The social democratic agenda

Is it viable?
Mark Buttigieg

The ALP needs to accept and deal with a fundamental political conundrum if it is to develop a real strategy for winning back government and keeping it. Over the past ten years Australia has experienced increasing material prosperity and general economic well being. The fact that much of this success, if not all of it, is attributable to the Hawke-Keating economic reforms will scarcely change the fact that (no matter how many times we choose to recite it) the average person equates this economic success with the Howard government, no matter how deceitful it may be.

The political 'problem' for oppositions in gaining traction when the hip-pocket nerve is sedated is, of course, not an unusual one. However, given Australia's recent growth rates on top of our already high per capita income, coupled with falling unemployment rates, such a 'problem' is greatly magnified. In that context the last election loss for the ALP can be seen as further evidence in support of the long held dictum that when economic times are good it is governments which loose elections not oppositions that win them.

Further to the point, a look back at recent history shows that it is usually not all that easy for governments to loose. Witness the incumbent wins of the Menzies government after the 'credit squeeze' of 1961 and subsequent election win of 1963, and the Keating government's 17 per cent interest rates, followed by the 1991 'recession we had to have' and subsequent election win of 1993. The flip-side to this is that the only times Labor has gained government post-World War Two has been against the back-drop of severe conservative government incompetence, long periods in opposition, and economic decline (1972) and severe recession (1983).

This phenomenon is becoming even more intractable because, as recessions become less severe and fewer and further between, most Australians feel even less compelled to vote Labor based on economic security issues. In fact, what is happening, as has been pointed out recently by Lindsay Tanner, is that Labor is more likely to pick up swinging voters from seats where there are a high proportion of well educated and informed citizens who cast their vote based on social issues. The problem with this of course is that these people are in the minority, and a lot of them are in safe Liberal seats not marginal ones. Unfortunate as it is, the majority of Australians appear reluctant to change their vote solely on issues that do not effect them materially. For the average Australian, issues such as Iraq, mandatory detention, global warming, children overboard and AWB are things of interest for the political elite who read the Sydney Morning Herald and listen to and watch the ABC. So long as economic prosperity continues, these issues have little or no influence in vote changing where it counts - among the traditional lower socio-economic voters who read the Daily Telegraph, listen to Allan Jones and watch Today Tonight.

The Labor Party needs to comprehend and deal with the fundamentals driving this phenomenon of the 'Kath & Kims' gravitation to Howard outstripping the gravitation of the tertiary educated class to Labor. As countries like Australia become more and more developed and less exposed to economic insecurity, the disposable income of their citizenry increases which creates options. Put simply, extra money buys one of two things - extra 'material well being' via purchases of holidays, cars, eating out, movies, sporting events, housing renovations, etc, or it can buy extra time, which in turn allows other more socially enlightening pursuits. Unfortunately, the last 30 years has seen Australia choose the former. People have not used their newfound wealth and income to pursue self-improvement via education and culture. Instead, the majority of citizens have taken the American option. They have not elected to become part of a well informed citizenry who have the analytical tools to make informed decisions on who governs them, unlike, for example, many citizens in countries in Europe. Voting may be compulsory in Australia, but thinking about your vote has definitely become voluntary!

This problem is not a new one for the left, of course. It raises the perennial problem of where real power resides - via the media's ability through ownership concentration to subtly manipulate the political agenda. We don't find it surprising therefore that the Howard government has just given carte blanche to monopolisation of the media.

The point is that traditionally the left has attempted to counteract this by concentrating on ways to check that monopoly power whilst neglecting too much the source of the problem - the people. Media concentration and content only survive to supply a conservative agenda - insofar as the people purchasing the product continue to demand it.

Of course, populist consumption of conservatism is further encouraged when political parties supposedly on the left do little to resist a conservative agenda. What choice do people have if the alternative political product is not even for sale, much less being marketed properly? The dumbing down of the electorate marches on relentlessly.

If the majority of the population were able to see through the superficiality of the populist media, then the political impetus for the left would be twofold. In the first instance, it would afford people the analytical capability to de-bunk the manipulation and vote accordingly. Secondly, and over time, the increased demand for more analysis and truth would reform the media's product in and of itself - that is the nature of market capitalism - adjustment of supply to changing demand in order to survive. The trick is to change the demand side of our media market into a more sophisticated and diverse kind.

Whitlam recognised the implications for Labor 30 years ago, and the importance of tapping in to, and fostering, a well-educated populace. He was able to successfully act by increasing funding for the arts and education. The difference was that the magnitude of the demographic shift was at a point where Labor could still benefit from both economic insecurity and a growing well-educated class. The key to Whitlam's success was his ability to both retain the working-class vote by promising increased economic security, whilst at the same time attracting the intellectual vote, via the arts and education.

We let some of those Whitlam initiatives slip away slightly when we were in government under Hawke and Keating. But more to the point, Howard has remained in power for ten years by making a masterful play on the evolution of the demographic shift. Howard has in effect used the flip-side of the Whitlam strategy with great success. He has achieved this by tapping in to the social conservatism of the growing pool of affluent 'working class', whilst at the same time using his time in office, and the economic growth associated with it, to fill their pockets.

So, apart from waiting until the next protracted recession, and in the interim chanting mantra's about what 'good economic managers we can be', what is the ALP to do? The approach needs to be two-pronged in order to address the short-term and long-term nature of the political problem.

For the short-term the party needs to implement structural reform of itself, which will enable it to harness a mass movement around the industrial relations debate in order to allow us to be elected in 2007. For the long-term we need to direct our education policy towards creating a society of thinking voters. If done correctly, these two measures have the potential to turn things around for Labor in a permanent way. However, no one should delude themselves that unless we undertake some radical surgery both on the party structure and policy fronts then the opportunity will transform itself in to more periods of opposition.

In many ways the ALP is now ideally placed to turn the current crisis into an opportunity. The opportunity presents itself in the form economic insecurity. For the first time in ten years of uninterrupted economic growth under Howard, the ALP has been gifted with the one issue (besides a recession) which has the ability to turn the traditional base back to Labor - the industrial relations legislation. There is little doubt that this issue, if handled correctly, has the potential to torpedo the conservatives on our own territory. One need only read the letters pages of the Telegraph and the local weekly's to understand that, while the ALP and the rest of the political elite debate the war on Iraq and AWB, the latent fear of wage reductions and loss of job security looms large in the minds of swinging voters.

On industrial relations, up until now Labor has been relying on the union movement to take the ball up - something it has been doing very well - but that will not be enough. The party needs to make this issue its own by uniting the industrial and political wings in a real and meaningful way in order to harness a mass movement.

What is required is for Labor to use this opportunity to re-define itself by re-asserting its affiliation with the union movement in a tangible way. The recent problems we have experienced via factional manipulation are a manifestation of a party structure that is incapable of harnessing a mass movement.

The problem with the current relationship between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement is not the affiliation of the unions to the party. Nor is it the factions per-se. It is the structural nature behind the union relationship and the factions.

Average union members who, by the way, are now being asked by union secretaries around the country to take up the fight - are by and large not really political people. The point is that they could be - but because the affiliation between the union movement and the ALP occurs in practice at the executive level only, there is no grassroots political interaction and involvement with Labor politics. The average union member does not have a clue when it comes to politics because they have no interaction with grassroots ALP members. Even though their union might be affiliated to the ALP, there is no requirement on their behalf to ever attend an ALP branch meeting in their lives!

This is a massive waste of resource - imagine the potential of harnessing a grass-roots democratic movement whereby union members (a large portion of whom voted for Howard at the last election) were encouraged to interact at a branch level with ALP members by developing policy and campaigning on issues like the IR legislation.

This brings us back to the point of the ALP and its internal processes and structure. Union members - let alone the average citizenry - are unlikely to want to get involved in a political party that is increasingly becoming less democratic. This is not because of the factions per se - but because the factions themselves have become less democratic and policy centred, and more about positioning for spots in the parliamentary hierarchy.

The solution is, as ever, to democratise the party. The detail needs to be worked out but, as a general principle, we should allow branch members more say in policy and selecting candidates, and insist that union delegations to ALP conference attend regular branch meetings. We must utilise the IR legislation to solidify a new relationship between the political and industrial wings by improving the party structures and their interaction with the union movement. In effect, we must take the Simon Crean reforms much further. The war against the IR legislation will only be won with a disciplined and united effort by the whole labour movement.

If we are successful in harnessing this potential and we do gain government in 2007, the IR debate would have been won; but we need to understand that people will not keep re-electing us on the promise of economic security. We need to address the shift away from our electoral reliance on economic security, by changing the way people think about politics and society.

If we are unable to do this, the conservatives will retain a long-term natural advantage over us via the inherent social conservatism of the electorate. In the current state of the nation, the more and more economically secure people become, the less likely they are to vote ALP in the future because of our liberal attitude to social issues. The answer is not for us to sell our political souls and move further to the right - the answer is to shift the Australian people to a more progressive position.

How might we do that? The obvious answer is to develop a coherent and unified national education policy, which picks up where the Whitlam government left off by recognising some fundamental pre-requisites for a democracy to function properly. In order for a democracy to truly function effectively, its citizens need to be fully equipped with the education and analytical tools to make an informed decision on who governs them. Anyone who has been through the public education system in Australia knows very well that the curriculum is seriously deficient in the areas of history, politics and civil society. Our education system might produce great human contributors to the economic machine, but - because of our obsession with specialisation and the focus on the economic utility of education - we are producing generations of narrowly based citizens who are ill equipped to understand the complexity and importance of politics and society.

We need to develop an education policy that affords our children a large enough variety of disciplines to allow them to have a broad perspective of society and humanity. This process should begin at kindergarten and progress all the way through to university, and indeed be a lifelong process of learning. Again, the detail is for us to work out - at this stage it is the principle and objective which is important to come to terms with via policy. Only when the education system produces a thinking nation can the social democratic agenda hope to remain politically viable in the long term.

In conclusion, the ALP must come to terms with the fact that it is faced with a conundrum. In general terms, the conundrum is that continuing economic security and a conservative government have combined to reduce the likelihood that people from lower socio-economic groups will swing to the ALP because of economic insecurity. In essence these people are saying, 'why vote Labor if I can get my economic needs met and my socially conservative views satisfied'.

The silver lining is that the tertiary educated class is coming over to Labor - only there are not enough of them to outnumber the traditional base. The IR legislation provides an opportunity for the ALP to both swing the traditional base back whilst retaining the educated vote as well - a short-term electoral recipe for success. However Labor cannot sit back and wait for this recipe to make itself into a victory. The party must make it happen by reforming the party structures internally to increase democratic ownership by the members, and even more importantly by opening the party up to grass-roots involvement by rank and file union members. Only then can the full capacity of the labour movement be harnessed on order to win the IR campaign. In the long run, Labor must understand that its electoral viability depends on more and more people making an educated choice about who governs them, which implies an education policy that completely overhauls the current one in terms of its ability to provide a well rounded - well informed citizen.

As John F Kennedy once pointed out: 'When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity'. If the ALP does not recognise and take the current party crisis as an opportunity to reform itself, its relationship with the union movement, and the education system, it is in danger of becoming politically irrelevant.

Mark Buttigieg was the federal ALP candidate for Cook in Australia's 2004 election.