The Party And The Members

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The National Policy Forum must not be an alternative to member engagement.

In describing any member based organisation it is wise to remember that the organisation doesn’t “belong to the members”, it is the members.

Ultimately the formation of the Steering Committee 60 years ago rested as much on a rejection of party control by the officers through the industrial groups as it did on ideology alone. It is a principle that is worth fighting for still today.

I was therefore greatly concerned this week when the Australian and the Australian Financial Review referred to a draft report of the first chapter of the new National Platform. One journalist correctly noted that this was a draft, while another referred to it as having been “released.”

Neither of them, however, calls it a leak; someone in authority gave it to them.

But party members at large have not received it.

Sid Maher goes further and asserts that “Since 2000, the first chapter of the national platform has been seen as a reflection of the values of Labor’s federal leader and will be introduced by Mr Shorten at the conference in Melbourne in July.”

I don’t know where the highlighted assertion comes from! The chapter is currently entitled “Our Enduring Values”; our collective values should not be seen to be the personal values of the current leader.

As both sides of politics try to remind people, we do not have a presidential system. At an election citizens don’t vote for the position of prime minister, they vote for a local candidate and often on the basis of that candidate’s party affiliation.

The party’s enduring values are not those of Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Mark Latham or anyone else.

The Leader introducing the values statement creates an impossible position for the party. Any attempt by the National Conference to amend it will be howled down as damaging to the Leader’s standing, and hence the party’s so-called “electoral appeal.”

Chapter 1 is of course a different thing to the statement of the party’s objectives as stated in clauses 2 and 3 of the constitution and rules. But it does not help if the two are not aligned.

I am not a member of the National Policy Forum; I have not seen the draft. But Phillip Coorey did publish one whole paragraph.

Where once we sought to row, now we seek to steer, using competition to shape markets and let them work. We recognise that government can underpin markets, building institutions and underwriting stability, as well as releasing assets to allow for better competition and more opportunity. Our focus is on the circumstances, purpose and merit of each decision, not shackled by ideology.

This paragraph alone provides much to worry about.

If the Leader wants to use the opportunity of Conference to make a fine speech that can contend with other oft quoted party speeches such as Chifley’s Light on the Hill or Whitlam’s Only the Impotent are Pure he will have the opportunity as they did in a Leader’s address to conference (though the two examples were to State conferences).

But the imagery of a speech does not necessarily fit in a set of written values. The boating analogy at the start just doesn’t work in writing, but if I interpret it correctly it is simply wrong. Labor as a party has never sought to “row” if the meaning is to conduct a heavily centrally planned economy or one under widespread public ownership. On the flip side those who would remember the criticisms Labor used to experience from attempting to “pick winners”, claiming a role for Government to steer is still too strong.

Worse the phrase is probably backward – we don’t want to direct the economy but we do want to fuel it.

The second part of the sentence is equally woolly headed. We cannot use “competition to shape markets”; markets are the place in which competition occurs, not the outcome of competition.

Together they are particularly galling, because it presents the idea that Labor’s embrace of markets is recent. It simply isn’t.

One of the few economic achievements of the Whitlam Government was the Trade Practices Act 1974, the most pro-market piece of the Commonwealth till that time. Labor understands that the real beneficiary of effective competition is consumers who receive lower prices and better quality.

But Labor also recognises that there is no Platonic ideal of “the market” beloved by neoliberal theorists. All real world markets deviate from the theoretical ideal, and the task of Government is in managing these deviations. For example, Labor has never believed that the so-called “labour market” should be determined by Government dictate. Certainly some minimum standard terms are so described, but of limited scope. We have, however, supported the rebalance of bargaining power through the right of labour to organise in unions, and for the use of a purpose built dispute reconciliation mechanism.

The second sentence seeks to describe the function of Government as the process of designing markets. It again makes a hash of it.

The first is by the use of a contested term “institution.” To the public this tends to mean established bodies like the ACCC or the Courts. To an economist these are just manifestations of “institutions” which are the set of rules, both formal and customary, are managed. An extreme neo-classicist would tell you the only institution you need is contract and property law and the means to enforce them.

But I am at a complete loss when it comes to a supposed role for Government to “release assets for better competition and more opportunity.” Is this the release of assets Government owns? Does that just mean assets like land and radiocommunications assets? Or is it a call for more privatisation in that great mythical creature called “asset recycling”?

But really it is when you get to the third sentence that the real meaning is revealed and the confusion of the first two sentences understood.

Labor will not be a Party shackled by anything as shoddy as ideology, because clearly the best enduring value a Party could ever seek is to have no values at all. And let there never be a consideration of how the decisions of Government collectively impact on each other, decisions will just be based on whatever we happen to think is important at a time.

So here is a quick version of how I think that paragraph could be written.

Labor has always supported the operation of a market economy focussed on achieving socially optimal ends. Markets do not operate in a void but instead operate within a framework that it is the responsibility of Government to create. In determining how those rules should be shaped Labor will consider how the rules best implement the principles of social democracy.

To which I would add

Labor’s policies are based on delivering collective benefits based on the golden rule that lies at the heart of most moral codes; we should treat each other as we would have others treat us. Modern neoliberalism has abandoned this code and pursues instead the selficj objectivism of Ayn Rand, they believe that in acing one should only care about themselves.

In the words of Bill Clinton, we believe “we are all in this together” is a better philosophy than “you are on your own.”

I do note that I am reacting to a draft. I have faith that wise heads at the National Policy Forum have revised the draft extensively.

But I return to the core theme that the party is the members. That this draft seems to have been released officially and that the Leader seems to be putting his name to it shows we have a long way to go in reclaiming the party. 


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