Wayne Swan’s flawed thinking on Labor Values

In this debate about our purpose and in this contest for the young, the answer lies not in fringe issues of the far Left but in bread-and-butter idealism that begins with prosperity and opportunity. 

There has been a lot of discussion about Labor values, the latest from Wayne Swan at the Canberra launch of All That’s Left.

His contribution on the purpose of politics, while noble, fails to address some key issues and it demonstrates flawed thinking that needs to be addressed.

The prime example is his statement that he believes Labor’s core purpose is prosperity and opportunity:

For me that core purpose has always started with two words: prosperity and opportunity.

Two simple words that guide the focus on education and employment that lies at the core of this Government’s policy agenda. 

Two simple words that sum up why I get up early every morning without cursing the alarm clock. 

Two simple words that go to the very heart of what I believe membership of our Party, our unions, and our movement is all about.

Two words that encapsulate the modern, competitive, low-pollution economy we need in a country where success can be determined by effort, education and enterprise, and not by birth.

To put it bluntly, this thinking on prosperity and opportunity is far too narrow and ultimately damaging.

I agree with Swan that the goal of left politics changes from generation to generation, however, the principles that underlie it do not. Those principles are equality, actual not just formal, and improving quality of life through dignity at work (which he does mention), equal treatment regardless of background, a strong community and a good work-life balance. Prosperity and opportunity are the means to realise these principles, not an end in itself.

Swan seems to focus on prosperity as an end rather than a means. Increasing prosperity is necessary solely as a means to fund improvements in quality of life, both material and immaterial, for individuals and the community. There’s a reason why Ben Chifley described the Labor movement as:

not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people 

On opportunities, Swan mentions education and states that “our goal is genuine social mobility” but fails to acknowledge that to have greater opportunities for all requires that prosperity is redistributed. Everyone agrees that effort and enterprise should determine success and be rewarded, however, a sizeable and growing level of inequality redistributes opportunities to the haves from the have-nots. There is international evidence shows that there is a correlation between more social mobility and decreasing income inequality.

Like Swan, my passion is for reform, not ranting. Reform is built on the achievements of the past that should not be forgotten. Swan does take note of Tony Judt’s view that the world we inhabit is the creation of social democrats but Judt went further than that. He spoke of the post-war social democratic settlement being whittled away by the right and a complacency about its achievements. In his essay, “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy”, Judt stated that there needed to be a strident defence of the gains made by social democrats as:

To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come.

The narrow focus on prosperity and opportunity without understanding the influence of income inequality has led to the abandonment of past achievements such as a greater redistribution of wealth. This goal is seen as a barrier, no longer important or necessary. The failure to understand prosperity as a means to an end and the necessity of redistributing some prosperity limits the extent opportunities can be spread and this will undercut any meaning reforms undertaken.

Ultimately, it is this betrayal that is the greatest and most damaging flaw of such a narrow focus on opportunity and prosperity. By ignoring the interconnected relationship of opportunity and prosperity with inequality, it will continually undermine the possibility of greater equality and a better quality of life.

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