ROB STEWART. Labor’s Vision Thing: Jobs and the future of work. Really?

Anthony Albanese delivered his first major “Vision Statement” last Tuesday. However, after 6 months wait, the Statement is a disappointing, damp squib of a thing. I hope future Statements are more…um, visionary.

Great anticipation thickened the air when Anthony Albanese delivered his first major “Vision Statement” last Tuesday. The Statement: Jobs and the Future of Work contains some interesting current success stories of businesses embracing new technologies and opportunities.

The Statement is full of patronizing, hackneyed phraseology: “today, the [ALP] turns our focus forward” and “Our policies will need to adapt to the changing world around us”. It’s good to know the ALP has worked out that focusing backwards and refusing to acknowledge change is probably not the right way to go. Who is the target audience for this? Primary school children? What person of voting age hasn’t heard about challenges and opportunities, disruption, aspiration, hopes, change being constant, agility, flexibility, complexity, the gig economy and so on. My point is that sentient human beings are totally over empty, meaningless, rhetoric used by politicians to cop out from any responsibility in the neoliberal era. An era in which labour, the working class, fairness and equity, communities and the environment have been jettisoned and trashed by the rabid, greedy and undeserving 1% in the kakistocratic, oligarchic and kleptocratic pathocracies in which we live. People are over it. Albanese’ Statement is choc-a-block full of cliches. It has hallmarks of being written by overly keen graduate interns, keen to share their knowledge with true believers. And if it wasn’t drafted by newbies it’s more concerning. The recently late, great Graham Freudenberg would be turning in his grave.

At least the Statement does provide some principles on economic priorities and future work opportunities. The LNP has proven itself utterly inept, ideologically blinkered and downright destructive when it comes to policy in just about every area. And it is even worse when it comes to program implementation. In fact, the LNP has been so incompetent and internally riven it would be fair to say the least damage it can do is to do nothing. John Menadue’s recent article on the LNP’s dismal performance We should stop pretending that the coalition is a good economic or business manager (Pearls and Irritations, 30 October 2019) provides a great overview of selected dismal Coalition Government failures in a range of areas.

As I write this, a shrill Morrison is squealing out of my radio at some grand event in Queensland. He has said “How good is…” about five times already and his speech is full of division and reactionary invective against Labor, environmentalists and sundry protestors – all the good things you could hope for from a great leader. One could be forgiven for thinking it was written for him by Adani, especially when he said “How good is mining for Australia?” Surely, Australia can do better than this.

I will now focus on four comments (paraphrasing specific lines) in the Statement, while recognizing this risks criticism that doing so may not properly reflect the context. These four comments are:

• Our [Labor’s] policies will always need to adapt to the changing world around us, but our values are enduring;
• While government cannot stop change, it can certainly shape change…and Labor…will always shape change…in the interests of people;
• Supporting protections is not the same as supporting protectionism; and
• One understands that unions and business have common goals.

On the first point I could say my values are vegan but my diet is Big Macs. The values/policies differentiation is a total cop out. Will this distinction be used to justify Labor voting with the LNP on every worker undermining, wage and condition smashing, trade arrangement? Will this be used as justification for the ALP to continue to support every petrified refugee being dragged off a boat and taken to our offshore gulags of indefinite torture and horror? Will this be used by Labor to justify why there isn’t a “cigarette paper’s thickness” of difference between Labor and the LNP on so called “security matters” as Dutton and his goons continue to push through more and more Orwellian style surveillance legislation, taking away what’s left of our limited rights and freedoms?

On “change” it’s good to know Labor will shape change in the interests of people. Nice generic term “people”. Perhaps terms such as the “majority”, or “working and middle class” people or even the 99% could have been used. But “people” doesn’t exclude or offend anyone. After all bank CEOs are people too. So Labor is going to shape change for the benefits of everyone. The rhetoric is so passive “governments can’t stop change but they can shape change”. Actually, governments can make change, stop change and shape change – it doesn’t just have to passively deal with change exogenously thrust upon it. Change can be stopped in a whole range of areas if governments want to do it– like stop privatizing everything that moves. “People” are sick and tired of being told changes that rip their lives apart are all inevitable and governments can’t do anything about it – but vote for us anyway.

On “protections” as opposed to “protectionism” the nuance is lost on me. If what is meant by protectionism is subsidies and tariffs then why not say so? To make the distinction the Statement refers to “protections” being things such as the aged pension, unemployment benefits and so on. However, many “protections” have been eroded and underfunded by both Labor and LNP governments over the past 40 years. Also, during anti-democratic, in-secret, trade deal negotiations, what could be classified as “protections” is viewed as “protectionism” by trade negotiators. Presumably, the next time Labor signs up to a draconian labour exploiting trade deal that allows for importation of foreign workers on $5 per hour without benefits, Labor can say we agreed to it on a policy basis but not on a values basis, and we only agreed to the removal of protectionism not protections.

The point on unions and businesses having “common goals” pretty much bell’s the cat. While it is fair to say there are some genuine common interests between unions and business, it is their different interests that define them within a capitalist economy. It has always been so and it is not simply Marxist to say this, it is a structural reality. The Labor Party was born from the enormous power imbalance between capital and labour within capitalist economies and rampant exploitation. Over the past 40 years political parties everywhere, purporting to represent labour have sold out to big capital and deserted their bases and have become irrelevant – this is what neoliberalism wants and gets. It is time for the ALP to either stand up and take neoliberalism on or bugger off into obscurity.

When the ALP lost the unlosable election this year, Mark Butler said in order to win Labor requires an immensely popular leader, a compelling national vision and a superior campaign. It’s obvious Labor had none of these attributes in 2019. The Emerson and Weatherill Report is due. Undoubtedly it will go into great detail explaining what Butler summarises into three points. Bill Shorten as Labor leader was about as popular as a dropped pie. And, although he has been a dismal failure at almost everything he has done, it’s only fair to acknowledge Morrison completely out campaigned Shorten. In terms of national vision, Labor’s policies were confused and not well sold, but I don’t agree with many commentators who say the Labor platform was too big for the electorate to swallow. It wasn’t grand. Labor had a few significant policies, but they were piecemeal and confused, although the intent of a fairer Australia was commendable.

Albanese’ first Vision Statement is the sort of beige meaningless script that could see him take office at the next Federal election. He can’t “win” with such drivel, but he could “take” office, based on the general principle that oppositions do not win elections in Australia, governments lose them.

Morrison did not win the last election, because he was not articulating any particular vision or trying to sell anything to the electorate – there was no reform agenda, no big picture policies, just negativity and don’t trust Shorten rhetoric. And it worked a treat. He didn’t win, he just barely held on to what he already had – office.

Albanese could take office in 2022 by doing nothing and simply allow Morrison’s government to implode, which it surely will. Howard and Abbott both learnt how to do that and just wait it out. It’s tougher for Labor given the innately conservative nature of the Australian electorate, but not impossible.

Alternatively, Albanese could decide to stand up, grasp the nettle, and develop a genuine alternative vision for Australia based on dismantling neoliberalism’s egregious excesses and creating a more just and egalitarian Australia. However, his first Vision Statement is not encouraging. If Labor continues to compromise its values for policy pragmatism, as it has shamefully done for many years, Labor cannot create a convincing national vision to actually “win” government, and Albanese seems to suggest that is exactly what Labor intends to do, while trying to kid the people that in doing so it’s really staying true to its “values.” By playing dead, Albanese may still get his chance to sit in the Big Chair, and maybe that’s all he wants – the prize. And, if he gets to sit in the Big Chair on such terms it will be on the proviso he does absolutely nothing capital doesn’t like.

Rob Stewart is a retired economist and former Senior Executive in the Australian Public Service.

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3 Responses to ROB STEWART. Labor’s Vision Thing: Jobs and the future of work. Really?

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    I bear in mind that Albo’s sights must be as focussed on winning the 2022 election as ScoMo’s were on winning the 2019 election. It is very early days; I see him keeping the electoral gates as open as he can.

    Further, these initial speeches are about realigning Labor’s overall perspective. I think Albo’s primary and initial concern is to displace the rhetoric of the ‘top end of town’ with ‘inclusiveness’. Shades of Bob Hawke’s muted and deceptive neo-liberalist “consensus”.

    So Albo’s invited us to analyse the extent to which, over the next 30-odd months, he’ll do a Richo – abandoning previous perspectives, policies and programs for the prostitution of purveying power through the privation of principle.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    I suspect the intended audience is those with jobs in the fossil fuel industries.

    Let’s hope it’s a way of getting action on climate change by helping people move out of the fossil industries.

  3. Philip Bond says:

    Labor’s set for another term as the, opposition.

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