A challenge to Labor to fight for a fair economy. Many of us gathered in December 2011 at ALP National Conference – amidst a global economic meltdown, where decades long neo-liberal dogma was unravelling, where a generation of working people across Europe and North America were seeing their financial security wiped away, where the promise of trickle-down progress was demonstrably not working – and we stood silent.
Sure, Australia was doing better than many. But economic policy and direction barely rated a breath much less a raised voice at Conference.
Where were we? Where was the Left? Where was our anger? Our alternate agenda? Our agitation?
In months since I’ve reflected on our silence – and I’m reminded of a story told by left intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy.
In 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy rang Levy seeking his endorsement for the French Presidency. In pushing for his support Sarkozy urged Levy to “Be courageous, my dear Bernard. Be courageous, get out of bed”. Despite this Levy supported the socialist candidate because as he said “I belong to the Left…the Left is my family and you can’t change families the way you change shirts.” In his book “Left in Dark Times” Levy goes on to recount what makes him of the Left and cites a number of observed or lived images, events and personal ‘reflexes’ to both.
I too feel that the Left is my family but I also feel like we need to “be courageous…and get out of bed” - not to support the Sarkozy’s-of-the-world but to offer a coherent and uplifting alternative – to create the images and events that energise and inspire those old and new to the left.
The best we could do at Conference was, almost without murmur, shed long vaunted values as articulated in the 2009 and previous Platforms of “social justice, compassion and the fair go” for the new, 2011 ‘austerity values’ of “opportunity, responsibility, and fairness”.
Hardly inspiring! But then appealing to the middle ground rarely is.
One of the greatest drivers for people of left politics is the notion that we work to make the world a better and fairer place for all. Martin Luther King maintained that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”. King didn’t simply believe this to be inevitable. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability” he would say but “comes through the tireless efforts of [people].” Obama picked up on this refrain on the evening of his 2007 election victory when he spoke of the need for people to “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more towards the hope of a better day.”
It is incredibly powerful imagery.
And one that most in our community want to sign up to.
Ask any unionist and much of what drives their commitment is building a better tomorrow –particularly for their families. One of the strongest elements of the YourRights@Work campaign came from older Australians concerns for young workers. Concerns that young Australians were being open to exploitation - inheriting a worse set of rights and protections than previous generations.
This notion of handing on an improved collective legacy is intrinsic to a left agenda.
But it is severely under challenge.
You have only to look at the more than 500 submissions to the ACTU’s recent Inquiry into Insecure Work - to hear those workers’ stories - to know something is not right in our community. And as I look at the random stack of books listing precariously on my floor I see titles like Krugman’s “The Age of Diminished Expectation”, Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land” and Hacker’s “The Great Risk Shift” and know that this isn’t by chance or personal misadventure.
There is a contest.
That arc of history doesn’t inexorably bend toward justice. Its direction is in dispute. For too many in the community today it appears to be bending well away from that very goal. A number of recent surveys show increasing numbers of Australians unconvinced that the future will be better.
So what is the role of the left in this contest?
I remember being disconcerted by a talk I attended a year or so ago titled “Is the right the new left?”. Much of the discussion focussed on whether the mantle of ‘radical’ or even ‘progressive’ more appropriately fitted the ‘warriors of the right’ as they consciously strove to recast our economy and society while left social democratic parties seemed more intent on managing the status quo or holding on to past wins – positioning themselves to be the current day conservatives.
No one on the left can be satisfied by the status quo. For a start it never remains the same for long – we all know that change is inevitable – the issue is that progress (in left collectivist terms) is optional. But we are also kidding ourselves if we think the status quo is ok.
The years of neo liberal ‘reform’ have had many consequences.
The Shifting of Risk
Critics like Hacker provide a damning critique of the impacts on everyday people as states withdraw, markets flourish and citizens become first and foremost individual consumers. We see people required to purchase that which was previously an entitlement - or go without. As the diagram below depicts, people are being squeezed every-which-way.
Workers Pay in a number of ways.
Workers are finding the new jobs to be more precarious. The ‘economic scarring’ that has traditionally been associated with economic downturns i.e. the slow re-entry of displaced workers back into jobs - invariably of less pay and security – is increasingly becoming a dominant employment trend. Just look at the experience of nearly 2000 Pacific Brands clothing and textile workers made redundant a year ago. Their union TCFUA has followed up members to see how they’ve gone finding new employment and found nearly half to still be unemployed and of those with jobs three quarters have only been able to find lower paying, low houred casual employment. For many, these are the jobs of the future.
Workers are also finding it harder to organise - to have a voice on the job and in the wider polity. You would think from the hysteria of Australia’s business community that giving workers a say is a terribly unnatural and damaging social vice. What they are really railing against is redistribution of power and money. That is why unions exist and that is what bargaining and political organisation delivers.When Labor governments work with unions to build worker organisation this is not just an act of political solidarity it is a key element of ensuring fairer wealth redistribution. And as we know, a more equal society is a more cohesive, healthier, safer and innovative society.
But risk shift doesn’t simply impact workers.
Households also pay.
As government’s privatise and outsource we see households scrambling to pay new or enlarged bills.
The public doesn’t support wholesale privatisations. They are not convinced by the argument that the profit motive does it better. If any Labor member needs to be convinced just unpack the backlash against NSW and Queensland Labor governments. I remember in the 2010 Federal Election our members ran a very hard on-the-ground campaign in the WA marginal seat of Hasluck. A good candidate, Sharryn Jackson, stood on a platform opposing the privatisation of the local Midlands Hospital. That campaign really resonated with the public and although Sharryn lost that seat by a handful of votes the overall swing in the seat was minimal and trended well against the state average. Exit polling showed privatisation to be a key voting determinant.Surely there’s a lesson to be learnt here?
And ultimately, taxpayers pay.
We’ve learnt that ‘free markets’ can be quite expensive - requiring both direct and indirect taxpayer subsidy, support and at times, bailout.
The end result is that people are being stretched - dogged by economic insecurity and growing levels of debt. Household debt has trebled for Australians from around a 50% share of disposable income at the beginning of the 1990s to around 160% today.
Little wonder people are sensitive to minor increases to cost of living - much less major economic reform.
Naming the Problem
People in our community are struggling to cope with, or understand, these changes.
In 1990 Krugman called it well with the release of his quite prescient book “The Age of Diminished Expectation”. In it he argued that the community’s expectations of a better future were being self-calibrated – as he put it “high hopes have been replaced by, at best, stoic acceptance.” 20 years on market failure, growing inequality and a failing labour market have ramped up both awareness and anger. But also disengagement.
On the one hand we have seen the Occupy movement internationally give voice to much of these failings. But we’ve also seen people, particularly in Australia, turn away from conventional politics as it fails to address their issues and concerns.
People are looking for a voice.
We need an outcry.
In the midst of a once in a lifetime economic boom why is it that people are looking at diminished standards of living? Growing inequality? Less political say over their lives and community?
We need to talk about the things that people want to talk about – about the future of their kids, about what is happening to growing inequality, about growing insecurity and the burgeoning of substandard jobs.
And Australians are ready for such a discussion. A recent poll by the ACTU found that people do not realise how significant the wealth gap is but when they do they want radical change – regardless of age, gender or income.
When you look at how wealth is divided in this country you have to pause.
60% of Australians control less than 20% of our nation’s wealth while 60% of our wealth is controlled by just 20% of Australians.
And the gap is growing.
Since 2005-06 (CPI adjusted), the wealthiest 20% of households have increased their average net worth 15%, while the poorest 20% of households saw only a 4% rise.
Krugman is also right in his 1990 treatise – if we are to lift living standards we need to talk about productivity. “It isn’t everything” as he said “but in the long run it is almost everything”. And yet in Australia today we’ve allowed the business community to take ownership of this debate, framing it narrowly as a labour cost issue - using it to put unions and Labor on the back foot.
Economics should not define us as a nation but the left has to re-engage with both passion and insight into how we argue for an economics that builds a better and fairer future for all.
That arc of history won’t wait for us. We need to be the voice in the community that names the problem - to give people the tools to link their own circumstances with others, to understand the forces at play. We need to empower a new left force that can argue and mobilise around core issues that do indeed build a better life – how do we build a more productive economy with fair distribution of the gains, decent jobs, and compassion and inclusion for all?
Fighting for a ‘Fair Economy For All’ is surely the best way to both bend that arc toward justice but to also invigorate a party organisation with vision, energy and people.
On this one occasion maybe Sarkozy had it right - we on the left need to “Be courageous … to get out of bed”!
Author: Louise Tarrant
Secretary United Voice