We're not there yet: Labor’s past, present, and future as a party of government

Andrew Giles is Shadow Assistant Minister for Schools

Modern Australia’s story is in many ways the story of the Australian Labor Party. It's a story of contests between progress and reaction; with progress prevailing - driven by the Labor party, and through the actions of Labor governments.

Since Federation it has been Labor which has driven the social and economic changes which have built our nation, from establishing the age pension to founding the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But Labor members today aren't curators of a museum of social democracy, concerned only to memorialise past glories. Paul Keating put it this way: “We are steeped in our history and we’re proud of it… But the paradox is, obsessed with our history as we are, we are still the party which divines the future. We employ that history to shape the future.”

We remain in the business of making, and unmaking, social and economic conditions, of redistributing power and opportunity. Our past is a foundation, not a finished work. Far from it: as we are becoming a less equal society.

So, today Labor’s concern must be to reshape Australia’s social compact for the times in which we live. This is to be done by restating the case for Labor as the movement for change, and the party of government, which will shape Australia’s future progress just as much as it has our past.

Labor and Australian Progress

Either side of the start of the 20th century, Australian Labor’s forbears made two critical decisions. First, to recognise that economic justice could not be secured through action in workplaces alone and so to pursue a parliamentary path. Subsequently, to move beyond a policy in the parliament of providing support to liberal governments in return for policy concessions to seek to form Labor governments in our own right. Both decisions have stood the test of time.

While critics, including Vladimir Lenin, derided early Labor’s approach, we remember how it saw Australia emerge from Federation as the world’s social laboratory. It enabled the scope of Ben Chifley’s ambitions for our movement, as striving not simply for extra wages but rather to bring ‘something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness’.

From the governments led by Andrew Fisher to those of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, the Labor agenda has written our history. It's Labor initiatives which have informed and expanded what it means to be Australian. Universal healthcare may well be the exemplar of the progress and reaction dynamic, of how political contest has defined our social compact and the practical limits of political reaction.

These governments have looked to Party platforms to guide their actions. Policies developed democratically by the Party, presented to the people and enacted through legislative and administrative decisions.

The role of the wider Party in framing the scope of government action deserves greater appreciation, including within Labor. It can be a vital counterweight to the voices of entrenched interests and rent seekers in our politics (as well as to deepening alienation), if we can continue to locate important decisions close to people affected by them.

Think about the great Conference debates around opening up the economy in the 1980s, and the legitimacy this conferred on complex and challenging decisions. Or about how Gough Whitlam made the case for modernising Labor and a modern Australia through the forums of an initially skeptical Party.

Perhaps the return to more open deliberations of the 2015 Conference, in contrast to its stage managed and recent sanitised predecessors, might be a step forward. It’s noteworthy that so much of the commentary focussed on the manner in which we managed our disagreements. There's surely something to think further about here - if it's important to instill more respect and civility into politics, then within the party that conducts its business in the open would seem the obvious place to start.

The link between the party processes and being explicitly, and unambiguously, a party of government is vital. Involvement in Labor isn't akin to participating in a book club, it's setting a template to shape the circumstances in which we live.

In this regard, while much has already been written on the significance of the Rudd and Gillard governments, too little attention has been paid to the consequences of the manner in which government was formed after the 2010 election. Lost in other criticisms is the gulf between the propositions put before the election, and the constraints the establishment of government placed on implementing these. This is quite separate from frustration courtesy of a resistant Senate.

The compromises made to form government were effectively exploited by Tony Abbott and the then Opposition. The very real achievements of the administrations led by Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd were obscured by (amongst other things, of course) this attack on legitimacy, which we have struggled to confront, as it requires asking difficult questions of ourselves as well.

We can start to do so by emphasising our commitment to continue to be a party of government. Which follows directly from our internal democratic commitments. An open and inclusive policy development process is the input, which should be followed by a wider democratic conversation at the time government is formed. Voters should be placed the appreciate the choice before them, and it's import for their lives, if the decision they make is to be a meaningful one, or indeed one they choose to make at all.

Today, changes in the economy and in particular in the world of work amplify the importance of role of government to people.  Notwithstanding predictions of the coming irrelevance of the nation-state, at a time of increasing inequality and insecurity the role of the state in moderating imbalances of power is as critical as ever.

Challenges to Labor

Mr Lenin wasn't alone in challenging Australian Labor’s approach last century. In facing up to today’s political challenges, we should be wary of the assumption they are an entirely new phenomenon.

The progressive side of Australian politics has always been heavily contested. Deakinite Liberals, a wide variety of revolutionary socialists including the Australian Communist Party, Lang Labor, the Australia Party and the Australian Democrats all sought - unsuccessfully - to claim this mantle. Not forgetting the split of the fifties that led to the formation of the DLP.

But in the Greens Party we do face the most significant challenge for the attention, and loyalty, of progressive voters in more than a century.

It's a challenge Labor has to take seriously. If we don't, we face the prospect of losing our claim to be a party of government. And everything that comes with it, including our sense of the Platform as a template for government. This is an existential challenge. But one we can answer, on our terms. Because, actually, it's about us, not them. Voters aren't leaving Labor because they've been won over by an alternative proposition. Instead they and been expressing their frustrations with the Party - demonstrated most obviously with respect to the issue of asylum.

Labor supporters are putting us on notice, but far from walking away people are seeking to re-engage with the Party. Indeed, our membership is on the rise, drawn by the promise of having a say, most obviously through selecting our parliamentary leaders. Today we have a third more members than prior to the 2013 election.

This new generation of activists is united in a sense that three things (still) matter: that national government remains an important force for good in people's lives; formal politics can still give people a meaningful say in how their society operates; and the Labor Party is the place where a diverse range of people can come together to shape our common future for the better.

Under new leader Richard Di Natale, the Greens are trying to fudge the decision Labor took in the early 1900s. They want to play support in return for concessions, while seeking to supplant Labor as the progressive party of government in Australia. Having their cake, and eating it, too. All the while failing to grapple with critical questions around the role of government.

There's a democratic legitimacy issue here, too. In an organisation which is almost completely opaque as the Greens Party is, there's a capacity to be supremely agile in responding to changed circumstances - but no capacity to really engage people in a deep, transformative political conversation.

For me, rebuilding trust in politics boils down to rejecting cynicism. And the (re)positioning of the Greens is as cynical as it gets. It's a calculation based on exploiting dissatisfaction. All about presenting to a section of Labor supporters as the other side of a difficult choice that Labor, as a party of government, has made. Rejecting the critical importance of making such choices, instead of facing up to the responsibility of leading debate on them and their consequences.

But it would be a mistake to locate the threat to Labor, and to Labor’s purpose, as being presented solely in the form of the Greens Party.

We must also confront a more profound challenge to democratic politics, and look to its causes rather than simply the symptoms. If there's a political crisis in western democracies, it's really a crisis of faith. Faith that our political institutions can deliver meaningful change, and that people can engage in these institutions to help in making those changes.

The implied bargain that underpinned societies like ours was founded on an understanding that growth would continue to support increased living standards. Lately, people are less confident that this is the case and have voted, or rather not voted, with their feet. There’s a clear trend of political (and civic, for that matter) disengagement - when it comes to voting and enrolling to vote.

Sadly, this is most pronounced amongst many who have most at stake. We have troubling research from the Lowy Institute demonstrating that young Australians are not only switched off from political action, they have little interest in democracy at all. According to the 2015 Lowy Poll, only 49% of 18-29 year old voters showed any preference for democracy.

It's not just the young. We have parties whose membership is less and less representative of the wider community and an electorate which is, albeit more slowly, moving in the same direction. In the U.S. we can look to the logical conclusion of this - a politics which largely ignores the interests of the economically insecure, who have opted out of involvement or been actively excluded. This has begun to change in recent times, but it is a slow process.

This opting out is born of a frustration which is readily understandable. People feel remote from decisions which shape their lives because they are remote from them. Think about the significance to everyday life of technocratic determinations via systems of ‘double delegation’ on matters like interest rates and of international trade agreements negotiated in secret.

Across the developed world we are seeing a growth in populist politics. What these insurgent movements have in common is a rejection of formal politics as it has been practised, expressed through a deep cynicism about all involved in it. Offering easy answers to mobilise insecurity. This is true of Donald Trump, of Marine Le Pen and the Front National, of UKIP, of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement and many other reactionary forces, Clive Palmer included. There's also, of course, been an emergent populism of the left, especially in response to European austerity.

I don't suggest for a moment that there aren't good reasons to react. A global economic crisis which grew out of unrestrained greed, and which in many countries was exacerbated by austerity, is something we should all be angry about. The question is: how should we express our anger? Put another way: is reaction really the best vision of the future the centre left in Australia can put forward?

In my view, we should respond by remaking Labor’s social democratic case, heeding two lessons from recent political history. First, reformist politics must be founded on hope - a prospect that the world can be changed for the better, the progress hasn't come to an end. But this isn't enough.

The insurgent wave that powered Podemos, Syriza and the rest of the European anti-austerity left is foundering because protest alone can't sustain a movement for change. The posture of Marlon Brando in the wild one (‘what are you rebelling against? What have you got?’) is attractive, sure, but it's empty. It's politics for the dinner party, not government.

A critique is a necessary but insufficient basis for seeking to correct abuses and gross imbalances of power. So we must focus our attention not simply on railing against the excesses and injustices of the present, but on a program - a Labor program - for government founded in a realistic optimism.

Again, there's much to be angry about. This anger is an energy that can't be allowed to dissipate. It should be founding an alternative, and this should be the core work of our next progressive government. A response to record post-war levels of inequality which applies the lessons drawn from Labor’s experience to our present challenges. Which reminds us of the moral purpose at the core of Labor’s reason for being.

We shouldn't be afraid to ask ‘how much is enough?’ of those who profited at our collective expense, such as the owners of the 600 of our largest companies which paid no income tax last year. Or, more to the point, of those struggling to get by on Newstart; those children likely to be locked out of early childhood education; of indigenous Australians; of retail workers relying on penalty rates and too many others not seeing the benefits of a record period of economic growth. Those whose concerns are too often too far from the centre of the progressive political conversation.

Looking beyond ‘progressive’

In writing about the prospects of a progressive government for Australia, we can't forget these people - those for whom the character of the government matters most.

The term ‘progressive’ is too often a humpty dumpty word in politics: it's whatever you want it to mean. Clearly it's not a synonym for being  left-wing. It's a side step around a class analysis, too often. This enables it to function both as a label claimed by neoliberals like Malcolm Turnbull and David Cameron, and a rallying cry for populists to rebel against. Of course, Labor hasn't been an unambiguously ‘progressive movement’, and some say this is a label we should reject.

In a recent speech to the Fabian Society, Nick Dyrenfurth expanded on this: “Labor has never been a straightforwardly "progressive" party, at least by the current meaning of the term. Standing against the commodification of people and place, and preserving time-honoured institutions and traditions, is both progressive and conservative, and an inherently Labor ideal.”

He's half right. There has always has been resistance to a progressive attitude within Labor and we have stood (and will continue to stand) against commodification of human beings and the places in which they live. But it's a stretch, to say the very least, to suggest that caring about people and their relationships makes cleaving to tradition an ‘ideal’ of the movement.

My understanding of the Labor approach sees this very differently. Our Party is in the business of making and unmaking social and economic relations. As we should be. To ensure equality between people where existing structures deny this.

This isn't a hard strand to discern in our story. Our progressive reshaping of social relationships - from opening up the franchise to striving for equality in how we recognise loving relationships - sits alongside our concern to offer economic security to all. As it must.

Progressivism separated from other distributive agendas presents a feeding ground for a populism born of resentment. Weirdly, the feeding is not only attended to by populist demagogues and regulars on the Australian’s opinion page, but by some in Labor.

Who have failed to heed the lesson Gough Whitlam bravely taught in the sixties: that economic justice and social progress go hand in hand and are to be secured through opening up political space in Labor to all on the centre left.

There's no doubt that many who are economically insecure look to more stable times, and it's clear that some have been receptive to attempts to separate their concerns from those of an inner city ‘elite’ whose lives are remote from theirs. And that there are plenty seeking to exploit this insecurity, for their own reasons. Mostly, they constitute a real elite: the 1% who are increasingly dominating our political conversation just as they increase their share of our economy.

This means we must work harder to sustain the political movement which has been concerned to simultaneously break down social and economic barriers to equality since 1891: The Australian Labor Party. Australia's next progressive government has to be fought for. To win the argument that delivers it, we must better explain both what's at stake and what difference we can make.

What's at stake today

We live in a world where the richest 62 people have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

In Australia, the land of the fair go, the wealthiest 20% of households account for 61% of total household net worth. The poorest 20% accounted for 1%. The wealthiest 20% of households have a net worth 68 times as high as the least wealthy 20%. This inequality is growing.

Ben Chifley’s light on the hill is the essential imagining of a good society for Australian Labor. I interpret this in the modern context as a more equal society, not simply a ‘fair’ one. It's an important distinction, between fairness and equality.

Just ask that notable progressive, our present Prime Minister. At the 2015 Economic and Social Outlook Conference, Malcolm Turnbull spoke about “a nation that is as fair as it is open to opportunity”. In almost the same breath as boosting the disruptors of our economic order and as he waters down the social wage, undermines universal healthcare, restricts access to quality education, attacks workplace rights and union amongst other critical drivers of equality and indeed the prospect of social mobility.

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, while equality is not negotiable. We should be brave in making this plain, as my friend and colleague Senator Jenny McAllister challenged: “I’d like to see us start to think more deeply about what level of inequality we think is acceptable, and start to speak more directly about our belief that a more equal society is a better society.”

Progressives should assert this as a moral imperative: a more equal society is a better society. But pursuing equality is also a practical and prudent course to take. The IMF and OECD have advised that inequality is a brake on economic growth. For social democrats who have been struggling to balance our redistributive instincts with productive concerns, this emerging consensus has the prospect of changing the game. So, let's put doing the right thing at the centre of our struggle, knowing also that it will bring wider economic benefits.

It's been suggested that social democracy's time has come and gone, not least by the likes of Mr Turnbull and Senator Di Natale. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? For this progressive, nothing could be further from the truth. Let's go back to first principles, in place of their determinism, and remember that, in the words of Columbia University academic, Sheri Berman:

“Social democracy was built on a belief in the primacy of politics and communitarianism – that is, on a conviction that political forces rather than economic ones could and should be the driving forces of history and that the “needs” or “good” of society must be protected and nurtured”

This conviction certainly retains its moral force - especially in this age of rent seeking - and we now have a strong evidence base to deploy against those who say we can't fight ‘progress’.

We can. Remembering that political inequality is intrinsically linked to economic inequality. This recognition is central to Senator Bernie Sanders’ understanding of America today, and also, I believe, to the appeal of his campaign to so many. It has also been central to the Australian labour movement’s purpose, and so explains why Senator Sanders’ supporters have more to be angry about than equivalent Australians. We have built institutions, and supported relationships, which have redistributed power in our society to a greater extent than in the United States.

Why Labor? And how?

In describing Australian history post Federation as Labor’s story I'm not simply claiming the mantle for my side of politics. Rather, I'm seeking to emphasise the struggle that drives change, and where it should be located.

We can’t see societal changes for the good simply as inevitable. Because they aren't. The jury came in some time ago in that regard. Thomas Piketty has changed our understanding of economic inequality, while social injustices both persist (see marriage equality) and are being exacerbated.

Similarly, our sense of the possibilities of the future can't be defensive, or founded in reaction. Malcolm Turnbull cannot be allowed to define Labor’s approach to seizing the opportunities of this century, or confronting its challenges. That's our job, on the terms of the people we represent.

Today, as in the late 19th century, only Labor is concerned to build a bridge between a response to social and economic inequality on the one hand, and political inequality on the other. And only Labor recognises how fundamentally connected these challenges are. We can, however, better place ourselves to meet them.

The structures and the culture of the ALP matter. Our continued capacity to involve and engage people in decision making is fundamental to our claim to be not just Australia's next progressive government but to carry on as a party of government.

So we must recognise that, today, the Party isn't everything it should be. For all the talk of Party reform, too little attention has been paid to repairing our representative deficit. To strive for political equality in the wider community whilst ignoring imbalances of power within Labor is a nonsense. A priority has to be to open up our Party to give more people - and a more representative group of people - more of a say in Labor’s future.

And with this, more power in shaping the circumstances in which they live their lives and the country in which their children will grow up. This isn't simply a question of structures, although how formal power is mediated in the party is obviously important if we are to continue to hold together hope for a better future and trust in the capacity of politics.

The next stage of Labor’s project must be grounded in and shaped by Australian’s lived experience. This is how we can best respond to the challenges of now - insecurity, inequality - and the emerging challenges of the next decade: how we work, how we live, how we see ourselves.

We shouldn't take comfort in the past, that's for conservatives. But we must continue to have regard to it, and the lessons it offers. Not least, that politics matters and that together we can write the future, rather than have it wash over us.

There’s still a light on the hill, and it’s still burning brightly as good a symbol of hope and the positive role of government as anyone could wish for. It’s as potent as we look beyond today’s challenges as when imagining post-war reconstruction.

The point of all this is, of course, not simply to understand our circumstances - it's to change them. To open up social, political and economic space to all of us. To strive for a real “sharing society’’, in which everyone has a meaningful say about the direction of his or her life.

This is the work of Australia’s next progressive government, and it is the responsibility of the Australian Labor Party.

This was Andrew Giles' contribution to 'How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?' (2016), edited by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer.


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