Like all mainstream, once-reforming parties in the liberal democracies, the ALP’s base has shrunk, mainly to inner-city dwellers with progressive views on issues like same-sex marriage and climate change. These people – many with university degrees and professional careers – incline to supercilious indifference, even hostility, when confronted by the resentful prejudices, religious fundamentalisms, and sense of exclusion of people struggling in industrial suburbs, on the fringes of cities, or in regional areas across the country. The relatively privileged “elites” have little compassion for, or understanding of, what motivates once rock-solid Labor voters to turn to the likes of Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer – or to the Coalition.
One of the major consequences of the economic rationalist policies of the last three to four decades has been the damaging growth of socio-economic inequalities in all of the advanced economies – damaging to families, communities, to large swathes of society, and to the economy too. The rich have become richer at the expense of the many; fewer of the rich own more capital than ever before (read Thomas Picketty). Moreover, they have become more aggressively determined to cling to the economic benefits they’ve accrued over recent policy years – witness those who voted so self-righteously to hang on to their franking credits, come hell or high water.
Meanwhile far too many people are being locked out from the economic gains enjoyed by those in the trendy inner-suburbs and at “the big end of town.” What is not adequately grasped, by the “elites,” and by Labor, is that those locked out of the country’s prosperity are victims of policies framed within a toxic neoliberal discourse. Look, for example, at unemployment levels among former car-factory workers who had a secure income and life style until Abbott and Hockey vandalised the car manufacturers. Have a look at those workers’ personal stories (income loss, psychological stress, domestic violence, marriage break-ups, ill health, alcohol and drug abuse, confrontations with the law).
There has been too much collateral damage caused by the economic policies of successive Australian governments since the 1980s – damage that is loftily disregarded and arrogantly dismissed by those who govern us. Too many vital public goods have been squandered by privatising them, by deregulating them, and by contracting them out to the private sector which has only one objective – to enlarge profits for shareholder and CEOs. The concept of the public good (of the “commonwealth”) urgently needs revisiting.
During the 2019 election campaign, in Queensland (where there are too many victims of neoliberalism – just look at the regional unemployment rates, the bank foreclosure rates, the crime rates, the mental health rates, the suicide rates) much ado was made about the Adani coal mine. It is clear that the LNP treats this as a major issue – not, it needs to be noted, for the jobs it may (or more likely won’t) create, but for the profits its leaders think it will rake in for their big mining mates. But by playing it as a jobs-creating issue, they were able to ride roughshod over a Labor Party that weakly equivocated about it.
Labor has to think about how to revive the economy to bring secure jobs, good services, and improved wages to working-class and lower middle-class people who have been brutally cast aside by neoliberalism’s narcissistic advocates. How can this be done?
One obvious solution would be to create publicly-owned industries and publicly-run services precisely for the very people who have been tossed aside by the practitioners of the economic rationalist voodoo.
Take the Adani situation: Labor should have mounted a full-throated opposition to Adani. But it should have done so while simultaneously explaining a comprehensive agenda to establish a range of renewable energy industries such as large-scale wind farms and solar farms that would not only open up the job market, but also provide skills training for the young unemployed and others seeking entry (or re-entry) to the labour market.
As for the car manufacturers: Labor should have promised the creation of a high-tech electric car industry to replace the old car manufacturers, while creating new job opportunities and new skills-training programs linked to the restoration of the TAFE sector. It should also have planned for constructing infrastructure across the country to facilitate the up-take of electric cars (as Norway has done so successfully). Australia could lead the world with such a development while opening up a jobs bonanza in the process.
As for services: Labor really missed the boat by failing to present a plan for a publicly-owned bank to compete against the ugly big four banks that were shown to be so destructive of the lives of the “small people” ripped off by dodgy advisers and a demonstrably corrupt finance industry. It should have used the findings of the Royal Commission to ram home how the private sector is screwing people over when they are at their most vulnerable and how a “Bank of Australia” could provide reliable and respectful service for everyone (with profits going into general revenue).
Instead of focusing only on improving access to cheaper treatment for cancer sufferers (noble as that pledge was), Labor should have had a policy to provide a comprehensive public medical service, from GP level through to specialist levels, to compete with the unbelievably avaricious private medical system that now operates. (The same must be said about the need for a publicly-owned legal service.)
To paraphrase a very great thinker: Labor has been trying hitherto to interpret the neoliberal world in various ways; the point however is to change it. A robust public sector is urgently needed to compete against a rapacious private sector. A revitalised public sector must first target those who are locked out of secure jobs, reliable financial services, and first-class health and education services.
It’s time …
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.