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.