The debate on the socialist objective shows how stale thinking within the ALP is

Last night at NSW Labor’s Wran Lecture, NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley announced that he plans to move a motion to remove the socialist objective from the party constitution at the upcoming ALP National Conference. The new objective would read:

‘The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential. We believe in an active role for government, and the operation of competitive markets, in order to create opportunities for all Australians, so that every person will have the freedom to pursue their well-being, in co-operation with their fellow citizens, free from exploitation and discrimination’.

To acknowledge the attachment that many party members have to the objective, Foley proposes to include it in the party’s origin’s statement so it reads:

‘The Australian Labor Party had its origins in:

  • ‘the desire for the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’

There are good arguments for updating the objective. The NSW Fabians event on the objective and subsequent pamphlet (which I was involved with) capture the main arguments and there are many valid points both for and against the objective. Yes, federal Labor has rarely engaged in nationalisation, its ambitions limited by the High Court. If anything, the objective has withered to a symbol. Still, to a substantial number of party members, it is an important symbol that represents an important ideal and to many members socialism does not necessarily mean state ownership (a point acknowledged by Chris Bowen during the Fabians event).

Personally I am not fussed about the ‘democratic socialist’ versus ‘social democratic’ debate. However, the manner in which this debate is happening leaves much to be desired and it also highlights how bereft Labor’s intellectual debate is.

Firstly, what is being proposed is a very generic statement that is not distinctively Labor. A socially liberal party, along the lines of the Australian Democrats, could easily accept it as a party objective. The three key things that are missing are:

  • An explicit statement that Labor is a social democratic party;
  • Belief in the primacy of democratic society over markets; and
  • A commitment to creating a good society.

Oddly, those three things are in Chapter 1 of the draft ALP Platform but have been left out of the proposed rewrite of the objective.

Secondly, is it really worthy of a centrepiece debate at the upcoming ALP National Conference? While the language of the objective is clunky and could be updated, rather than encouraging genuine debate, a fight at Conference only serves to highlight how stale philosophical debate is within the ALP.

If the objective is to be updated, it should be a cross-factional process that seeks to get broad support and be a unifying set of principles. There would probably be agreement on most words other than whether the word ‘social democratic’ or ‘democratic socialist’ is used. But rather than a principled and grounded discussion that seeks to find as much common ground as possible, it is being used as a a divisive weapon to show who’s in charge (not the Left faction). It reminds me of the three uranium mine debate at the 2006 ALP National Conference.

If the attempt is to emulate a “Clause IV moment” then it will fail miserably. Arguably the ALP already had this moment under the Hawke-Keating Government when it floated the dollar and started privatising state owned enterprises. A big debate may have been relevant thirty years ago when Labor was torn over the role of the market but to try to make this a major flashpoint now seems like a waste of energy when there are deeper questions facing progressives more broadly.

What are those deeper questions? In a piece for IPPR’s Juncture, Eliane Glasner outlined six big debates for the broader Left. The issues for debate are:

  1. Ideology is not dead, but we need a new political vocabulary
  2. Democracy is not dead, it’s just captured
  3. Authority and leadership are both unavoidable and essential
  4. Be wary of embracing populism
  5. What should the state do?
  6. Digital culture is neither producing equality nor uniting the left

Those are some of the issues we should be debating. I don’t think anyone has a good response to those debates and they will not go away anytime soon.

While some seem to want to invest time and energy to manufacture a fight over the objective, it will only show how irrelevant and out of touch we are, if people even bother to pay attention at all. The result will be changing a few words without really thinking about what it means to be a social democratic party in the 21st century.

If you want to change the objective, fair enough, but let’s have a clear and meaningful discussion about the purpose of social democratic (or democratic socialist) party in the 21st century rather than put forward a set of inoffensive words and have a factional fight for the sake of it. Otherwise we shouldn’t bother with this debate at all.

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2 thoughts on “The debate on the socialist objective shows how stale thinking within the ALP is

  1. I also think on ‘Social democracy versus democratic socialism’ it depends what we mean. I believe in substance radical social democracy and democratic socialism can and should be interpreted as the same thing… The author also makes a great point re: the Objective “being used as a divisive weapon to show who’s in charge’. Lots of insight there – and appreciated. As I argue as well – one path is to include recognition of the plural nature of today’s Labor Party. Recognise that radical social democracy and democratic socialism are ‘core traditions’ in today’s Labor Party. And that markets – and capitalism more broadly – ‘fail’ at both practical and moral levels. That includes exploitation, povertyand the distribution as wealth; as well as waste and instability.

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