Breaking the consensus: where to for the left

Since Bob Hawke and Paul Keating implemented the Australian version of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s, there has been a broad consensus between the Labor and Liberal parties on the basic fundamentals of the Australian economy. This consensus has been a major root of two crises in Australia – one political, one economic.

First, as Dave Eden notes, the Australian economy is experiencing a slow form of crisis, as wage stagnation combined with our collective refusal to accept a lower standard of living has driven skyrocketing personal debt that threatens corporate profit. Second, the economic consensus has generated a crisis within politics as millions of people turn away from the major parties, which are perceived to no longer offer genuine choice or representation.

Despite all this, there has been no surge in the Greens vote – the only other major left party in Australian politics – even after the #libspill debacle.

A major reason for this is because the Greens and the broader left have, as yet, failed to articulate a clear break with the economic consensus. This break can’t be a return to twentieth-century social democracy, but instead must take stock of contemporary economic and social conditions and forge a new path.

But first we must understand the current state of affairs.

It is a quirk of Australian political history that it was largely the Labor Party, with the backing of the major trade unions, which implemented neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s in a process that began with the Accord. These reforms underpinned a political consensus based on neoclassical economics. Some elements include:

  1. The expansion of the private market in the delivery of services and infrastructure and the privatisation of existing public services and infrastructure. This includes the expansion of social service provision to NGOs with funding contingent on KPIs.
  2. The belief that increased labour productivity leads to increases in wages (in reality there has been a major divergence between productivity and wage growth since 2008).
  3. Keeping taxes relatively low on the basis of ‘international competitiveness’ and encouraging ‘private investment’.
  4. The maintenance of the post-Accord industrial relations framework, which includes the Fair Work Commission as the ‘independent umpire’, heavy regulation of strike action, and forcing collective bargaining to the level of the individual business.
  5. Continued fragmentation of social services and welfare provision via aggressive means testing and heavily bureaucratised enforcement of benefits (for example, Labor pushing thousands of people off the single parents pension in 2013, basics card or the robo-debt scandal).
  6. Marketisation of remaining public services via implementation of KPIs (for example, NAPLAN) and the conceptualisation of recipients of social services as ‘consumers’ (for example, the NDIS). This is partly the legacy of the ‘national competition policy’, a national agreement between the federal government and states which essentially forces all publicly owned bodies to run profits and function like private corporations.
  7. An independent central bank committed to restricting inflation as its first priority.
  8. The delivery of housing via the private market, where home ownership acts as a form of welfare.
  9. A progressive expansion of Australia’s exposure to an international free market, regulated by international trade deals and treaties.

This broad consensus has seen the scope of political debate become incredibly narrow. But within that narrow scope, the debate itself has become ever fiercer as politicians attempt to demonstrate a wider political difference than actually exists (as Peter Mair notes in his book Ruling the Void). So we see a functional contradiction – politics is seen as more nasty, but there is less substantial opposition between parties.

It’s possible to situate the economic consensus within a broader crisis of Australian politics, as described by bloggers such as The Piping Shrike, Liz Humphrys or Tad Tietze. There has been a hollowing out of both major parties. In Labor’s case, the historic collapse in union membership – from 40% in the 1980s to 14% today – means the collapse of their once powerful social base. In the Liberals’ case, as Labor’s historic project becomes exhausted, big business no longer sees a reason for the existence of the Liberal Party.

This twin political and economic crisis has created an ever-growing cleavage between civil society and politics as politicians become completely disconnected from people’s everyday lives. There remains vast support for public ownership, higher taxes and more spending on essential services – surprisingly enough, people just want the basics they need to live a good life. Yet neither Labor nor the Liberals will pursue this sort of agenda.

And is that desire for a better life really surprising? Australians work some of the longest hours in the OECD, while our wages stagnate and corporate Australia enjoys record profits. The cost of living is soaring with the price of electricity, health and childcare, in particular, far outstripping wage growth. Mortgage and rental stress continue to increase. At the same time we’ve seen an explosion in personal debt to compensate for stagnating wages with debt as a proportion of income having gone from relatively static to increasing to 30% to 190% in the past five years. The gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow, while our remaining universal social services are chipped away at the edges. In broader terms, millions of people are leading tougher and more stressful lives, despite the fact that our country remains incredibly wealthy. This same economic system continues to accelerate global warming and prevent any meaningful effort to stop it – because it is corporate Australia, not individuals using plastic straws, that is responsible for the vast majority of our environmental destruction.

So where to for the left and the Greens, as the only viable leftwing alternative in parliamentary politics today? The first thing to recognise is that politics is not about equally competing interest groups that need to be balanced by a ‘neutral’ political body implementing neutral, ‘evidence-based’ policy. It’s about power, pure and simple. And right now the power of a small wealthy few in Australia is enormous, and it is being used to make all of our lives worse. As corporate Australia abandons the Liberals while continuing to pour money into Labor coffers, precipitating a crisis in Liberal Party funding, it’s increasingly clear how little is at stake for big business – either party is fine with them.

For the Greens, electoral success will have to mean forging a clear break with 30 years of Labor and Liberal economic consensus and articulating a transformative vision. A vision that speaks directly to the material conditions of the vast majority of people in Australia.

In direct terms this means adopting a radical, transformative platform now. Some elements should include:

  1. Bring all essential services into complete public ownership including electricity, internet, education, social services and transport. Guarantee everyone free childcare, university and TAFE, truly free healthcare that guarantees everyone a bulk-billing doctor, free dental and mental health, and free public transport. In this way we remove the price tag off the basic things people need to live a good life – in other words, decommodification.
  2. This also allows us to embrace new forms of democratic, public ownership and de-corporatise and democratise new and old public institutions including our universities, public services, schools, social services like aged-care and disability services, libraries and museums, so they prioritise the intrinsic good of their role in society – not meaningless KPIs. In practice, this will mean giving workers and the public real, direct control over how these institutions are run.
  3. A publicly led transition to a zero carbon economy that guarantees hundreds of thousands of good, public jobs and ensures that the enormous wealth of the corporate sector is redistributed to everyday people in the process.
  4. A social housing construction boom with the aim of establishing universal social housing where anyone can apply and where rent is set at 20% of income. In this way we can ensure the homes are beautifully designed for comfort, liveability and sustainability, and just as importantly begin the process of decommodifying housing.
  5. Begin the transition to a four-day work week that ensures no loss of pay and allows for work to be more evenly distributed, while also introducing a universal basic income to begin decoupling income from wage labour.
  6. Public ownership and control over finance by not only establishing a public consumer bank but a public investment bank that experiments with new forms of democratic control. Use this public investment bank to invest in the infrastructure both cities and rural communities desperately need – this includes useable public spaces, including parks, swimming pools, theatres, libraries, museums, sports fields, skateparks. And invest in cutting-edge technology and science that remains in public hands.
  7. Give workers back the right to strike, reintroduce industry-wide bargaining and set the minimum wage to 60% of the median wage.
  8. Increase taxes on wealth and raise the company tax rate back to at least 36% (reversing Howard’s cuts), while abolishing Australia’s relatively unique dividend imputation system that allows company shareholders to reduce their tax.

This incomplete program should be underpinned by new basic principles and common senses – in other words, establish new, logical ways of looking at the world. Alyssa Battistoni, in her article ‘Alive in the Sunshine’, quotes Virginia Woolf who ‘reflects on the “instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition” which keeps “the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.” With that five hundred pounds, she wrote, came the freedom to think and write as she pleased.’

And while dreary old England doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of beautiful, relaxing sunshine, Australia certainly does. It is both possible and reasonable to achieve conditions that allow all of us to flourish. It is a truism often forgotten in politics – but we all only live once.

The purpose of government should be to give people the basics they need to live a decent life. This means distributing wealth and power in society in a way that ensures everyone is given that chance. Australia really does have the wealth and resources to give everyone on this continent a better life – including the refugees currently rotting in offshore prison islands.

If the left wants to win we need to capture the joy and hope of a new economy and society and deliver a message that speaks to people both emotionally and rationally. It requires tackling head-on the basic common senses of our current economy and society, and being prepared to cop enormous shit from the mainstream media for doing so.

We won’t change society just through parliament. But as Jeremy Corbyn has demonstrated in the UK, an unashamedly modern socialist program can and will inspire millions of people, providing the spark of hope needed to create a new type of politics – and with some luck, a new and better society. We can’t rely on tinkering around the edges, or proposing piecemeal reforms designed to offend as little as possible. A strategy and politics that operates within the framework set up by the Labor and Liberal economic consensus will fail. Because the everyday person knows, often far better than any politician or journalist, that this won’t really change their lives for the better. It sounds too much like more of the same.

We should not be anti-growth – just anti the sort of growth that enriches individuals (for example, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart). The sort of growth that forces us to work longer hours, or humiliates us in increasingly draconian welfare systems, while also destroying our environment. Instead, we should embrace the fantastic growth in human, scientific, cultural and technological potential that comes with unleashing the creativity of the 25 million people who live on this continent. It’s that sort of growth that will vastly improve people’s lives and give us the best chance of stopping deadly ecological collapse.

It is not really a utopian vision – because it is entirely possible, and it is up to us to win it.


Image: Adani’s Abbot Point coal spill, 11 April 2017 / Dean Sewell (Oculi)

Max Chandler-Mather

Max Chandler-Mather is the Greens candidate for Griffith. He was previously an organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union, state strategist for the most recent Queensland Greens state election and the manager of Jonathan Sri's The Gabba Ward campaign.

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  1. Nice article. However, I have question for the author: In your opinion, where should Green Politics be (neighbourhood, Metro, Regional, state or national)?

  2. Good article but I wish there was much more detail and honest expert analysis of the pros & cons of these proposals. They are very bold and people will be skeptical, even generally supportive people like myself. Trust of politicians is quite low and there is too much sloganeering.

    1. Oh, and BTW …

      Do NOT … do NOT … DO NOT … believe all the hype about property prices self correcting. The real estate industry (and their various ThinkTank lackeys and cronies) will put out anything to prevent an incoming Labor government ending the Negative Gearing gravy train and Ponzi Scheme engine

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