Sunday, July 24, 2016

Labor needs to Develop Stronger Policies and Mobilise Early to Beat the Liberals Next Time

The Following is an internal view of where Labor needs to lift its game for the next Federal Election ; in terms of Policy, Strategy, and mobilisation of its Rank and File.  NON-Labor people  (Including Greens Activists)  may be interested in the broader implications for Australian politics.  And there are areas of possible shared ground on Policy between the ALP and the Greens.  The election demonstrated that currently ALP and the Greens still need each other to maintain an electoral bloc capable of displacing the Liberals.....

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.
So for the most part "big spending" promises are 'not the problem'. Promoting incremental extension of social insurance, social welfare and the social wage - should go without saying for Labor. We did not go far enough on tax reform and superannuation concessions reform. Yet nonetheless it was the most promising economic platform we've promoted in years. By this I mean it was the first election in years where we had not locked ourselves arbitrarily in to a policy of holding spending and tax down as a proportion of GDP.  

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)

If people want evidence of the need to begin campaigning early then look at the disinformation on Medicare privatisation in the media and from the Liberals. Privatisation was narrowly interpreted as ‘selling an asset off’. Labor’s message was therefore deemed a ‘scare’. Yet upon reflection Labor’s implicit definition of privatisation is legitimate. Medicare is a relatively modest scheme of socialized medicine by some international comparisons:  providing for the costs of a variety of consultative services and procedures publicly.  Nonetheless, Medicare (and the PBS – Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme)  contain national health costs radically compared with the overwhelming dependence on private health cover in the United States. The danger, though, is that we are nonetheless developing into a ‘two tiered’ health system in health as in education. With increasing degeneration into Galbraith’s ‘private affluence, public squalor’.   The more this progresses the more entrenched the situation becomes ; and the more divided the country grows on the basis of social class.

This - accompanied by growing out-of-pocket expenses - would be both inefficient and unfair: an expression of the principle of privatisation as opposed to socialisation. 

But Medicare must be extended as well as defended. Medicare does not currently include comprehensive dental, podiatry and physiotherapy , or medical aids like glasses, hearing aids or prostheses.  We need a reforming government which provides for this through the progressive reform and extension of the popular Medicare Levy without austerity elsewhere.

It’s also notable that we sold NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) well in the past. But we can't sustain an argument that improved social wages and social insurance can be provided without significant tax reform elsewhere. $7 billion from negative gearing and Capital Gains Tax concession reform was important. (adding up to 0.4% of GDP)  At least we were somewhat on the front foot. And Labor’s defensive stand against $50 billion in Company Tax cuts was crucial to its message ; and to a revolt in sections of the electorate against ‘corporate welfare’.

But I think we can and should do better. It requires planning and arguments put well in advance. It requires promoting a public debate which challenges peoples' assumptions about the desirability (or undesirability) of 'small government', low taxes, the importance of social investments, social insurance and so on.  It requires a party of activists – mobilized to a significant degree throughout the whole electoral cycle.

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.

In fact we need to develop a public debate about how low social spending and how small the public sector are in this country - and why moving closer to the OECD averages - even if only gradually - would be a good thing.

I have argued to increase spending and taxes by roughly 2.5% in the past.  I don't think we can just transplant the entire Swedish model over two or even three terms. But I do think gradual progress is possible. And depending on unforeseeable circumstances perhaps it could be less gradual.  (history is interspersed with ‘watershed’ moments which had not been predicted)

Let's say we had a pool of $40 billion extra a year to work with out of a $1.6 trillion economy. (ie: 2.5 per cent of GDP) And then maybe cut superannuation concessions by around $15 to $20 billion to start as well. (out of approximately $50 billion)

With that we could do a great deal if not all of the following:   

·         Fully Implement the Gonski education reforms, and NDIS

·         reform and extend Medicare into dental, prostheses, optometry, physio, psychology, podiatry ; cut waiting lists ; stop the encroachments of increasing co-payments

·         increase investment in public and social housing

·          implement a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme

·         reform Mental Health with more proportionate resourcing of the sector and policies to tackle mental-health related early mortality – with perhaps 300,000 Australians suffering schizophrenia, for example,  dying 25 years earlier than the general population. ;

·         introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI)  as proposed by NSW Labor policy activist Luke Whitington, and begin eliminating poverty.

·         also fund various infrastructure projects publicly as opposed to creeping privatisation- with the consequence of passing efficiencies on to the broader economy.

·         top up local government with federal funding - redistributing resources to help local government in working class and disadvantaged areas to provide better quality services and infrastructure.

·         Pay for a reparations component of a Treaty with indigenous Australian peoples


·         Implement a trial 'co-operative incentive scheme' to support the development of co-operative enterprise in Australia  - supported by tax breaks, cheap credit, advice., and in some instances government co-investment

·         Reform welfare payments – Aged, Disability, Sole Parents; Student Allowance; Carers etc; increasing by $50/week plus inflation perhaps over two terms

·         Finally we could reform higher education and make the HECS system far more progressive. Raise the minimum repayment threshold for a start.   And implement Industry and Labour Market policies which bring us closer to full employment: with a big boost to the Budget bottom line.

What's important over the next year or so it that we adopt the posture necessary to promote the next wave of reforms in what they used to call ‘the forward march of labour'. ALSO even in the wake of our election loss we should still aim for a Company Tax rate of 30 per cent or higher and not back down from that. (ie: whether in government, or vetting legislation in the Senate)  Because it is both necessary and reasonable for the corporate sector to contribute to the services and infrastructure it benefits from. The alternative is neglect - or otherwise 'corporate welfare'. 

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.

Labor desperately needs a sense of what its professed ‘forward march’ comprises ; and why that is desirable and right.  Let’s begin a debate sooner rather than later: moving Labor onto ‘the front foot’.  This means shifting straight away to a ‘permanent campaign mode’ based on ‘solid but partial mobilisation’ through the activism of our rank and file.  (full mobilisation throughout the entire electoral cycle could prove exhausting, however)  Also we need to implement an early release of ambitious policies which our activists and supporters could mobilise around.  We don’t want to be pressed again to retreat on crucial policies (for example Aged Care funding)  due to public fears re: the presumed need for a Budget surplus and low taxes – as occurred in the recent federal election campaign.

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.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Turnbull by the Narrowest Margin - And Why a Return to Abbott and Conservatism is not the Answer for the Liberals

Much has been made of the so-called Labor 'Medi-scare' Campaign.  But reflection suggests Turnbull has only himself to blame for pandering to the 'big 'C' Conservative' wing of his Party - with the profound disillusionment from liberal-minded voters who were originally so encouraged by the departure of Abbott.  For the same reason 'a return to Abbott' is not the answer for the Liberals. In the end the Liberals did not 'tack to the Centre' after all.  And if the Liberal Party swings Right chasing after the votes of the Hansonites that will only provoke further disillusionment from the 'liberal relative Centre' voter demographic.


Dr Tristan Ewins
With the cliff-hanger/apparent-Liberal victory in the 2016 Australian Federal Election there have been calls from Conservative quarters for the removal of Malcolm Turnbull.  The argument goes something along the lines that because Turnbull abandoned the Liberal base he was punished accordingly.  And that a more decisive Liberal victory would have been possible under Tony Abbott.

Certainly the cross-benches will likely be volatile.  The Government could expect to be put into difficult positions on gambling regulation (Xenophon), law reform and legal euthanasia (Hinch), protectionism (Katter), and totally-unworkable policy objectives based on xenophobia. (Hanson)   Cathy McGowan will probably tend towards to the liberal Centre.  Lambie can be unpredictable – but also in some ways progressive on the economy. (take her support for a financial transactions tax)  She also opposes Same Sex Marriage. 

The Greens will quite possibly enter into negotiations with the Nick Xenophon Team to link their agendas in the context of balance of power in the Senate. The hope is that they will oppose austerity and regressive re-casting of the tax mix – leaving fair tax reform as the only remaining option for budget repair.  (though some are saying the Conservatives may respond with a new election)  But the Greens have failed to pick up new Lower House seats from Labor.   In the Lower House Wilkie can be depended upon to be critical, consistent and progressive – as past experience shows.
Already there are arguments to the effect that a hung parliament threatens Australia’s AAA Credit Rating.  The arguments can be summed up in that the various sectional interests will get in the way of ‘hard headed action on budget cuts’.  Though again: few are considering the genuinely-existing alternative of budget repair without austerity – on the basis of progressive tax reform.   Budget cuts also threaten the infrastructure and services the economy craves: resulting in something of a ‘false-economy’.  If possible Labor needs to link-up with Xenophon and the Greens in the Senate to progress the agenda of budget repair without austerity. 

Those Liberals who aren’t braying for Turnbull’s blood are indignant about the so-called ‘Medi-scare’ from Labor.   Yet the reality is that the fear out there in the electorate goes back to the 2014 Hockey Budget ; with its various Medicare co-payments, and other ‘cuts to the bone’.  Labor’s efforts here were nowhere near as objectionable, say, compared with the Howard-Era Liberal government’s ‘children overboard’ panic,  or more recent talk of a ‘war on business’; and so on.  In fact Labor’s interpretation of Medicare privatisation is entirely reasonable if realised as opposition to the winding back of socialised medicine in this country. That the Federal Police are being deployed apparently as a Liberal political asset is perhaps a threat to our democracy.

Turnbull’s alleged ‘Centrism’ is not the cause of the ‘political-near-death’ of the Federal Liberal Government. Turnbull had extensively compromised in order to keep the big ‘C’ Conservatives within the so-called ‘big house’ that is the Liberal Party.  He compromised on same sex marriage ; and on climate change and refugees.  He made billions in inhumane and profoundly regressive cuts in areas like Aged Care.  As opposed to the line being drummed up by Andrew Bolt and other arch-Conservatives : if anything it was sheer disappointment from the ‘small ‘l’ liberal’ demographic in the broader electorate that resulted in the hung parliament. 

Talk now of a ‘new Conservative movement’ – and hints from Bernadi of a ‘new Conservative Party’ illustrate a bitterness within the Liberal Party that goes back to the palace-coup against Abbott.  Regardless of this –any new Conservative movement will need to navigate the contradictions between Liberalism and Conservatism.  For self-espoused Christians heartless LNP policies on defunding an Aged Care sector already characterised by regressive user-pays mechanisms - need to be rejected utterly. Hence ‘Compassionate Conservatives’ have cause to oppose ‘Austrian School-style small government’ and its human consequences.  While small ‘l’ liberals have cause to fear regressive Conservative encroachments on civil and even industrial liberties.   Perhaps the Liberals could even learn from the example of the post-war (1950s) German Christian Democrats and their aim of 'a social market economy'.

By tearing themselves apart the various LNP Liberals and Conservatives may well prove themselves unready for government.  But would a Liberal Party freed from its right-wing once again embody the spirit, say, of Don Chipp; of the later Fraser ; or even the critical disposition embodied by internal critics such as former Liberal leader John Hewson?  Would it become a ‘small ‘l’ liberal party?  Could the Liberal ‘Wet’ faction re-emerge somehow from oblivion?  Or would the LNP  still adhere to ‘large ‘L’ economic Liberalism – leaving dominant narratives of austerity, privatisation and laissez faire untouched?   Turnbull’s capitulation to the ‘big ‘C’ Conservative’ right-wing of his Party during the campaign suggests the latter scenario is more likely.  As they do tend to embrace 'big 'L' economic Liberalism as opposed to 'small 'l' liberalism'.
There was talk under Turnbull of the Liberals ‘shifting to the Centre’.  But remember that the Centre is always relative ; and what matters most is the substance which prevails beneath the relative labels.  Moves amongst parts of Australia’s ‘liberal establishment’ (eg: in Fairfax) suggests all-too-ready a willingness to ‘settle’ with the Liberalism of Turnbull ; even when much of it proved to be compromised and hollow.

The real problem with the Turnbull campaign was its shallowness.  That is, the shallowness of mantras of ‘jobs and growth’, and the incredibility of the notion $50 billion in Company Tax cuts  (and even more over time) would ‘trickle-down’ to benefit everyone.  And this at the same time as the government proclaimed a ‘Budget Emergency’.  This was not small ‘l’ liberalism. It was the spirit of Reagan and Thatcher.

It wasn’t political and social liberalism that ‘did Turnbull in’ with a ‘near-political-death experience’.   It was laissez faire : with the LNP apparently having learned nothing from the overwhelming public rejection of the attempted hard-line Hockey Austerity Budget of 2014.

(Postscript: A friend in the Labor Party cautioned me that an open split in the Liberal Party could have bad ramifications long term. He argued that at least the LNP is not radically nationalist and openly accepting of racist Ideology. And who knows what might fill any vacuum? Though I still think LNP members need to reflect seriously upon two policy fronts : The incompatibility of heartless neo-liberalism and attacks upon the vulnerable with the 'compassionate conservatism' some Christians would like to profess ; and the infringements upon civil liberties arising from 'Big 'C' Conservatism' in this country. We need the Liberal Party (and hence the whole relative political milieu in Australia) transformed as a consequence of pressures on both these fronts.)
Our next post will consider the dilemmas facing Labor following the election outcome.

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