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

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

Control of the Upper House is the most important battle of the NSW election

While the media has focused on how many seats Labor may pick up off the Coalition on March 28 and the impact of Luke Foley as Labor leader, the Legislative Council election is shaping up to be the most important battle of the upcoming NSW election. Whoever controls the Upper House will determine whether electricity privatisation (and the Coalition’s second term agenda) occurs.

Current distribution of seats

The current distribution of seats in the Legislative Council (42) is 14 ALP, 12 Liberals, 7 Nationals, 5 Greens, 2 Shooters and Fishers and 2 Christian Democratic Party (CDP).

In 2011, the Coalition won 11 of 21 spots while Labor won 5 and the Greens won 3 with one each for the CDP and Shooters and Fishers.

The Liberals have been able to form a majority (22) in the Upper House by dealing with the CDP and the Shooters and Fishers Party.

The fight over electricity privatisation

Along with Labor and the Greens, the Shooters and Fishers have pledged to oppose the privatisation of electricity. There may be scepticism as they have a tendency to be bought off but they have stated that they will not deal on privatisation. The CDP has, however, indicated it will support the privatisation of electricity. This isn’t a surprise given the far right former Liberals that are in the CDP and the preference deal they had with the Liberals had at the 2011 election.

To gain a majority to sell off the poles and wires, the Coalition needs to win 9 seats with the support of the CDP (assuming Nile is re-elected). 11 seats would give them a majority in their own right. To win 9 of 21 suggests a primary vote of 41% (potentially less because of Optional Preferential Voting). A recent Galaxy poll has suggested that the Coalition is on a primary vote of 43% meaning they are hovering around a majority for privatisation.

The danger of a Coalition victory in the Upper House

The big danger is if the Coalition gains control of the Upper House (with the CDP) they will try to implement a radical free-market agenda that goes beyond electricity privatisation and includes the privatisation of water, trains and extend contestability and outsourcing across public health care, education and social services.

For anyone who believes in essential services should be kept in public hands, stopping the NSW Coalition from being able to implement its agenda must be a priority. Success will mean others will attempt to emulate Baird’s neoliberal agenda. The importance is underscored by Paul Kelly who states that:

Defeat for Baird would constitute the most lethal blow for market-based economic reform for years…

The added danger is a good Coalition result in the Legislative Council will make it harder to unwind any changes or pursue progressive reforms if Labor wins in 2019. Unlike federally, there is no mechanism to clear the NSW Upper House and the term served by each MLC is eight years. It makes it all the more important to stop the Coalition (and their allies the CDP) from being able to get a majority.

UPDATE 10/03/15: Antony Green has suggested that because of Optional Preferential Voting, the Coalition may only need around 39% to gain 9 seats.