By Blake Hampton
An unprecedented political revolution is happening in the United States right now. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is drawing tens of thousands of people to rallies across the country, pulling the working class from out of the woodwork even in traditional Republican states.
The populist/socialist is channelling the anger of the populous to take on the establishment and for the first time in modern history, an out-loud-and-proud leftist is putting forward a platform to reform the country on a truly progressive agenda.
In the context of a presidential campaign dominated by Donald Trump, a New York billionaire that has given the media more gaffes and sound bytes than thoughtful policy ideas, the Sanders momentum is something to behold.
The 74-year old from Vermont is unapologetically determined to bring down corporate greed, significantly tackle income inequality, end college tuition fees and expand Obamacare – The Affordable Care Act that has been lambasted and challenged by Republicans ever since it came into law.
The 2016 Sanders campaign is generating excitement and enthusiasm from the liberal base, a segment of America that often has to settle for a centrist candidate to satisfy a general election. With the Tea Party pushing for Republicans to elect far right conservatives, Sanders offers a legitimate alternative to Hilary Clinton on the left.
But whom among the Australian political process could a future version of Bernie Sanders emerge? With so little distinguishing between the Liberal and Labor parties, the candidates to take the current Opposition to an election in the near future appear few.
The last leader to adopt policies that match a progressive platform would be Gough Whitlam, the Labor Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975. The 21st leader of the nation is best known for being dismissed by Governor General Sir John Kerr, but until then he implemented universal health care, ended military conscription, became a strong advocate for multiculturalism and provided university education completely free of charge.
Since that time, many of the politicians in power, of whom directly benefited from a University degree at no personal cost, have taken Australia on a centrist-left or centrist-right direction. Both major parties have subsequently fallen foul of trying to win the daily news cycle and cut costs to balance the budget, rather than table long-term concepts embracing a progressive vision for the country.
Three names from the current crop of the Labor Party stand out as potential leaders with a genuine liberal agenda – Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek and Sam Dastyari.
The former is the first Asian-born member of cabinet, already bridging an important demographic gap between federally elected members and the cultural shift in Australia. As a member of the gay community herself, Wong fervently argued in favour of marriage equality against Cory Bernardi at the National Press Club and was Minister for Climate Change under the Rudd administration.
Deputy Opposition Leader Plibersek is another often visible member of the Labor Party, becoming something of a regular on ABC’s Q&A program. Aside from a controversial backing of the Liberal Party’s stance against marriage equality in 2007, Plibersek was a voice against the Iraq War in 2003 and became a strong advocate for women’s rights in parliament.
Then there is the newcomer to the scene, Sam Dastyari. The 32-year old Iranian-born Senator has worked his way up the ranks from a lobbyist and became heavily involved with the “Labor Right” faction in the trade union movement.
Yet his public criticism of major corporations, particularly the power of the big banks and mining companies, illustrates that Dastyari has the confidence to speak out on these issues in the same vein as Sanders. He infamously described the “unprecedented concentration of corporate influence,” as one of the central factors holding the nation back.
While 2016 should be more of the same if Bill Shorten takes Labor to the election against Malcolm Turnbull, the supposed party of the Australian left has a strong progressive streak among its ranks. It will be up to the hierarchy to decide which direction they want to head depending on the result.