What can the ALP possibly do? Part 2

I do not think it is impossible for the ALP or whoever to mount sound policies that show that there is an alternative way to the path we are on, but the movement as a whole needs to articulate them and repeat them, relentlessly.

I reluctantly believe that the ALP will drift while ever some basic internal reform and restructuring is avoided and that a more sensible working arrangement is not gained with the union movement, much of which is pinned to an industrial structure of an Australia that no longer exists.

Much of the traditional working class also no longer exists and people employed in service industries lack both political representation, generally, and union representation in the workplace.

There is a cultural divide that Labor has not sufficiently accommodated, best typified by the values and culture our predominantly city-based population compared with those whose ideas are of the yester years. Regional Australia is becoming a lost world to Labor, but need not be. Yet, Labor is still supported by many if not most of our poor, as well as many in professional or white collar and other occupations due to intellectual reasons, not just some middle-class values.

The ‘middle’, working or not, tend to swing electorally in terms of perceptions and emotions (or some alienation) and are prone to propaganda and the status quo, because we are a conservative society, but this may be changing. Perhaps the crisis we are going through has left us not so disinterested in politics and economic choices? However, the dominance of the shrinking unions in state ALP branches and factional composition has seen shrinking active membership of the ALP and a political class no longer in contact with the life skills and experiences of much of our population.

The gene pool is narrowing and yet we continue to be represented by good people of collectivist, not individualist, values, policy awareness and empathy, not appealing to the lowest common denominator. No matter which way I toss ideas in the air I cannot but think that Labor lacks the intellectual and apposite policies to cut through to what is or was a largely uninterested electorate.

Our adversarial Parliaments are an outrage where there is neither wit nor wisdom, that act as rubber stamps, because all that matters is winning, as if campaigning has to be constant and that the short term need only prevail. Are they drifting along in the old vessels that they know are rotting, but they feel comfortable in them? In fairness, I think we’re at a point where the faults in the existing institutions of economic order are much easier to see than in any possible alternative.

There is no 1945 social-democratic welfare state beckoning. And there are at least four events with uncertain outcomes to be played out:

  • the nature of China’s role on the world stage as it displaces the US economically;
  • the US election – either way has many uncertainties (although the scale of a re-elected Trump would be way beyond the scale of anything that may occur with Biden;
  • the precarious state of world economies that are in uncharted territory – low or negative interest rates, low real investment, a capitalism that operates on rules further and further from Smith’s “invisible hand”, monopolisation of sectors with low or zero marginal costs;
  • the pandemic – when will there be a vaccine? What will the world look like after a year or more of shut-down? Only a fool would believe economies can pick something that was there in late 2019.

The pandemic has been a stressful experience for many, if not all, and has certainly exposed all of us to the realities of what is happening in the world and the flawed examples of management and otherwise coming from the UK, the US, Europe and our Asian neighbours.

What are the positives for change based on this experience, if and when we can manage Covid? Will those unemployed, newly unemployed and underemployed realise that there were/are flaws in the neoliberal propaganda of the conservatives and reactionaries and those with real power? Will people realise that the vulnerabilities of our less able cannot be represented by profit-seeking organisations and the poverty-inducing level of Newstart?

Before JobSeeker, Newstart was justified by the conservative propaganda that this was necessary to make people seek work. At the time there were only vacancies for one in 13 and penalties applied if people took on temporary jobs. Will those of us who have been battered or exposed to this crisis be happy to accept that home ownership is disappearing due to flawed policies and that flat income taxes favour those who have? Will the younger generation of graduates and trainees realise to what extent they face intimidating unfairness regarding employment, the possibility of paying off HECS debt and gaining affordable housing? Will people become more aware of the culture wars being fought by the Right world-wide to divert attention from what is going on? Is our younger generation far more aware of the implications of global heating as an existential threat?

It is the young who gain so much information from Facebook and Twitter, but they need to engage more with economics. Can we place any hope in the fact that there is a growing number of economic research organisations and publications that are pressing alternative, objectively based analyses and policies not based on the obscene US model of inequality in wealth and income in a corrupt electoral structure?

Organisations such as the Australia Institute, Grattan, Per Capita, the Fabians, Whitlam Institute, Chifley Centre, the universities, Schwartz Media, the Conversation, the New Daily, the Guardian, et al, come to mind. Labor also has thinkers within its ranks and parliamentary representatives who are good thinkers and writers but fail to be mobilised in any coherent way. The ideas and policies have to be made simple to be comprehended and argued respectfully.

There are also writers, broadcasters and analysts in the conventional media who are not all of one voice. There is more than enough thoroughly analysed and informed analysis to synthesise into policy prescriptions and a narrative. Or  will all this be cancelled out by the propaganda that it was only Covid that caused all or any of our distress and that the fearful will believe whatever conspiracy theory is put forward by social media or those involved in the perpetuation of the status quo and now heavily invested interests? Social media needs to be mobilised more by Labor. Given what those wishing to not adhere to the full suite of neoliberal policies, can we anticipate the rise of a third political party in Australia, not one based on interests only?

If so, what will be the trigger and how is it possible if one considers the dominance of the two major political parties for so long? The only third party of recent times seen to rise and survive has been the much denigrated Greens, which has captured much of what were concerned ALP people on the environment, but too inclined to purity to match the big business roots and propaganda of the Liberal Party. To my mind, the ALP needs to become broader, more intellectually than tribally based and must project being relevant to the times and strongly based on equality of opportunity and not shrink from constantly stating what are its general principles and its raison d’etre.

I think the ALP could recast itself as a modern conservative party; capital is coming on side in the climate ‘wars’. The radicals are those who privatised our utilities, who tried to corporatise health and aged care, who treated workers as market-place commodities, who stripped away the social wage, who tried the the crazy experiment of trickle-down economics.

I do not think it is impossible for the ALP or whoever to mount sound policies that show  there is an alternative way to the path we are on, but the movement as a whole needs to articulate them and repeat them, relentlessly.

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John Kerin AO has been engaged in four working lives and was a politician and Minister in five portfolios in the Hawke and Keating Governments, including over eight years in Primary Industry.

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