Eliminating Racism: Or As We Call It, Harmony

Thursday March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. You may not have heard of the day before. It is commemorated in Australia as Harmony Day.

Harmony Day was a creation of the Howard Government twenty years ago, a response to research conducted for the federal government about the causes of racism. It was a deliberate choice to not focus on ‘anti-racism’ but rather emphasise the importance and value of ‘harmony’.

Undoubtedly people feel an attachment to Harmony Day as a celebration of cultural diversity that schools, workplaces and community groups can participate in. It is a day that people have a positive association and feel very comfortable with. But it does us no favours by avoiding any hard conversations about racism. As educator Robin DiAngelo has pointed out, niceness is not anti-racism. A parallel would be celebrating International Women’s Day without mentioning ongoing under-representation, sexism or the gender pay gap.

Polls have indicated strong community support by Australians for multiculturalism and non-discriminatory immigration policies, but there continues to be significant cognitive dissonance. The most recent ScanlonFoundation Mapping Social Cohesion Surveyfound that 25% of Australians have negative attitudes towards Muslims and that a broader definition of intolerance and rejection of cultural diversity can reach 30%-40% of the population.

While Australia fares better than most other Western countries, a self-congratulatory tone that we are the ‘most successful multicultural country in the world’ only breeds complacency and means we treat acts of racism and other symptoms of institutional and structural discrimination as the isolated actions of individuals. None of this happens in a vacuum.

Over the last few days, there has been public debate about the normalisation of far right rhetoric and hatred. Far right figures are treated as a novelty for television and given a platform, giving their points of view legitimacy in public debates and uncritically amplifying their message for a mass audience. These acts are not benign and contribute to a climate where major party politicians feel comfortable dog-whistling.

We should condemn the mainstreaming of these abhorrent views, however, it cannot be at the expense of continuing to ignore other less overt forms of discrimination that have a direct impact. According to the 2018 Leading for Change report, a fifth of Australians have non-European cultural backgrounds. We cannot pretend that the continuing under-representation of people of colour in the media, public sector, parliament and business is the result of of merit. It has to be asked whether more representative institutions would meant a different treatment of past public debates about race, immigration and multiculturalism. Yet there is a defensiveness whenever these issues are raised, solutions such as targets and quotas being portrayed as worse than the problem itself.

The horrendous events in Christchurch last week should make us rethink how we currently recognise the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year’s theme of mitigating and countering rising national populism and extreme supremacist ideologies makes the day feel even more relevant.

Rather than simply celebrating Harmony Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination should be an opportunity to not just recognise our successes but also focus on what Australia still needs to do to combat racism and racial discrimination in all its forms.

Published at Meanjin on 20 March 2019


Our democracy needs the energy and the passion of the #ClimateStrike

Across the world on Friday 15th March, we saw a huge co-ordinated Global Climate Strike by school students to demand action on climate change.

In Australia, one hundred and fifty thousand school students and their supporters protested across the country in capital cities and regional centres. Their demands were:

  • Stop the Adani coal mine in central Queensland
  • No new coal or gas projects
  • 100 per cent renewables by 2030

Having attended the Sydney rally, it was a breath of fresh air from many other protests and rallies I had been to with plenty of energy, enthusiasm and people streaming out of Town Hall Square, unable to get in because it was full.

While a range of politicians did express support for the school strikes, it has not necessarily fully throated. Though NSW Labor leader Michael Daley expressed unequivocal support, Bill Shorten diverged, his comments primarily drawing critical comments from those online.

While Shorten’s comments that “kids are allowed to have an opinion” and “in an ideal world, they would protest after school hours and on weekends” were not as bad as initially characterised, it did highlight a lack of trust and the perception of his inauthenticity means it is very easy for some to think the worst of him and jump on him about it. Shorten has previously recognised that trust is an issue, stating that “Our deeper opponents are distrust, disengagement, scepticism and cynicism.” 

The small target calculation to hedge to stick to talking about his theme of the week, a “living wage”, may have allowed people to read their own meaning into his statement but it leaves few who saw it satisfied and misread a public mood that was supportive of their actions.

Climate is likely to be a defining political issue for the emerging generation. A recent piece in The Conversation pointed out that for young people, climate change is transforming their identity and challenges many of the long held tenets about representative democracy, hard work leading to a better future and acting ethically.

With climate change increasingly being tied to leadership and becoming a defining issue in elections, fudging it to avoid the issue may no longer pay off given the urgency and instead further undermine trust in democratic institutions at a time when it is needed most.

In an era of disillusionment with politics and low trust, rather than giving conditional acceptance, welcoming the kind of energy and passion that the school climate strikers exhibited might be what our democracy needs.

It may just help make the 2019 election a turning point to help rebuild trust and reinvigorate our democracy.

Cross-posted at AusVotes 2019

Welcome to the new Milibandism

With a federal election less than three months away, attention is turning to what a likely federal Labor government might look like.

While Shorten has attempted to draw parallels to Bob Hawke’s style of leadership, the best comparison may instead be with a UK Labour government that never was: the unsuccessful 2015 campaign and platform of Ed Miliband in 2015.

Labor’s offer in 2019 is an antipodean version of Milibandism, conceived by industrial labourism instead of a soft left Fabianism that provided the philosophical Labour underpinnings in the United Kingdom.

What do I mean by Milibandism? Broadly, it entails a critique of the financialised form of capitalism and concerns about growing inequality. The cost-of-living squeeze on the middle-class is a concern, as is the protection of public services from privatisation. There is a greater focus on tax avoidance and specific targeting of the wealthy to reduce taxes for the lower paid. There is also a reliance on an agenda of predistribution to do the heavy lifting through reforming markets, encouraging wage increases and ending insecure work practices.

There remains a concern about debt and deficit, hemmed-in by a mindset of working out what social democrats can do when there is no money. And, hovering over it all, is the spectre of a compromise between the “Blue Labour” and remnants of the now defunct Blairism.

Federal Labor’s policies today all echo the same themes of this manifesto: reducing tax concessions to fund tax cuts and public services; a focus on cost of living; calling for a “living wage”; cracking down on labour hire; and fiscal rules to reduce debt and run surpluses of at least 1% of GDP.

But there are other parallels beyond policy. Like Miliband, Shorten was elected to leadership with underwhelming support. While also not being publicly popular, he too has challenged what policies are seen to be politically acceptable. Unlike Miliband however, Shorten’s skills in manoeuvring through internal Labor politics with a cross-factional coalition of union support leave him in a far stronger position to negotiate compromises.

While the ALP’s latest offer has a far more egalitarian impulse than similar platforms in the recent past, it is not one that has captured the public imagination. Any federal Labor victory will primarily be due to people voting against the Morrison government. Political disillusionment is strong and there is little public excitement for the prospect of Labor winning the election.

How this antipodean Milibandism will operate to tackle big issues will be harder to see. There have been signals of a shift away from Labor’s commitment to neoliberalism, but major challenges such as climate change cannot be addressed with tweaks or market regulation. Properly responding to climate change within a decade will cost significant amounts of money and it is unclear how Labor will overcome these challenges and cut through the disillusionment and distrust that has corroded our institutions at the same time.

Regardless, with Australian Labor likely to win the upcoming federal election, a Shorten government will be cited globally as a model of moderate social democratic “success” to counterpose against Corbynism (as I have previously argued). A recent article by Adrian Pabstin the New Statesman — that incorrectly characterises Australian Labor as radical and patriotic — shows this is already happening.

Australia is already gaining a global reputation as a kind of “Scandinavia for moderates” in an era of populism. How a Shorten government acts is unlikely to change that.

Published in Crikey on 12 March 2019

Australia needs its own Green New Deal

If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is correct, the world only has 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change. As a country highly vulnerable to climate change, Australia needs to act. A summer of record breaking heatwavesraging bushfires across Tasmania and devastating floods in Queensland gives us a glimpse of the future.

On our current trajectory, Australia will struggle to meet its own Paris Agreement target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 level emissions by 2030 but even that may be insufficient. The Climate Change Authority recommended a 45-65 per cent emissions reduction target for 2030 below 2005 levels, based on scientific evidence.

Nearly a decade of inaction means we cannot rely solely on a carbon price to drive the deep decarbonisation needed. It will require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and industrial systems.

Globally there is recognition that past inaction and the urgency to act demands an ambitious intervention. In America, a Green New Deal has become a litmus test for action on climate change. It harks back to a World War II style mobilisation to tackle climate change while also fighting economic inequality.

Pushed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the space of only a few months, the concept of a Green New Deal has gained support across the field of Democratic contenders for President including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

The drastic change Australia need calls for our own Green New Deal but we should draw on our own historical experience rather than simply copying rhetoric from America. Australia has experienced a transformation on the scale that is needed, that of post-war reconstruction during the 1940s.

Post-war reconstruction was shaped by the 1941 Atlantic Charter where the Allies committed to a post-war order that would have a better future for the world’ where there would be freedom from fear and want’. The Commonwealth oversaw the transition to a peacetime economy, planning and coordinating the transition. The role of the Commonwealth transformed as it assumed a wider range of responsibilities, expanding social security, working with the states to provide healthcare and housing, and focusing on full employment. Post-war reconstruction fundamentally shaped the Australia we live in today.

To achieve deep decarbonisation, it must be an overarching mission of the Commonwealth. Economist Marianna Mazzucato has argued that mission thinking can steer innovation to solve challenges such as climate change, increasing both public and private investment and encouraging collaboration.

There is a parallel between post-war reconstruction and a mission of deep decarbonisation. The scale of the challenge we face requires a greater role for the Commonwealth, working with other tiers of government, the private sector and civil society. We need to significantly improve energy efficiency, build a nearly carbon free energy system, reduce emissions from agriculture and transport and change how we use land. It requires co-investment in innovation, skills and infrastructure but also encouraging less carbon intensive activities by reorienting work towards renewal and stewardship, such as by creating more caring roles and reducing working hours.

If we are serious, action on climate change will require a transformation on par with the transition to a peacetime economy. But the challenge we face is not solely environmental.

Action on climate change cannot be separated from the health of our democracy. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley has pointed out the environment has almost become a proxy for leadership at a federal level.

Dissatisfaction with democracy and mistrust is at an all-time high. A Democracy 2025 report on trust and democracy found that fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86 per cent in 2007.

Disillusionment with democracy fuels the growth of reactionary illiberalism that has undermined action on climate change. Not only have we seen the election of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro but at home, similar forces within the Coalition have tried to stop action on climate change.

Just as the focus of post-war reconstruction was not merely demobilisation but the maintenance of full employment, developing social security and economic development, decarbonising Australia must involve rebuilding faith that politics can deliver a better Australia.

We need to ensure that our response leads to a good society and a life that people want to live — that means good, secure jobs in new globally competitive industries across the country, more educational opportunities and a better quality of life.

The public supports action on climate change but if we want support for the scale of change needed, the offer needs to be much more than simply one of risk mitigation. The idea that responding to climate change means a life of misery is nihilistic and will doom action. It must mean a better and fairer future for us.

Published at Eureka Street on 11 February 2019

Challenge Magazine Editorial – 2018 ALP National Conference

The next year will be a pivotal year for progressive politics. Australia may become the most populated Western country governed by a social-democratic party if Labor wins in the federal election due next year. We have a responsibility to provide leadership at home and abroad and inspire our sister parties by doing what is right.

While Labor has put forward the most economically progressive platform it has in some time, our narrow focus limits the deeper conversation we need to have. Rightly there is a focus on job security, increasing wages, and funding for public services such as health and education but it cannot be at the expense of ignoring deep seated challenges that are only growing. With only a decade to combat climate change and the growing erosion of democratic norms, distrust of our institutions and attacks on pluralism, not only across the region but at home, by illiberal nationalist and conservative forces, Labor urgently needs to sketch out how it will credibly respond to these crises.

Calls for “sensible centrism” misread the public mood. Labor’s landslide victory in Victoria challenges the conventional wisdom that we must choose between our progressive base and suburban swinging voters. The public is ready for a bold progressive offer so long as it also delivers on their every day concerns and provides a credible plan for the future.

This National Conference is our opportunity to show Australians our offer for the next election. We will be judged by future generations if all we are willing to offer is incremental changes that focus on improving immediate material interests of swinging voters in marginal seats and alleviating excessive inequality but do not offer the transformative agenda that is needed to head off the climate crisis, reinforce our democratic institutions or fundamentally shift power relations to ensure economy to ensure it serves the people.

Our offer needs an economic agenda that delivers real change, both at home and abroad. We need a progressive energy policy that tackles climate change equitably and guarantees a just transition that does not leave workers behind.

It calls for a reshaping the social security system to ensure it does not punish and bring shame but rather provides the support that all our citizens deserve.

It demands rebuilding trust and strengthening our democratic institutions with a commitment to doing what is right, not easy, by embracing the Uluru Statement in full before any attempt at becoming a republic, actively working towards an international ban on nuclear weapons and ending the inhumane treatment of refugees which continues to damage the moral fabric of our nation.

It requires confronting and fighting the resentful nativism of One Nation that has infected our body politic and defeating its antipodean Poujadism. Ground zero for this battle against their nasty politics will be Queensland where Labor’s path to victory runs through.

An ambitious agenda that seeks to transform the country cannot be elite-led and decreed from above. It requires a mass democratic party where rank-and-file members and affiliated unions are both valued and have a genuine say. It also means we need a more representative party that reflects the community that we represent. The Left has led on improving the representation of women across society and in our public institutions, but we have much more to do to better represent people of colour if we are truly committed to multiculturalism.

It is up to all of us to take this responsibility seriously and to reject short-termism. We should not expect a honeymoon period and we must not indulge in what the community might see as arrogant, tribal triumphalism. We must not squander this opportunity to deliver what Australia needs to do to achieve good society. The price of failure will be felt by future generations. It is time to get to work.

Published in the 2018 National Conference edition of Challenge Magazine

Kerry Phelps’ middle-class populism

The aftermath of the Wentworth by-election has shaken up Australian politics. The election of Dr Kerryn Phelps in a blue ribbon Liberal seat has led to a renewed interest in independent MPs as a more local, less partisan and more community focused alternative, encouraging other campaigns.

At first glance, the move towards electing independent MPs seems to be a repudiation of attempts to mimic right-wing populism and a vote for small l liberalism. But it shares more with populism than many care to admit. If we understand populism as centred around representing ‘the people’ against an existing, unrepresentative elite rather than a specific ideology rooted in nationalistic discontent against immigration and globalised trade, it becomes clear.

The election of these independents are in fact a moral middle-class incarnation of populism. Their anti-political stance arises from a widespread mood where the electorate sees politics as detached from their lives. This populism of the liberal centre taps into public dissatisfaction with politics by rejecting the major parties and their methods of operating. Phelps’ claim in her inaugural speech, that the political system ‘has evolved to turn inwards and primarily serve itself, at times silencing the voices of reason and compassion’, fits into such a populist narrative.

It draws upon a tradition of good citizenship, to act in the interests of the people by being ‘above politics’, seeking a ‘stronger relationship between people and our elected representatives’ through a MP ‘who would put the electorate first’, as Cathy McGowan said. Chisholm MP Julia Banks’ resignation statement from the Liberals, where she spoke of the actions of MPs being ‘undeniably for themselves, for their position in the party, their power, their personal ambition, not for the Australian people’ and that she would be putting first ‘people that the major parties have stopped listening to’ echoes this.

This phenomenon is far from new. Attempts to do politics differently harks back to an older tradition, going as far back as the Australian Democrats, and can be seen in the election of other independents such as John Hatton, Ted Mack, Clover Moore and Tony Windsor. Much of MP (and future Australian Democrat leader) Don Chipp’s resignation speech from the Liberals in 1977 would resonate in today’s political climate.

Chipp stated that the public was ‘disenchanted with party politics as they are practised in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties’. He went on to argue that ‘the parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder whether the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence the present political parties’.

What is different now is the big decline in party loyalty and the extent of public dissatisfaction with politics that has made volatile swings more common. The Australian Election Study shows the extent of these changes, with the percentage of voters who have always voted for the same party falling from 72 per cent in 1967 to 40 per cent in 2016. Over that same period, satisfaction with democracy fell to 60 per cent from 77 per cent, and now only 26 per cent believe people in government can be trusted compared to 51 per cent. It is of little surprise that it has manifested in an increase of minor party votes to 23.2 per cent in 2016, up from 9.7 per cent in 1969.

As with the rise of populism on the left and right, this liberal populism will drag politics in a different direction now that it has the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

Aided by our preferential electoral system, which uniquely helps independent candidates with a local profile, it has fused with knowledge of organising strategies, such as those used by Cathy McGowan, which are now more easily shared and better resourced. It shows that even in an era where participation in traditional community groups is declining and loneliness is on the rise, people will still come together to organise their local community for change if there is a sense of ownership and their participation is welcome.

The lessons learnt in Wentworth (and other seats such as Indi) are likely to be applied to elect the independents in blue-ribbon urban or rural seats where this idea of good citizenship and community representation resonates. While these independents may have more progressive views on economic issues, it will not be what defines them or determines why voters support them, it is their civic-minded appeal.

As with the rise of populism on the left and right, this liberal populism will drag politics in a different direction now that it has the balance of power in the House of Representatives. The government will be forced to treat climate change, asylum seekers and public broadcasting not simply as a culture war issue. Its precarious position may mean that the tone of political debate changes and it may be forced to deliver stronger integrity and accountability measures, just as minority government in New South Wales did in the 1990s.

The national integrity commission and transferring asylum seekers off Nauru being the centre of political discussions are evidence of a shift beginning. While it may not grab the attention of ordinary Australians, many of whom are increasingly politically disengaged, it may result in a less overtly adversarial tone of debate and improved transparency, integrity and accountability in our public institutions, all needed to rebuild trust and satisfaction with our democratic institutions.

Being outside established parties and requiring their own base to get elected, these independents are unlikely to face the same pressures, not needing to face the same compromises and challenges, and being less likely to disappoint their electorate. Their rise may help counteract the influence of illiberal right-wing populism but it also shows that to gain traction, it has required a populist narrative that rejects the existing order as not representing ‘the people’. It shows that populism continues to dominate Australian politics even among these new liberal centrists who oppose it.

Published at Eureka Street on 5 December 2018.

How have ALP rank-and-file membership numbers changed over time?

I often hear claims about how the British Labour Party is now the largest party in Western Europe with the number of new members cited. The numbers are impressive but also make me wonder how many members of Australian Labor Party are there and how it compares to the past. It is hard to know because membership numbers are a closely guarded secret.

Currently, the only state with available figures is New South Wales. It is only because New South Wales Electoral Commission provides details as part of the electoral disclosure regime. Registered political parties are required to disclose funds raised from membership fees and subscriptions. However, beyond New South Wales, there is no requirement for party membership numbers to be published.

The most recent official source for Australian Labor Party rank-and-file membership numbers is the 2010 National Review.

ALP membership 200210

It provided an overall indication of party membership across Australia between 2002 and 2010 but it did not delve into historical membership figures in the 20th century. Without that data, we do not know how large a decline there has been since the heyday of party membership.

The best available estimate of ALP rank-and-file membership numbers from the 20th century is from Andrew Scott’s 1991 book Fading Loyalties. Based on what fragments of data he could gather, Scott concludes that ALP membership peaked in the decade following the Second World War at around 75,000 and fell to less than 45,000 following the Split and never recovered (though there was some growth until Whitlam). While there was some growth in South Australia and Western Australia afterwards but it could not compensate for declines in New South Wales and Victoria.


The problem with national figures, however, is they hide changes in state branches which can be significant over time.

The book Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party provides rank-and-file membership numbers for each state and territory branch in 1980. While an approximation, it shows that even though the Australian population has grown by 67%, overall ALP membership numbers are stagnant.

The most recent publicly available figures, broken down by state branch, are from 2015 (though there is a national figure of 53,550 at the end of 2017). These were leaked to The Australian around the time of the National President ballot.

1980 2015 Change Change %
NSW          20,000          18,304 –       1,696 -8%
VIC          13,000          14,969          1,969 15%
QLD            5,500            9,328          3,828 70%
SA            8,050            3,836 –       4,164 -52%
WA            4,000            4,511            511 13%
TAS            1,730            1,144 –           586 -34%
ACT                800            1,500             700 88%
NT                400                338 –             62 -16%
Total          53,480          53,930             450 1%

From this comparative table, we can see that while national ALP membership has been fairly flat in raw numbers over the past three decades, there have been shifts in membership numbers within each state and territory branch.

It is clear from all these party membership figures that the ALP has never been a mass political party though some state and territory branches such as Queensland and the ACT are doing much better than others like SA and Tasmania. Why is something worth further investigation.