Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Does the ALP have a Social Democratic Vision beyond Austerity and Small Government?


above: Treasurer, Chris Bowen and Finance Minister, Penny Wong need to decide between 'Labor Values' or Austerity
There is an urgent debate that needs to be had in Labor before any commitments to further austerity writes grassroots Labor activist, Tristan Ewins.  Five-year commitments to 'quarantining' unfair superannuation concessions could prove to be costly to both the 'Budget bottom line' and to broader goals of social welfare and distributive justice.

Tristan Ewins,  July 31st 2013

For anyone who hadn’t noticed – Buried at the end of a news story on page nine of the Herald-Sun on July 31st   was an announcement to the effect that Labor was pledging “no changes”  “to superannuation for at least five years”, “locked in” via legislation.  Deceitful as always, the Herald-Sun proclaimed this would prevent “tinkering” via “super taxes”.  (this is deceptive because the issue is with existing TAX BREAKS on superannuation rather than the implementation of any new tax)

And on the same day on page 2 of the Herald-Sun was the proclamation that “households face thousands of dollars in higher bills for fresh food, health and education payments” if the GST is increased and/or expanded in scope – as demanded by the Business Council of Australia. (BCA)

So what’s the connection between these?

As the China boom recedes somewhat – and with the prospect of an ageing population - the government is facing a reduction in tax revenues, including revenue from Company Tax and the GST – at the same time as an ageing population will increase health expenditures in the context of a narrowing tax base. Then there’s the fiscal impact of winding back the Carbon Tax.  And on top of that you can add the fact that the country is suffering a massive infrastructure deficit – with business recognising that crisis – and its impact upon productivity – by demanding that workers, citizens and consumers pay the price.  

According to Grattan  Institute chief executive John Daley extending the GST to education, health and food “would potentially add $3000 a year to average household costs.”   And the BCA is also looking to attack organised labour in order to firm up their profit margins.

Malcolm Maiden at ‘The Age’ puts it this way: that “The BCA wants stronger fiscal discipline and a more flexible industrial relations environment…”  Translated that means: curtail industrial liberties, remove safeguards for wages and conditions; cut the social wage and welfare…  Maiden also observes that other moves are also apparently ‘on the table’; perhaps including massive cuts to Company Tax and a “ceiling on tax revenue as a proportion of GDP.” (The Age, July 31st)

To put it bluntly: Labor needs to decide WHAT and WHO it stands for.   Does it stand for the traditions of social democracy?  Does it stand for the vulnerable, and for the low and middle income earners of the working class?  Does it stand for social security and social solidarity? Or does it stand for small government, corporate welfare, regressive taxation, ‘survival of the fittest’,  ‘the top end of town’, and a preference for abstract economic goals, and increased private dividends and profits – instead of concrete social goals and needs?.

Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute has pointed out that changes to Australia’s income tax regime from before the GFC hit (ie: since 2006)  were costing $40 billion for the year 2013 alone.

And crucially he has made the additional observation that those superannuation concessions the Federal Government seems so eager to quarantine will cost about $50 billion a year by 2016.  And according to Denniss that’s with a dominant percentage of superannuation tax concessions of various kinds (ie: tax breaks) going  to the top 5% income demographic!   This at the same time as the Federal Labor Government continues austerity against pensioners, and considers further cuts to welfare and services!   (see:   (See: )

Of course the BCA will look after its own interests, and the profit margins and dividends of its members.  It will try and push the case for effective corporate welfare: for cuts in the tax business pays at the same time as taxes and user charges go up for workers, tax payers and consumers to provide the infrastructure and services its members benefit from.  This – and also assaults on workers’ wages and conditions – is about shoring up profit-margins and dividends by increasing the intensity and the rate of exploitation.

There are points of ‘cross-over’ when it comes to the interests of citizens, workers and business.  Keeping business generally viable means preserving jobs.  But the public interest and business interests should not always be seen as synonymous.  We should seek BOTH to divide the pie fairly AND to grow it through technological improvements to productivity, and support for high-wage industry.  (ie: NOT by intensifying exploitation through attacks on wages and conditions)

And we need to retain focus on the social goals that underscore our economy.  That is: not promoting profit as an abstract end in itself – but promoting economic activity which adds to the quality of life of citizens and workers.  This necessarily entails social investment in properly not-for-profit sectors:  health care, aged care, public housing, education for human development – and not just for the labour market.  It might also mean reductions in the working week, and in peoples’ working lives – for concrete human needs that go beyond abstracted goals of growth.

All sides of politics recognise the infrastructure deficit and the need “to do something about it”.  It is hurting our productivity – and in so doing hurting both workers and business. But we have  a CHOICE in the WAY in which we respond to that crisis. 

The Labor government can choose a path of austerity – attacking pensioners, the social wage, the welfare state, and industrial rights and liberties.  Or it can choose to embrace social democracy more than merely rhetorically – returning to questions of distributive justice and ‘the social good’.   And Labor can choose to act on those principles of distributive justice by committing to a gradual expansion of the social wage and welfare state as a proportion of GDP -  instead of embracing socially damaging ‘ceilings’ on tax and social expenditure.  Such ‘ceilings’ would only flow into greater social disadvantage and injustice - and most likely into infrastructure privatisation whose inefficiencies hurt both business and consumers. 

Notions of the social wage, public infrastructure and welfare ‘crowding out’ the private sector also need to be challenged.  A benefit of relative economic abundance is that consumers can potentially have significant room for discretion in their spending priorities at the same time as a decent proportion of peoples’ incomes is diverted into the ‘social infrastructure’ of services, physical infrastructure (eg; transport, communications, schools, libraries) and welfare – without which society itself would collapse, or lapse into barbarism.  It also means that people can potentially enjoy earlier retirement ages and shorter working weeks – as technological improvements to productivity make this possible over time without hurting absolute material living standards.   Though taxes would need to rise in order to maintain that “social infrastructure”.  (a fair ‘trade off’) The Nordic countries, and other European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands – give us some idea what might be possible.

But in order to pursue such a social democratic vision Labor cannot and should not ‘hem itself in’ with ill-thought-out five year commitments on superannuation concessions which do not even have the authority of a National Conference position behind them! 

Also, another hung parliament cannot be completely ruled out, and the Greens will likely want reform on tax and tax concessions in that event.  ‘Locking itself in’ to such a position simply leaves Labor open to further accusations of promise-breaking should reforms and that area become necessary; or are seen as preferable after a meaningful, inclusive and genuine internal debate.

If removing superannuation concessions, reforming dividend imputation, and restructuring the broader tax mix can bring in tens of billions there is simply no need for the kind of austerity Labor is contemplating in order to return to surplus.  What’s more – Labor can implement such a program WITHOUT harming the low and middle income demographics which it depends upon for its electoral base.   It can aim at a fairer contribution from the wealthy and the upper middle class.  And through reform of tax, welfare and the social wage – Labor can pursue a distinctively social-democratic vision of ‘the good society’ which is much deeper than simply ‘more and more’ private consumption and production – regardless of the social cost.

But by contrast – allowing social and economic infrastructure to ‘wither on the vine’ will hurt everyone – workers and business included.   And turning to privatisation of infrastructure also passes the price of inferior cost-structures on to consumers – including both citizens and businesses.

Standing for the same agenda of austerity and distributive injustice as the Liberals – but ‘not quite as much’ isn’t enough to cut it for Labor; to inspire and mobilise the people we need behind us to win this election. 

ALP activists need to make their voices heard on these issues: regardless of whether they do so through the decision making forums of the Right or the Left; and/or through their local branches; and by writing to their local members.  We need to signal our intention to fight the ‘small government’ template: to stand for social welfare and social justice; and a distinctively social-democratic vision of ‘The Good Society’. 

References: ‘The Age’ and the ‘Herald Sun’, July 31st 2013; and Richard Denniss at:

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