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

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

It’s time the Australian Left got serious about transformational change

One of my big gripes of late has been that there is lots of focus by progressives on capacity building, campaigning tactics and strategies but far less on what changes need to be embedded to change society. When progressives are in power, the focus is often redistribution and providing more funding to services but often what is lacking is deeper thinking about statecraft.

What prompted my thinking was this piece in the New Socialist, written about constructing a new left political economy. In this moment of economic, democratic and ecological crisis, we should not accept tinkering at the edges and a repeat of the past. We need to think about institutional frameworks. Neoliberalism did not come fully formed, its seeds were planted to weaken the existing institutional structures and transform the country. Competition policy, restricting right of entry, new public management, contestability, separating policy and service delivery and allowing free-riding in collective bargaining are all examples of these neoliberal seeds that weakened collective institutions and gradually brought about privatisation. These rules, structures, policies and mindsets were embedded into our institutions and continue regardless of who is in power at the top. They are far more insidious than the overt use of state power by conservative governments.

Many on the Left tend to focus on redistribution and provision of service, the immediate need, rather than the political economy and institutional structures that exist as foundations. The rules and regulations that exist, the way state power can be used and the culture it enforces has massive implications. We need to think about what institutional frameworks are needed to drive the outcomes we want so we do not have to rely on those explicitly on the Left of politics being in elected office, particularly at state and local government levels.

Taxing and spending alone will not be enough to achieve outcomes like eroding away the commodification of housing and other public goods, inserting in new democratic norms into both the public and private sectors, industrial policies that provide training, genuine career pathways and economic development, helping to break up the oligarchies that control our economies, ensuring individual not corporate control over our own information, reducing precarity, changing how we approach care so we acknowledge it is work and decarbonising the economy. Raising additional revenue and more social spending is essential for a fairer society but it cannot be the limits of our imagination. We need to think about the seeds of transformational change at all levels. All the workshops and conferences about messaging and campaigning techniques cannot be a substitute for this. Calls to vague sentiments about a more caring, peaceful, sustainable society are insufficient.

Some more modest ideas are floating out there such as more creative approaches to central banking, employee representation on company boards, full employment underpinned by a jobs guarantee, large scale public renewable generation, campaign finance reform,  changing our industrial relations laws to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and taxing externalities like carbon and congestion but much more is needed.

Without this deeper, harder thinking and a transformative agenda, we will be like Sisyphus. We may make some gains uphill but are condemned to watch it go backwards once conservatives get into power and slash spending.

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

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.

Labor must grasp this opportunity to inspire

Labor’s 2015 National Conference is the most important in a generation. Our party is at a critical juncture. The 47th National Conference must set the path both on policy and on internal reform.

After many false starts, real Party reform is now within reach, Now is the time to guarantee rank-and-file members a direct vote for not just the leader but also for delegates to National Conference and Senate candidates. Just as essential is the continuation of our equal partnership with the union movement, the largest social movement in Australia. This opportunity to inspire must not be squandered.

One critical Conference debate will focus on the need for Labor to build a credible economic agenda. As Tom Skladzien argues, that does not mean slashing spending driven by a ‘surplus fetish’ or the imposition of arbitrary tax-to-GDP ratios. Instead we must ask: how can government best pay for the services Australians need and expect?

A progressive fiscal policy for Labor must address the revenue question. This is an absolute prerequisite to realising the society and public services we want to deliver. Jo Schofield rightly points out: if we accept an ever-shrinking tax base, progressives will end up squabbling over the ever-decreasing pool of revenue.

So how can Labor fund the program as that Australians need? Richard Dennis’s outlines four progressive revenue-raising measures.

Labor cannot lock itself into a low-revenue future and nor allow itself to be cast as a pale imitation of the Coalition. As Nadine Flood points out, the ALP must advocate a positive case for the role of over meant as an essential enabler of future jobs and prosperity.

Conference will feature several other key policy debates that will shape Labor’s approach in government. Asylum seekers, marriage equality, a fairer tax system that tackles corporate tax avoidance, housing affordability and tackling climate change are all high on the Left’s agenda.

Conference will also debate Labor’s core objective. It is a debate that seems to have been mainly conducted in the conservative press. While the case for change has not yet been made, we should always have the confidence to debate Labor’s purpose. In that spirit, we are publishing two competing views on the socialist objective.

The British election proved that even incompetent and hated governments can triump on the back of cynical fear campaigns. Being the least worst option will not lift Labor to government. Neal Lawson offers two lessons from the UK election.

Labor must grasp the vital opportunity offered by th 2015 National Conference. Facing a federal election, we must demonstrate our evolution as a modern, democratic movement with a positive policy vision for the future.

Originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Challenge

Blue Labour and the Left

Blue Labour has a bad reputation in left-wing circles. Many perceive it to be racist, conservative, patriarchal and anti-state, summed up with the view that it is about “flag, faith and family”. While there has been widespread criticism of Blue Labour by many sections of the British Labour left, concern not only exists in Britain. For example, I helped organise a Fabian Society event with Maurice Glasman, a key figure in Blue Labour, in Sydney and got the NSW Left to promote. There was some criticism that we should not be promoting such an event.

Understandably a lot of the hesitation comes from what people think of Glasman on issues of national identity and a perception that Blue Labour is about social conservatism. The framing of Blue Labour as a “radical conservative” tradition has not helped win fans on the broader Left. Many are uncomfortable with what he has said about immigration and nationalism in particular, dislike of how he framed the middle-class Fabian and working-class traditions of the political wing of the labour movement in highly gendered terms.

But to dismiss everything Glasman and Blue Labour has said is wrong and foolish. There is a lot from Blue Labour’s analysis to draw on and much of it is already in common use. For example, the idea of community organising and building a relational approach has already taken hold in parts of the Left here, most notably through the Sydney Alliance. Glasman has been heavily involved with London Citizens, the London counterpart to Sydney Alliance. Similarly, focusing on the common good is nothing new with Australian academic David McKnight talking about similar issues and using the same language nearly a decade ago.

Blue Labour’s focus on importance of relationships, place and work also has much to offer. They are all fundamental to personal identity and anchor our lives. Maurice Glasman has also championed ideas of mutuality, reciprocity, solidarity and community ownership, all drawn from important Left traditions that some argue has been lost.

Many in Left may feel uncomfortable with Glasman’s suggestion that it should ditch talk about equality. It is not because Glasman is opposed to equality but rather he argues for most people it is an abstract concept rather than being grounded in everyday life and common sense. This everyday politics and common sense has more in common with those associated with Stuart Hall and Marxism Today than the conservative Right.

Blue Labour also draws on Karl Polanyi, who arguably should be to social democrats what Hayek is to the free market Right, particularly his concerns about commodification. It is most powerful because its language about commodification is something that much of the Left has lost. It is the ‘moral critique of capitalism’ that historian Frank Bongiorno argues Labor has lost. The resistance to the dehumanising effect of the commodification of labour is a fundamental part of organised labour. That is the element of conservatism within the Left, resistance to the radical nature of free market liberalism. The Left has always sought to decommodify education, health care through guaranteeing universalism and rejecting basing value on economic benefits of decisions and actions.

In many ways aspects of Blue Labour could serve as a powerful and useful critique of the politics of the Hawke-Keating era and its top down, elitist and market driven politics. Nostalgia for those politics still runs deep despite it being the source of many of the ALP’s current problems.

While there is much from Blue Labour that is of use, there are many aspects I disagree with, most notably immigration and nationalism. Even supporters have acknowledged its shortcomings in Australia. For example, Nick Dyrenfurth has said this on immigration.

There are also questions about Blue Labour’s vision for the role of the state and communities. David Walker has rightly pointed out that while there is a focus on power, the two unanswered questions are: who pays? and what about professional skill? What happens when the community and those with expertise disagree? Windfarms and floridation are two immediate examples that come to mind. It is also unclear about who gets to define what the ‘common good’ is and how. It reinforces my belief that while Blue Labour has a strong critique but it does not offer a lot of good solutions.

I am also wary of Glasman’s idolisation of Germany. Mark Blyth has highlighted that the German economic miracle is far from one. It has relied on freezes in real wages, an increased labour force from the intergration of East Germany and the impact of the Euro making German exports more competitive. The German social market economy was designed afer the Second World War in response to the perceived threat of socialism. Its basis, ordo-liberalism, seeks a competitive enterprise economy.

Furthermore, he points out that not every country can be a Germany and run a surplus, some need to run deficits, just as for someone to save, someone else needs to spend. This idealisation of Germany risks generalising ideas, policies and institutions that cannot be generalised.

Blue Labour also seemingly has little to say about the challenges we face. It is unclear what it has to say about the impact of technology and how it is transforming the economy and society. Can technology aid its vision of strengthening relationships and a sense of place or is it disruptive? What are its implications of technology for the future of work and what does that mean for its vision? Then there’s challenges across the Western world such as climate change and an ageing population, let alone how to grapple with the waves of mass migration caused by conflict (and soon climate change).

If a Blue Labour approach was to be adopted in Australia, it is unlikely it would look the same as its counterpart in Britain. The historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that we had our own version Blue Labour through Mark Latham. I’m not sure given Latham’s tendency towards neoliberalism, albeit tinged with working-class nostalgia and contempt for anything associated with the New Left.

Whatever the future holds for Blue Labour, there are aspects of it that the Left can draw on. The Left should embrace its moral critique of capitalism which much of the social democratic Left has lost. Rejecting abstract notions and a focus on the everyday (place, relationships, work) to reconnect with people are also important. However, for all that it can offer, Blue Labour does not provide any answers to the bigger challenges we face in the 21st century and it is trapped by its own romanticism and idealisation.

What is the point of the Labor Left?

There has been a fair bit of controversy both outside and within the Labor Left over NSW Upper House MLC Luke Foley and his stance on marriage equality. He isn’t the only one. At the federal level, a number of Left MPs in NSW and Victoria voted against marriage equality to the dismay of rank-and-file members of the Labor Left.

Undoubtedly marriage equality is an important issue for the Labor Left and one that I, like many others, support. The Left has led the case for marriage equality within the ALP but it does not have a monopoly over the issue of marriage equality. It is important but it is not the sole defining issue. It seems that the actions of some MPs are so unsettling because support seems to be linked to the identity of being in the Labor Left. Is what defines the Labor Left so fragile that it can come down to a single issue? The bigger question it leads to is what defines the Labor Left, what is its ultimate aim?

Socialism is not one of its defining purposes anymore, at least publicly it seems. It has been a long time since any prominent members of the Left have talked about socialism. The Left shies away from it, for example, the NSW Left does not refer to itself as the Socialist Left anymore (though in Victoria the name remains). While there are socialists in the Left, the Left is not necessarily socialist in its aims or language.

Equality and social justice are often put forward as aims but are they explicitly Labor Left ideals? Equality can be supported by liberals, social justice can be supported by conservatives. Both are often articulated by the Left in terms of social issues but on many social issues and even on party reform, the divide is not necessarily Left-Right, particularly amongst younger members. Stances on refugees and marriage equality, two issues strongly associated with the Left, aren’t necessarily determined by faction as we’ve seen by the votes on marriage equality and those who have spoken out about refugees like Anna Burke.

On most policy matters, the Left often argues for more money for public services and opposes privatisation and deregulation but are any of those actually a distinctly Labor Left position? Parts of the union Right and non-aligned members share those views.

If anything the current purpose of the Labor Left seems to be generally opposing power for the sake of power, more internal party democracy and a willing to speak out, be more critical and work with social movements unlike the Right. That is not a good enough end in itself (and a problem when discipline does re-assert itself e.g. on refugees under Rudd). A focus on process and means is no substitute for a long-term defining goal. Without a goal, when in power, aimlessness will creep in. The crisis of social democratic parties has been the lack of such a goal since the late 80s. In many ways the crisis of ideas in social democratic parties is most keenly felt on the left-wing of those parties as they are not as willing to embrace neoliberal and conservative ideas.

There are no shortage of problems that the world faces. As Neal Lawson has pointed out there are crises of climate change, inequality and of democracy itself. The world is also different to that which the Labor Left formed in. Capital has gone global, consumerism has become embedded and we have a more horizontal approach to involvement in civil society. Solving these crises and adapting to the new era require knowing what you want instead and how you will get there. The Labor Left must outline this and have confidence to confront these doubts.

To really challenge the view that the factions are merely a product of the Cold War and are now meaningless, there is a need for the Left to sketch out what transformative change is wanted when Labor is in power. It cannot occur just through moving motions at Labor Conferences and branch meetings but about articulating a vision of society and building alliances with groups inside and outside the party.

The Left needs to articulate the limits of the market and the good society that it wants. It needs to break out of the language of economism and talk about what as a society we want to prioritise and why. It needs to sketch out what kind of equality and what kind of social justice in concrete terms. It needs to spell out how to encourage participation, deliberation and openness, strengthen society by addressing pressures like growing insecurity and inadequate work/life balance and challenge the commodification of our everyday lives. To put it more simply, it needs to pursue what the political economist Karl Polanyi defined as socialism:

…essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilisation to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to democratic society

That should be the defining aim, the point of the Labor Left, to prioritise democratic society over the market. To achieve this, it needs a long-term agenda as a starting point.

An agenda should be developed by the Left outlining what its priorities, its hopes and what it wants but it also must reach out to others who share similar ideas. The Labor Left on its own cannot win inside or outside Labor. Tribalism is deeply ingrained in Labor politics but as less and less people become involved, a more open and plural approach is increasingly necessary to establish a longer settlement. It means building coalitions and trust with those who share some of your goals and trying to move beyond fractionalism. Without it, the working majority needed to win will not exist. Any agenda cannot therefore be overly prescriptive but focus on some themes and put forward ideas that can build a majority with the Left leading it.

The point of the Labor Left must be that it does not just oppose but seeks power to bring about transformative change. A long-term agenda must be a starting point but the goals that are set will only be achieved through a more pluralistic, less tribal and more open approach to politics. The alternative is aimlessness and a base that continues to be eroded away by challengers on its left flank.