Editorial Issue No 80 Renewing Australia’s politics
Renewing Australia's politics
The neoliberal pipedream of a Free Market Nirvana is in trouble, even on its own terms. The unfettered free market does not deliver social justice or ecological sustainability – but then it was never supposed to. The neoliberal project was fundamentally about reducing the space for politics - making 'dollar votes' in the market more important than the electoral votes of citizens.
Despite the failures of neoliberalism, its ideologues and practitioners insist on further reducing the size of government. The left and progressives must answer this with coherent arguments about increasing the scope of politics and reducing the anarchy of markets.
The theme of this issue of Australian Options is the possible alternatives available to Labor and the Greens. Taking up from Max Ogden’s article in the last edition, we publish several pieces on the Nordic version of social democracy and its possible relevance to Australia. We also publish an article by Greens deputy leader, Adam Bandt.
Australia’s political economy developed based on industrial arbitration and trade protection and what Francis Castles called ‘the wage earners' welfare state’. Its key features were high minimum wages, low unemployment, easy access to owner-occupied housing and a means-tested benefits system. People shared economic and social well-being by having a job with a decent wage. The task of the government was to create jobs, make sure workers got at least a living wage, and provide selective benefits to assist with adversity including unemployment, age and disability. It also invested in public works and 'infrastructure'.
The Europeans developed a welfare system of universal benefits funded by social insurance and taxes. In the Nordic countries, benefits were earnings related, taxing and spending were explicitly redistributive and there was a political aim of social equality. This was investment in people, - their health, education and culture -- just as much as in physical infrastructure.
Periodically, some on the Australian left are attracted to the Nordic experience. The level of taxing and spending is a frequent reference. Winton Higgins' discussions in the 1980s about 'political unionism' have been especially influential. This is where unions pursue objectives separate to and independent of the political party through negotiations with employers, government and other social forces. The more extensive and universal welfare arrangements, education and training and industrial democracy are other references refreshed recently by Andrew Scott.
Much can be learnt from the Nordic countries but a complete transplant of their system to Australia is unlikely. Australian politics and institutions have become timid and diminished so there is inadequate capacity to make the economy a servant of the people and the society.
Our first task is to get existing political parties and the unions to recognise the problem and perhaps discussion of the Nordic experience can help with that. However, the question of the structural place of unions in the party soon surfaces in the real-politik of the ALP. It is very difficult not to conclude that the influence of union secretaries and staff is increasing within the party at the same time that unions are becoming less powerful industrially and socially.
The lack of vibrancy and activism within party branches and the high level of control of factions and sub-factions over candidate selection accentuate this. Conflict between the Greens and the ALP is also debilitating to the progressive cause. It is unedifying since both parties seem willing at times to make strange alliances simply to defy or deny each other. The pursuit of individual agendas and egos puts collective improvement at risk.