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Now is the Time for All Good Men and Women to Come to the Aid of the Party

By Allan Patience

This article has been re-blogged from ‘Pearls and Irritations’ with the author’s permission.

Richard Di Natale has called on the Greens to get ready for government. Well and good. The direction in which he is prodding his party is a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak Australian political landscape.

Whether in a coalition (likely with Labor), or in its own right (unlikely), what sort of public policy agenda would a Greens government pursue? It is time for it to come up with a broad and innovative policy agenda; otherwise a completely new political party will have to be created.

The other major parties, Labor and Liberal, have become ossified under the thumb of ideologically blinkered, self-perpetuating elites, the consequence of what Robert Michels once called the “iron law of oligarchy.” The Nationals are mostly irrelevant to mainstream policy debates, but they too suffer from the same organisational malaise as the ALP and the Liberals.

For over three decades now Labor and the Coalition parties have been in obsessive thrall to a neoliberal mindset, utterly insensitive to the havoc that neoliberalism has been wreaking on our economy. However, what they are clearly incapable of comprehending today is that the whole neoliberal (or “economic rationalist”) project is about to come crashing down.

Some of the catastrophes that neoliberalism has unleashed on us in Australia include: stagnating economic growth rates; sharply increasing socio-economic inequalities that are undermining capitalism itself (though, as with most subtleties, this irony escapes most neoliberals); the running-down of vital public services and the devaluing of public goods (for example, hospitals, schools, public transport); the appalling expansion of what were once termed “repressive state apparatuses” (increased powers for police and border protection authorities, state-sanctioned human rights abuses on Manus Island and Nauru, draconian meta-data gathering laws, the use of legally prescribed secrecy by governments to hide what they are really up to); and a society in which a range of social pathologies (family violence, depression, narcissism, drugs, begging, violent crime) are becoming thesine qua non of everyday life.

The licence that big private sector corporations have been granted by successive neoliberal regimes has not resulted in better services, cheaper credit, or widely shared prosperity across the community. As Milton once observed, licence is not the same thing as liberty. Markets are now being crowded out by start-up ingénues and fraudsters while being bullied by big local and overseas corporations intent on feathering their own profitability nests and with little interest in the needs or rights of their employees and consumers.

For example, the billion dollar profits that the big four banks are presently announcing (even as they increase their lending rates) point to the abject failure of the principles of deregulation and privatisation – that neoliberals have boasted endlessly will free up a shackled market, to benefit everybody. In the case of the banks, the only beneficiaries have been their obscenely overpaid executives and a narrow grouping of major shareholders. And, remember, many of those shareholders are offshore corporations.

Consider, too, the myriad private providers of electricity that have exploded on to the scene since the privatisation of energy generation. Neoliberals promised that privatising the delivery of electricity would bring vigorous competition into a previously lazy and cosseted industry, driving down the price of electricity in household budgets. But, as every household knows only too well, this simply isn’t happening. In fact there are now far too may competitors in the market devising all sorts of byzantine schemes to woo customers, while investing in costly advertising and hustling campaigns to cajole bemused and confused customers into signing up with one or other of them. The result has been a shocking escalation in the costs of a fundamental public good – affordable electricity. The privatisation of electricity has been one of the most spectacular of neoliberalism’s disasters.

These are only two examples of many failures by neoliberalism to progress our economy and enhance people’s lives.

So what sort of agenda should the Greens espouse?

Their first priority must be to counter-attack in neoliberalism’s war on public goods and services. Reimposing regulatory constraints on a private sector that is out of control is an impossible task. That horse has well and truly bolted. However, neoliberals love to extol the virtue of competition in the economy. So why not give them some real competition?

This is where Greens should enter the policy debates. They should can mount a political campaign explaining that there is no competing mechanism in the neoliberal quiver to challenge the social destructiveness and economic vandalising that neoliberalism’s privatising and deregulating have unleashed. They need to explain that the only achievement of neoliberal policies has been to oversee capital roaring up the system, not trickling down.

This should be the prelude for advocating a policy of strategically targeted public competition into the so-called “free market.”

The first item on the post-neoliberal policy agenda should be the setting up of a publicly owned bank, to provide genuine competition in the banking industry. Of course the neoliberal beneficiaries of the current banking order will scream like stuck pigs about the unfairness of a publicly owned competitor in their midst, insisting that only they be allowed to compete on that most sacred of neoliberal cows – the fabled level playing field.

Anyway, why must a publicly owned bank be seen as unfairly tilting the economic arena? Its establishment would simply provide more competition to bring the banking field back to an even keel, while returning profits to the community either though cheaper, more consumer-respectful services, and/or profits being invested in public goods (for example, better schools, railways, medical services).

Another strategic area in the contemporary economy is legal services. Thousands of Australians are locked out of the justice system because of prohibitive fees charged by the big law companies that as greedy as the banks. A publicly owned law firm providing cheap and friendly (dare one say compassionate) legal advice would help address the unjust over-representation of social minorities and the poor who are routinely and unjustly the majority victims of the pointy end of the country’s legal system. When did you last hear of a senior partner in a law firm, or a distinguished surgeon, or a bank CEO going to jail?

Other strategic areas in the Australian economy in urgent need of tough public competition include the real estate industry (agents’ costs and fees are a significant factor in pushing up already escalating house prices), medical (including psychiatric) and dental clinics, a publicly owned pharmaceutical corporation (once a dream of the Whitlam government), childcare centres, a government airline, and a comprehensive news and entertainment media agency (an expanded and properly resourced ABC and SBS).

A cautiously progressive introduction of public competition into strategic sectors of the economy would certainly contribute to improving the barrenness of our contemporary public policy environment. As each new public competition agency is settled in, further competition could be contemplated – for example a publicly owned supermarket chain.

And once people realise that this kind of state intervention doesn’t cause the sky to fall in, then even the nationalisation of certain crucial industries could be considered – an obvious example is urban rail networks and road tollways.

Indeed with the institutionalisation of a healthy culture of public competition in the post-neoliberal economy, further private competition could even be encouraged. But any new private enterprises will have to operate on a truly level playing field. Regulators will require them to demonstrate that their services are consumer-respectful and that the efficiencies they promise are genuine, not bogus as so many are right now.

If the Greens are unable to mount a public policy program for the coming post-neoliberal era, then a new political party will be necessary. That will be the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party.

Allan Patience is a political scientist at the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne.

 


15 comments

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  1. i have a nugget of pure green

    i relish the passing of the neo-liberal experiment, i can’t get back the last thirty years though.

  2. David

    Greens would have to provide a helluva lot more policy detail before I would consider voting for them. I agree with their well stated Asylum Seeker stance, pity Labor can’t find someone in their lineup with Sarah Hanson – Young’s spunk, generally they are in line with Labor on the environment but most other areas too loose for me

  3. jim

    Spot on post BUT! the neo-liberals have not finished yet by a long shot, the TPP for one must not be ratified else good-bye environment good-bye Democracy and it’s good-bye Law +(order).,The United Nations have issued a call for the TTIP to be suspended http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.theguardian.com/global/2015/may/04/ttip-united-nations-human-right-secret-courts-multinationals&gws_rd=cr&ei=uUA8VpeXMaG-mAWrvY64DQ………………..have a nice day.

  4. bobrafto

    It appears to me that the neocons have created a greed race to see who can rip the most out of the tax systems.

    Which is very shortsighted in effect that I have probably underestimated to be over $10Billion of tax evasion a year by News, Google, Fb, etc etc don’t they realize by taking those billions out of the economy will makes us less affluent and if they keep repeating it year in year out it will impact on the their profits.

    What a stimulus to the economy those $10B tax evasion dollars would bring and ringing up more rosy profits for those short term thieving multinationals.

    One has to invest to get a return, now if only the moneyed neocons who advocate this would practise what they preach they would view paying tax as an investment and in so doing would help to build the economy and the making the country more affluent.

    And if they allow the multinationals to keep evading their taxes for the next 10 years that would amount to over $100Billion, now that’s what I call the real inter-generational theft.

  5. Catriona Thoolen

    The writer ignores that the one area that did retain a government owned option in competition to private providers (Medibank) has NOT controlled upward pressure on the cost of Private Health Insurance.

    Having competing Dental Services (unless heavily subsidised by Govt) ignores the fact that dental surgeries are so high tech now that they have very high fixed costs. To compete against them would not reduce prices. (They could place Dental care under Medicare, subsidising the cost for everyone, equally.)

    Exactly the same argument goes for Childcare…competition from Govt won’t reduce the costs of the existing providers of Childcare. The only way I see that these costs can be reduced is to remove the private option totally. Make all childcare fully funded by Govt.

    Buy back the essential services…electricity (production, distribution & retail), water and gas. That way, when the economy needs a ‘kick start’, the govt could reduce the price of these (at least short term) to reduce input costs to stimulate production & associated jobs.

  6. Denis Hay

    I am now 74 years old and life has changed beyond recognition in the last 40 years since the Neoliberal ideas started to take hold. In those 40 years they have managed to destroy much of the good Australia stood for. Secure full-time employment, free or cheap education, Unions that looked after workers, the excellent public services we used to have. Many of these public assets made a profit that helped pay for hospitals and schools. For example: Commonwealth Bank, Telstra. They make billions of dollars profit a year that used to be Government revenue.

    We have been fed a massive lie and unfortunately, it seems that most Australians have accepted as truth. Neoliberals have been dangling the “carrot” in front of our nose like the Donkeys we are and we have stupidly followed like Sheep.

    All around the Western World we can see the destruction that Neoliberalism has inflicted on the people and the Wars resulting from greed and the pursuit of power.

    I would dearly love to see the end of this political landscape disappear in my lifetime and be replaced with a system that truly valued people and the environment.

  7. Roswell

    Denis Hay – spot on. The world is heading down a strange path. I see a distant future where corporations, not governments, are our rulers. They will also be the law makers.

  8. Thomas Brookes

    The basic problem is we have politicians who think that it is the role of society to support the economy, instead of the other way around.

  9. jim

    I really feel that Abbott and the Liberals have held our economy back by at least two years mainly, by stopping renewable energy power stations just think would you rather have to put wood/ coal on the fire or have to put nothing (sun/wind) on the fire., for the rest of your life by the way. but those with $billions of invested assets ie giant drag-lines /giant trucks will fight to destroy the renewable energy industry mr Abbott and the liberals surely were,are openly hampering/stopping the renewable energy industry

  10. Anomander

    Great ideas, however I fear, too little, too late. The neoliberal lies are now too firmly entrenched in the minds of the detached, unthinking populace, there is little chance of any government succeeding. The ruthless power of the corporations will see to that with widespread media campaigns and funding of right-wing think-tanks aimed at further swaying public opinion against it.

    The corporations are now so huge they resemble the Titans of Greek mythology – enormous, towering behemoths, their scale so vast they dwarf even nation states. Their reach so wide they are able to stride from continent to continent at will.

    Too big to fail, too strong to harm, virtually immortal and immensely powerful – they trample thousand with each thundering footfall. We humans are like ants swarming before them, craning our necks, unable to fathom the scale of these entities.

    They constantly demand feeding – devouring swathes of food and precious resources, and we are powerless to stop them. If they don’t get their way, they simply stamp their enormous foot or threaten us and we tremble in fear, offering them more and more of our assets and resources to feed their insatiable hunger.

    They claim to offer us benefits, occasionally offering-up petty trinkets to assuage our fears, while they strip away our environment, pollute our water and befoul our air. Their sole purpose – to accumulate more wealth, to consume as much as they can and to grow larger and even more unstoppable.

    Like all powerful beings, they attract adulation and fealty from many – most especially our politicians who act like high priests, directing the masses to serve the giants and delivering their messages. In return these politicians gain protections, are rewarded with influence and wealth and have established themselves as the intermediaries between us and these god-like beings. Whole branches of study are devoted to them – economists, commentators, think-tanks – all tell us what we need to do to support the Titans and extol the benefits of being under their neoliberal rule.

    Our only hope is for all of us to band together and refuse to feed them, counteract the lies, constrict their supply, construct our own public behemoths that will fight on our behalf, and we need to do it now, because if we wait any longer they will be too big to battle and our democracy will be lost.

    We’re not going to get any support form the zealots in the two major parties, so we are going to have to rely upon smaller parties like the Greens or independents to help us champion the cause.

  11. David

    After listening intently (painfully) to Turnbull and Morrison in QT yesterday and to a couple of answers today, both display a complete ignorance of economics. I am not an expert just usual yr 12 level, however the simpleton responses to legitimate questions from the Opposition are of such a flat nature smothered in honey, it is obvious the tactic is say nothing in as many words as possible in a raised authoritative tone, arms outstretched in Abbott pulpit pose. Going by todays Newspoll, the majority are lapping it up.

    Both are using the same script…’we are going to improve the standards of all Australians, not by fear tactics as used by the no policy, failed Opposition, but good, generous policies for everyone, thought through fairly and thoroughly for the benefit of
    everyone’.

    Repeat that, using variations, never straying from the theme and never actually promising anything specific. It is working a treat and the gullible, still suffering from the Abbott hangover are supping greedily on the phony healing nectar.

    Snake oil salesmen, expertly selling their wares.

  12. Sean

    David, please have a look at:

    http://greens.org.au/policy

    as far as I know this is far more detailed, in scope and bredth, than any major party has ever produced for public perusal.

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