JOHN MENADUE. What should Labor stand for? Values and principles. Part 3 of 3.

In Part 2 I focussed on particular issues the ALP faces. In this part I will focus on the way that Labor policies and programs need to be grounded in values and principles.  

The purpose and role of a Labor Government should be to give expression to values – to achieve as far as possible the ‘common good’. Values such as freedom, citizenship, ethical responsibility, fairness and stewardship would be generally accepted by most people. As the values are translated into practices Labor makes a choice that can be further defined as principles that then lead to policies, e.g. the value of fairness can be expressed in the principle of a stronger link between contribution and reward- a link which has become severed by hugely disproportionate executive pay, high returns to rent seekers and financial speculators and the long head-start of inherited wealth.

The following is indicative of a set of values and their expressions in principles which could underpin a Labor platform/policy statement.

Fairness/equity

  1. A ‘fair go’ is primarily about economic opportunity.
  2. People should be provided with a good education and those who put it to socially useful ends should be rewarded. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was no socialist but his ‘tickets of leave’ gave the outcasts and underprivileged of this country another chance. We built a nation from the underclass. We must give opportunity for all people, particularly our First People and refugees. This is also particularly true in our country towns and rural communities where the National Party has failed so badly.
  3. Fairness promotes social mobility and limits division and resentment.
  4. Generational inequity has dramatically increased. Fairness should not be restricted to education.
  5. The path to prosperity with fairness is through productivity and well-paid employment rather than government handouts. The Scandinavians have demonstrated that education and incentives for participation do produce fairness and economic prosperity.
  6. Fairness implies that we are tough towards ‘bludgers’, whether they be tax-dodgers in large and foreign firms and businesses. The vulgarity and indulgence of those with inherited wealth, protection from competition, government hand-outs and favouritism or cheating on social services. It is important that we address the sin and not attack the sinners.

Areas where we fall short in fairness include generational inequality in such areas as housing, unfair retirement benefits, neglect of early childhood education, treatment of the needs of indigenous people and refugees, diversion of education funding to wealthy schools, neglect of public infrastructure, inadequate ODA.

Stewardship

  1. We have inherited a stock of assets or capital; environmental (forests/water), public and private physical capital (roads/ports), human capital (education), family capital (family and friendship bonds), social capital (trust), cultural capital and institutional capital (government and non-government institutions). That stock of assets must be retained and where possible enhanced.
  2. We must use our resources as efficiently and productively as possible.

Areas where we fall short in stewardship include imperilling our planet, which prejudices our children’s future. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change we are still influenced by media sceptics who ignore the facts.  Many super funds and fund managers ignore climate change risk. We waste water and degrade the land. We are not skilling ourselves for Asia.
Freedom

  1. We all have rights to the extent that they do not lessen the rights of others.
  2. Except where the rights of the vulnerable are at stake, the government should not intrude into the private realm.
  3. The potential abuse of power should be minimised by the separation of powers and the separation of church and state.

Areas where we fall short in freedom include the growing power of cabinet and executive which is not adequately balanced by parliament and the judiciary. We have an ‘elected monarchy’. We have no Human Rights Act. We have reduced freedom as a result of counter-terrorism legislation. The media increasingly fails to protect our freedoms and often facilitates abuse of power by lobbyists e.g. miners.

Citizenship

  1. We are more than individuals linked by market transactions.
  2. Our life in the public sphere is no less necessary than our private lives. As citizens we enjoy and contribute to the public good. It is where we show and learn respect for others, particularly people who are different. It is where we abide by shared rules of civic conduct. It is where we build social capital – networks of trust. We need to behave in ways that make each of us trusted members of the community. ‘Do no harm’ is not sufficient.
  3. Citizenship brings responsibilities – political participation, vigilance against abuse of power and paying taxes.

Areas where we fall short in citizenship include our withdrawal into the private realm –there are growing gated communities, private entertainment, private rather than public transport, disregard of neighbours, opting out of community through ‘vouchers’, private health insurance and private schools that discourage the coalescence of socially mixed communities around shared public schools. The discussion about health is reduced to managing the system rather than the principle of social solidarity which should drive a health service.

Ethical responsibility

  1. Those in prominent office should promote those qualities which draw on the best of our traditions and the noblest of our instincts.
  2. The duty of those with public influence is to encourage hope and redemption rather than despair and condemnation, confidence rather than fear. It is to promote the common good – to encourage us to use our talents. It is to respect truth and strengthen learning to withstand the powers of populism and vested or sectional interests. This would set a tone of public discourse which nurtures public institutions

Areas where we fall short in ethical responsibility include leaders who appeal to our worst instincts, e.g. dog whistling on refugees, executive salaries, undue influence of vested interests and corporate lobbyists. Those in public office should help the community to deal with difficult problems which may require painful adaptive change, such as climate change, rather than provide the false comfort of ignoring or downplaying them.

I do not suggest that Labor should not focus on specific policies and programs. But not too many so as to confuse. But specific election policies and programs must be grounded in secure values and principles that are held by social democrats.

 

In government and opposition the ALP has set the public agenda in Australia for over a hundred years. I am confident that it can and will continue to do so. But reform is clearly necessary.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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