John Langmore on Labor Values
Re-imagining Labor’s Vision for a Flourishing Australia
The ALP was established ‘to create a better, fairer life for working people’. From this foundation Labor’s values, policy and practice have evolved and expanded in response to national and international political, social, economic and cultural forces. The Party has been a predominantly pragmatic organisation led by practical people committed to a more equitable, humane society and international peace and justice. This has not prevented intense ideological conflicts over particular issues or constrained the party from splitting three times.
The Hawke and Keating governments sometimes accepted what was then the fashionable advice of market fundamentalists within the business community and the Commonwealth public service, in ways contrary to the Party platform. During the Rudd/Gillard years, personal ambitions tore Caucus apart, so that despite some valuable policy initiatives, most notably the effective handling of the great western recession, the Party was discredited in the minds of much of the electorate.
Labor has two main policy traditions, trade unionism and social democracy. The first means policies that contribute to improved conditions and living standards for workers and their families. Social democracy aims to generate greater security, equity and freedom for all Australians through inclusive policies that improve education, health and other services, social protection, environmental conservation and cultural vitality for all. Social democracy is, in essence, the idea that fully realised individual wellbeing depends on assuring the wellbeing of all.
Labor must reaffirm both its trade union and its social democratic roots. Its predominant orientation in each of its four most recent periods in government – under Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, and Rudd and Gillard – has been policies for the whole nation. This is working for the common good.
Such a vision requires a strategy that promotes human wholeness, equity and ecological sustainability through policies which: support vibrant, safe and inclusive communities; overcome poverty and injustice; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and prioritise peacemaking and seek to end militarism. The common good involves seeking to live at peace with each other, the planet and ourselves.
Reimagining human progress requires a vision of human wholeness and wellbeing – mutual respect, justice, peace, hospitality, inclusion, connectedness and compassion. A world where all people can access everything necessary for their flourishing; and where people contribute to the continued flourishing of each other and of the planet.
The majority of Australians do not want our country to be globally famous as one of the two or three nations that neglect climate change. Or which treats asylum seekers most brutally; or where indigenous peoples have a life expectancy more than a decade shorter than the rest of the population. Or which is constantly being ‘reformed’ in ways which strengthen the privileges of the rich and undermine the security of the rest.
Labor pursues the common good through an equitable, inclusive and secure society within a strong and sustainable economy. This is characterised by mutual care, social justice, creativity, trust and environmental responsibility, and with a democratic and accountable government that values national independence and contributes to global security, peace and justice. It is an ambitious vision for the future. It needs universal, affordable essential services; just working conditions; a genuinely progressive tax system; renewable energy; and an enhanced system of national and urban parks. In turn, financial and IT enterprises must pay their fair share; while military spending must be limited to a level adequate for national security and no more.
Labor could seek to address the failings of the current national economic system and to make a contribution to global security, justice and peace. Democratic empowerment through the evolution of civil society could make a substantial contribution. A dozen major steps could include the following.
- Aiming for work for all who want it is centrally important. As well as the measured unemployed about 15 per cent of the labour force are underutilised and want additional work.
- Further improvements in quality and accessibility of health and education services A contribution towards that would be to recognise that most new employment is in the service sector. There have been major improvements under Labor during each of the last three periods in government but there are crying needs for further improvements still in treatment of, for example, mental ill-health through support for the depressed, and for the psychologically disturbed and traumatised.
- Improvements in education require recognition of the value of knowledge and the importance of education for its own sake as fundamental to enabling people to express their capacities. The Finnish system, as described recently by Andrew Scott, has many lessons for Australia.
- Effective action on climate change by a major reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and rapid spread of renewable energy production is crucial. Our ecological responsibility extends the protection of other species protection. We need access to the natural world and space to gather the scattered forces of our souls.
- Strengthening research capacity by greatly improving funding would have major benefits for increasing knowledge and technical capacity as well as for improving national productivity.
- Recognition of the intrinsic value of cultural heritage and creativity is vital to the opportunity to live a rounded, fulfilled life. Australia severely underfunds the arts compared with European social democratic countries. Treating the location of Aboriginal communities as a ‘life-style choice’ is ignorant vandalism.
- A comprehensive, integrated social protection system is essential to give the old and the sick, the poor and the unemployed the security of a firm, predictable, secure foundational income. This must be supplemented by support for carers and for caring institutions.
- Labor cannot regain its moral authority unless it undertakes to end prolonged imprisonment of asylum seekers without charge or trial. Deliberate, traumatising brutality cannot be the enduring foundation of any policy aiming for the common good. Major expansion of the intake of refugees and upgrading of selection processes in countries of departure would be feasible parts of a renewed policy.
A mature budgetary policy has to underlay the above programs. That must include putting deficits in a realistic perspective. Though having small deficits has the advantage of keeping annual interest payments low, it is neither the central feature of responsible fiscal policy nor is it a high priority for a country with low public debt. Labor must play its part in public education about balanced fiscal policy.
The Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen’s announcement in March 2015 about strengthening the Tax Office and abolishing loopholes used by multinational companies is centrally important. It is vital to ensure all revenue is honestly paid and international tax evasion abolished.
A Labor Government should also cooperate with many other G20 governments in getting international revenue collection transparency. We should also join with the 10 EU governments to introduce a currency transaction tax to ensure that the finance industry makes a more substantial contribution to revenue; and with many other UN member states in advocating the establishment of an international taxation agency to improve cooperation in reducing global tax evasion.
Fiscal discipline must be applied to military spending and security. That requires more thoughtful articulation of Australian foreign and defence policy, and then rigorous evaluation of cost-effective means of provision. Abbott’s capricious claim to be ready to spend $50 billion on new submarines, without any strategic or technical justification, was both laughable and irresponsible.
Articulation of a vision, strategy and policies along these lines would involve significant political courage. However, there are several reasons for realistic hope. One is that most of these policies are what the majority of the electorate has been longing to hear and want to have implemented. Australian opinion polling about issues show this clearly. Second, one of the main lessons from successful campaigns to win government, such as those led by Whitlam and Hawke was that many of the electorate want to be presented with a credible strategy which could really make a difference.
Third, Australia is one of the most privileged nations and has the economic, social and technical capacity to implement such a strategy. And fourth, with firm leadership, public opinion evolves. Effective leadership includes sustained explanations of proposed policy changes.
Effective leadership also includes moving gradually. Choices have to be made about priorities and once agreed, those have to be the disciplined focus of advocacy. It is often said that politicians have to build trust, but it is far less often acknowledged that this requires politicians to trust the good sense of the electorate.
Hope is an essential characteristic of effective politics. Hope that it is possible to have a society in which there is scope for everyone to flourish, in which commitment to justice and peace permeate policy and in which social and environmental harmony predominate. We must to maintain hope for the transformation of Australian society.
John Langmore is a Professorial Fellow and Assistant Director Research at the Melbourne School of Government. He was a federal Labor MP for 12 years, and a divisional Director at the UN in New York for seven.
 This is an edited version of an address at the inaugural John Cain Foundation Conference on 21st March 2015. The full text is at http://johncainfoundation.com.au/glasman-conference-papers-now-available