week’s Guardian Essential Report, commissioned in the aftermath of the Morrison government’s 2021 federal budget highlights some of these points.

While attention to treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s cash splash quickly evaporated, there is no massive uptick in support for the government nor a demonstrable shift in voter perceptions. Rather what this budget was glaringly short of was perceived “losers”, people who would be asked to pay more or give up something.

While people did not think the budget would be particularly good for them personally, nor did they see any specific group taking a serious hit.

And while it’s true the budget was perceived as particularly good for the well-off and big business, it was also seen by many as delivering for families and women. (Fun fact: men were significantly more likely to think the budget was good for women, than women were.)

This is the dividend for the Coalition sacrificing its former shibboleth of debt and deficit at the altar of expediency; the government is confident that spending big is free of political consequence.

As the below table shows, the majority of people – including a significant minority of those who don’t vote for the government – think that the budget will achieve on its primary objectives of creating jobs and helping Australia recover from the pandemic.

While there are concerns among those surveyed of the long-term impact of this spending on future generations, this is not an argument Labor can easily prosecute, hamstrung as it is by its own big-spending stereotype.

What strikes me in this week’s figures is the faith that government is good – and that government is working: a stark departure from the cynicism and distrust that the Coalition fomented to poison the Rudd-Gillard government.

Again, the challenge for Labor is that this belief is at the core of its broader project: government intervenes to support those without power. Undermining the faith that this is now possible may be effective in the short-term but would be destructive to Labor’s longer-term interests.

Most pointedly, the majority of respondents to this week’s report assume the government has a plan to shepherd Australia through the next 12 months.

This is a fascinating finding that reinforces my thesis that faith in government is almost at biblical proportions.

With the vaccine and quarantine rollout we are prepared to suspend our observed reality in favour of the belief that there is a plan. On national debt and aged care reform we put our faith in a higher power. Even on climate change, we believe that if we look deeply enough something approaching a plan to reduce our carbon emissions may emerge.

We can’t quite explain what these plans are, but we believe they are there because their absence would be untenable.

It is in these figures that the opportunity for Labor at both a federal and a state level may be hiding in plain sight. This gap between faith in a plan and articulation of a plan is a chasm – and is something that will be tested over the coming months.

If a government is believed to be in a possession of a plan, at some point this will need to be made apparent.

If vaccines stall, quarantine flounders and Australia’s borders remain closed while the world reopens, this will test the faith of even the most devout believer in a plan.

If aged care languishes, debt balloons and Australia’s continues on its path to international climate pariah, the government will be exposed as the peddler of the most damaging of myths: that it had things in train.

Rather than pushing against the idea that governments should plan and spend, which has been the Coalition default approach since the 1970s, Labor needs to own this as the new political orthodoxy.

And once it’s the established model for government, they need to build on this intellectual victory and convince Australians that the people who have always championed this idea are the best qualified to bring it to fruition.

Peter Lewis will discuss the results of this week’s Guardian Essential Report with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy and Australia Institute chief economist Richard Dennis at 1pm on Tuesday

Read More: If ever a seat was not a litmus test for Labor it’s the Upper Hunter. Still the byelection reveals some truths | Peter Lewis

2021-05-24 21:31:00

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