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Labor Must Ask Serious Questions on Policy and Values

Labor has been saying relatively little on policy since its defeat at the hands of the Morrison Government. Many are saying Labor’s ‘move to the Left’ was the problem. In that process other problems are being neglected. The Coalition tax scare campaign (including on a non-existent ‘death tax’) ; Shorten’s wooden performance in the final days ; failure to build a strong enough ‘central narrative’ ; confusion on Dividend Imputation franking credits – and the failure to means test any measures there instead of applying the same rules to everyone. Also Clive Palmer’s $60 million intervention – dwarfing the monetary resources of both parties – changed everything and channeled preferences to the Conservatives. Shorten also failed to sell the progressive tax reform message ; and avoided the issue when given the opportunity to ‘take it up to Morrison’ in a Leader’s Debate. (Here I’m thinking of Shorten’s refusal to engage on Morrison’s example of a very-high-wage workers’ tax rising by 2%(!) under Labor).

Expanding social goods and services necessitates progressive tax ; asking more of high income earners ; and that definitely includes the top 10 per cent. Maybe even the top 20 per cent. Those in lower brackets need to contribute too based on ability to pay, but would receive much more in return. Those in the lowest brackets may even receive indexed tax cuts. (Income Tax needs to be radically restructured overall ; and then the lower brackets indexed – to prevent the erosive effect of bracket creep). Tax indexation can prevent ‘a flat tax by stealth’ via such selective exploitation of bracket creep.

In the big picture, though, Shorten led a united team and developed some very good policy during his years in the leadership. His modestly reformist policies have widely been portrayed as a ‘lurch to the Left’ ; and that illustrates well the relative right-wards shift in Australian politics where anything in the way of meaningful reform faces that kind of accusation.

But the Coalition’s massively irresponsible policy of tax cuts ($160 billion over the first 10 years, and much more proportionately over the longer term as ‘phase three’ kicks in) for the well-off put the onus on Labor to mount a response.

We know we have an ageing population. For the Left at least, we know tougher means tests, a higher age of retirement, failure of benefits to keep up with a rising cost of living and respond to the need to extend pensions more broadly – should be unacceptable. Undermining the tax base is the road to a US-Style and strongly class-divided economy and welfare state. An ageing population will also mean more stress on the health system ; and the correct response is to support citizens on need rather than adhering to some arbitrary ‘tax ceiling’ which can only respond with harmful austerity. Medicare Dental remains an essential policy for Labor to embrace and campaign on vigorously.

To his credit, Albanese has come out against attacks and stigma against the unemployed. But we need more. Raise Newstart by at least $75 a week. Apply active industry policies aimed at creating job opportunities for ‘at risk’ and vulnerable groups. Not only the young unemployed, but especially the older unemployed ; and the disabled – including the mentally ill. Highly educated older job-seekers are being forced to drop their qualifications from their resumes to be ‘more attractive’ for cleaning jobs and the like. Meanwhile, while many look down on the cleaning profession it does involve skills, and it is hard work. There is cause to reform the Award in these and other fields – for example Aged Care and Child Care. But where the market will not bear this, we need government subsidies. Importantly, many of these areas are highly feminised.

Denmark provides an example in a sense. That is with their active industry policies which seek development of ‘sunrise industries’ that make use of the skill sets from ‘sunset industries’, mixed with retraining. The policies are expensive: but the gains from labour market participation more than make up for that.

In that process we need to review the NAIRU – or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment – which supports a ‘buffer or unemployment’ (commonly in the vicinity of 5 per cent) to contain the bargaining power of workers and avoid wage inflation. Hence there are always many more people looking for work than there are jobs – and yet still the unemployed face stigma. Instead we need to look to fiscal policy to contain inflation ; and co-operation with trade unions (eg: accepting higher taxes on high wage workers) in return for expansion of social goods and services and defence of industrial rights. This would be applied after the Swedish model rather than the Accord – which at the end of the day failed to deliver to workers sufficiently in return for wage restraint. Full employment makes a massive difference to the Budget and the broader economy if it can be sustained.

In short, Labor needs to take action to raise the status of some of our most exploited professions – while reforming the tax base and making social wage, social insurance, collective consumption, and welfare state expansion possible.

Let’s explain these one by one to get some sense of what is meant.

‘Social Wage’ refers to the recognition that not everyone receives wage justice. And sometimes it is more effective to receive the proceeds of wages collectively to maximise the collective (and individual) benefit. Think public health and education. Corporate Taxation also factors in here as the corporates benefit from a healthy and skilled workforce.

‘Social Insurance’ refers to public-funded insurance against contingencies like unemployment, ill-health or disability via the tax system – which covers everyone. After all – it could happen to any one of us – or our loved ones.

‘Collective consumption’ refers to when ‘the people’ get a better deal by consuming collectively via tax rather than as isolated consumers. Leaving individuals with more money to spend at their discretion in other areas at the end of the day.

It is appreciated that people need a reasonable degree of discretion in terms of determining personal needs structures. But ‘collective consumption’ delivers massively in the area of pharmaceuticals consumption (think the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or ‘PBS’) ; and could deliver in other areas as well – eg: infrastructure and goods like water and energy – which are becoming more unaffordable following effective privatisation. Also think public infrastructure like ports, roads, public transport. communications : which should flow from the public purse where the state’s superior rate of borrowing and not-for-profit stance can deliver a better deal. (Water, ports, communications, transport infrastructure – should be re-socialised – reducing overall cost-structures ; Though in some areas (eg: energy) some kind of ‘market’ should still exist ; But in the context of a public monopoly provider ; much more affordable, but still an incentive to regulate usage).

The “Welfare State” is often taken in a catch-all sense which covers all of this, but for now think of the tax-transfer system and the need to support vulnerable Australians. Newstart is the area of the most dire need ; but a 15% increase in other pensions can also be justified ; as well as support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the implementation of a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme (in response to the Royal Commission) which provides high quality services both for at-home and residential care on demand, and without onerous user-pays policies which send ‘consumers’ broke. That also includes high quality food, quotas, a registered nurse on-site always, training in the handling of dementia , at-home packages on demand, rehabilitation and exercise on-demand, regular GP visits, private rooms, and meaningful (often facilitated) every-day interaction and outings (where possible) instead of just seating people down in-front of TVs all day. For those ‘at home’ action to combat loneliness is crucial.

More public housing – perhaps interspersed with private housing to avoid stigma – is necessary too in order to tackle homelessness and housing stress. But large-scale public housing projects should also be considered – also providing quality amenities: laundries, pools, common rooms, internet connectivity – which people can respect and appreciate. Austria manages a high level of public housing well – with very positive results. Indeed, over 60% of Vienna’s population live in public or social housing. It is the legacy of the interwar revolutionary Social Democrats (at the time officially of a Marxist – but not Bolshevist – disposition) – who prevailed in Vienna in the 1917-1934 period ; and who took government with a more modest agenda in the post-war period.

Eugene Quinn argues the following ; outlining the difference in culture re: public housing in Vienna which could be promoted in Australia as well:

“People here are used to the communal spaces of the social housing estates and are very comfortable living next to someone from a different background,” Quinn says. “And because people are not crushed by their rents like in other major cities, they have a bit more time to be creative, to study, to get involved in community work.”

Apart from these areas, Labor also needs to take a strong line against the Coalitions ‘Ensuring Integrity’ union-busting laws. Some in the Left dislike John Setka. But more is at stake here than one man. We are talking about the strategic position of the entire movement. Which the Coalition well knows. And Labor must acknowledge that as well.

In short, inevitably there must be a policy review. But let’s be careful about dumping good policy. Sure, let’s hone our message and our central focus. Though we need a tactical campaigning review also: perhaps more so than a ‘root and branch’ policy review overall. If we cannot at least reverse Morrison’s overall tax cuts in a progressive way – focusing on tax cuts for the well-off – then we concede defeat. That would mean conceding an Australia which retreated from anything recognisably social-democratic, and headed towards the divisions and insecurity we see in the US for example.

Importantly we must embrace the message of progressive tax and its implications rather than running away from that debate. Trying to be ‘everything to everyone’ and not increase the tax burden on virtually anyone – means we have no way of funding reform at the end of the day. But an openly progressive agenda would give the vast majority an incentive to vote Labor.

It is nonetheless appreciated that ‘middle income’ is not the same as ‘middle ground’, and some disillusioned voters are embracing a ‘centrism’ which is largely right-wing in practice. Labor’s response must be tactical: appealing not only to interests but also to values. A liberal response on social values, and stronger action on climate change can also detract from any ‘small ‘l’ constituency’ for the Liberals ; and pressure the Liberals to reform their own outlook ; shifting ‘the relative political centre,’ Labor must contest values in the economy as well as the ‘culture wars’ ; and its relative neglect here has marked a defeat for Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in this country.

One thing is certain. Nothing is gained from a ‘culture of policy defeat.’ Labor must find a way to effectively campaign for government without compromising its values and reason-for-being.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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  1. Wat Tyler

    There was nothing wrong with Labor. It is just in the wrong country. Anywhere that sees a huntin’, ’ shootin’, and fishin’ party as suitable to represent it in government, sitting with a group of cretins led by an inarticulate former fish and chip shop owner veteran, is probably beyond redemption.

  2. Henry Johnston

    Tristin, I agree with the tenor of your argument one hundred per cent, but the problem I see though, as a party member, is the citizenry– for whatever reason — has no interest in progressive policy. Nada. Nil. Zip. Progressive and effective policies, either in Europe or where ever, do not gain traction with a cynical and disaffected electorate. This being said, good on you for airing your opinions.

  3. Michael Taylor

    What Henry said.

    I would add though, that people only eat what they’re fed. In this country they are fed bullshit, served up in a three course meal by the mainstream media.

  4. Keitha Granville

    Totally on point, thanks for saying it.
    I am terribly afraid that we are stuck with conservatives for years, a return to the Menzies years in the wilderness. And if Labour under Albo abandons good policies to try and match the LNP they will lose us, and many like us. I will vote with my feet, to the Greens, independents, anyone but major parties. They go on with the mea culpa as if they were defeated in a landslide, they weren’t, they only JUST lost. Now is not the time, as you so rightly say, to jump ship.
    How do we make sure they don’t, how we do we keep them on the track?

  5. Stephengb

    Labor has been a stuff up since Hawke and Keating launched Neolibralism into the the ALP.

    The Right faction of Labor do not belong in the Labor party, they belong in the Liberal Party of the Menzies era. It is time for the Labor party to return to its roots.

    The current noises from Alby and his new Right faction shadow cabinet is for a return to the Hawke Keating clone of Thatcher and Reagan.

    Our democracy is broken, it is either the LNP or the ALP supported by mini clones of those two parties.
    It is time to return our democracy to a true representative democracy, as was the vision of Cromwell of what a Parliament should be. He envisioned a Parliament of independent Representatives who would debate and vote freely to pass policy, ( yes I know, He only envisaged the gentry as able to be a representative).

    A modern day vision is RepresentUs.

  6. wam

    A great read, Dr Ewins,
    To a lay leftie 6 years of remembering beaconsfield billy and seeing silly smile shorten then weeks of activity into areas that worried workers culminating with senile boobby’s confrontation with workers on the streets of townesville and resulting in another 3 years of a government intent on ridding Australia of that which separates us from the shithouse welfare system of if you want cash work for fckall and the gov will give you top up food stamps. If you wany health work for fckall and insurance may be paid for.
    To this simpleton put the medicare levy on
    Labor must start now to get elected the scummo gov is essentially a first term gov and has a massive advantage for 22.
    Albo cannot wait for scummos mistakes like billy he must cause some mistakes by taking a chance.
    The climate change movement is a risk but he has to take it from the loonies. Perhaps by highlighting current happenings like mangroves dying, glacial melts and carbon price emphasizing the loonies wasting 10 years by voting with the rabbott when pressed he should tell the msm that the loonies made millions out of the caravan and pose the question as to the motive of the trek??
    The slogans ‘labor and the greens’ and ‘labor and the unions’ are difficult to live with and could do with some counter slogans or ????

  7. Karen Kyle

    Good article Tris. If only.These days it sounds like a pipe dream. But…..the world will get sick of right wing politics and chuck them out eventually.. The question is how long will it take? And how much damage they will do in the meantime?

  8. ajogrady

    David Brock wrote a book titled “Blinded by the Right”. In it he states that the the left fight to win battles but the right fight to win the war and are prepared to lose some battles to win the war. Looking at politics in the western world say over the last century and in particular the last fifty years, the Right is winning the war and is progressively gaining more traction as more and more people are becoming less and less educated through the dumbing down of courses, more and more worried about job security, constantly battling cost of living pressures But the major contributor to the left not being as powerful as it once was is that Unionism,collective bargaining, has had industries that were heavily unionised methodically and systematically destroyed by Conservative governments and a merciless and unrelenting demonising of unions by the Main Stream Media. Unions themselves also need to ware some of the blame. The workforce has changed and become more flexible,regrettably, but unions and union fees/dues have not been flexible in matching the times therefore people do not have the funds to contribute to something that is not compulsory but is a human right. Labour rights are a critical component of human rights helping to protect and promote the social and economic well-being of the human population. The freedom to associate, to organise and to have equal opportunities in the workplace—every year we see these rights under attack around the world.” Rather then the ALP attacking a democratically elected union representative, John Setka, and trying to distance themselves from unions and their core constituents the ALP should be “loud and proud” of their history since being founded in 8 May 1901. Many, many Australians owe a massive debt to the ALP and the unions for creating and maintaining a standard of living that was once the envy of the world but is now being undermined and sabotaged at a drastic rate by a relentless and corrupt L/NP and their rapacious and marauding donors. The ALP needs to understand that a large proportion of the community believe in the fundamentals that the ALP stand for. The ALP has to once again believe in those fundamentals and believe in itself and stay committed to their core beliefs.

  9. Henry Rodrigues

    The people have been drugged into silence by tiny tax cuts, demonizing of those who are at bottom, the mental flogging of the unemployed, and the propaganda machine that is the media. Even people who are, on the surface, decent, charitable and understanding, have been co-opted into thinking that the only people worthy of respect are the greedy business owners, the tax avoiders, the property investors, also referred to as ‘aspiring social ladder climers’. Pity a nation so devoid of a sense of community.
    Labor should stop thinking of itself as failures, and take the fight to the government.

  10. RosemaryJ36

    Sadly we do not have time to think progressive.
    The ice caps are melting.
    Just as Trump’s deserting the Kurds is upsetting some Republicans, there will be Coalition members who are upset that climate change is being ignored.
    The top priority is getting them stirred up to initiate essential action.

  11. Zathras

    Labor’s mistake was to announce frank. detailed and costed policies. They should have taken a page from the Coalition’s playbook and offered themselves up as a small target, revealing little and concentrating on formenting fear and scare campaigns about the alternative, or in the case of Abbott – straight out lying.

    Despite this it was mainly the Queensland coal factor and preferences that defeated them. Although there was a swing away from Labor there was also a swing away from the Coalition (except in Queensland).

    It seems self-interest called the shots as usual.

    The problem however is that there was little to scare voters about the Coalition policies because they only had one on offer – tax cuts.

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