A tepid cry for change: Tanya Plibersek’s book “Upturn” and Labor’s prospects

Mar 5, 2021

In a world riven by crises, we need new ways of thinking, knowing, and relating. We also need courage. The challenge is huge. There will be no return to a pre-Covid-19 normal, which for many Australians meant poverty, hardship, and marginalization. This book had rich promise but is a missed opportunity. A comprehensive, coherent vision of a just society post pandemic society still needs to be written.

Tanya Plibersek’s book, Upturn, is 260 pages with 30 contributors promising a ‘better normal’ post-Covid Australia. The promise is not realised.

For the Australian Labor Party, the search for a new “light on the hill” has never been more urgent. The party faces another election defeat, declining membership, and a movement that talks openly about social justice, but there are irksome shadows: Rudd’s U-turn on refugees, the marketisation of higher education, and the promise of continued coal production, the latter designed to placate nervous electorates in North Queensland and the Hunter Valley.

Visions offered up by the ALP often appear timid, more concerned with news and election cycles than with pursuing progressive agendas. There’s little that arouses passion or excitement.

Littered with references to jobs and growth, a familiar mantra borne of a desire to appear electable, Tanya Plibersek’s introduction to Upturn is a tepid cry for change.

Jim Chalmers’ assertion that “growth is central to fulfilling the potential of Australian society” will leave readers wondering whether the ALP has any easily explained vision. If Chalmers had spoken of the social and economic consequences of aggressive capitalism, if he had imagined income guarantees not just job creation, and if he had envisioned a country of  fellowship and kindness that flourished in local communities during the Covid-19 lockdowns, Upturn could have given hope and might indeed have lit a light on a hill.

Economic growth as the aspirin for the future looks likely to continue inequality, environmental destruction, poor pay, and demeaning conditions for workers. Alternatives might have included proposals for a basic income and radical regenerative policies, creative responses to the climate emergency or what might make for a more equitable, just and humane society? Why not discuss how and why corporate capitalism can be replaced, and why not embrace radical agendas that already exist, like the Green New Deal and the Leap Manifesto? These spell out carefully crafted alternative policies. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Former cabinet minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, Midnight Oil crooner Peter Garrett, gets close to exposing the dangers of extractivist capitalism. After decades of economic growth, he says, we have seen inequalities deepen, communities fall apart, and our environment trashed. Despite this, few if any in the parliamentary ALP question the holy grail of growth, not even Garrett.

Poll after poll across the Anglosphere show that people are yearning for radical change. They want action on climate change, a fair economy, decent housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and a sense of security. They want their political representatives to stand up for people rather than big money.

Although lacking a coherent agenda, Upturn does record interesting policy scaffolding. Ross Garnaut’s vision of Australia as a clean energy superpower and Wayne Swan’s call for stronger workers’ bargaining rights, progressive taxation – with policies to “break the grip of big money” – resonate. As do other ideas such as full employment, a social wage, stronger safety nets, and positive measures to tackle youth unemployment.

June Oscar’s brilliant chapter on how Indigenous communities in Western Australia responded to the threat of Covid-19 shows what people can achieve when they’re given some material support, as well as the independence, dignity, and respect to which they are entitled. They soon rebuild support networks, lives and businesses, and reconnect with culture and place.

Upturn also calls for a return to something resembling reason. Without a revival of trust in facts carefully evaluated, various contributors note, recovery from Covid-19 will be marred by conspiracy theories, demagogues’ demands and anti-intellectual trends.

In urging citizens to drop the idea that markets will decide the future, former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb pleads for education that enables citizens to understand the nature and significance of science, evidence and expertise rather than indulge in crackpot theorizing.

In response to her question, which media can be trusted to convey news, Lenore Taylor, editor of Guardian Australia, echoes Chubb’s views, maintaining that facts and truth must become the guardrails of civic debate and discussion.

Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, states her hope “that relationships of trust in science expand beyond health to inform other major global challenges such as climate change”.

A significant obstacle to a better post Covid-19 society, observed throughout Upturn, concerns a selfish enthusiasm for private interests rather than energetic investment for the public good. For instance, Gabrielle Chan, a journalist specializing in politics and rural affairs, identifies a precious, fragile environment being pushed to the limits to grow more food from an agricultural system organized largely in the interests of multinationals and pension funds.

In the perennial contest between private and public investment in education, Tanya Plibersek shows that the ideal of giving every child the chance to excel is obstructed by the idea that private money should be able to buy a better education.

There are also worrying indicators about fraying social bonds. Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane concludes that multiculturalism has been seriously wounded by racism which spawns divisiveness, endangers community safety and undermines efforts to achieve respect for every citizen.

Peppering pages with diverse ideas may alert readers to injustices, to policy patchwork and failures. Ultimately, Upturn slips around questions about life-enhancing ways of living and working, about public wealth not private accumulation, about protection for planet earth as a social, economic, and ethical priority. Instead, readers of Upturn are invited to wander through a maze of ideas with no coherent, well signposted ways to the future.

This book had rich promise but is a missed opportunity. A comprehensive, coherent vision of a just society post pandemic society still needs to be written.

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