Dr Tristan Ewins
It's upsetting when some of us in Labor complain about "unaffordable" "pie in the sky" Greens policies. The Greens' policies were more ambitious than Labor's policies, yes. And perhaps were less credible as a consequence of their lacking access to quality costings. But at the end of the day the difference between Labor and the Liberals is perhaps around one per cent of GDP annually. (also add other policies not related to spending – like support for penalty rates) And the 'unaffordable' Greens policies maybe add up to in the vicinity of one to two per cent of GDP/year more than ours at the most. (these are just rough estimates though I admit)
The problem with the Greens is not 'unaffordable' policies. That's 'Liberal-Speak'. It’s rhetoric which can rationalize opportunism on austerity for instance. It’s loaded-rhetoric which ‘locks in’ small government.
The real problem for the SL is that Greens gains are losses for the ALP Left within the PLP (Parliamentary Labor Party): affecting our policy influence as far as policy is determined by Cabinet. (or the Shadow Cabinet as it is for the time being) And a common accusation is that sometimes the Greens distort facts on Labor Policy to achieve that.
But despite claims to the contrary, people who were insisting that we needed Greens preferences to win were proven right. We cannot escape from the fact Labor and the Greens need each other.
Probably we retreated on policy in the face of bad responses in focus groups and polling. (take our retreat on Aged Care funding) This suggests that while we began selling our message earlier than usual, we could have began even sooner. Because selling a message which challenges 'common sense' Ideological assumptions (as Gramsci may have put it) takes time and effort. (especially with a hostile media) Our aspiration should be to raise social expenditure and investment by perhaps 2.5 per cent of GDP upon taking government after the next election. (maybe more if you factor in cutting superannuation concessions)
In short: we need an ALP with a vision reconceiving of a 'forward march of labour'. An idea of what 'progressive' actually means. That is 'how we want to progress things’. And that must mean an extension of social insurance and the social wage ; an emphasis on public infrastructure and services ; a more progressive tax system - and so on. Which takes real resources- Hence the emphasis on tax reform.
But both sides capitulated to short-term opportunism on superannuation concessions - which will be costing tens of billions to benefit the rich and the unambiguously well off. With the new parliament it is to be hoped that the impending $50 billion bill for superannuation concessions will drive policy by necessity. And Labor can use its position in the Senate to ensure these changes are fair for middle and lower income Australians. Hopefully Xenophon can be convinced of this also. His votes will be crucial. Also thankfully while Labor did not develop a strong enough policy, here, at least at the early leaders’ debate Shorten kept his options open on future reform. Turnbull by comparison locked into ‘no further reforms’. It will be interesting to see if he sticks to that.
The Liberals will accuse us of being 'big-spending'. But that is rhetoric we need to refute vigorously. My personal ambition was to see Labor increase tax and related social expenditure by maybe 2.5% of GDP in its first term. (that that is considered 'radical' shows how far we've regressed in this country from anything like social democracy)
But even increasing progressive tax and associated expenditure by 1.5% of GDP (or $24 billion/year out of a $1.6 trillion economy) in a first term Labor government would be meaningful. That should be ‘the policy floor’ – which we resort to only if necessary - and below which we compromise no further.
Crucially: there are vulnerable people who need our help sooner and not later. That includes the elderly, the ill, the disabled, the poverty-stricken, and the long term unemployed for a start. This requires tens of billions new spending to be meaningful.
With Shorten’s election campaign appearance on QandA, he was confronted by an aged pensioner who argued that an unforeseen contingency (eg: a broken washing machine) could send her broke. In other words, that it may come down to a choice between paying bills, seeing the doctor, or feeding oneself. Shorten conceded there was ‘nothing he could do’. Which probably translates as: ; ‘internal polling shows people don’t want higher taxes’ or that they ‘resent pensioners’, and hence Labor was ‘cutting some of the most vulnerable loose’. We have to do better than this next time. And the way we do that is through a solid campaign footing for a full three years between now and the next election.
But keep in mind that's in the context of a $1.6 TRILLION economy. We're talking about affordable reforms that the media and Conservatives will portray as 'radical' and 'irresponsible'. The Liberals especially don't want to compromise at all on their 'small government, neo-liberal, laissez faire' Ideology and agenda. No matter what the cost to vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians.
With that we could do a great deal if not all of the following:
Reform welfare payments – Aged, Disability, Sole Parents; Student Allowance; Carers etc; increasing by $50/week plus inflation perhaps over two terms
Sam Dastyari’s estimate that corporate tax evasion is costing $31 billion a year is also relevant here. And you would think Labor needs a stronger policy than it took to the last election. That is: Labor’s policy only aspired to claw back $2 billion of this over 4 years.
A non-binding ‘policy conference’ some time over the next year could also help mobilise the enthusiasm of Labor’s rank and file ; inspiring innovative policy development to drive Labor towards the next federal election. Contrary to Bowen this Conference should not replace the binding ALP National Conference which determines Labor's Platform.