Robots are not the real threat to work

The more I read about the future of work, the more apparent it becomes that much of the discussion relies on extrapolated models of job losses and technological determinism to justify a course of action rather than critically examining broader trends.

There is no doubt that technological change will shape the future of work, but the extent and nature of that change is still debatable. The oft cited claim that 47 per cent of Americans will lose their jobs due to automation has been challenged by an OECD study concluding the actual figure is more likely nine per cent.

A similar claim by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia citing a figure of 40 per cent was found to be closer to nine per cent after being examined by Professor Jeff Borland and Dr Michael Coelli. The attention given to these initial claims means it is of little surprise that most Australians think the net effect of automation will be less jobs, with a substantial minority thinking it could happen as soon as five years, though the fear may be skewed with a recent Australian study finding young men fear automation far more than women.

While the threat from automation is often overstated, there are big technological shifts occurring which are undermining job security and hollowing out permanent, skilled work. But the experience is that work is created as well as displaced by new technology. Change in social relationships, not technology, explains what is happening in labour markets today.

Rather than a future without paid work, the future is more likely to be a growing polarised labour market with a continuing decline in middle-skilled jobs and growth in high-skilled, high-paying occupations (managers, professionals and technicians), some of which might be considered ‘bullshit jobs’, and low-skilled, low-paying occupations (elementary, service, and sales workers). The most recent OECD Employment Outlook shows that there has been a 9.5 per cent decline in middle-skill as a share of total employment with most growth in high-skilled employment.

Many of these high-paying roles have taken advantage of global markets and technology to have a huge capacity for growth and for trade. Those in lower paid occupations that have not been off-shored are reliant on face-to-face human interaction but also find it difficult to significantly increase their productivity.

This narrative of inevitability suits corporations that will benefit from the current situation. The implication is that actions cannot stop it, so there should be no attempt to regulate.

Trajectories are, however, never inevitable. The moves by state governments towards licencing labour hire firms and the Change the Rules campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions show there is no inevitability about the future of work. It may change, but it does not occur in a policy vacuum.

We need policies and laws that ensure people are prepared and supported for both the opportunities and threats of a changing world of work. Australians are supportive of having laws that suit the changing nature of work. A 2017 Digital Rights in Australia report found that over 60 per cent believe that these new forms of gig work need new government regulations.

Part of the conversation about the future of work must also be about the quality of work and how technology can be used to improve the nature of work, such as through better redistributing work, reducing working hours and enabling more decision-making by frontline workers.

And despite the appeal of ‘post-work’, work still has a future in our society. Even if many paid jobs disappeared, work would still exist. Our society depends on the unpaid caring work that is predominantly done by women.

Assuming robots will take all our jobs is an easy way of avoiding the harder but far more important conversation about the gendered nature of work and power in our society, and what we value.

Published at Eureka Street on 24 May 2018

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Book Review: Populism Now! by David McKnight

Since the election of Donald Trump and Brexit referendum, ‘populism’ has dominated discussions about the state of global politics, even being revealed as word of the year in 2017 by the Cambridge Dictionary.

The connotations of ‘populism’ are negative and often associated with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and others with an illiberal, nationalistic agenda. But as academic Cas Mudde points out, populism has been conflated with the radical right and nativism has been ‘whitewashed’ as populism. There are leading figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who are seen as populists but from a progressive tradition.

In Populism Now! David McKnight makes the case for a progressive populism in Australia. He argues that neoliberalism has generated the conditions for populism and that unless progressives put forward their version, it will be right-wing populism that will take advantage.

McKnight lays out the failures of neoliberalism for working people in detail which make up most of the book. He lays out the extent of inequality in Australia, the power of the super wealthy and the fossil fuel and mining industries. The failures of privatisation such as the scandalous deregulation of Vocational Education and Training he mentions are all too well documented and we should all be concerned about its expansion into human services. For those following the Change the Rules campaign, the deregulated industrial relation system that has resulted in rampage wage theft and use of the migration system to undercut pay and conditions will not be new. Nor will the extent of tax avoidance by corporations and the oligopolistic and predatory nature of our banks be a surprise.

McKnight argues that challenging neoliberalism will require a broad-based movement to overcome the power of elites and corporations and a populist approach is how that broad-based coalition can be formed. In advocating a progressive populism, McKnight is clear that he views populism not as an ideology or detailed program but rather, as he describes, “a way of seeing the world and a style of arguing for ideas”. He does, however, outline that certain values should underpin a progressive populist approach.

While he does cite the academic Chantal Mouffe in explaining populism, it is odd that her late partner Ernesto Laclau is not mentioned. McKnight draws on a conceptualisation from both Mouffe and Laclau who saw populism as a form of political logic and discourse to set up a conflict between an “underdog” and a “power”. According to Laclau, what holds a heterogeneous underdog coalition together is a set of specific demands. Laclau believed that what “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture.” It is clear from neoliberalism’s failures that the conditions exist for such a rupture in Australia.

While strong on contemporary situation, the broader local context feels missing. Progressive populism is treated as an American tradition and there are a few fleeting references to left-populist parties overseas. Other than a reference to a debate over whether the Labor Party should have been called the People’s Party, the progressive populist tradition is Australian history is glossed over. The Labor Party’s origins as a labour-populist party and the parallels with the 1890s does raise the question about whether a historic homegrown tradition of progressive populism could inform today’s approach.

McKnight also mentions both right-wing and progressive populism but there is nothing on the populism of “the centre”. The populism of the liberal centre was the logic and discourse used by Emmanuel Macron, presenting himself as an anti-establishment outsider against “vested interests” that need to be fought, including trade unions. In Australia, it is characterised by Nick Xenophon and previously the Australian Democrats. It is a logic and discourse that can be and is used against the Left.

McKnight’s idea with real potential that is worth exploring further is a progressive populist response on climate change. It has the potential for that heterogeneous formation with specific demands that can tackle the interlinked crises of climate, inequality and democracy locally. It has the potential to bring groups together not necessarily seen as traditional allies. Less clear is how such a populist response can be developed at a global level, a challenge given the global nature of the crisis.

Nevertheless, Populism Now! is a handy synthesis of the failures of neoliberalism and does encourage an overdue rethink of populism as a strategy that Australian progressives should be using rather than as a pejorative used against opponents.

 

Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism
David McKnight
NewSouth, $29.99

Originally appeared on the Challenge Magazine website on 14 May 2018

Sanders, Corbyn and the Next Left – Jacobin Editor speaks at SEARCH Forum

With a paid subscriber base of 40,000 and millions more online views, Jacobin is arguably the most influential non-party socialist institution in the world right now.

From its origins as a small DIY magazine launched around the time of Occupy Wall Street, it now has a wider audience than more mainstream left-wing publications such as the New Statesman and Dissent.

The SEARCH Foundation was lucky enough to host Jacobin’s founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in Sydney Trades Hall in April. To a crowd of over 180 attendees, one of the largest events held by SEARCH, Bhaskar spoke about the situation in the United States with Bernie Sanders, in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn and the lessons for the wider Left globally.

Bhaskar spoke about the hollowed-out nature of politics in the United States with many self-described moderates and independents rejecting both parties but more supportive of Sanders. He argued that Sanders showed how oppositional politics can work by combining anti-establishment rhetoric with concerted demands.

Though Sanders won over the country, he did not win over the Democratic Party. He noted that since the election, Sanders has been forced to front for the Democrats to avoid being politically isolated, and there might be a danger that his anti-establishment appeal may dissipate by 2020.

At the same time, young people are moving leftwards. He explained that those politicised who once would have gone to green politics or into NGOs are now moving towards socialist politics. There is now broad support for key parts of the socialist agenda like Medicare for all.

Bhaskar also stated that while Trump has emboldened the Right, the real danger is a populist Right, not a far Right. The challenge, however, won’t be defeating Trump, but rather building something better that will lead to more radical change.

He argued that the role of the Left is to present a different sort of politics by changing conditions, not just implementing better policies by renovating parties like the Democrats. The existential question is not whether the Left can win government.

While fighting for left-wing governments, he urged that we think about what the Left can do in power, as it is hard to imagine what a new working-class oriented political economy would look like.

He pointed out that Sanders and Corbyn are not pushing something more radical than social democratcy. The challenge is to figure out how to use the state to strengthen working-class power and open rather than foreclose more radical transformations.

While occupying government, he suggested the Left can prevent conservative rollbacks and can use the platform to help rebuild the extra parliamentary Left as Corbyn has, and advocate for a broader social democratic agenda.

Finally, to build the working-class power needed to make those radical changes possible, he stressed the need for radical unions and to imagine new and different forms of working-class organisation.

The strong interest in the forum shows there is a hunger for an alternative, a transformative program. The explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America, the rise of Corbyn and Momentum show across the globe there is an ongoing resonance of our values and analysis but without the shadow of the Cold War hanging over. There does, however, need to be hard thinking about what the Left can realistically achieve in power and to figure out how to achieve the radical changes required. We need to have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Rather than sticking to old orthodoxies for the sake of it, the success of Jacobin shows the importance of a forward and outward looking pluralism and accessibility. Being open and approachable, engaging with key issues of the day rather than just abstract theory, avoiding jargon, and sectarianism are all necessary for the Left to succeed. All are lessons that we here in Australia should learn from and embrace.

Published in SEARCH News, Volume 5, Number 1 (May 2018)

Jeremy Corbyn can inspire us but he was an accident, we can’t duplicate what happened in Labor

Last week the debate about Labor Party reform in the lead-up to ALP National Conference really kicked off after ALP National President (and Shadow Minister) Mark Butler gave a speech to the Victorian Fabians on party democracy. Butler highlighted the lack of Labor Party democracy compared to sister parties and also pointed to the British example of Labour growing significantly after party reform, urging those with power within Labor not to fear it.

Unsurprisingly it resulted in a number of responses. One of the better responses was in the Guardian Australia which published an op-ed by academic Liam Byrne commenting on Butler’s speech. Byrne argued that it is not party reform that will encourage people to join Labor but rather ideas that make people think it is worth participating within Labor.

I agree with him that ideas and a reason to be involved is essential. Many joined Labour because of Corbyn and I have written extensively about the Labor Left’s need to reform its ideas. However, there is a wider problem when trying to compare and contrast British Labour and Australian Labor.

It was the interaction of party reform, Corbyn as a candidate and ideas he represented that underpinned the growth of British Labour. None of it was planned though and it cannot be easily replicated or transplanted. Even the intellectual contours of Corbynism, “the ideas”, right now are quite sketchy and without strong institutional infrastructure. I have previously written about why a Corbyn is unlikely in Australia due to our electoral system and political culture but the extent to which Corbyn’s election was an accident and organic is not grasped by many people. There is a reliance on the benefit of hindsight, especially after the 2017 British election result.

To really understand how British Labour got to where it is, we need to go back to the 2010 Labour leadership election when Ed Miliband was elected leader over his brother by a tiny margin because of his massive victory in the union section of the Electoral College. The left-leaning unions had endorsed and actively supported Ed over David. There was animosity towards the unions from the Blairite wing of the Labour Right over the result.

The following year, the Blairite pressure group Progress started a campaign urging Labour adopt primaries. The seeming success of the Parti Socialiste Presidential primary in 2012 added weight to this belief that it should be adopted. It also followed a number of MPs (including Ed Miliband) suggesting primaries in the lead-up to Labour’s defeat in 2009.

Everything came to a head in 2013 in the parliamentary constituency of Falkirk where the Unite union was accused of “rigging the vote” to get its preferred candidate preselected. In response to this manufactured political crisis, Miliband committed to a range of party reforms including opt-in affiliation and the adoption of a leadership primary and he commissioned the Collins Review to examine how to implement it. The move towards primaries was about distancing Labour from the unions under the guise of “reforming the Labour-union link”. It is worth remembering that Tony Blair was a big supporter of this move.

In 2015, Labour unexpectedly lost the election with the Conservatives winning a majority. Ed Miliband quit as leader and in the leadership election that soon followed, Corbyn barely got enough MPs to nominate him, some “loaned” from the Labour Right to allow a broad church debate. He ran but he did not expect to win. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were the frontrunners.

In the beginning, his campaign struggled though it started to gain support from unions. The surge in support was unexpected. It was organic and it happened around June around when the debate about the benefit cap happened. Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to vote against it.

Corbyn was the beneficiary who tapped into a mood that already existed both within Labour and outside in the extra-parliamentary movements. From that, he built momentum because he seemed genuine, took advantage of the new electoral system and his opponents campaigned badly. One classic example of how bad the opposing campaigns were was that Corbyn was the only candidate to include join and registered supporter links on his website.

Corbyn won in the first round and his campaign list was turned into the organisation Momentum to bring together all the parts of the Left that backed him in a formalised institution. He had difficulties with chaotic Cabinet reshuffles, poor polling and local council losses.

After the shock victory of Brexiteers in the 2016 European Union membership referendum, Labour figures blamed Corbyn for the result and planned to get rid of him. After he sacked Hillary Benn, they attempted to blast him out by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet en mass. When that failed, there was an attempt to hold a new leadership election with Corbyn not automatically included. Again that failed.

The problem is they assumed they should pressure Corbyn out of the leadeership so had not determined which candidate they would fall behind: Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. Smith ended up as candidate but not after an aborted leadership launch by Eagle. Smith ran a Corbyn-lite candidate, focusing less on his agenda but that he would be a better messenger who could work with the rest of the party. Despite new restrictions on participation in the election, Jeremy Corbyn again won.

While there was talk of a split, his critics concluded that they would wait out until the next election, hoping a large defeat would discredit Corbyn and his agenda amongst the party. With Labour infighting and the Conservatives polling well, newly elected Prime Minister Theresa May sought to hold an early election, believing it would result in a landslide victory.

The subsequent campaign was the worst run by an incumbent government in living memory. Labour’s manifesto, which was leaked in an attempt to damage the party, was received positively and Labour surged in the polls as Corbyn embraced a populist rebrand with the now well known slogan “For the many, not the few”. National security was not the electoral liabilities many predicted and there was polarisation with those aged under 45 shifting to Labour. Labour recovered in northern seats where immigration was an issue until the Brexit vote, UKIP’s vote collapsing, and won educated socially liberal constituencies.

The Conservatives lost their majority in a shock result that few expected, leaving Corbyn in a strengthened position and May as well as Corbyn’s internal critics in a weak position. His critics acknowledged he would remain leader with potential challengers like Yvette Cooper, who planned to run for leader, not challenging. He was also able to make ground on the threshold for nominations being lowered, something his opponents previously opposed. Along with the subsequent collapse of Carillion and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it all seemed to symbolise a shifting landscape. What everyone had assumed would occur had been turned upside down with Jeremy Corbyn seemingly now Prime Minister in waiting.

There are a few things that we can conclude from all this.

Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn was accidentally elected off an already existing mood within Labour combined with a surge of radicalised support from outside the party, shaped by years of austerity.  The party which grew under Miliband had already shifted to the left on a range of issues, to the anger of the Blairites. In fact, much of Corbyn’s manifesto could be said to be Milibandism with a different tone.

The broader context is that since 2007, Britain has experienced the second worst real wage growth in the OECD (only Greece was worse), there is endemic low pay and university degree debt is the highest in the English-speaking world. The economic situation in Australia is getting worse but it is not comparable.

Secondly, the Labour Right, the Blairite wing, in particular, made a huge mistake. The Blairites mistakenly thought open primaries would benefit them but instead were wiped out. They continue to misread the mood. Furthermore, what remains of the Labour Right (both old Right and Blairite), bereft of big allied unions, do not know how to recruit and organise. They have no distinctive agenda. Instead they rely on campaigning in the media against the leadership.

It is clear that all of Corbyn’s victories have been because opponents underestimated him and his team. This is not to say that they always had a well oiled machine or fantastic strategy. His opponents were arrogant and failed to understand why people might support him. They all thought he was unelectable or he was not a nice shiny suave politician.

But what happened in Britain cannot be replicated here. It is not a single event or factor but multiple unplanned things that led Britain to its current situation. The path to where we are is full of arrogance and missteps by Corbyn’s opponents. Even if a primary was to be adopted in Australia, the result would not be the same.

That all said, ideas on their own are not enough. It is not an either or proposition. A party structure that is open and flexible is necessary. While it would not cause an upsurge alone, it makes it possible. Party reform is important in this regard but it is not an end in itself.

There can be no fairness without decent work

No matter where you turn these days there seems to be a discussion about the future of work. From parties sloganeering about “jobs of the future”, to talk about the “disruption” of the “sharing economy”, to predictions about automated cars replacing taxis and therefore thousands of transport workers, you hear and read about the changing nature of work almost daily.

The future of work has, however, not been synonymous with discussions about making work fairer. The dominant theme has been that the changing of nature of work, mostly via advances in technology, is something that we will just have to grin and bear, even if we know that future jobs will be less fair. What is concerning is the seeming acceptance of this as an inevitability. The idea that jobs should remain fair to support a fair society as the economy changes is almost absent outside trade union and academic circles. In many ways, it reflects the fact that many progressive, especially younger Australians, seem to have ceded the primacy of politics in shaping our future. Young Australians today are facing an uncertain future, underpinned by growing intergenerational inequality and uncertainty at work.

Last year, I sat in a workshop in Parramatta about full employment. Full employment is not a term you hear that often these days. The concept of full employment felt a bit alien and almost quaint, associated with the supposed post-war golden age that ended 1970s. The fact that a mere mention of the term ‘full employment’ by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten earlier that year caused a flurry of excitement shows how out foreign the concept is in our modern society.

The workshop, organised by the Whitlam Institute, brought together trade unionists from both sides of the Tasman to talk about reviving an agenda of full employment. Part of the background reading for the workshop was a 1942 report by British social reformer William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society.

Reflecting on it today, what struck me as I read the report was how radical it seemed and also how bizarre that the views of a leading British establishment liberal from the 1940s felt more radical than what we hear today in our discussions about work. Beveridge explained that full employment “means that the jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed men can reasonably be expected to take them.” He went on to state that “Employment is not wanted for the sake of employment, irrespective of what it produces…It must be productive and progressive.”

The legacy of the Great Depression hung over the country and Britain was still at war with the Axis, yet they were planning for a future without war, without want, squalor and ignorance. The goal of full employment had moral and ethical underpinnings and there was a societal responsibility to provide it. It’s a far cry from the rhetoric about any job being a good job that is used to berate job seekers.

Not only was the immense optimism of Beveridge stark but also his certainty that a fairer society would be constructed. Rather than shaping our own future, the overwhelming mood today is reacting to a future pre-determined for us where automation will take our jobs. There is elevation of buzzwords from management consultants like ‘resilience’, ‘agility’ and ‘fit for purpose’, to hide the fact that responsibility is shifted solely onto the individual. We are told we must constantly adapt to the changing world, accumulating more and more debt to update skills that were only just attained. If you fail to succeed, it is your own fault. Challenging this is seen as being defensive or attempting to “future-proof”.  Work has in effect become a duty that we do for the economy rather than employment providing both meaning and security. It reduces us to cogs in the engine room of the economy.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have the security of full-time job, earn an above the average wage, have access to leave, have autonomy and enjoy my work. I know this is not the norm. Many people struggle to get enough work, let alone have a job with decent pay and conditions that can support their future aspirations.

You have to be a part-time worker to be underemployed and Australia has the third highest level of part-time work in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The high proportion of part-time workers has driven underemployment and it is growing. Official unemployment may be just over 700,000 but when you include the underemployed it is more like 2 million.

Even those who have full time employment face challenges. Analysis by the Centre for Future Work identified that less than half of the labour force are full time workers with access to leave.

Young people in particular have felt the brunt of the current labour market. Full-time employment for young Australians has declined steadily since the Global Financial Crisis. Research commissioned by the ACTU found that 49% of 18 to 24 year olds said they cannot rely on getting regular work and 64% have no form of career progression. For those who are not tertiary graduates, it is even harder to get work. Over the past few decades, the dominant trend has been a rise in high skill employment as a share of employment. While there has not been a massive increase in low skilled jobs as a share like in the United States, middle skilled jobs have declined.

The absence of work that is secure, well-paid and full-time makes it difficult to plan for the future. You cannot get a mortgage if you live contract to contract, nor does it provide the stability that many seek if they want to have a family, or the luxury of flexible working arrangements for raising that family if you can afford to have one. It only serves to compound structural inequality between genders and generations.

On the other extreme, while many Australians cannot get enough work, many are working excessive hours. According to the Australia Institute, Australians are donating $128 billion in unpaid overtime each year to employers and it is growing. Rather than working the fifteen hours a week that Keynes predicted, two thirds of full-time employees are working more than 40 hours a week. Australia ranked 29th in the OECD in employees working very long hours with 13% of employees working 50 hours or more a week, more than the United States, Canada and most of Europe. Unsurprisingly Australia was also ranked 32nd out of 38 countries in time dedicated to personal care and leisure. We all know friends and family members who constantly work even when at home. The lines between work and home are blurred as technology has advanced, giving many people access to their work 24/7, and many people struggle to balance work and life.

Part of the driver of excessive working hours has been our work culture. The Australia Institute found that on average workers are performing five hours a week of unpaid overtime by working through breaks, taking work home and answering email out of hours.

While all this is happening, it is not as if ideas to address these problems are wanting. There has been a longstanding agenda of decent work, echoing Beveridge. Decent work is employment that “respects the fundamental rights of the human person as well as the rights of workers in terms of conditions of work safety and remuneration. … respect for the physical and mental integrity of the worker in the exercise of his/her employment.” The agenda seeks to provide opportunities for productive work and delivering a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality.

There are rafts of books, reports, inquiries and essays outlining practical ways to improve the world of work and ensure decent work. They offer routes to reverse the erosion of pay, conditions and job security that has occurred over the past few years.

We could tighten legislation around sham contracting and independent contracting and provide portable leave schemes so entitlements to paid leave are not lost when workers change jobs, substantially improving pay and conditions for many. It would remove the loopholes and financial incentives that exist to undercut decent work.

There could be the elimination of the distinctions between work so that all jobs have access to rights and conditions regardless of whether you are full-time, part-time, permanent or temporary to stop employers from gaming the system.

Everyone could be guaranteed genuinely flexible conditions to allow them to combine care and work and be provided with affordable universal care for children, those with disabilities and the elderly.

We could address underemployment and the excessively long hours that are worked by redistributing work through shorter working weeks, guaranteeing more paid leave and job sharing. More radically we could democratise workplace relationships through employee representation and institute a job guarantee to combat unemployment.

We could even go back to older ideas such as making the state as an exemplar of employment as Whitlam once did instead of the current situation where now poor conditions in the private sector are used to stoke envy and take away conditions in the public sector.

None of these ideas are particularly new and imaginative or truly out of left field and yet most of have not captured the imagination of most progressively minded young people when work is discussed. You don’t see many young people writing on these topics or even discussion in social media by anyone but the usual suspects of trade unionists and industrial relations academics. It almost feels unfashionable. Debates about the future of work are less about people and more about robots. The image that gets invoked by full employment and decent work is a cookie cutter 1950s house with a white picket fence, nine to five job, male breadwinner with a wife at home and two children in the suburbs. Talking about full employment and portable leave isn’t as exciting as “fully automated luxury communism”. When you discuss work it is a post-work agenda whether it isf the inevitability of a basic income as a result of job killing robots or the mentality of ‘Do What You Love’ that dominates.

The idea of the universal basic income has gained traction because of fears about automation. Part of the appeal of the basic income seems to be because it is utopian and for some time much of the Left has been without a utopian vision. It is a vision that is not steeped in nostalgia but rather modernity and in the minds of many it credible associates itself with the future. I also suspect part of the appeal is the individualism associated with it and scepticism and mistrust of the state. There is no associated duty or requirement of contribution or reciprocity, it is a right.

Universal basic income may restore universality and reshape welfare into social security but alone it is no solution. On its own it won’t address growing inequality as a result of the polarising labour market or the increasing concentration of wealth and power. There is a reason why supporters range from democratic socialists to free market advocates.

A basic income is not without its problems. It seems unlikely that any payment would be liveable on its own and it is likely to degenerate into a form of wage subsidy or a new Poor Law. Just as easily it can become a Trojan horse by the free market advocates to dismantle the welfare state where individuals are given a fixed amount and told to look after themselves.

The assumption of technological determinism that often underpins support for a basic income robs us of agency and there is no guarantee it will actually occur. The oft cited claim is that 47% of Americans will lose their jobs when an OECD study concluded the actual figure is more likely 9%. The claims that technology will destroy jobs and create significant unemployment are not new, nor has it borne out in the past. Rather than determining what should happen, we are told we should just accept it and be ready to adapt.

At the same time, there is a prevalence of the Do What You Love (DWYL) mantra where passion is what motivates work. It takes the form of working unpaid internships, terrible hours and bad pay because of the supposed pleasure you get from your job. Your job is not work, you do not do it for compensation but because you love the job. Having decent work is an afterthought to chasing your dreams.

Trawling through the website Ethical Jobs, you can see it in full flight. Charities and non-government organisations list voluntary roles and unpaid internships that are actually unpaid jobs. The roles are in graphic design, marketing and fundraising, communications, research and campaign work. They want passion but have fixed hours you will need to work and sometimes even require experience. The worst example I came across was a 6-8 hour per week voluntary assistant role to someone who received a $100,000 fellowship from a private charitable foundation for climate change campaigning. It is justified in the name of providing experience to people to get a job but what it does is erode the decency of work for all and strengthens socioeconomic privilege.

Only the privileged are able to work for free, subsidised by their family wealth. In many industries, the reliance on experience from unpaid work to get a job means that only the economically privileged can seek a career primarily for personal reward. If you are one of the lucky ones who can stay afloat, it is a sign of your class. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in her Jacobin essay ‘In the Name of Love’:

“By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

What really has been lost is the belief that all jobs should be decent. There is now the belief that the “shit jobs” will disappear due to technology or if you hate a job, go find another one in your search for “the job”. Rather than improving work, you move on.

In a way both the appeals of DWYL and the post-work accelerationism behind a basic income are similar. They are both individualistic and focused on exercising personal choice to do what you want. Neither draw on a common belief or on contribution or reciprocity and both weaken a push for decent work for all. But why do both have such appeal amongst younger crowds?

That question cannot be answered without acknowledging the context of the last forty years that emphasised the individual and promoted a culture of consumer choice.

In 2016, Sydney University academic Ariadne Vromen, in conjunction with academics Michael Xenos and Brian Loader released some comparative research on the issues young people care about and their views on inequality. The research found that many young people individualised everyday social problems, away from traditional notions of collectivism and state responsibility.

The scope young people imagine for taking political action has been shaped by dominant political discourses that emphasise opportunity, choice, responsibility and rights. The dominance of this discourse reflected the broader neoliberal political context. Individuals and their agency are emphasised while downplaying structural factors and taking collective action to address material grievances and transform society. It is little surprise that trade union membership is much lower amongst younger Australians.

The research found that most young people seemed to conceive of equality in post-materialist rather than materialist terms. They suggested equality was created by everyday equal treatment in society, regardless of background and identity. Young people did not spontaneously suggest that it was up to governments to address their grievances and redress the experience of identity based inequality.

The research also found was very little critical engagement with inherited class privilege and a limited acknowledgement of structural disadvantage as most responses focused on how young people can choose to move out of disadvantage.

These views pose a big challenge for an agenda of decent work. An agenda of decent work does not mesh that easily with individualistic notions of opportunity, choice, responsibility or rights. It is fundamentally collective. It requires shifting unequal relationships of power.

To ensure the future of work is fair, what will need to be overcome is my generation’s internalising of neoliberal norms. The challenge is how to unpick the dominance of individualism and transform that into an understanding that collective action is needed that seeks structural change that goes beyond moments and can scale up into change. It requires rebuilding a solidarity that goes beyond traditional identity politics, a willingness to organise to take power not just reject it. It’s no easy task after forty years of neoliberalism.

Achieving decent work for all cannot be seen as a throwback to the 1950s. It must be clear that it does not mean a return to the past because that it not possible. The future of work cannot not only be full employment that provides fair income and certainty, it has to also mean a fuller democracy where individuals can reach their potential, a good life for all. It means rejecting the determinism of automation where we must adapt to a future we cannot control. It requires rejecting the co-option of individualisation into the absence of rather than transformation of authority. The single minded focus on basic income and ethic of Do What You Love will only lead us astray. Work matters to our lives. Without the stability, income and certainty that decent work provides, there can be no real choice or freedom in life. Ultimately, without it we cannot have a fair society.

How 2018 ALP National Conference delegates will be elected

Next year the Australian Labor Party will hold its triennial National Conference in Adelaide from Thursday July 26 until Saturday July 28. It will be the first ALP National Conference in Adelaide since 1979.

There will be 400 delegates to ALP National Conference, comprising of:

(i) three delegates being the National President and National Vice-Presidents
elected under clause 18(a);
(ii) four delegates being the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) and the
Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party in the Senate;
(iii) six delegates elected from and by the FPLP;
(iv) delegations from each state consisting of:
(A) the state Parliamentary Leader,
(B) a base component of 12 persons, and
(C) a supplementary component of a number of persons equal to twice the
number of House of Representatives electorates in that state as at the
previous 31 December;
(v) delegations from each territory consisting of:
(A) the territory Parliamentary Leader,
(B) a base component of 2 persons, and
(C) a supplementary component of a number of persons equal to twice the
number of House of Representatives electorates in that territory as at
the previous 31 December; and
(vi) three delegates from Australian Young Labor

It will be be first ALP National Conference since party rules were amended to mandate the direct election of state and territory delegations to ALP National Conference. Clause 32(b) in the party constitution now states that:

(i) a number of delegates directly elected by the financial members of the state branch that is at least equal to the number of House of Representative electorates in that state as at the previous 31 December; and

(ii) delegates from outside metropolitan areas.

Below is how ALP National Conference delegates will be elected in each state and territory branch, based on available information:

NSW

  • Each Federal Electorate Council will elect one delegate.
  • Party Officers (President, Senior Vice-President, Junior Vice-Presidents, General Secretary and Assistant General Secretaries) will be automatically elected.
  • The balance of the National Conference delegation will be elected by Affiliated Union delegates to NSW State Conference.

VIC

  • Half of National Conferences delegates and proxy delegates shall be elected by and from a single postal ballot of all party members, including Central Branch members, who have been members of the Party for at least 12 months at the close of nominations for this election.
    • At least two of the National Conference delegates elected must reside in a non-metropolitan area.
  • Half of the National Conference delegates and proxy delegates shall be elected by a ballot of the Affiliated Union delegates at the meeting of State Conference immediately preceding the National Conference.

QLD

  • Half of National Conference delegates will be elected by Affiliated Union delegates at QLD State Conference.
  • Half of National Conference delegates will be elected by branch members elected in separate proportional representation ballots consisting of:
    • a Brisbane North zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Brisbane, Lilley, Petrie and Ryan.
    • a Brisbane South zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Bonner, Bowman, Griffith, Moreton, Oxley and Rankin.
    • a South-East Queensland Zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Blair, Dickson, Fadden, Fairfax, Fisher, Forde, Longman, McPherson, Moncrieff, Wide Bay, Wright.
    • a Regional Queensland Zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Capricornia, Dawson, Flynn, Groom, Herbert, Hinkler, Kennedy, Leichhardt, Maranoa.
  • The number of delegates in each zone shall be determined by dividing the number of eligible branch members in Queensland at the time of opening nominations, by the number of delegates to be elected in total.

WA

  • National Conference delegates are currently elected by the State Executive, however, there may be an attempt to change this at the upcoming WA Conference in August.

SA

  • The State Executive of the ALP (SA) will create National Conference Election Zones (NCEZ).
  • The number of NCEZ will be equal to half the minimum number of rank and file delegates required to be elected from the rank and file allocated to South Australia by the National Rules.  If this calculation produces a fraction, the number will be rounded up.
  • For the election of rank and file delegates to the 2018 National Conference, the number of NCEZ will be 11, being the minimum number of rank and file delegates required by the National Rules divided by 2, which when rounded equates to 6 NCEZ.
  • When determining the NCEZ, the State Executive must ensure each NCEZ has, as near as practicable, equal numbers of ALP SA members, and  use existing boundaries, where possible, in this order of preference:
  1. State Electorate Boundaries
  2. Federal Electorate Boundaries
  3. Council boundaries.
  4. Other boundaries as determined by State Executive
  • Each NCEZ will have two (2) delegate positions elected by a proportional representation ballot with the voting method to be determined by State Executive.

     

TAS

  • Half of National Conference delegates shall be directly elected by rank and file members (with eligibility requirements).
  • Half of National Conference delegates shall be elected by and from State Conference in a single ballot.

ACT

  • Two delegates will be directly elected by rank and file members.
  • Four delegates will be elected by ACT Branch Conference delegates.

NT

  • Currently all six elected National Conference delegates are elected by NT Conference, however, there may be an attempt to change this to one delegate from each federal electorate with the remainder elected by Conference.

From this quick analysis, it is clear that each state and territory branch has been allowed to interpret the party rules differently. Some have allocated delegates to electorates or geographic areas while other states will have statewide ballots. It also means that while some states adhere to the 50:50 principle, others such as the ACT and Tasmania will not.

Furthermore, the extent of proportionality will vary significantly. New South Wales will have the least proportionate delegation, again reflecting the malapportionment that exists at a state level (to the advantage of the dominant Centre Unity faction). It is something that needs to be addressed to ensure something closer to One Vote One Value in the largest state branch.

It is also likely that the total number of National Conference delegates will need to be amended (or removed) for the following Conference as the House of Representatives will grow to 151, reducing the South Australian delegation by 2 and increasing the ACT and Victorian delegations by 2 per delegation for a total of 402 delegates to the following Conference if the current formula remains.

UPDATE 01/08/2017: It has been pointed out to me that the direct election clause seems to contradict Clause 15(e) in the party rules as no one is holding a single ballot for all delegates. Clause 15(e) states:

All delegates must be elected by a system of proportional representation in a single ballot with affirmative action in accordance with clause 19.

UPDATE 04/08/2017: I have been informed that Tasmania and the ACT comply with both clauses as their delegations are elected in single (college-type) ballots as opposed to electing each rank and file delegate in separate individual ballots like NSW.

Further, I have been told allowing half of National Conference delegates to be elected by union delegates to state Conferences is not based on anything in the party constitution but reliant on a Conference resolution from the previous 2011 National Conference. It is now included in Clause 22 in Chapter 12: Organisational Policies. The relevant section reads:

(g) Support state branches considering direct election.

To make our Party more active, we need to increase participation amongst rank and file members. One proposal for strengthening rank and file involvement is to provide the option of directly electing National Conference delegates in a ballot of financial members in an electorate. Different models for electing delegates to Party conferences are used in different states and territories. Each of these models reflects the unique political environment in that state. National Conference therefore:

(i) recognises that each state branch will approach the election of National Conference delegates differently;

(ii) supports state branches that are considering direct election;

(iii) recognises that the National Principles of Organisation require that state branch conferences comprise 50 per cent trade union representation, and 50 per cent Party constituency representatives;

(iv) reaffirms that this principle of 50/50 representation must continue;

(v) affirms that the local determination of National Conference delegates should not come at the expense of trade union representation; and

(vi) affirms that some of the National Conference delegation should continue to be elected in such a way as to ensure the principle of 50/50 representation is maintained.

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.