Despite obstacles, young agitators take fight to Albanese on Labor policies

Despite obstacles, young agitators take fight to Albanese on Labor policies

August 18, 2023

By David Crowe

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The warning to Anthony Albanese on tax and housing sounded like a speech to a Greens rally when a couple of young speakers stood in Brisbane on Thursday to tell the prime minister what they thought of his policies.

But the speakers were some of the Labor leader’s own supporters – in fact, his potential colleagues in caucus if they make it to federal parliament. And they wanted him to do far more on one of the most challenging, heated and important policy disputes in national politics.

Julijana Todorovic, an emerging leader in the Labor Left faction in Victoria, praised the federal government for its housing policies so far. Then she gave it a jab. Do more, she said, and do it fast.

Julijana Todorovic, an emerging leader in the Labor Left faction in Victoria, and construction union leader Zach Smith told Labor’s leadership they needed to do more on tax and housing.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Her argument, backed by others on the floor of Labor’s national conference this week, was that big companies had to pay more tax to fund a more ambitious approach to increasing housing supply.

“We have structured our economy in such a way that the only pathway to economic security in this country is through the ownership of private property,” she said.

“We’ve struck some kind of deal with the devil where our society is now divided between those who have safe and secure long-term housing and those who know the dream of it.

“We have an ethical and moral duty to ensure every Australian has a basic human right of safe and secure shelter. I do sincerely congratulate the Albanese Labor government on their reforms so far. But when we are in a hole so deep, we need something bigger and bolder. We have to look to taxing corporations to fund housing.”

The debate was polite. Nobody yelled from the podium. It was certainly too gentle for Labor warhorses who remember the open brawls at Labor conferences in the past. But the demands on the government were there for those who took the trouble to listen. Lift your game, said these voices, because your policies look too weak.

Zach Smith, a construction union leader, pushed at the conference for a tax on company profits to pay for more housing. He did not get a vote to change federal policy and raise $290 billion in a decade with a great big new tax, of course. That would only give Opposition Leader Peter Dutton a massive scare campaign for the next federal election. What he got instead was a resolution that said company tax was part of the solution on housing.

“Australia’s wealth is not in the pockets of ordinary Australians,” Smith told delegates. “It is concentrated in the balance sheets of an elite cabal of companies, which is why our union has launched our campaign: end the housing crisis, tax super profits.

“We’ve been told since the ’80s to sit back and let the markets decide, that the great reform era is over. Well, this is nonsense. The state has a role to play, and it must play this role.”

The agitators had to settle for less than they wanted, but they made their presence felt. The result is a slow burn on policy change.

The pressure for tax reform is palpable: Labor delegates want Treasurer Jim Chalmers to look for new ways to raise revenue to fund social policy. If it is not a super profits tax, will it be a change to negative gearing for property investors or a cut to the concessions on capital gains tax?

One of the biggest questions was talked about but never put from the floor. Will the government scale back the “stage three” tax cuts that are forecast to cost $313 billion over the 10 years to 2034, or will it commit to a broader tax rethink in the next term of parliament? Rumours spread at the conference about a motion that criticised the personal tax cuts, but it never emerged.

On climate change, the message to Albanese was similar to the warnings about housing: you are not doing enough.

ETU national secretary Michael Wright called for more spending on renewables and was also the lead speaker against nuclear submarines.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Michael Wright, the national secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, called for more spending on renewables to match the huge subsidies in the United States and Europe to bring emissions down to net zero levels by 2050.

“We are in the midst of an energy transition that is, in truth, an industrial revolution,” he said. “Because net zero means the electrification of every home.”

Then he added something Albanese and his ministers cannot say: this means completely phasing out the use of gas for homes and petrol for cars.

Wright was also the lead speaker against nuclear submarines, another sign of the willingness to take on the leadership on policy.

But Albanese made sure to stop open argument on the conference floor. Some faction leaders helped him by imposing tight controls that forced those who wanted to speak to lodge “expressions of interest”, which meant only a few gained clearance. Delegates had to queue and hope for time to address the meeting. Motions that could have caused trouble were turned into bland, bureaucratic language.

The great exception, the debate on the AUKUS defence pact on Friday, had to happen because hundreds of branches were concerned about nuclear submarines. It would have been unthinkable for Albanese to preside over an event that was utterly silent on the issue. On other issues, such as tax, debate was limited.

“This is the worst it’s ever been,” one long-standing delegate said of the restrictions on speakers. “It is all designed to stifle debate.”

Albanese knew how to control the troublemakers because he used to be a troublemaker himself. As the president of NSW Young Labor, he agitated against the reforms led by prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“Privatisation is the crunch issue,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1987. “If privatisation happens, make no mistake, the next question on the agenda will be deregulation of the labour market.”

Albanese enjoyed the freedom of those rowdy debates when he was young, but this week he presided over a conference that made it harder for young Labor people to be heard.

Delegates admitted the reason for the constraints: disunity is death, so conferences must be more controlled when Labor is in power.

This meant some observers regarded the conference as a yawn. They did not get to hear many angry speeches from the main stage (the biggest cheer was for maritime union boss Paddy Crumlin when he railed against Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp). They did not get to see much finger-pointing and fury on the conference floor (apart from calls of “shame” and “bullshit” when Defence Minister Richard Marles was defending AUKUS). Even so, there was pressure on Albanese to keep the faith with the Labor base. It was polite and gentle and made sure to support the leader’s authority. But it was there.

Policy change is a long game. Young agitators emerged at this Labor conference to do to Albanese what he did to Hawke and Keating – make trouble. This will shape the debates to come on tax, housing, climate, defence and more.

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