Fashioning a new windmill – the ALP as if the future matters

It’s February, school is back and so is the blog. I thought I might saddle up and tilt at a windmill for a change.

Today’s piece is about the Australian Labor Party. No, I’m not going to write some bit of turgid prose about ‘party reform’ – you know about  bringing the Party back into the 21st century or some shit. It’s usually a cover for stamping 30 years of largely neoliberal policy-making with a neoliberal structure (read: trade unions are kind of embarassing). All hail to the next CEO (read Labor Leader) who is theoretically accountable to a broad mass of shareholders (read Party members) but in reality only to a few key investors who hold proxy votes (read branch stackers). Instead, what I’d like to do is fashion a castle in the air called an Australian Labor Party that might (a) inspire people, (b) record a decent primary vote, and therefore (c) win elections into the future.

First I’d like to put in a disclaimer. Parliamentary politics is fundamentally limited in what it can achieve. Parliamentary politics is the art of the possible, and direct action is the art of changing what’s possible. That being said, parliamentary politics will always play a role in creating change (whether progressive or regressive), and if it’s to play a role in any sort of positive change then we can’t ignore the ALP as the largest centre-left party. Yeah sure, it’s run by borderline idiots who lost their moral compass somehwere around O-week in first year Uni. That doesn’t stop it being a key hill we have to take in our ongoing war of position for a better future.

The current leadership tensions, and collapse of the factional system is farcical. The leadership tensions, and eventual collapse of the Hawke/Keating governments were a bitter-sweet tragedy for Labor. But one could at least argue that the neoliberal policy making direction of these governments involved smart people attempting to genuinely grapple with the structural economic crisis of the 70s/80s. The tragedy is that the longest stretch in government for Labor involved the wholesale burning off of its base – both in terms of the numbers/strength of the union movement and the number of actual genuine party members. That and much of the economic policy has turned out to be in hindsight wrong. The Rudd/Gillard governments, however, have been a farcical repeat of this. There’s not that much more electoral success that can come to Labor politicians from burning off the base – there’s precious little of it to burn off.

In the present situation, the instinct to go and rush out in the middle ground is sheer lunacy. When you run out into the middle ground or try to line up with the Opposition in their trenches you just end up getting shot. If you don’t think an issue is the most strategic one to attack on, then it’s very rarely the one to wholesale surrender on either. You maintain your defensive lines and shift the battle elsewhere. You can only be strategic or meaningfully compromise when you have both strong values and an underlying vision of a socially just society.

There has been a lot of talk about how Labor is struggling to keep together two opposing elements of its base – urban intellectuals and the suburban working class. The problem lies not within the supposedly shifting priorities of these two groups but in the absence of a core knitting these elements together into the Party. This missing core is a narrative/shared vision of the Australian economy that places the needs of the many above the profits of the few. A narrative based on the values of equality, solidarity and co-operation. When viewed against distant transnational corporations and those who run them, the suburban working class and urban intellectuals are mere millimetres apart. It’s not that credible alternative policies and ways of running the economy aren’t available to us – it’s that no mainstream politician in living memory has had the balls to go out and strongly campaign for them (and I definitely include the Greens in that as well).

Another key problem, one I’d argue that extends beyond the ALP and into the broad Left, is the lack of shared central objectives of parliamentary politics.  While one measure should be the degree to which the government creates an economy for the many over the few, the second measure should be based on a recognition of the limited nature of parliamentary politics. Only fools  think that all significant power rests in either Parliament or the Executive government in our system. And quite frankly no government ever lasts forever. The second measure should be based on the degree to which the government adds to the 99%’s capacity to organise and claim power into the future.  These two measures, I would submit, would allow us to take a principled gauge of a parliamentary party operating in the real world.

At least then when left politicians duck and weave they would have a direction in which to head. You could fight an election around the first steps of an economy that creates prosperity for all. Some key policies that would arise from this narrative are:

  • Using the post office network to establish a new federal retail bank
  • Mandate the sitting of worker representatives on the board of directors of Australian based companies of a certain size
  • Overhaul bankruptcy laws to give workers of companies that go into liquidation first option on taking over operations on a cooperative basis
  • Set up the Australis Program – use a proper mining tax to raise up the capital to buy back the national energy infrastructure and fund a complete renewable energy overhaul of the grid. The ongoing funds from the tax could then be used to set up a sustainable development bank that could fund ecologically sustainable and socially responsible enterprise.
  • Introduce a Job Security Act – this would give workers the right to take a permanent job with their employer after a fixed term of service, set up a licensing regime for labour hire companies, mandate enterprise agreements set rates for all workers whether directly engaged or not under its coverage, and give workers first option on taking over the running of facilities where a company decides to otherwise close a facility. For what it’s worth, in the private sector strictly based enterprise bargaining in a system that allows companies to outsource with impunity is a joke.
  • Crowd funding for political parties – any person or organisation can make political donations but it’s limited to $20/year, and every single citizen enrolled to vote gets a $20 credit per year that can only be spent on a donation to a political party/registered candidate or not spent. It’s political campaigning that’s taxpayer funded and taxpayer chosen. No corporate funding in politics – ’nuff said.

Fighting an election on at least some of these policies would be like daring the Liberal-CEO complex to come out and tell the suburban working class that they are not good enough to have any meaningful say in what goes on this country. It would involve reforms that fit within the realm of experience of those who don’t actively engage in politics. These people understand the world of their workplace, they understand being reamed by their banks, and they see their power bills rising. People are smart enough to understand when they have more power.

My only doubt is whether all this is possible let alone realistic (the change to the Party that is)? Probably not. An electoral fire will likely rip through it before enough key power brokers understand that a wholesale rethink is not only the right thing to do but in their self-interest.

*I don’t claim to have come up with any of these policies.
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