A Deeper Disillusionment

29 September 2016

Originally published by the Labor Herald.

Let’s not stuff around: politics has gone mad. ‘The Donald’ toyed with inviting Gennifer Flowers to the presidential debate.  Jeremy Corbyn increased his internal majority in British Labour, despite probably having next to no chance of winning an election.

Let’s not stuff around: politics has gone mad. 

‘The Donald’ toyed with inviting Gennifer Flowers to the presidential debate.  Jeremy Corbyn increased his internal majority in British Labour, despite probably having next to no chance of winning an election.

Our own Prime Minister can’t go to the bathroom (let alone finalise a tax or super policy) without checking with George Christensen first.

These are just three examples which go, not just to the superficial weirdness of the political scene, but to its polarisation.  There’s Trump, Hanson and the Brexiters on the extreme right; Corbyn, Bernie Sanders on the hard left; and then Turnbull, who’s not even allowed to visit the ‘sensible centre’ of politics, let alone govern from there – the most socially moderate Liberal leader in half a century operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the far right of his Party.

This polarisation is self-evident and others have written and spoken about it.

Many are tempted to try to explain it socially and culturally, by pointing to a rejection of Muslims and multiculturalism.  That’s part of it.

The poll last week, which had 49 percent of Australians supporting a ban on Muslim migration, certainly gave that argument succour.  And yes, Hanson and others are more likely to stoke controversy and coverage by adding fuel to that particular fire.

But I think what’s going on here is overwhelmingly economic rather than social or cultural, or at least has economic foundations.

It goes to a deeper disillusionment in our country; not just about the state of the economy, but despair over ordinary people’s place in that economy.  Who that economy belongs to and who it serves.

This begins, but does not end, with the observation that underneath the deceptively strong headline GDP growth figures, the economy’s not delivering for most people.

There’s an avalanche of evidence of declining living standards and rising inequality and immobility, but the starkest and simplest for my purposes is that wages growth here in Australia is the lowest on record.

Why do I single that stat out from all the others?  Three reasons.

First, because the deeper disillusionment I’m describing is fundamentally about the severed link between effort and reward.  It’s about a loss of faith in large swathes of Australia that hard work gets you ahead.  This is about wages, and job security, and disappearing industries, and the hollowing-out of the middle class.

Second, because for the best part of three decades, a big difference between Australia and the US has been wages.  We have celebrated, and should celebrate, that difference.  Feeble wage growth is a threat to the Australian model and any risk of it enduring is a risk we go down the American road.

Third, wages aren’t some high-level political abstraction; they’re the difference between making ends meet or falling behind.  If we want working Australians to feel the system is working for them, there has to be a dividend for their effort that they can see, touch and rely on to support their families.

For proof that we in the Labor Party understand what’s going on, check out the recent speeches and writing of Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen and Wayne Swan.  All in different ways detail and describe this deeper disillusionment which is re-carving our politics; which is working to convince people that there’s no place for them in the modern market economy; and which is encouraging good people – and yes, sometimes ‘our’ people, Labor voters – to look for alternatives like Hanson.

From our marginal seat campaigners to our think tanks like the Chifley Research Centre, we recognise this is happening.

The conservatives could not be further from us on this point. For proof that Turnbull doesn’t have a clue about this disillusionment, witness the dissonance between what he says and what he does. 

He barely has a slogan for jobs and growth, let alone a decent strategy for either.  He insists he’s worried about the rise of populism, but that’s not because he’s worried about its impact on our society or our economy; he’s worried about the political impact on his one-seat majority.

Turnbull doesn’t want to get this disillusionment – he wants to get around it. He doesn’t want to address its causes, he wants to avoid its consequences.  He can’t properly address it in inclusive ways because he’s locked in the Right Wing Nut Job basement with Cory Bernardi sending daily proof of life photos of him to a waiting world.

If he actually gave a stuff about the deeper disillusionment in our community, he wouldn’t want to take $50 billion out of our schools and hospitals to put on the bottom lines of the biggest multinational corporations. He wouldn’t be trying to give the big four banks $7 billion of that while he runs interference for them to stop a Royal Commission. 

He wouldn’t be going soft on companies manipulating their tax affairs to dud Australians out of the infrastructure and services we need.

If he cared about the role of ordinary working people in this economy, he wouldn’t be going after their penalty rates. If he cared about social mobility, he wouldn’t be cutting school funding, hacking away at the social safety net and demonising the vulnerable.  If he cared about fair working conditions, he wouldn’t be spending his time attacking, for ideological reasons, unions on behalf of the extreme right of his party.

Attacking a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; ripping up the social safety net; trying to destroy the unions – these are not the actions of someone who cares about inclusive growth or who wants to guarantee all Australians a meaningful place in their economy.

Just the opposite.

These are the divisive actions of someone who clings to an idea long-discredited: that stupendous wealth in a few hands in his electorate of Wentworth will miraculously trickle down to people like those I represent in Rankin.  This is the disgraceful delusion at the core of the Turnbull Government.

It’s an agenda as divisive as the Coalition is divided.  It’s as counterproductive for growth as the Prime Minister is compromised by the deals that got him his job.  It’s as dangerous as his cabinet is dysfunctional.  And it won’t work.

The temptation for us in the labour movement is to adopt a defensive position.  That’s important when it comes to Medicare; hard-won working conditions; and our schools.  A foundation, and a very good and important one, but insufficient as a strategy on its own.

There’s a lot to be proud of in the big agenda Bill and our team took to the election, and a lot more work to do this term to refresh and renew our policies.  We need them to be forward-looking; upward-climbing; and outward-facing.  Futuristic; aspirational; international.

There’s no refuge or reward in the politics and policies of the past.  We can’t pretend the clock can be turned back.  We shouldn’t fish in the same waters as Pauline Hanson.

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can’t sign up to change at any human cost, like the Liberals want.  Our job is to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that change benefits as many people as possible and not just the privileged few.

That’s a fairly familiar argument on our side of politics, I grant you. And it takes us in some familiar directions, which are no less important for being familiar: the best possible health and education; fairer taxes and working conditions; and a decent safety net.

But two things about that: familiar does not mean accepted, and there is now definitively only one side of Australian politics that accepts or believes in these things. And secondly, new technological challenges – especially at work – have unearthed a huge political divide. Labor wants to try to harness new technologies to support the labour market and boost inclusive growth, while the conservatives see in technological change the final push in the old battle of capital versus labour.

We believe in a genuine growth agenda, which begins with infrastructure investment at a time when money is historically cheap to borrow.  It extends to proper investment in teaching and training so more people can succeed in the modern market economy.  It includes harnessing big data – not just to improve budgets, but to help improve lives.

A Government that treats workers as peripheral to national prosperity won’t ever reconnect the two broken halves of effort and reward.  It cannot stitch back together that link which has been severed, between hard work and getting ahead.  It will not restore the faith of the vast bulk of Australian workers that the economy belongs to them and not to someone else.

You see, Turnbull and the extreme right that owns him think we have a choice between people or economic success.  We know that only when we think of people in the economy do we have a chance of building another quarter century of continuous growth on top of the one just finished.

Remember, that last quarter century of growth would not have been possible without the actions our movement took to protect and advance the interests of ordinary working people during the Global Financial Crisis.  The next one won’t be achievable with trickle-down economics.

The deeper disillusionment polarising our politics can no longer be ignored.  Economic growth will need to be inclusive, and people-powered.  We will need social mobility and reward for effort, supporting the combined aspirations of millions of Australians like those the labour movement represents.

This opinion piece was first published in the Labor Herald on Thursday, 29 September 2016. It was based on remarks made to the TWU Queensland Delegates Conference in Brisbane on Wednesday, 28 September 2016.