Labor’s ‘path to victory’ lies in Australia’s outer suburbs, Jim Chalmers says

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Labor’s “path to victory” must travel through Australia’s outer suburbs and give struggling families a voice, Labor’s shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers says, as the party seeks to reposition itself in the wake of the May election.

Chalmers, who was promoted to the treasury portfolio in Anthony Albanese’s shadow cabinet, used a speech in Melbourne on Thursday to argue that the Labor party is at its “best and truest self” when it acts as the “party of the outer suburbs”.

“There’s no path to victory that doesn’t travel through the ring roads and growth corridors of outer metropolitan Australia,” Chalmers said, launching a new book from the head of the John Curtin Research Centre, Nick Dyrenfurth.

“You can’t have a strong national economy without good jobs and rising living standards in the suburbs.

“Put it this way: this country succeeds when economic policy has a suburban sensibility.”

While saying the cities are “obviously” important and the regions were also “critical”, Chalmers points to the political imperative of connecting to the outer suburbs, saying a third of all federal electorates are classified “outer metropolitan” by the Australian Electoral Commission.

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At the 2007 election – the last time Labor was elected to government from opposition – the party won a combined 45.3% of the primary vote, compared to the 38.7% won in May this year.

“The suburbs are where the political contest between the major parties is most frequently and most prominently joined,” Chalmers said.

“The suburbs determine whether Labor prevails or fails.”

Acknowledging that prime minister Scott Morrison had also targeted outer suburban Australians by pitching to the so-called “quiet Australians”, Chalmers said that the economy was failing those living in outer metropolitan Australia.

Pointing to a median weekly income $100 lower than inner city areas, high levels of mortgage stress, higher unemployment and lower incomes, Chalmers said that economic growth was not “trickling down” to these people.

“If the PM understood anything about life in the suburbs he’d know the quiet Australians are faring badly under a Liberal government in its seventh year and third term.”

“Morrison celebrates the silence of the quiet Australians instead of understanding their struggles – we want to give them a voice.”

While arguing the party needed to shape the centre ground of politics with a focus on wages and jobs and the outer suburbs, Chalmers said this did not mean retreating from progressive politics of the environment and social justice.

On climate change, he rejects the idea that action on climate change is an inner-city issue, or something that only the “luvvies” care about.

“I think it’s a central and defining issue in suburbs like those I represent, which goes to cheaper and cleaner energy, cost of living, investment certainty, and – as Anthony put it really well on Tuesday in Perth – the jobs of the future.”

Recapturing lost support also means learning the lessons of the campaign without obsessing over the outcome forever

Jim Chalmers

He also rejected an argument put forward by Dyrenfurth that Labor had become too middle class and should consider establishing a “new working-class quota system” – a key argument made in the book.

“I believe our parliamentary ranks are more diverse – more suburban and more working class – than the caricature allows.”

The comments from Chalmers come as a series of frontbenchers put forward their views on the direction of the party and the faults of the election campaign led by Bill Shorten.

In a speech on Thursday, frontbencher Clare O’Neil will argue that changing political faultlines will require Labor to take a different approach to its economic program and to reconsider how it engages with voters on cultural issues.

Next week, a review that has been conducted by Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson into the party’s campaign will be handed to the party’s federal executive and then publicly released.

Chalmers said that it was important for the party to learn the lessons of the party’s defeat and then “draw a line” and focus on the future.

“We’ve got a responsibility to learn from what happened and get on with our jobs,” Chalmers said.

“Recapturing lost support also means learning the lessons of the campaign without obsessing over the outcome forever.”

He also said that responsibility for the defeat should not rest with Shorten alone, saying the former leader should not “carry the can on his own” for the party’s collective failures.

“In the Labor party we take decisions collectively and we take responsibility for them collectively as well.”