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A Scandinavian road map for Labor’s path back to power

In 2018 – citing the need to protect the Danish welfare system – the Social Democrats adopted many of the hardline positions of the then-conservative government on immigration and refugee policy. According to Christensen, the policy shift was challenging for the party but allowed it to move onto its policy strengths – and this is where the creative new policies came to the fore.

The Social Democrats committed to new spending on health care and education, but the policy that really captured public imagination and brought home the political bacon was a new retirement plan.

Like Australia, the policy trajectory in Denmark had been towards later retirement with a national target of lifting the retirement age to 70.

But the Social Democrats’ self-described “Grand Idea” meant Danish workers should be in the labour market not until a prescribed age, but for a total of 40 years, and then should have a right to retirement on a pension.

So a labourer who enters the workforce at 18 can retire at 58; a professional with tertiary qualifications who enters the workforce at say 28 can retire at 68, if they wish.

The policy gives people who feel physically run-down and unable to work the right to retire from the job market years earlier than normal. It also allows older people to work reduced hours in a “flexjob”.

As the General Secretary described it: “Bricklayers, social and health workers, carpenters, nurses, metal workers and many other industries have employees who struggle with more and more pain over the years due to their jobs. And if you are worn-out, we think you should have the opportunity to be pensioned earlier.”

These promises were funded by higher levies on capital gains and a doubling of the inheritance tax for the wealthy. The already high-tax paying Danes are seemingly less sensitive to tax increases than Australians.

A third important component to the Social Democrats’ policy agenda centred on environmental policy with the 2018 European heatwave making climate change a priority issue.

The party responded with a promise to “make Denmark a green superpower again”. Framing the debate around national pride, the party committed to ambitious emission cuts. Job creation and industry development was central to the policy, with a doubling in green research to support new cleantech industries and a pledge to build three massive offshore wind farms creating thousands of local manufacturing jobs.

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As the now Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said: “I am a social democrat first and green second, we will deliver climate justice along with social and economic justice.”

The comparison with Australia is stark. Labor’s environment policy was admirable, but was left defenceless when it came under attack as a jobs killer in regional Australia.

Even more significantly, what was Labor’s “Grand Idea”? The “retirement tax”? A generic commitment to “more funding for schools and hospitals”? There was no attention-grabbing big idea to really capture public imagination and move the policy debate onto terms that suited Labor.

The comparisons on immigration are more difficult. The ALP aped the Coalition’s hard line on offshore detention some years ago, and like their Danish counterparts included some humanitarian offsets. There is also a much higher degree of public support for immigration and multiculturalism in Australia compared to Denmark.

But the parallels between the rise of the Danish Peoples Party and One Nation in Australia are very similar. And Labor has not yet worked out a way to win back these voters.

The final complication for comparisons with Australia is the Danish proportional representational voting system and the formation of multi-party governing blocks.

This means the Social Democrats could afford to lose voters to more progressive left-wing parties while winning back working-class voters who had moved to the nationalist populist parties. The overall result was that the parties on the left enjoyed an increase in their vote to its highest levels since the 1970s. With the voting centre of gravity having shifted left, a left-leaning coalition led by the Social Democrats was able to seize power after the election.

Nicholas Reece is a principal fellow at the University of Melbourne and is a former Secretary of the Australian Labor Party in Victoria.

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