Our Opposition Leader in NSW has encouraged a debate within the Party of what is an appropriate “Objective” for the 21st Century (http://www.lukefoley.com.au/wran_lecture). I listened to Luke’s address and whilst I recognise the thrust and the genuineness of the sentiments of much of his argument, I (and am sure others who read or listened to it) would feel if not offended, certainly disappointed, in his analysis and commentary specifically on the socialist objective.
I am afraid that for many in party the commitment to the objective is not a sentimental attachment, but rather a very real commitment. Like it or not I and many of our comrades actually consider ourselves socialists and believe that a democratic socialist Australia is the best option. To suggest that our commitment to this ideal is ‘sentimental’ could be considered by some as dismissive of the motivation that many Party members had in joining the ALP. I am not of course referring to the history of ‘carpet-baggers’ on the Right who join the ALP as a method of promotion, or, in some instances, a mere ‘business opportunity’. I am speaking of the huge majority of members who join the ALP with a very real sense of commitment. And the core of this commitment is the “socialist objective’ that is printed on every ALP ticket issued, and even, as I recall, was stated in the old branch ‘pledge book’ that had to be signed every year.
Updating of the National Platform is of course critical in ensuring that our Party is able to respond to changes in objective conditions- be they social attitudes, environmental concerns or economic conditions. However, there is a very distinct difference between short and medium term policy objectives and responses, and core values. The “Socialist Objective’ falls into the latter category. I know that many, particularly on the Right, argue that the ‘socialist objective’ is meaningless. I disagree. I think that this shows, in some instances, a shallowness of thinking or a wilful blindness to the direction the party has taken since the leadership of the likes of Hawke et al. It is almost a ‘justification’ for the Party having moved away from its core principals. Indeed, rather than argue for a re-adherence to our core principles, many seek to abandon them.
I particularly take issue with Luke’s analysis that there need be no difference in the provision of services by the public sector vs the private sector. It is not only the quality of the service, but the treatment of the workers who provide the service. Private sector provision by its very nature requires a profit- often in the vicinity of 20% gross- which manifests itself by either attacks on wages and conditions ( defence of which is much weaken since the abandonment of all encompassing award provisions some 20 years ago), or by reductions in the number of staff to deliver the service ( the capitalists call this ‘productivity improvements). The utilisation of competitive markets raises the potential, or more likely the certainty, for a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of wages and conditions, rather than a qualitative improvement in either services and /or working conditions. If Luke doubts this ( which he shouldn’t given his union background), simply look at the wage and condition relativities between ASU workers and PSA workers doing essentially the same job albeit in private sector v public sector. To suggest that the recipients of the service get a better deal through the private (for profit) or not-for-profit sector is utter nonsense. The quality of the service is provided by the commitment of the worker providing the service The same would apply to public sector ( owned and operated) housing and community/social housing. The current problems for public housing are a lack of investment by a succession of governments and that fact that many aspects of the day-to-day maintenance requirements have been ‘contracted out’. Trying ensure quality of service provision by contractual arrangements will inevitably lead to a reduction in both quality and flexibility as the private sector cut corners to maximise profit.
This is not to defend unequivocally the management of the public sector, but rather to point out that the solution is not bringing the private sector/community sector on board. Market based ‘solutions’ are what has got the so-called centre-left into public distain and distrust in much of the western world. Workers do not see the ‘centre-left/social democrats as providing a solution or response to the crisis of international capital and globalisation- hence the rise of parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podermos in Spain but also parties of the xenophobic right (UKIP, Front Nationale etc).
I am afraid that the model being proposed has the flavour of the Blairite / New Labour model- Blair who was touted as the so called moderniser, and so feted by the conservative media, fundamentally destroyed the British Labour Party by disengaging the working class core vote in pursuit of the middle class, often playing to the arguments of identity politics and managerialism. Addressing issues of identity politics should be a ‘no brainer’ for a party of the left as they fundamentally address issues of discrimination. But in and of itself, ‘identity politics’ are not antipathetic to a ‘liberal’ party ( see the US Democrats). Unless you accept Lenin’s analysis of the ALP ( look it up if you are not familiar) then the ALP is not a ‘liberal’ party but rather historically a party of the working class/Left. The ‘socialist objective’ distinguishes the ALP from a small “l” liberal party. Our historical commitment to the trade union movement, our commitment to public ownership of core and essential services and enterprises, appropriate levels of market regulation , and our commitment to fair wages and conditions - that can only be achieved by the existence of a public sector that sets appropriate community standards- are our core commitments and principles.
The existence of the ‘socialist objective’ allows many of us to accept the compromises that Labor in Government are ‘forced’ to make. This is deeper than a mere ‘sentimental attachment’.
Rather It goes to the core of those of us on the Left who continue to adhere to the Labor cause- and don’t walk away and join minor parties who trumpet their ideological purity-and who consider themselves ( and will remain so) Socialists.
Paul Pearce, member since 1974, former Mayor of Waverley and Member for Coogee