Category Archives: Ideas

Another world is possible, but only if we seize this moment

We are on the precipice of a moment of transformation. The orthodoxy of the last forty years feels as if it is exhausted and on the verge of collapse. What fills the vacuum is yet to be seen.

There is hope. The predictions of a calamity for British Labour did not come to pass. The public is tired of being told their future will be worse than their parents’ generation and they cannot enjoy what past generations took for granted: security, stability, an improvement in their material circumstances.

The British election had a global impact for social democratic movements. Here in Australia, many even asked who our home grown answer to Jeremy Corbyn is. That, however, is the wrong question and lesson. This isn’t about personalities or individuals – for progressives it never is. Rather the lesson of the British election for those on the Left should be to challenge what ideas we think are possible and to put forward a transformative vision for a better future.

The times call for a bold platform for a better future for the many and we must not hedge on it. We need to be unapologetic and hopeful. People are not happy with the status quo and established party systems are being overturned across the world.

The conservative side of politics has no answer to the crisis of housing affordability and the growing precariat, other than mindless appeals to xenophobia and the politics of division. They are in denial about the realities of climate change and comfortable with entrenched inequality.

Within Australia, inequality is growing. It is growing within our capital cities, with those living in rich and poor suburbs experiencing substantially different health and educational outcomes. It is growing as well as between urban and regional communities. It is a challenge that social democratic parties at all levels of government must face head on.

This moment is a time to articulate that another world is possible. Imagining a better future requires a dash of utopianism to consider bold ideas, as well as meticulous attention to the nitty gritty of policy and legislation. The Left in Australia is capable of both – but we must be smart, united and determined.

The alternative is to cede the future to a xenophobic nativism where the majority are pitted against each other, with an increasingly wealthy and disconnected elite making decisions about who is deserving and how to distribute the scraps they are prepared to share. The PASOKification that has torn apart sister parties in Western Europe is the future if Labor does not put the interests of working people front and centre.

It means a vision for better future for the generations to come, rather than the fear of a future in which our lives are worse than those of our forebears.

It means tax settings that fund the public services we need to build a good society that can stop the growth of inequality and ultimately make our society more equal.

None of this will happen naturally or automatically. It will require our ideas and our hard work. We have a better future to create and do not have a second to lose.

Originally appeared in the 2017 NSW Labor Conference edition of Challenge

Three gaps on the broader Australian Left

I have been thinking a lot about organisational gaps on the progressive side of politics in Australia recently. It was inspired by this piece by Aaron Bastani from a few years ago where he wrote about what would help strengthen left-wing movements. It is not a new discussion but it is one that usually happens privately.

In Australia, there has been significant investment in campaigning, in particular leadership, digital skill building, messaging, strategies and tactics. The Centre for Australian Progress has been a facilitator of skilling up the progressive movement and there have also been a range of other organisations established that provide this. Unions have also built up their campaigning capacity, environmental organisations are investing in community organising and GetUp! has expanded significantly, into electoral campaigning, organising volunteers and targeted media buys, with reports that it received $10m in revenue in 2016.

For a long time, another obsession on the broader Australian Left was the lack of thinktanks. While there are no thinktanks funded as well as or have the reach of the Institute for Public Affairs or the Centre for Independent Studies, there are a plethora of funded thinktanks now. The Australia Institute is taking a much larger role and is expanding. There is also Per Capita, Centre for Policy Development and McKell Institute with full time staff. Below them is a tier of smaller organisations attached to universities such as the John Cain Foundation, Evatt Foundation, Whitlam Institute and Don Dunstan Foundation. There are also more party aligned ones such as the Chifley Research Centre, TJ Ryan Foundation, John Curtin Research Centre and Green Institute. While it is unlikely we will have the same thinktank culture as the United Kingdom or the United States and they could do with more staff, resources and push the boundaries of what is politically acceptable, it is not as pressing an issue as it once was.

Reflecting on Bastani’s piece, there seem to be three big organisational gaps on the Left in Australia. They relate to media platforms, spaces to meet and funding sources.

Media platforms

A big focus is often on the lack of a left-wing media in Australia. The Murdoch papers are clearly conservative and Fairfax is highly critical of much of the agenda of the Left. The Guardian is a potential voice but Comment Is Free has scaled back to set pieces by established writers. There are a few explicitly left-wing columnists in the media like Van Badham, Jeff Sparrow, Jason Wilson and Paul Syvret but they are an obvious minority. I have, however, come to a view that the extent of the focus on the day-to-day media is a distraction.

While the day to day news is important to help shape the mood, the bigger gap is platforms that set the agenda and let you know what is going on elsewhere. There aren’t really any agenda setting left-wing magazines like the New Statesman or the Nation or a journal like Dissent or Renewal. The Monthly, while progressive, is cosmopolitan left-liberal and does not set the key political debates within influential left-wing circles. Overland is primarily a literary journal while other magazines like Arena and Australian Options have little to no influence. New Matilda is more prolific but does not really shape any broader debates. Sites like AIMN, Independent Australia or Wixxyleaks seem to have some readership but they won’t be key influencers.

However much I might not like their ideological positioning, there is nothing of similar stature to Spectator Australia or Quadrant on the right. Online magazines and sites could play a role, if there could be a paid editor, but it is not the same as having a regular, agenda setting, hard copy publication.

Spaces to meet

The fragmentation of the Left across multiple political parties and the declining membership of traditional institutions that brought people together such as trade unions mean alternative spaces for people to meet, network and interact are needed. These spaces need to exist to help strengthen weak ties that might be formed online or through one off interactions.

There aren’t really spaces for this to occur currently. The closest equivalent model in Australia would be Politics in the Pub, however, it is a very decentralised, siloed model rather than an institutional space that is structured to facilitate engagement by those new to politics and build relationships across social movements and in geographical localities.

In an ideal world, SEARCH Foundation would be best placed but it is not in a state to do it on a large scale. An organisation like GetUp! could help facilitate this but it would be best done by a separate organisation whose sole purpose is to provide a social space and strengthen ties to avoid likely conflicts over control.

I would also add that in additional to a social space, the lack of broad left conferences where like-minded individuals can meet, network and talk about ideas is a big gap that needs to be addressed.

Funding sources

Traditionally unions have been a big incubator of funds. They provided seed funding to the Centre for Australian Progress and also provided support for thinktanks like McKell Institute and the Australia Institute. Unions, however, have limited resources and cannot be relied upon to be the sole institutional funder of progressive causes. They are constantly the target of conservatives and resources are increasingly scarce given union density is not growing.

We do not have foundations in the same way as the United Kingdom which fund a raft of organisations that promote progressive causes. Progressive individuals may fund projects but it can be hard to know what to fund that serves a good ideological purpose.

Given the attacks on institutions associated with the progressive movement such as trying to strangle unions with bureaucratic processes and attempting to remove tax deductability from environmental organisations, creating avenues for individuals to know what causes and projects to directly support would be worthwhile.

Addressing these three organisational gaps I have highlighted won’t ensure that progressives always win but it would help to strengthen the broader Australian Left.

Why isn’t there a regular broad Left Conference?

A few months ago, the annual ALS Freidman Conference was held in Sydney. It is a get together of hundreds of classical liberals and libertarians regardless of their party affiliation. It got me thinking that though the Left often has conferences, there is no equivalent centrepiece event.

While there are left-wing conferences, there is often a focus on techniques rather than ideas. The largest frequent conferences, organised by Australian Progress, tend to be more about campaigning strategies and tactics rather than ideology. There have been other conferences more focused on ideas but they have been one-offs or party-centric such as Labor’s Progressive Australia, the Greens Reboot or SEARCH’s Left Renewal Conference.

It seems odd that there seems to be a lack of an ideological conference culture on the Left in Australia. Where events about ideas and policy do occur, they seem to be either academic or exclusive and small rather than seeking involvement and a mass audience. Maybe it is because the yardstick for comparison is somewhere like the United Kingdom where the Fabian Society and other organisations host regular conferences and are not held back by geographic distances. Maybe it once existed locally but disappeared as the institutional Left started to shrink.

I do, however, think there is appetite for a regular, pluralist Left conference about future we want that is not bogged down by partisan or factional squabbles or be stuck in the past. Ideas, policy and ideology matter because what is the point of strategy and tactics if we don’t have end goals?

There are a range of topics that need to be debated whether it is the challenge of generational politics, whether we can rebuild solidarity, organising around housing affordability, tackling inequality in all its forms, fighting climate changing, how to get a treaty, aiming for a six hour work week and universal basic income.

Any conference should seek to push boundaries and build better relationships amongst the broader Left. It should also be fun, forward looking and more like a festival, incorporating art, music and culture. Something exciting like The World Transformed rather than the usual talkfests where we hear from the same people who already have a platform. It also needs to be engaged beyond the traditional Left and avoid just having the same older set of speakers we hear all the time.

Organising a big festival-like conference is easier said than done and it will probably be better to start small and scale up but a regular event should be on the agenda for the Left so there can be a proper organised space for debating and exchanging ideas that cuts across the silos that do exist.

A new year, a new Bill?

The last few weeks have been good for Bill Shorten. He’s been increasingly bold, has set the agenda and gotten favourable public response, putting the Coalition government on the backfoot. The polls have tightened, with two (Newspoll and Essential) recording 50-50 2PP.

Malcolm Turnbull meanwhile has been struggling. While expectations about Shorten have been extremely low, even among the party base, for Turnbull expectations are sky-high — and he is not living up to them. He is constrained by trying to keep the peace in his party room, fending off leaks and backbench revolts. In the last few weeks alone, there have been leaks about the Defence White Paper and conservative uproar about the safe schools program.

Turnbull’s tax reform agenda, which was to be the centrepiece of his re-election campaign, is in shambles. Internal opposition led to the dumping of GST changes, and even modest changes to negative gearing are unlikely to get party room support. Bereft of a tax reform agenda, the government is caught between indecision and reaction.

Even with all this going on, Labor knows that a small-target strategy would not work against Turnbull. The negative gearing announcement made everyone pay attention because Shorten took a position that might be unpopular with some swinging voters in the electorate, challenging assumptions about his aversion to risk. Similarly, calling Senator Cory Bernardi a homophobe and replacing Joe Bullock with Patrick Dodson has caused people to start reassessing Shorten.

Negative gearing has been particularly potent because it is a policy that the party base really likes. Communication expert Anat Shenker-Osorio has argued that progressives should engage their base and persuade swinging voters, rather than cater to them and alienate their opponents. The Coalition’s policies on immigration and refugees did this; negative gearing does it perfectly for Labor.

It’s a sensible strategy. Since the Second World War, Labor has only won from Opposition three times, and in each case did so by having, a positive agenda with clear and distinctive ideas. With doubts growing about Turnbull, it gives Shorten an opportunity to outline clear and distinctive ideas.

The big danger here is that big policy announcements this early open Labor up to attack and give the Coalition time to respond. In addition to its proposed changes to negative gearing Labor has made big commitments on Gonski education reform. If Turnbull can create enough doubt about Labor, he can get re-elected. With the conservative wing of the Coalition making it difficult for Turnbull to outline and focus on a bold policy agenda, resorting to a fear campaign may become his only option.

But Labor needs to be bold and continue strengthening its narrative. A clear lesson from the British election is that a shopping list of appealing policies is not enough. Labor has sought to establish a narrative about the future and science, focusing on jobs of the future by announcing policies on coding, renewables and start-ups. But while this has potential, as evidenced by Turnbull’s attempts to neutralise it with his innovation statement, it has not been convincing, as yet.

People increasingly understand that change is necessary. They are worried about the future, not only out of self-interest but also out of concern for their children’s future and living standards. They want someone to be straightforward about the challenges we face, and have a plan.

Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club this week showed signs that he recognises this underlying public mood and that determining how to ensure a just transition in the face of big structural forces is shaping Labor’s thinking.

Digital disruption, the ageing population and climate change will have profound effects on Australia and the world. Most people understand we need to innovate and adapt, but they also want some security and certainty for themselves. Not everyone will benefit equally from disruption. There are some big risks, and intervention is necessary to ensure opportunities and burdens are fairly shared.

While Turnbull may be ahead as preferred prime minister, the Coalition has yet to demonstrate the principle of fairness — in government, let alone in their future plans. That principle of fairness is deeply held and widely felt across the electorate, as shown by the reaction to the 2014 Budget.

If Shorten can capture this mood, he has a chance of winning. Labor’s narrative needs to be not only that it is the party best equipped to deal with the challenges we face, but is the only party that can ensure any changes will be just and equitable. A plan for the future that is both convincing and seen as fair may end up being the difference between being in government and opposition.

Published in Eureka Street on 18 March 2016

Australia won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders but there will be an anti-system response

It’s become a common shtick to ask why Australian politics seems to be very different from the rest of the Western world. Across the world, there is growing disenchantment with politics and existing institutions. Major parties on the centre-left and centre-right are struggling against insurgent challengers on the Left and Right, both internally and externally. It manifests in a common question that gets asked in progressive circles: Why don’t we have the equivalent of Sanders or Corbyn in Australia?

The short answer is that both are products of a particular context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It does not happen without the broader politicisation that is occurring elsewhere.

Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn products of particular contexts, cultures and history. Corbyn is the product of a hard left tradition in the British Labour Party no longer exists in the ALP. In part, due to the discipline of the ALP and the emergence of a viable challenger on its left flank in the Greens. Sanders is a former Mayor in a small state, someone who has been outside the Democratic Party for all of his political career, arguing on a platform of democratic socialism as a candidate for Democratic nomination. There is no equivalent for the pathway Sanders took in Australia.

Both took advantage of unique conditions: open primaries in two-party dominant systems combined with a rejection of technocratic centre-left politics by a reshaped party base. It was fuelled by radicalisation that has happened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, supported in particular by younger votes.

As Jason Wilson has noted, Australia has an outlier to this seemingly global trend of a strengthening Left. His argument is that the economic circumstances is the key difference. A recent Guardian feature on Generation Y seems to affirm this, a graph based on Luxembourg Income Study Database data showing that disposable income for Generation Y in Australia increased over three decades while elsewhere it was flat or decreased.

graph

While there are issues with the data, it does provide a clear picture. Young people in the rest of the world have gone backwards, not just since the Global Financial Crisis but for over a decade. The angers and frustrations expressed have been built up over a long period of time and are directly linked to falling standards of living.

My view is that the radicalisation that has occurred elsewhere will happen but hasn’t yet. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with politics. Young people are particularly concerned about the future, whether they will have a permanent job or be able to afford housing. That undercurrent was shown by the reaction to Richard Cooke’s essay on the boomer supremacy. Income growth has slowed since 2010, the affordability housing is a problem as are difficulties with finding decent secure permanent jobs amongst young educated people. The future they were sold is not appearing. The crunch has not happened and there has not been a catalyst.

Our electoral system, buttressed by preferential and compulsory voting as well as single member electorates, helps to cover up the extent of disengagement and disenchantment. There are anti-system votes for minor parties and support for politicians that seem to buck it but not a systematic challenge. An economic crisis may be what pushes people over the edge. If we do face a full-blown economic crisis, we may see that undercurrent turn into popular anger against a system that represents the state to the people rather than representing social bases.

If does happen here, however, there is no guarantee that it will come through the Labor Party or even the Greens. The closed nature of our parties makes it difficult for that surge to go through any existing well-established party. Furthermore, both Sanders and Corbyn have also been longstanding figures, there is no equivalent in any existing party that could play a similar role.

A new political formation will not be the immediate response. The emergence of social movements and its transmission into politics takes time. It is not immediate. Podemos, Corbyn, SYRIZA, Sanders, the HDP in Turkey, the New Power Party in Taiwan, none of appeared immediately. Arguably it was a defeat on the streets and realisation that they needed to take state power that compelled them to form political parties. It is similar to the decision made by Australian unions in the 1890s after the Maritime Strike. Their success also took years, not months and only gained considerable strength after they seemed like viable vehicles.

If this politicisation does emerge in Australia, it is unclear that it will benefit the Left. The reaction against establishment politics in many parts of Europe have not benefitted the Left but a reactionary Right, particularly in Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. The anti-establishment mood has not taken a left versus right stance but rather a people versus the elites/oligarchs/cartels.

Could we see something more like Trump here? A populist who denounces the corrupt elite but supports public spending is quite possible as Australia has not been immune to those outbursts of right-wing populism – One Nation and Clive Palmer being two notable recent examples. It is hard to predict because national factors play a huge role in how anti-system energies are channelled and barriers to entry are much higher here than elsewhere. Events and the response of strong personalities will play a big role in what happens.

Whatever does occur, it won’t be the same as North America or Western Europe. There is no guarantee that the established Left or the Right will benefit from anti-system energies. We won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders because our recent experience has been considerably different but like elsewhere a people versus oligarchic elites narrative is likely to dominate.

The danger of generational politics

Released yesterday, Richard Cooke’s essay in The Monthly has really touched a nerve. Lots of friends have shared the essay on social media, saying how it captures how they feel about the dominance of the Baby Boomers.

For many young people, it is increasingly hard to find a secure, well paying job. Many rack up big debts to pay for their education but still can’t find a permanent job. At the same time, housing is increasingly unaffordable with any hope of home ownership disappearing. At the same time, they feel patronised by an older generation who condescendingly say they just need to make sacrifices like they did. Yet it was a different age, an age of secure jobs, free education and more affordable housing, something almost inconceivable today.

This resentment at Boomers isn’t anything new, it has been bubbling away for awhile. While Generation Less is being released next month, a decade ago Please Just F* Off, It’s Our Turn Now was released. The young sticking it to older generations isn’t anything new, the Baby Boomers rebelled against their parents, but something makes the current situation different. There is a pervasive sense that young people today will be the first generation since the Great Depression that will be worse off than their parents.

What’s more is that young people are increasingly angry and frustrated that they have been sold a lie. They have grown up in an individualised, consumer-driven world where it was about their choices. The idea that you can do anything you want to do, work hard and you’ll be successful and the future would keep improving was uncontested. There was an emphasis was on social mobility and equality of opportunity, “growing the pie”, not redistribution. Post-GFC, people are starting to realise that it is utter bollocks.

The strange thing is that it has taken the form of intergenerational rather than class conflict. Young people are railing against an unfair distribution of resources, privilege from the ownership of capital or having wealthy parents, a system rigged against them. And yet it does not manifest as a form of class consciousness, even one that is intersectional. A single female pensioner that does not own her own home is in a similar position to a young renter with insecure work except with fewer options. Essentially timing has meant that it is more likely to be the Boomers who have accumulated wealth and capital but it is mostly about class. But why is generational politics rather than the politics of class the dominant narrative?

I would argue that the erosion of traditional institutions and forms of identity, particularly class, has played a big role. Structural changes have meant the demise of traditional career paths, declining union density, decoupling of where you work and live have all played a part in the breakdown of traditional sense of class identity. With many people no longer living and working in the same community or staying in the occupation for long periods of time, the strength of class identity has eroded away.

At the same time, there has been the rise of identity politics. Age fits quite well within an identity politics framework. While not the same as other manifestations of identity politics, there is a sense of institutionalised disadvantage and there are common experiences that unite a disparate group of people, creating a common identity that resonates with many people.

This growing intergenerational conflict is not unique to Australia. It is happening across the world. The big danger for progressives it that unless addressed properly it becomes a right-wing vehicle for dismantling the welfare state and pursuing anti-tax individualism, based on resentment.

Fundamental to the welfare state is the idea of intergenerational solidarity. Solidarity is about feelings of sympathy and responsibility for others. Welfare spending is essentially a compact of intergenerational solidarity. Younger workers pay taxes to support older workers’ pensions and healthcare costs but they benefit from previous generations’ investments in infrastructure, innovation and environmental protection. The understanding is that everyone benefits from the support of others and that we are part of a larger community of shared interests.

Intergenerational conflict undermines that compact, particularly when fiscal pressures caused by an ageing population has meant a push to rein in support for the young, particularly as the old become a larger proportion of the population. Any sense of reciprocity is destroyed because while the older generations get or maintain support, the young lose theirs and thus do not have a stake in social supports. While older generations have a (rightful) sense that they should get support as they contributed financially, younger people ask, “Why am I subsidising the old when I don’t get any support?” It is a recipe for a highly divided and stratified society.

Shifting the focus to class and rebuilding intergenerational solidarity won’t be easy. It requires a cross-generational understanding there is a shared interest in tackling inequality and entrenched privilege but it needs to be done. If it isn’t, the intergenerational conflict will only get worse and it will further breed resentful, toxic individualism.

 

We must be smart, open and modern to win

To succeed, Labor must engage with the world as we find it, not as we might want it to be.

Australia’s economy is in transition. We cannot ignore the rise of the sharing economy or the threat posed by climate change. We need to grapple with the revenue crisis engulfing our governments. The digital age is transforming our lives but how do we protect our fundamental rights to privacy? Longstanding policies on drugs are failing and leave a great social cost.

The Left welcomes debate on these issues and more. Strong and effective policy can only emerge from a robust contest between competing solutions. Labor, and Australia, need bold, innovative, tested ideas that address our most pressing challenges.

That is why the Left is supporting a move towards a broad-based land tax.

In a world where wealthy is increasingly concentrated and capital increasingly mobile, land tax offers state governments stable revenues to fund vital services. Unlike the regressive GST, it does not shift the burden from the wealthy to low-income earners.

Australia must leverage our existing advantages to achieve social outcomes. We need an industry policy that backs our world-class research and innovation as we transition to a clean economy.

We need to generate winning policies but we must also call out failed policy when we see it. The human cost of our drug laws is unacceptable. Drug law reform is long overdue.

Labor has a proud record when it comes to the big reforms – and in managing the impact of change in line with our equitable values.

But today in NSW there are self-inflicted challenges to our credibility. The community we seek to represent needs a modern, professional party. In some important respects, we fail that test.

Urgent reforms to our internal governance must ensure the utmost integrity of NSW Labor. We must remove factional cannibalism from Party offices. We must boost women’s representation at all levels.

But smart policies and good governance are no longer enough. There is a growing mood of discontentment with politics. As internal contests on both sides of the Atlantic have shown, there is a yearning for a more transparent, responsive and democratic politics. Labor must accept and embrace this mood or suffer a fate similar to many of our European sister parties.

The philosopher Robert Unger once wrote: ‘Whatever forces most credibly associate itself in the future with creation of the new, with energy, with vitality, will in the end command the day’.

For Labor to win the day, we must be a smart, open, modern party poised to respond confidently to the challenges of the future.

Originally appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Challenge