We are better than this

With inequality at a 70 year high and living standards stagnating, millions of Australians cannot afford another Coalition Government and nor can our planet. We urgently need a new direction.

We need to change the rules because they are are broken and rigged against working Australians.

We need an economic system that delivers for all Australians and reduces inequality, not one that just concentrates more wealth in the hands of the lucky few.

We need to reinvest in the essential public services that Australians rely on and halt the privatisation of our social security system that so many rely on.

We need to deliver a just transition to tackle the climate crisis while ensuring workers are not thrown on the scrap heap.

We need a Government that does not use the State to go after its opponents and take from those without power while showering as much public largesse as they can to their mates with little scrutiny.

What we have now at both a state and federal level are Governments run for the interests of the super rich, big banks and corporate Australia. They are Governments by organised capital, for organised capital.

The Coalition Government in New South Wales, shorn of some of the socially conservative extremism of its federal counterpart, shows what the Turnbull Government fundamentally is at its heart.

It is a Government that is addicted to privatising everything it can. A Government happy for the rivers of gold from a once in a generation real estate bubble to be wasted on vanity projects rather than schools and hospitals. A Government that has destroyed TAFE and disability services.

But Labor cannot take any election whether state or federal for granted.

It would be an arrogant betrayal of those who rely on Labor Governments. We should not, however, shy away from the fact that dissatisfaction with the Coalition has not translated into excitement for Labor. People are angry because the future does not look better. There is a yearning for positive ideas and policy proposals that address the everyday challenges they face.

Those on the progressive side of politics need to expand what is possible and show that only political involvement can deliver. That means fighting not for what is convenient but what is right and to fight to the end even if we might lose. It requires a party that is democratic and open to debates. Transactional politics and backroom deals that fuel cynicism will only be to our detriment in the long-run. Only the Left can do this and it is our responsibility to lead by challenging the status quo and making the case for change.

The next NSW state and federal election are choices about what kind of country and what kind of state we want to live in. Labor’s message has to be that Australia is better than this, that New South Wales is better than this. And only Labor Governments can deliver this.

Originally appeared in the 2018 NSW Conference edition of Challenge

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Robots are not the real threat to work

The more I read about the future of work, the more apparent it becomes that much of the discussion relies on extrapolated models of job losses and technological determinism to justify a course of action rather than critically examining broader trends.

There is no doubt that technological change will shape the future of work, but the extent and nature of that change is still debatable. The oft cited claim that 47 per cent of Americans will lose their jobs due to automation has been challenged by an OECD study concluding the actual figure is more likely nine per cent.

A similar claim by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia citing a figure of 40 per cent was found to be closer to nine per cent after being examined by Professor Jeff Borland and Dr Michael Coelli. The attention given to these initial claims means it is of little surprise that most Australians think the net effect of automation will be less jobs, with a substantial minority thinking it could happen as soon as five years, though the fear may be skewed with a recent Australian study finding young men fear automation far more than women.

While the threat from automation is often overstated, there are big technological shifts occurring which are undermining job security and hollowing out permanent, skilled work. But the experience is that work is created as well as displaced by new technology. Change in social relationships, not technology, explains what is happening in labour markets today.

Rather than a future without paid work, the future is more likely to be a growing polarised labour market with a continuing decline in middle-skilled jobs and growth in high-skilled, high-paying occupations (managers, professionals and technicians), some of which might be considered ‘bullshit jobs’, and low-skilled, low-paying occupations (elementary, service, and sales workers). The most recent OECD Employment Outlook shows that there has been a 9.5 per cent decline in middle-skill as a share of total employment with most growth in high-skilled employment.

Many of these high-paying roles have taken advantage of global markets and technology to have a huge capacity for growth and for trade. Those in lower paid occupations that have not been off-shored are reliant on face-to-face human interaction but also find it difficult to significantly increase their productivity.

This narrative of inevitability suits corporations that will benefit from the current situation. The implication is that actions cannot stop it, so there should be no attempt to regulate.

Trajectories are, however, never inevitable. The moves by state governments towards licencing labour hire firms and the Change the Rules campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions show there is no inevitability about the future of work. It may change, but it does not occur in a policy vacuum.

We need policies and laws that ensure people are prepared and supported for both the opportunities and threats of a changing world of work. Australians are supportive of having laws that suit the changing nature of work. A 2017 Digital Rights in Australia report found that over 60 per cent believe that these new forms of gig work need new government regulations.

Part of the conversation about the future of work must also be about the quality of work and how technology can be used to improve the nature of work, such as through better redistributing work, reducing working hours and enabling more decision-making by frontline workers.

And despite the appeal of ‘post-work’, work still has a future in our society. Even if many paid jobs disappeared, work would still exist. Our society depends on the unpaid caring work that is predominantly done by women.

Assuming robots will take all our jobs is an easy way of avoiding the harder but far more important conversation about the gendered nature of work and power in our society, and what we value.

Published at Eureka Street on 24 May 2018

2018 ALP National Conference delegate election results

One of the big reforms at the last ALP National Conference was the direct election of delegates to National Conference equal to the number of federal electorates. Each branch was allowed to choose the method of election with NSW being the sole branch to elect each delegate by federal electorate instead of via proportional representation through an at-large state or multi-electorate regional ballots like elsewhere.

Almost all state branches have now held their rank-and-file National Conference delegate elections. The results of these elections are listed below:

New South Wales

In New South Wales, there were contested ballots in 26 out of 47 federal electorates. The electorates with ballots and factional alignment of the winners were:

Banks: Left
Bennelong: Left
Berowra: Left
Blaxland: Left
Bradfield: Left
Calare: Right
Cowper: Right
Eden-Monaro: Right
Farrer: Right
Greenway: Right
Hughes: Right
Hume: Right
Hunter: Right
Lindsay: Right
Lyne: unaligned
Mitchell: Left
New England: Right
North Sydney: Right
Page: Left
Parramatta: Right
Reid: Right
Richmond: Right
Riverina: unaligned
Robertson: Right
Sydney: Left
Warringah: Left
Wentworth: Left

Overall, the rank-and-file delegate split was 28 to the National Right, 17 to the National Left and 2 unaligned. My understanding is the number of Left delegates went down by two in NSW compared to the last ALP National Conference. At the time, NSW required a delegate to be elected per federal electorate but there was no requirement for direct election by members.

Victoria

The Victorian ALP had a turnout of 73% for their rank-and-file National Conference delegate elections with 9,609 members returning their ballots. The results were:

National Left Unaligned National Right
Socialist Left 13 IND 2 Mods 10
Industrial Left 1 AWU 7
Con 5
NUW 2
SDA 2
HWU 1

The Victorian union component of National Conference delegates is still to be elected but the total Victorian Left delegation to National Conference is expected to be the same or one less than last time.

Concerns have, however, been raised about the conduct of the ballots as the Victorian ALP Returning Officer made a ruling that members could email for a replacement ballot and allow someone else collect their ballot. Overall, 1,085 ballots were re-issued with a high level concentrated in a small number of branches and electorates. Some branches had over 40% ask for a re-issue. It is been suggested that about 1,000 votes were picked up by the Mods (Adem Somyurek) for National Conference delegates that way. It might be what leads to a National Right majority.

Queensland

Queensland is holding their delegate elections for both State and National Conference with the Left faction running under the ticket named ‘Local Left Team’. Voting will close on 8 June.

Western Australia

In Western Australia, the split amongst the elected rank-and-file National Conference delegates was 12 Left, 5 CFMMEU and 5 Right. The delegates are:

  • Christy Cain (CFMMEU)
  • Magenta Wilders (Right)
  • Pierre Yang (Left)
  • Carolyn Smith (Left)
  • Matthew Swinbourn (CFMMEU)
  • Josh Wilson (Left)
  • Adrian Evans (CFMMEU)
  • Guy Wroth (Left)
  • Deana Lawver (CFMMEU)
  • Michelle Roberts MLA (Right)
  • Anne Aly (Left)
  • George Gakis (CFMMEU)
  • Matt Keogh (Right)
  • Sally Talbot (Left)
  • Jess Short (Left)
  • Tim Hammond (Right)
  • Patrick Dodson (Right)
  • Dom Rose (Left)
  • Louise Pratt (Left)
  • Stephen Dawson (Left)
  • Helen Tuck (Left)
  • Jessica Shaw (Left)

South Australia

In South Australia, the twelve directly elected National Conference delegates were evenly split between the Left and Right:

South Zone

  • Amanda Rishworth (Right)
  • Kyam Maher (Left)

Central Zone

  • Aemon Bourke (Right)
  • Demi Pnevmatikos (Left)

North West Zone

  • Stephen Mullighan (Right)
  • Karen Grogan (Left)

Regional Zone

  • Eddie Hughes (Left)
  • Clare Scriven (Right)

North Zone

  • Zoe Bettison (Right)
  • Steven May (Left)

North East Zone

  • Dana Wortley (Right)
  • Margot McInnes (Left)

Tasmania

All Tasmanian delegates to ALP National Conference have been elected. The Left will have 19 delegates (including the party leader) while the Right has 4 delegates. This is unchanged from the last National Conference.

Australian Capital Territory

In the Australian Capital Territory, Yvette Berry (Left) and Andrew Leigh (unaligned) were chosen as the directly elected National Conference delegates. The remaining four delegates elected by ACT Labor Conference were split between the CPSU (Left), CFMMEU, SDA (Right) and Gai Brodtmann (Right). The Chief Minister, Andrew Barr (Right), is also a delegate as party leader. The factional split is unchanged from the last National Conference.

Northern Territory

The elected National Conference delegation of six was evenly split between the Left and Right. The Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, sits with the Right faction.

Upcoming State Conferences

There will be three state ALP Conferences in the lead-up to ALP National Conference that will elect some remaining delegates to National Conference (Victoria on 26 May, NSW on 30 June-1 July, Tasmania on 7-8 July). Western Australia, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia will hold their state conferences after ALP National Conference.

If you have any corrections to this post or further information, please send it through.

UPDATE 25/05/18: Reported numbers are that the National Right hold roughly 200 delegates (dependent on whether you include the Queensland “Old Guard”).

UPDATE 13/06/18: Guardian Australia reports that the breakdown is 193 Left, 195 Right, 5 Queensland “Old Guard” and 7 independents.

Book Review: Populism Now! by David McKnight

Since the election of Donald Trump and Brexit referendum, ‘populism’ has dominated discussions about the state of global politics, even being revealed as word of the year in 2017 by the Cambridge Dictionary.

The connotations of ‘populism’ are negative and often associated with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and others with an illiberal, nationalistic agenda. But as academic Cas Mudde points out, populism has been conflated with the radical right and nativism has been ‘whitewashed’ as populism. There are leading figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who are seen as populists but from a progressive tradition.

In Populism Now! David McKnight makes the case for a progressive populism in Australia. He argues that neoliberalism has generated the conditions for populism and that unless progressives put forward their version, it will be right-wing populism that will take advantage.

McKnight lays out the failures of neoliberalism for working people in detail which make up most of the book. He lays out the extent of inequality in Australia, the power of the super wealthy and the fossil fuel and mining industries. The failures of privatisation such as the scandalous deregulation of Vocational Education and Training he mentions are all too well documented and we should all be concerned about its expansion into human services. For those following the Change the Rules campaign, the deregulated industrial relation system that has resulted in rampage wage theft and use of the migration system to undercut pay and conditions will not be new. Nor will the extent of tax avoidance by corporations and the oligopolistic and predatory nature of our banks be a surprise.

McKnight argues that challenging neoliberalism will require a broad-based movement to overcome the power of elites and corporations and a populist approach is how that broad-based coalition can be formed. In advocating a progressive populism, McKnight is clear that he views populism not as an ideology or detailed program but rather, as he describes, “a way of seeing the world and a style of arguing for ideas”. He does, however, outline that certain values should underpin a progressive populist approach.

While he does cite the academic Chantal Mouffe in explaining populism, it is odd that her late partner Ernesto Laclau is not mentioned. McKnight draws on a conceptualisation from both Mouffe and Laclau who saw populism as a form of political logic and discourse to set up a conflict between an “underdog” and a “power”. According to Laclau, what holds a heterogeneous underdog coalition together is a set of specific demands. Laclau believed that what “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture.” It is clear from neoliberalism’s failures that the conditions exist for such a rupture in Australia.

While strong on contemporary situation, the broader local context feels missing. Progressive populism is treated as an American tradition and there are a few fleeting references to left-populist parties overseas. Other than a reference to a debate over whether the Labor Party should have been called the People’s Party, the progressive populist tradition is Australian history is glossed over. The Labor Party’s origins as a labour-populist party and the parallels with the 1890s does raise the question about whether a historic homegrown tradition of progressive populism could inform today’s approach.

McKnight also mentions both right-wing and progressive populism but there is nothing on the populism of “the centre”. The populism of the liberal centre was the logic and discourse used by Emmanuel Macron, presenting himself as an anti-establishment outsider against “vested interests” that need to be fought, including trade unions. In Australia, it is characterised by Nick Xenophon and previously the Australian Democrats. It is a logic and discourse that can be and is used against the Left.

McKnight’s idea with real potential that is worth exploring further is a progressive populist response on climate change. It has the potential for that heterogeneous formation with specific demands that can tackle the interlinked crises of climate, inequality and democracy locally. It has the potential to bring groups together not necessarily seen as traditional allies. Less clear is how such a populist response can be developed at a global level, a challenge given the global nature of the crisis.

Nevertheless, Populism Now! is a handy synthesis of the failures of neoliberalism and does encourage an overdue rethink of populism as a strategy that Australian progressives should be using rather than as a pejorative used against opponents.

 

Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism
David McKnight
NewSouth, $29.99

Originally appeared on the Challenge Magazine website on 14 May 2018

Sanders, Corbyn and the Next Left – Jacobin Editor speaks at SEARCH Forum

With a paid subscriber base of 40,000 and millions more online views, Jacobin is arguably the most influential non-party socialist institution in the world right now.

From its origins as a small DIY magazine launched around the time of Occupy Wall Street, it now has a wider audience than more mainstream left-wing publications such as the New Statesman and Dissent.

The SEARCH Foundation was lucky enough to host Jacobin’s founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in Sydney Trades Hall in April. To a crowd of over 180 attendees, one of the largest events held by SEARCH, Bhaskar spoke about the situation in the United States with Bernie Sanders, in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn and the lessons for the wider Left globally.

Bhaskar spoke about the hollowed-out nature of politics in the United States with many self-described moderates and independents rejecting both parties but more supportive of Sanders. He argued that Sanders showed how oppositional politics can work by combining anti-establishment rhetoric with concerted demands.

Though Sanders won over the country, he did not win over the Democratic Party. He noted that since the election, Sanders has been forced to front for the Democrats to avoid being politically isolated, and there might be a danger that his anti-establishment appeal may dissipate by 2020.

At the same time, young people are moving leftwards. He explained that those politicised who once would have gone to green politics or into NGOs are now moving towards socialist politics. There is now broad support for key parts of the socialist agenda like Medicare for all.

Bhaskar also stated that while Trump has emboldened the Right, the real danger is a populist Right, not a far Right. The challenge, however, won’t be defeating Trump, but rather building something better that will lead to more radical change.

He argued that the role of the Left is to present a different sort of politics by changing conditions, not just implementing better policies by renovating parties like the Democrats. The existential question is not whether the Left can win government.

While fighting for left-wing governments, he urged that we think about what the Left can do in power, as it is hard to imagine what a new working-class oriented political economy would look like.

He pointed out that Sanders and Corbyn are not pushing something more radical than social democratcy. The challenge is to figure out how to use the state to strengthen working-class power and open rather than foreclose more radical transformations.

While occupying government, he suggested the Left can prevent conservative rollbacks and can use the platform to help rebuild the extra parliamentary Left as Corbyn has, and advocate for a broader social democratic agenda.

Finally, to build the working-class power needed to make those radical changes possible, he stressed the need for radical unions and to imagine new and different forms of working-class organisation.

The strong interest in the forum shows there is a hunger for an alternative, a transformative program. The explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America, the rise of Corbyn and Momentum show across the globe there is an ongoing resonance of our values and analysis but without the shadow of the Cold War hanging over. There does, however, need to be hard thinking about what the Left can realistically achieve in power and to figure out how to achieve the radical changes required. We need to have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Rather than sticking to old orthodoxies for the sake of it, the success of Jacobin shows the importance of a forward and outward looking pluralism and accessibility. Being open and approachable, engaging with key issues of the day rather than just abstract theory, avoiding jargon, and sectarianism are all necessary for the Left to succeed. All are lessons that we here in Australia should learn from and embrace.

Published in SEARCH News, Volume 5, Number 1 (May 2018)

We need different faces in Parliament

Australia likes to think of itself as a diverse, multicultural, egalitarian country. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has even described Australia as the “most successful multicultural nation in the world”. The reality, however, is that we are still far from it.

The revisited Leading for Change report issued by the Human Rights Commission this year shows there continues to be a lack of cultural diversity within senior positions in Australian businesses, politics, the public sector and universities.

As an Asian Australian and a long-time political party member, the data on under-representation in politics was not a surprise but still a depressing read.

While we have some federal MPs with non-European heritage such as Penny Wong, Anne Aly and Lucy Gichuhi, they are the exception rather than the rule. Currently, no federal ministers are from a non-European background and only 4.1 per cent of members of the federal Parliament are from a non-European background. This compared to an estimated 21 per cent of the Australian population which has a non-European background.

Merit does not explain the extent of the under-representation of Australians with a non-European background. Australia does far worse than comparable Westminster democracies such as Britain, New Zealand and Canada when it comes to parliamentary representation.

In the United Kingdom, 7.8 per cent of MPs are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority. In Canada, 13.6 per cent of federal MPs are from a “visible minority”. In New Zealand, a third of MPs have non-European heritage, with 6 per cent of MPs having Asian heritage.

More Australians have non-European heritage as a proportion of the population than the Westminster democracies we compare ourselves to but that is not reflected in our federal Parliament. The diversity of electoral systems across these countries shows it is a lack of action by our political parties, not our parliamentary or electoral systems, that is holding back a Parliament that is truly representative of the community.

Fixing this under-representation requires two things: better data and a genuine commitment to improve representation.

Sadly it is only what gets measured that gets improved and Australia does not have definitive data on cultural diversity. There are no official statistics on the ethnic or cultural composition of the Australian population and Australia’s cultural diversity is often underestimated. The Australian Bureau of Statistics should review existing measures of cultural diversity and develop a similar demographic category to “visible minority” used by Statistics Canada.

Parties also must take improving cultural diversity in parliaments as seriously as improving women’s representation. All political parties should look at adopting targets. The fact is targets work. The experience of affirmative action for women in the Labor party shows that the introduction of targets will lead to a more representative Parliament.

In 1994, when affirmative action was adopted, 14.5 per cent of federal ALP parliamentarians were women. Today, women make up 47 per cent of federal ALP MPs. At the time, the Liberals had a similar number of female federal MPs (13.9 per cent) but it has lagged behind and now its female representation stands at only 22.6 per cent.

In all political parties there needs to be serious discussion about lifting the representation of Australians with non-European heritage in our Parliament. Unless action is taken now, Australia’s Parliament will become even less representative. Data from the 2016 Census suggests that already one in four Australians between the ages of 20 and 34 have Asian ancestry. The proportion of Australians with non-European heritage will grow.

If we truly want Australia to be the egalitarian, most successful multicultural nation in the world, then it is essential the faces we see in Question Time reflect our wider society.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 April 2018

The 2018 ALP National Conference might be a watershed moment

The upcoming ALP National Conference this July may herald significant changes to the Labor Party with suggestions that the Left might have the majority at National Conference for the first time since the 1970s, the first since the emergence of the modern factional system in the 1980s.

While it has the potential to be a watershed moment on party reform and a range of other issues, how the numbers ultimately fall and what is achieved will depend on a variety of factors. As I wrote prior to the last National Conference, no Labor Right majority does not guarantee the Left winning.

How the CFMEU-MUA delegates vote will be important and may determine whether the Left has a majority on many votes. In Western Australia, the CFMEU-MUA has split off the Broad Left and joined the Right in a new Progressive Labor faction. In Victoria, they and other unions have split off the Socialist Left to form the Industrial Left to deal with the right-wing Centre Unity faction. There has been an indication that all the CFMEU-MUA aligned delegates plan to caucus with the National Left but what it means in practice is still unclear.

Fragmentation is not only happening on the Left. In October last year, the QLD Labor Unity (old guard) faction withdrew from the National Right and will act independently on a case by case basis. Estimates had their delegates numbers at 6-8 and their votes could be pivotal when it comes to topics like party reform.

Finally, the biggest structural change since the last ALP National Conference is the direct election of delegates. In all, 150 of the 400 Conference delegates will be directly elected by members for the first time. All bar NSW will be elected through a proportional ballot. The direct election of these delegates has commenced with social media feeds clogged with candidates jostling for positions. It is currently unclear what the final result will be but there is the view that the Left will do better out of this process.

There is likely to be a push for further party reform at National Conference and if party Presidents do get a vote on the National Executive, it will make the upcoming National President election even more important. There is also likely to be a pushback from elements of the Labor Right with alternative watered down reforms or potentially attempts to reduce the size of delegations from the Left-dominated Tasmanian branch. Which duelling proposals get up are again unclear as all sides are yet to fully develop their proposals.

Predictions of outcomes would be unwise at this stage. The experience of the last National Conference of deals on a case-by-case basis, most notably when sections of some unions supported Shorten on boat turnbacks, is likely to be repeated. My suggestion is that anyone interested in the future direction of Labor should keep a close eye on what happens over the coming months, particularly at the NSW and Victorian State Conferences where proposals might be debated.