Fighting for Australian social democracy

A social democratic or postmodern agenda?
Doug Cameron

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on priorities for the Left in the lead up to National Conference of the Australian Labor Party. We would have to acknowledge that it is a difficult and troubling time for the Labor Party and its supporters. When the South Sydney Rabittohs lost 30 points to 31 against the New Zealand Warriors, a commentator remarked that the Rabittohs seem to be inventing new ways of losing. We could well say the same about the Federal ALP losses at the last two elections, and the way the party has been travelling since.

There are obviously many individual policy issues of significant importance that will be debated at the National Conference, and which the Left could focus on as priorities. Getting the policy platform right has been the mantra for many in the party as the answer to the two election losses. However, I believe there is an underlying issue that needs to be resolved; that is whether the Australian Labor Party will continue to have democratic socialism as its foundation, or whether we will see a complete convergence of Labor policy with the dominant neoclassical economic policies of the conservative parties in this country.

This is the key priority for the Left in the lead up to the National Conference. Individual policy positions cannot be resolved adequately until this fundamental debate is had within the party, and I believe this is where the Left must put its energies. Bob Carr in an interview with Paul Kelly, in the Weekend Australian (June 28, 2003) is reported to be sceptical about the future of democratic socialism. He is quoted as saying "We (have) sort of moved beyond a period when social democracy was very useful to us. How much further do you push it before you say that social democracy has arrived?"

Bob Carr criticises those in the party with a vision for active government, and argues that the decline of the traditional blue collar working class calls for a new postmodern political platform and identity for Labor. Funnily enough, this is from a State Labor Premier, who has been elected on the same platform as all other present day state Labor Premiers - not as you might imagine from his interview with Paul Kelly on a "post modern platform" but on a very traditional platform of the provision of core government services - education, health and policing. And I will make a bet with anyone in the room that his next electoral platform will be the same - the provision of core government services.

Bob Carr, contrary to much recent analysis, claims he doesn't think you can persuade average Australians to surrender a bigger proportion of their tax dollar to the government sector. He claims it is a brave politician who says that you can take more from people on average weekly earnings to fund federal government programs run out of Canberra. This says more about the lack of courage and weakness of politicians than the need to address a progressive, fair and equitable tax system capable of providing decent services to the Australian public.

Where is the courageous Australian Left Labour politician who is exposing the rorts and public waste in privatisation and public-private partnerships. Where is the courage to expose the scandalous low taxation paid by the rich in this country. Where is the courage to expose the low level of public investment in our health, education and training systems when compared to other advanced economies? Where is the courage to set out a clear program to shift the funding away from the elite in education and health and to expand and properly fund a world-class public system?

The Australian public would accept moderate tax increases if the money was specifically targeted on areas of health and education. We simply need courageous politicians prepared to develop the policies and communicate effectively with the public. So, let us put to the test Bob Carr's assertion that social democracy has arrived, and that it is time to move on.

I know that post modernism asserts that there is no absolute truth or reality - but I do just want to remind Bob Carr about some realities he seems to have forgotten.

  • Australia ranks second to Korea in the levels of precarious employment.
  • During the 90's almost all new jobs created were low paid, part-time and casual.
  • 87 percent of all new jobs in the 1990s paid less than $26,000. Nearly 50% earned less than $15,600 a year.
  • Middle income jobs have declined and approximately one million people are paid less than $15 per hour.

I'm not sure what a postmodern theory of politics does for the thousands of working households that cannot get home loans, can't plan family life, and for the many who can't afford holidays, basic household items, and sometimes heating, clothing and food. In education, Australia has the largest proportion of students in private education, and has the largest public subsidy of private education in the OECD. Working class families are now facing a future where public schools are being run down, and the future of tertiary education is being put way out of their grasp.

Try telling a manufacturing worker who has dreams of his child being a doctor when degrees could cost up to $150,000 that social democracy has arrived. In Health, the federal government is subsidising private health funds to the tune of $2.5 billion dollars, while our public hospitals and bulk billing are being destroyed. Try sitting in a western suburbs public hospital emergency waiting room on a weekend and tell the punters that social democracy is alive and well. Workers are battling for pay rises through an enterprise bargaining system massively weighted in favour of employers.

Even more fundamental is the fact that in reality Australian workers do not have the basic right to collectively bargain - try telling the workers at Morris McMahon who have been on a picket line for 15 weeks trying to get a collective agreement that social democracy is an old fashioned way of thinking. Reality as experienced by Bob Carr is obviously very different to what many Australians live everyday. On the basis of Bob's experience of reality, the ALP is supposed to confine the notion of social democracy to the dustbin of history.

So what is social democracy? In a joint pronouncement on June 8, 1999, when the "Third Way" was seen as the panacea for social democratic governments, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder described social democracy as "Fairness and social justice, liberty and equality of opportunity, solidarity and responsibility to others - these values are timeless. Social democracy will never sacrifice them". Blair and Schroeder also said: "Modernisation is about adapting to conditions that have objectively changed, and not reacting to polls. It seems to me that many in the Labor Party Left and Right need to take the advice of Tony Blair and not react to polls.

Is it time to relegate the "timeless values" of social democracy to the rubbish bin of history? A prominent right-wing conservative, Professor Christian Watrin, from the University of Cologne, in a paper criticising the third way politics of many European Governments, described socialist thinking and priorities as:

  • The provision of public goods;
  • Regulation of markets in the public interest;
  • The fostering of social peace;
  • The active development of human capital through a central role by the state in the education system;
  • The provision of infrastructure;
  • The role of the state as a prime employer in some cases, especially in ecological matters.

It is pretty sad state when we have to rely on the conservative enemies of social democracy to remind us of the value of its platform. If the Labor Party is to be a real alternative to Howard's conservatism, they must provide the Australian public with a choice at the next election. It is a choice that must be based on the re-assertion of Labor's values. And until we understand those values and fight for them within the party, no amount of individual policy development will turn the party's fortunes around. This must be the core priority for the Left in the lead up to the National Conference.

Labor must ignore Bob Carr's theory of convergence with conservative values. I believe that Labor must develop a nation building agenda based on the real values of social democracy. The party cannot do this if it continues its slavish commitment to neo-classical economics. It's about time so-called Labor governments intervened in the economy and recognised that the market is man-made and not some divine force incapable of control or management. The politics of balanced budgets, the lean competitive economy and low taxation must be set against the need for a society as well as an economy.

There is one area where Bob and I agree, and that is that the old Left - Right divides have faded. They have not faded because the issues have changed; they have faded because many on the Left have capitulated to the neo-liberal agenda, and have operated without reference to the core values that underpin the vision of social democracy. In particular I believe that many in the Left in parliamentary Labor have:

  • Surrendered to conservative economic and in some cases social orthodoxy.
  • Abandoned the intellectual debate and leadership to individuals predominantly of the right.
  • Become isolated, carping critics.
  • Scrambled, squabbled, and fought over the crumbs of leadership positions.
  • Rationalised this on the flawed assumption that getting good people in will be helpful even if they have no authority or capacity to pursue useful policies.

The caustic divisions between key personalities on the Left is debilitating, counter-productive and destined to maintain potentially progressive forces in the party in a weak, ineffectual, and isolated position. Unless we address this issue, speeches, discussions, analysis and policy development on the Left will be a waste of time. The Left of the trade union movement need a strong, vibrant and cohesive parliamentary Left. I have initiated discussions within the trade union Left to discuss what role we can play in developing a more effective parliamentary Left. Following these discussions I would propose a wider discussion across the Left of the Labor movement to plan a way forward to bring back some credibility to the Left.

Until the Left acts as a united, cohesive force capable of influencing party policy and direction then economic orthodoxy will drive negative social outcomes. In summary the Left must:

  • Ensure that values not short term polling drives its political agenda.
  • Develops enough courage to provide a real alternative to neo -classical economic orthodoxy.
  • Fight back against the worst aspects of corporate globalisation, economic rationalism, privatisation and competition policy with courage and commitment.
  • Works hard to develop cohesion within the Left and make values more important in the party than individual careers and political promotion.
  • Ensure that the issue of proper funding for key social programs is once again a matter of debate and struggle with in the Labor Party.

We have a real job to do in the lead up to the national conference and the next federal election. The alternative is to give in to the Bob Carr conversion option, which I believe will lead us well on the way to again inventing a whole new way of losing. The fact that it would be a "postmodern" loss won't help. It will just be another loss, and leave the Australian community to the crippling effects of more divisive economic and social policy from the Liberal Party. We have a responsibility to do better!


Doug Cameron is the National Secretary of the Amalgamated Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and a former member of the Evatt Foundation's executive committee. This address was presented on 1 July 2003 at NSW Parliament House, Sydney.


See also:

Suggested citation
Cameron, Doug, 'Fighting for Australian social democracy', Evatt Journal, Vol. 3, No. 5, August 2003.<http://evatt.org.au/news/fighting-australian-social-democracy.html>