LABOR PARTY: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
New book, old view of ALP
, September 9, 2000
The Labor Party is at an important stage in its history. In Federal politics, a new consensus (with strong parallels to the Deakinite settlement of nearly 100 years ago) has emerged. The consensus encompasses both major parties.
Despite some hand-wringing, even the Labor Left has accepted it. The consensus is that a new economic paradigm exists and that government is now strictly limited by global forces from affecting the economic conditions of the nation.
The policies that have resulted from this acceptance are deregulation, prudent fiscal policy, monetary policy that is aimed squarely at reducing inflationary pressures, and privatisation.
The problem for Labor is how to differentiate itself from the Coalition when on the issues that most affect people it shares the same policies.
In the last few years Mark Latham and Lindsay Tanner have taken up the challenge and suggested new policy directions for Labor, taking the new economic paradigm as a given. Dr Andrew Scott, however, has gone to the source and suggests a serious rethink of the economic consensus.
Scott explains his purpose of writing Running on Empty in a column in The Age. The book is an attempt to question the tendency of Labour in Britain and Australia to “modernise”, after long periods of electoral failure. The modernisations, Scott argues, generally involve a jettisoning of the more “progressive” policies and a resultant dislocation with their traditional working class base.
For Scott, this is most evident in the Hawke and Keating Governments embracing of the economic consensus that I have outlined above.
Rather than analysis, Scott takes a short cut and relies on appeals to the beliefs of “traditional Labor voters” to give substance to his argument.
The result is that there a number of serious flaws in Scott’s argument.
The first is that for Scott, holding the hearts and minds of traditional Labor voters is an end in itself. He does not attempt to explain their significance.
Most Labor strategists are prepared to forego votes in safe Labor seats in return for picking up marginal middle-class electorates. Such a strategy was vital to Labor staying in power through the eighties and early nineties. It also seems to be the strategy that has been adopted by Tony Blair.
There may be flaws in such a strategy, but Scott evades the hard work of making out such a case and presumes that keeping the Labor heartland happy is an end in itself.
Second, he places too much of the blame for Labor’s decline among its “traditional supporters” at the feet of free market economic policy. He lacks the imagination to explore other possible causes.
While it may be true that reduction in protection has hurt Labor in its core constituency, embracing some of the nastier forms of social experimentation has done nothing to endear Labor to its blue-collar base either. The recent decision of Federal Labor to use Federal law to allow lesbians access to IVF is a case in point.
Likewise, the Howard Government’s work-for-the-dole program sits fairly well with most of the traditional working class Labor voters.
The problem of Scott’s analysis is that it is too easy to be selective about what working people actually want when appealing to them to provide justification to your arguments.
Nowhere in the book does Scott offer any policies he believes Labor could embrace. Instead, he resorts to vague denunciations of economic rationalism and general support for enlargement of the public sector.
Like most Leftists, in arguing for a return to Labor tradition, he conveniently forgets that Labor existed before 1972. Tradition to Scott means the massive expansion of the public sector that occurred under Jim Cairns’ stewardship of the Treasury. He ignores the fairly modest scale of Labor Governments before then.
Scott has the annoying habit of those on the Left who presume their ideas are accepted wisdom. He constantly makes claims for what he believes are the desires of working people. For instance, in Chapter 5, Scott claims that the decision of the 1984 ALP National Conference to allow uranium mining caused “outrage among some of the Party’s traditional working class supporters”.
The substantiation for this claim is found in the endnotes: “As clearly stated by leading Left backbencher at the time, Gerry Hand.”
Opinion is not fact — even if that opinion belongs to such a luminary as Gerry Hand!
Scott goes on to say that the proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds shrank after the 1988 HECS reforms. Where’s the evidence? What he offers is a vague allusion to research done by two Monash University academics with a reference to a publication. No particular statistical data presented in a particular issue of that publication.
Scott could have been much more convincing in refuting Labor embracing globalisation and economic rationalism. His problem is that his economic thinking is not sophisticated enough to offer a real critique of the economic orthodoxies as, say, B. A. Santamaria, Colin Clark or Hugh Stretton have done.
As Francis Fukyama points out, there has been a progressive breakdown in the social fabric since the 1970s. A more innovative approach for Labor would be in finding ways to rebuild that sense of community that holds societies together. But the solutions will not lie in bureaucracies, Government committees and an enlarged public sector. Indeed, Government’s proper role might be in adopting a less is more approach — something that will not sit well with Dr Scott and his comrades.