It’s time to revisit free education

In an era of stagnant wages, intergenerational divides and increasingly concentrated wealth and opportunities, the current policy consensus is neither fair nor is it working for a growing segment of the world’s population.

A recent Pew Global Poll found 52 per cent are not satisfied with the way their democracy is working. For many, the status quo means a future that is not better, with a majority believing that quality of life for young people will be lower than that of their parents.

Australia is no exception. That same poll found that 41 per cent of Australians are not satisfied with how democracy is working here and that less than half of the country has a lot of trust or somewhat trusts that the national government will do what is right for the country. Over two thirds of Australians believe children today will be financially worse off than their parents.

The dissatisfaction and concern about falling living standards for future generations is leading to longstanding policy assumptions being rethought, and nothing symbolises this more than tertiary education. Across the world over recent decades there was a shift towards user-pays in tertiary education. That is now being reversed.

The platforms that British and New Zealand Labour took to elections this year show this understanding emerging, with both having policies to make education free once more. Even Hillary Clinton took a tuition-free college plan to the last US presidential election. It is time for Australia to follow suit.

In Australia, the argument for income contingent loans for higher education was that it financed the expansion of higher education, and that public funding is otherwise mainly subsidisation of those who are better off, who would go to university anyway and become better off still. The mantra was that a tertiary education would lead to substantially better life financially.

However, with degree inflation in combination with stagnant wages and rising house prices, students are racking up debt without it necessarily leading to a life that is materially better than that of their parents. Many fear that this will result in the first generation that will be worse off than their parents since the Second World War.

Though under the present regime payment only occurs when a certain salary threshold is met, the psychological impact of that debt cannot be underestimated, particularly in light of soaring house prices. It fundamentally damages the compact that private payment for tertiary education means future opportunities that result in a person being substantially better off materially.

It can seem like a future of endless debt without a career path or security. Between 1991 and 2016, the average cost of an undergraduate degree more than doubled. Full-time entry level jobs are increasingly hard to find — even for those with a degree, give that there are an estimated 20 graduates per available job. Some cannot even afford to rent on the wage that entry-level jobs pay in their respective areas.

Housing is increasingly out of reach, with housing in Sydney costing ten times the average annual income in 2015, up from four times the average annual income in 1985. No wonder that almost 40 per cent of Australians who do not own a home cannot currently afford to buy and another 20 per cent do not think they will ever be able to afford to buy.

Falling real wages, increased income precarity and collapsing home ownership rates all strengthen the case for free education. Higher education is no longer the ticket to a much better life because of the precariatisation of formerly middle-class ‘white collar’ professions.

While free higher education is not the only stance worth revisiting in Australia, it is symbolic of many policy areas that require a massive rethink: how we treat housing, the role of government in providing employment opportunities, the operation of social security and the taxation of wealth.

This current era of inequality and insecurity demands a break from the policies of the present. Bold ideas like free higher education for a better future are needed because without hope, there is only distrust and resentment left.

Published in Eureka Street on 9 November 2017

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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

What would a successful Australian left-populism look like?

I have previously written how I think the desire of some in the Australian Labor Party for an Australian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is likely to unlikely occur within the current institutional set-up. That desire for an Australian equivalent is not limited to Labor members though.

There are some on the Left outside the major parties who think they could be the beneficiaries of this current populist mood. For example, Senator Lee Rhiannon has been arguing that the Greens should tap into this populist moment by becoming more radical and anti-establishment.

Personally I don’t think the Greens can pull off a populist reinvention, left-populism will only come through a new political vehicle. The Greens aren’t seen as anti-establishment by those disillusioned with democracy and generally disinterested in politics as usual. They aren’t seen as representatives of the people or of the working class. They are more a vehicle of civic responsibility, the exact opposite of radical left-populism.

Furthermore, the belief that the Greens can change some policies to reinvent itself ignores that successful populist vehicles are very much centred around charismatic individuals who people believe are genuine outsiders. I don’t think many would see any elected Greens MP in that way. I would also add that much of the jargon and many of the actions (of not just those in the Greens but also the broader Left) are not what people do, use or talk about, it has no real mass populist appeal.

So what would a successful new left-populist vehicle look like and what would their platform be? I have a few thoughts.

Firstly, it requires some charismatic leaders who people believe are genuine insurgents (even if they are flawed). Successful populist parties are a personification of the leader. The leader would be dominant but the party would need to be seen as very democratic. Primaries would seem to be the obvious method of doing it, riding on the coattails of the leader.

For a platform, I wouldn’t talk about socialism or capitalism or left or right or the political centre. It is irrelevant jargon to most people. If it was me, I would talk about the need to break-up the cartels that control our country and how you don’t really have a voice. Everyone knows what you mean. In most major industries, you can count the main providers on your fingers. Virgin or Qantas, Woolworths or Coles, the big four banks. The rhetoric would be “the cartels have rigged the system and it’s time to give power back to the people.”

Policies could be using the state to take on the cartels that screw over Australia such as by setting up a people’s bank to challenge the big four and building a high speed train line to give people a choice when travelling.

A left-populist would go after people and corporations who avoid tax very hard. The line would be that tax avoidance is theft because every dollar in tax they don’t pay means one less dollar for pensions, one less dollar for Medicare, one less dollar for kid’s education, one less dollar for disability services. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations that avoid taxes would be cut and CEOs would be jailed for defrauding the public and avoiding tax.

The anti-system stance would emphasise how the classes that control Australia all went to the same universities and they have a different life, detached from everyday people, and they have all know each other for years. If something is wrong for the connected, they can pay people off with favours. Them and “the cartel” need to be cleared out by banning lobbyists, requiring MPs to be accountable for every public dollar they spend, slashing public funding for political parties and restricting political expenditure.

The framing narrative would be Australia can be better than what we have now. It was once a place where you could get a good job, a house with a block of land, you could relax on weekends. It was possible once to have a good life and we can make it that way again but “the cartels” and self-interested political class are stopping it. We need to do the right thing by other Australians because we haven’t been, those in charge have just been doing what is convenient for them.*

That vision would be tied in to rebuilding Australia because those in charge have given up on parts of the country. Rather than focusing on a post-work agenda, there would be a job guarantee so whoever wants to be employed will be and contributing to the community.

The structure, platform and narrative I outlined have their problems but broadly I think it would be necessary for a left-populist party to be successful enough in Australia to get parliamentary representation. Kickstarting it is another question though. The environment currently is conducive to anti-establishment politics but there is no spark (as yet) to set it off and then someone who take advantage of the momentum. It would require some kind of movement to really get off the ground and we have not seen anything like that as yet.

* (This framing narrative is problematic because of the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Australians but a variant of it is needed).

UPDATE: Reinforcing my point that the Greens are not seen as the vehicle for left-populism, Essential polling shows Greens voters are even less likely than Labor supporters to believe the system needs fundamental change. 

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.