ALLAN PATIENCE. Compassionate policy planning as the antidote to populism

Mar 13, 2018

The Italian election has shown, very clearly, that ordinary voters are deeply angry with mainstream politicians and political parties. What is true of Italy is also true of Australia. The political class sneeringly dismisses voter anger as “populism”, blindly believe it will evaporate once voters come to their senses. They’re wrong. Anger is mounting exponentially across the country. Voters are looking for alternatives – any alternative – than to vote for the narcissists currently governing us. This poses a serious danger to the political system – but it also offers a golden opportunity for Labor.

 The chasm that now exists between Coalition politicians in Canberra and ordinary voters is vast and yawning ever wider. The arrogance of the government’s increasingly disunited leadership team is breathtaking. Their inflated sense of entitlement is beyond measure. They appear impervious to the suffering they are foisting on resentful citizens whom they label condescendingly as ingrates and “deplorables”, when in fact voters are victims of the government’s deplorable policies. Voters are in open revolt and woe betides the political class that doesn’t take them seriously.

Radical policy responses to this anger and victimhood are urgently needed to assuage voters and bring them back to the politics of stability and trust in their representatives. It is noteworthy that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies in Britain – once written off by the elites as “extreme socialism” and “populist” – are resulting in the British Labour Party rising ever higher in opinion polls. The Tories are terrified of Corbyn. It is increasingly likely that he will be the next British Prime Minister precisely because he is authentically on side with the victims of neoliberalism, in all its ugly forms.

So Labor needs to front up with some bold new policies to convince voters that the party understands that their suffering is absolutely the fault of out-of-touch politicians lording it over us in Canberra. And it’s not just Coalition Tories who are under the illusion they are born to rule. The ALP must develop a comprehensive raft of policies that demonstrate real compassion for the victims of the public policy vandalism imposed on them by arrogant political elites. Boldness must now be Labor’s friend.

The policies a genuinely reforming Labor Party should be contemplating must start with a broadly two-pronged approach to the economy, based on the premise that it is society that the economy serves, not vice versa.

The first prong relates to tax reform. This must be aimed at raising sufficient revenue to support progressive social development right across Australia. This will inevitably mean raising some taxes. However there is plenty of research available to show that Australians will readily – indeed eagerly – agree to increased taxes provided it is clearly spelt out how they will benefit from improved, accessible, well-funded, and well-targeted public services.

At the centre of tax reforms there has to be a wages policy focused on equity and productivity improvements. You won’t get productivity increases while there is gross inequity (such as we have now) between wage and salary earners on the one hand and senior managers on the other. This is not a matter of some silly sloganizing about “class conflict”; it is about sensible economics. And within an intelligently designed wages policy there must be the foundation of a universally guaranteed incomes policy.

These reforms must also include caps and tax penalties on executive pay deals – including closures of tax loopholes which corporations and rich individuals use to offshore their incomes to avoid paying their just share of taxes.  The aim of the tax system must be: (a) to guarantee good public services; and (b) to halt the seriously regressive – and growing – inequality that is undermining the cohesiveness of contemporary Australian society.

The second prong is to establish that the state needs to be deeply engaged in the economy, regulating sensitively while promoting competitive and highly efficient public enterprises, so that competition with private business and professional interests can bring the latter to heel.

This public competition should include a publicly owned bank, a public real estate agency, a public legal service, public GP and medical specialist services, a public energy provider and retailer service, a public transport company (to include air, rail and road services), and a public pharmaceutical company. In addition to providing real competition in the economy, these public enterprises will also provide healthy contributions to public revenues.

It is also time to stop regarding important services like education as a commodity and start seeing it as an investment. The inequality that is structured into our schools and higher education institutions must be ended. Fully reinstating the Gonski Scheme has to be a Labor imperative. And introducing variety into the higher education system is also an urgent priority. We need public TAFE institutes that could run parallel with liberal arts/sciences colleges, providing a rich array of skills and citizenship education before graduates move on to professional degree programs and/or higher degree research. The chaos of the country’s health systems also need to be brought fully under the federal government’s purview. States are increasingly unable, and in a number of instances unwilling, to properly guarantee the wellbeing of their citizens. This should be a signal to Labor that the federal system itself needs a massive reform overhaul.

It’s time, Labor!

Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic.

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