‘Without a vision, the people perish’
This is a post-Australia Day reflection on our country’s future that I’ve been working on over the Australian summer and the American winter. They are personal views only. They are intended only to encourage a national conversation about the major challenges facing Australia’s future at a time when these challenges are often denied oxygen in the day to day political debate. They are not formal recommendations to the Labor Party. What the party takes to the next election as policy is a matter for its parliamentary members.
More than five years after the election of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, and the systematic political carnage that has accompanied it, what now of Australia’s long-term future? Abbott and Turnbull, despite their mutual loathing, turned out to be the great Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee of Australian politics. There was not a single national reform of any consequence from the Abbott Government. A lot of tearing up. But not a single positive legacy for the nation. Not one. And Turnbull, who promised so much by way of a progressive conservative alternative, delivered so little because it turns out he just wanted to wear Caesar’s robes, even if it meant selling his soul to the mob, rather than building Rome’s Republic. In fact, Turnbull ended up betraying practically everything he told us he once cherished and capitulated on those things he once told us he despised most about the conservatives to whom he was always beholden on the far right of his party. Faust would indeed be proud of his Antipodean soul-mate. Malcom Turnbull turned out to be little more than Tony Abbott with manners. Or at least the manners thought to be befitting of a conservative prime minister from the polite society of Sydney’s North Shore.
And now the Liberal leadership has continued its steady spiral southwards from the North Shore, to the Eastern Suburbs, and now to the less genteel bigotry of Morrison of the Shire. Morrison seeks to be the “Everyman” of Australian politics. But beneath the cultivated veneer of suburban mediocrity lies a hard, right-wing Pentecostal and ideological Christian, who together with Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton remain the principal torchbearers of the conservative extreme of the Liberal Party. Indeed, the party should not even pretend to call itself “liberal” any more. Yet despite the rolling changes in Liberal leadership, and its hard-right ideological bearing, the critical question remains as to what policy vision the conservatives now seek for Australia’s future. Many months into Morrison’s leadership, there is still no answer to that core question and so the national vacuum, both in vision and policy, continues while the challenges facing the nation continue to mount.
If you ask the more fundamental question of how is the Australia of 2018 better than the Australia of 2013, it is hard to answer. Despite the best efforts of the Murdoch media to frame the debate in their own ideological image, namely “Liberals good, Labor bad, never mind the detail,” the record of five years of conservative government is very thin indeed when compared, portfolio by portfolio, line by line, budget item by budget item, with the achievements and reforms of the Labor government that preceded. This is now a matter of the public record, whether it’s on the economy (preventing recession and bank collapse during the GFC); industrial relations (the Fair Work Act); social justice (lifting age pensioners out of poverty, our first paid parental leave scheme and the near-doubling of the childcare rebate to 50%); education (MySchool, our first national curriculum and state of the art libraries for the nation’s primary schools) ; health (lifting Commonwealth hospital funding from 40% to 50% to match the states); housing (20,000 new units of social housing); the environment (defeating Japan in the International Court on whaling); climate change (ratifying Kyoto, legislating a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target of 20% by 2020 and a price in carbon); indigenous reconciliation (the National Apology, Closing the Gap and 1,000 indigenous kids graduating the best schools in the country) or international relations (Australian membership of the G20 and the UN Security Council).
The question for the future, however, is where to next? What are the possible competing policy visions for the nation’s future? As a nation, are we prepared to embrace a bold vision to craft a long-term future for our country? Or will we be content at best to graft our way forward incrementally, in the hope that this will suffice to deal with the unprecedented challenges now bearing down on the nation? This essay is a passionate argument in support of a big vision for a big country. This essay is not a prescription for what Labor should do if it forms the next government of Australia. That is a matter for the parliamentary party to determine. Rather this is an attempt by a private citizen to encourage a genuine national debate on the big, existential questions facing our nation’s future.
Planning for the Future – The Question of National Vision
The truth is the conservatives have always been first class oppositionists. They always know what they are against. They are particularly good at manipulating anxiety, fear and hatred, with a view to frightening the public away from voting for a positive, progressive, political alternative. But the problem remains that the conservatives rarely know what they actually stand for, other than the three great, galvanising conservative principles of long-standing conservative politics of “me, myself and I,” comfortably masked by a thin veneer of patriotism, race and religion, together with their increasingly tenuous hold on a fast disappearing “traditional” family. As a result, the conservatives not only oppose when they formally occupy the opposition benches. They also oppose when they are in government. It’s what conservatives do best. Nothing. Except oppose.
This is not accidental. It is a direct product of the deep philosophical bearings of the two political traditions we represent: conservatives believe in preserving the illusion of a mythical, halcyon past. Progressives seek to build a fairer society, economy and polity; anticipate the opportunities and challenges that lie over the horizon; and then build for the future. It’s why, for example, we own the term “nation-building” with pride. And why our opponents at best regard the concept with suspicion, but more often than not with derision and contempt. In the conservative worldview, they believe that nations somehow spontaneously combust from a “free” economy where the essential role of government is simply to get out of the road of “free” markets. Whereas we believe that based on the inherent strengths of an open, competitive market economy, we nonetheless need the agency of government to help put in place the building blocks of the national development, as well as ensure that the fruits of our economy are fairly shared.
The history of Australia has largely been one in which the Labor Party builds the nation up, while the conservatives then seek to tear down that which we have built. This is not rhetorical flourish. It is grounded in generations of evidence. Look at Medicare, a universal health insurance scheme for the nation, built by Labor but which the conservatives for decades tried to dismantle, first by the front door, and more recently by the back. Look too at national superannuation policy – built by Labor, opposed by the conservatives every step of the way during the Keating government, before repealing our government’s legislation to raise the Superannuation Guarantee Levy from 9 percent to 12 percent to underpin retirement income adequacy, boost national savings, offset the concerns of international ratings agencies about our level of corporate borrowing, as well as constructing a massive fund of private capital to help invest in the nation-building needs and opportunities of the future. Then look at our government’s National Broadband Network, designed to build the next tranche of our national infrastructure connecting the entire economy, city and country, rich and poor, with the global digital economy of the future. This was to be delivered by affordable, nation -wide, high-speed broadband for every household, business and institution in the country. It was launched by our government, then uprooted by the conservatives at Murdoch’s behest. We build up. They tear down. It’s in their ideology. It’s in their DNA. And so, the nation suffers.
As a result, little of lasting value survives in Australian politics that actually builds the nation, betters our society or secures our future in an increasingly challenging world. At best only half of what Labor governments build endures the combination of ideological assault and-or policy indifference on the part of the conservative governments that replace them. There is sometimes a grudging recognition, usually decades later, that Labor’s nation-building reforms have been worthwhile. Fisher’s government was attacked by the conservatives of his time for insisting that when the first ships arrived for our navy that they become an independent “Royal AustralianNavy,” rather than simply a squadron of the British Fleet. Menzies attacked Chifley’s audacious plan for the Snowy Mountains Scheme, whereas Turnbull three quarters of a century later claimed it as his own. So too with the vitriolic conservative opposition to the creation of the Australian National University, now one of our finest, and one of the world’s finest academic institutions. So too with the deep, painful structural reforms to internationalise the Australian economy under the Hawke and Keating governments which the conservatives belatedly embraced, having done nothing through their years in office to do the same, despite the warning signs of an economy then in serious structural decline. Even with our own government, despite the conservative political broadside at the time, neither Abbott nor Turnbull could finally bring themselves to repeal Infrastructure Australia as the nation’s first institutional mechanism to audit, plan and recommend the financing of our country’s future infrastructure needs.
Nonetheless, the historical record demonstrates that Conservatism’s deepest ideological instinct is that all this “nation-building stuff” is for dreamers, intellectuals and the scions of the political left. And further, the conservative default position is that if the nation does happen to face a crisis in the future, though not having looked over the horizon to prepare Australia properly for what lies ahead, then “we conservatives” will simply “manage it”, because after all, we conservative chaps are simply better trained to deal with such pragmatic tasks, unhindered by the ideological baggage of the left. Of course, our country’s recent experience of managing the Global Financial Crisis complicates this particular conservative narrative. Indeed, the GFC came about under a conservative American administration where the underlying ideological orthodoxy was that financial. markets were eternally self-correcting. This fallacy proved to be almost fatal for the global economy – until the combined agency of the state intervened. And in Australia it ended up being a Labor Government that “managed” the GFC, and by all reasonable accounts, managed it effectively. Indeed, the entire conservative narrative, even in the midst of this particularly dangerous manifestation of market fundamentalism, ignored the basic question of whether prudent long-term planning could avert, lessen or better manage the crises of the future at all. The most tragic, continuing example of this is climate change and the capture of the Australian conservatives by a legion of climate change deniers – repealing Labor’s carbon price, and repeatedly launching political assaults on our legislated mandatory renewable energy target.
The bottom line remains that conservatives react to events. Progressives seek to anticipate the future. This core difference in our respective political cultures and ideological bearings remains as strong now as it ever was. Indeed, when all is stripped away, the two abiding differences between the conservative and progressive political projects continue to be our concern for fairness and the future. We seek to safeguard both through the conscious, considered intervention of government. Our opponents throw both to the wind – to whatever markets or circumstances might throw up.
Our Future National Challenges – The Dangers of The Great Disruption
So will 2019 be any different? Can we at least begin to have a genuine national debate about our competing visions for the nation’s future. My argument is that such a debate is no longer just an interesting, or even entertaining, political possibility. It has now become an urgent national necessity. That’s because the uncomfortable truth is that we, like most other countries in the world of the 21st century, are in danger of being overwhelmed by the deep structural forces now driving profound global change. These are systemic in nature. They force us, whether we like it or not, to look into the future. These are forces that do not miraculously stop at the Australian continental shelf, despite the mirage offered by much of the Australian political class that we can somehow render ourselves immune, as part of the rolling politics of self-delusion. As a nation, we either anticipate the challenges we face, identify them and respond to them as effectively as possible. Or they just wash over us, leaving Australia with an economy, society and polity that becomes a pale shadow of what we once were. Or indeed might once have become.
So, what are these global mega-changes that now seem to be sweeping away all in their wake? In some respects, it’s a familiar list. But we seem to have become inured to their cumulative impact. Almost indifferent. First, there is the impact of compounding technological change on national competitiveness, the future of work itself and the long term stability of our societies. Second, the clear ravages of climate change where our national and global actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions are woefully inadequate to prevent unsustainable temperature increases, increasingly violent weather events and with grave consequences for long term food and water security and the forced migration of peoples. Third, there is the growing wave of people movements across the world by those escaping political, economic or climatic insecurity in their countries of origin – generating in turn politically and racially charged reactions in the countries they escape to that go to the heart of local political concerns on the deepest questions of collective cultural identity. Fourth, a fragmenting global order driven by a rising China, an increasingly isolationist America, a divided Europe, a yawning global leadership deficit of an increasingly “G-Zero” world, and the growing danger of a return to pre-1945 notions of survival of the fittest. Fifth, the polarisation of our democracies between rich, poor and an increasingly struggling middle class, compounded by the collapsing credibility of much of the traditional media, all competing with the screaming, Balkanising abuse of social media. Sixth, the failure of much of the traditional politics of the centre-right and the centre-left to offer real solutions to this growing array of social, economic and cultural challenges to individuals, families and communities, resulting in a hollowing out of the political centre, and the beginnings of a desperate lurch to the politics of the extreme. And finally, underpinning all of the above, a new, gaping chasm in our deepest, underlying values – as Christianity declines and almost disappears in the west after 1700 years of cultural dominance, driven in large part by the sheer weight of its own institutional hypocrisy, only to be replaced by a secularism increasingly uncertain of its own moral compass in guiding what is left of the modern-day Enlightenment Project. Old verities are fading fast and newer ones harder to find, as we now contemplate the relativisation of everything. Indeed all we seem to be left with is the near-useless cliché that the only remaining certainty is change itself. It has become the aphorism of choice for those who have given up trying to navigate the future. But in the end it takes us nowhere, other than the therapist’s couch.
There is another challenge in addition to these “big seven.” And that is that all these changes are unfolding at once. This cocktail of technological, economic, social, political, environmental, international and intellectual disruption is combusting simultaneously. They are also triggering a series of related “meta-changes” as well on the way we actually think about change, or fail to think about it, or how we grow to be paralysed by it as part of our wider psychological dystopia. Together these multiple, compounding dynamics of change add up to what is now called “The Great Disruption.” Is it any wonder our democracies are struggling to cope? Not only are the policy challenges formidable in themselves. But also buried among them are challenges to the continuing legitimacy of the liberal democratic political system itself. This is the ultimate double-whammy: political systems dealing with systemic changes of unprecedented intensity and complexity, while at the same time the underlying integrity of these self-same political systems itself being under threat as these great disruptions begin to shake our work-a-day lives to the core. Indeed, sometimes the collective west begins to feel as institutionally fragile as Weimar Germany as the system shudders from one shock after the other – some barely noticeable, others much more so, before the big ones really begin to hit, which over time become truly tectonic in their impact.
Impact on the National Psychology
There is a danger, therefore, that in the collective west, including Australia, we become an increasingly overwhelmed, confused and frightened people in the face of the intensity, complexity and rapidity of the mega-changes washing over us. To the point that the positive progress still being achieved in many of our societies ( for example rising living standards, growing life expectancy and quantum advances in medical science) is lost in an increasingly toxic domestic political discourse about the impact of “out-of-control” globalisation. This is despite the fact that globalisation has also been the source of so much of this positive change. We have already seen a range of political responses.
One is retreat, isolationism, protectionism and a New Parochialism, of the type that is increasingly evident in America, Europe and in part in Australia. Its deepest credo is that there is nothing that a good wall can’t fix! It believes that walls can always be erected (physical, economic, social, international, racial or intellectual ) to protect us from unwelcome change. Ultimately it is, of course, illusory because the core economic drivers of globalisation that have generated unprecedented global wealth have also rendered borders increasingly porous, and in some cases redundant. Unless we indeed wish to retreat to the 1930’s where the answer to every problem became a brand new tariff. Unfortunately, the 30’s did not end well – economically, politically or internationally.
A second response, and indeed a comfortable bed-partner of the first, is nationalism pure and simple. We already see evidence of this in Trump’s America, parts of Europe and in some respects China. Of course, this too is illusory because it seeks to sate contemporary anxiety and uncertainty with the most ancient of political remedies – xenophobia. The only problem is that nationalism offers nothing by way of concrete answers to the substantive challenges of our time. Its code language is simple: blame them! It takes us nowhere. Other than ultimately to war.
A further response to the “Great Disruption” is simple indifference, apathy and complacency. I call this “ national learned-helplessness syndrome.” There is a lot of this at play in Australia today. It’s been part of our national DNA for some time. Donald Horne identified it half a century ago in his great, ironic vivisection of the national soul, “The Lucky Country.” For folks such as these, and the ‘worldview’ they represent, there’s a great advantage in Terra Australis being surrounded by beaches and our inland being in large part desert. That’s because there’s an absolute abundance of sand to bury our heads in! It’s a worldview that says that there’s nothing that a good long weekend can’t fix. Or in its more contemporary manifestation, disappearing into the deep distractions of cyber reality, or the comfortably anonymity of an endless digital discourse about nothing. These distractions become the new opioids of our time, gently anaesthetising us into a new, analgesic society that just couldn’t give a rat’s. It’s what the Jesuits call the globalisation of superficiality, and what Pope Francis now calls the globalisation of indifference. It’s just become all too hard to care anymore. It’s leitmotif is that I just want the world to go away. Or to stop so can get off. Except it won’t.
In Australia we are now in danger of becoming the complacent country. Although in time we may become an unhealthy blend of all three of the possibilities outlined above – with nationalism, parochialism and xenophobia becoming the loudest, while perhaps still minority voices in our politics, but nonetheless quietly accommodated by the apathy, indifference and self-satisfaction of the rest. This is in part the product of long-term political drift. It’s also the reflection of a deeper societal malaise whereby we delude ourselves, whether in sport, the corporate world or in international relations that we still somehow “punch above our weight.” The cold hard reality is that we don’t anymore, if indeed we ever did, and this particularly hackneyed phrase has become part of the self-affirming psychology of our wider national inertia. We also assure ourselves that we are still a happy-go-lucky, always-friendly and ever-open society and that whatever happens in politics and the economy won’t fundamentally change the people we believe ourselves to be. But that felicitous self-image should itself also be subject to challenge, given the incremental atomisation of our society into semi-anonymous, self-selected digital ghettoes, the violent language and behaviours now sanctioned by social media, and the slow beginnings of what I fear is a growing hostility to foreigners living and working in our midst. In short, we may no longer in reality actually be the Arcadian fields of our collective self-imaginings. Indeed, if we have the eyes to see, and care to look beyond the many, reassuring tropes we have constructed to soothe ourselves about our future, our country faces deep problems which must be dealt with if in fact we are to secureour future. And a complacent country will not do that for us.
Political drift doesn’t offer any substantive response to the “great disruptions” now bearing down on all of us. In fact it just capitulates to them. It becomes one, long hauling up of the white flag. And as a result we end up in a very dark place indeed. And potentially with a country we can no longer recognise. That’s why it’s now urgent to re-engineer our national imagination and paint the picture of a different future for our country. And then to choose the type of Australia we wish to become. Or have we simply become so cynical a political culture that we no longer believe in the possibility of anything that might be called a vision for the country’s future?
The Elements of a National Vision
As Australians, our political culture tends to look askance at the very idea of a national vision. It brings out the worst in us all, both from the right and the left, as our reflex instinct is to lampoon the very idea that we might actually want to create a better country than the one we have. Americans, at least until recent times, spoke of their “city on a hill.” The British spoke of a New Jerusalem. The Chinese now speak of the China Dream. And Australians…well we tend to just stare at our shoes, mumble something about a fair-go and wait for someone to change the subject to something less embarrassing like the cricket, although even that doesn’t work anymore. My argument is that the business of crafting a national vision for Australia’s future is not so much an exercise in high ideals, although it is in part that. It’s now equally a matter of urgent, pragmatic policy necessity.
It’s time to take ourselves beyond our traditional comfort zones. To think beyond the square. And in so doing so lift our line of sight beyond the parapets of our traditional partisan debate to plan our national future together. The forces now arrayed against us in the world are too formidable for us to entertain the luxury of continuing national drift. Things need to be brought to a head. What is ournational strategy for securing the country’s future? What is that of the conservatives? What is our common ground? Where do we differ? And let our national debate be about both.
So what are the conceptual components of any such national vision? I argue it must be about identity, about who we are as a people, and how we conceive of ourselves as a nation. A vision is also about the values we share, because these ultimately shape what we can sustain, what we will tolerate, and what we will never abide. A vision is also anchored in our enduring national interests. Just as it requires us to analyse carefully our changing national, regional and global circumstances – the great disruptions bearing down on us now – while recognising that these are constantly evolving. Finally, any credible national vision, unless it is to disappear into clouds of pious hope, also demands of us the formulation of a national policy strategy to secure our survival, our prosperity, our sustainability and to give effect to our responsibilities in the world. And it’s this process that should then drive the hard business of determining hard public policy options to be put to the people.
Of course, it is foolish to suggest that everything that governments do can be planned for. Life is not like that. Politics even less so. But it is equally foolish to believe that planning for the big, strategic decisions that will fundamentally shape our national future has no purpose at all. Indeed, unless you plan for them, these decisions are rarely taken because the business of government invariably ends up being overtaken by “events”. Thinking for the long-term is a hard intellectual process. It’s a hard political process given that day to day political life is a battle between the urgent and the important, between the tactical and strategic, between the demands of a sensationalist media for “stories” against the hard grind of public policy. That’s where a national vision comes in. It helps frame the strategic thinking of government. It also, if properly formed, can help bring the nation with you, even in the hardest of times.
Developing a national vision for Australia, however, and delivering on it through policy, occurs within the context of a national media environment which also shapes the essential terms of the debate. And on this, our eyes must be wide open to the powerful forces that are at play that continue to try to define the country’s vision for it. Or at least radically constrain it. Regrettably, much of our national media debate lies in the hands of either the far right or the faux left. There is limited natural media space for the reforming centre. Such space, therefore, has to be constructed from the ground up.
Murdoch and the Far Right
The Australian right-wing media and commentariat are ideologically intolerant of any such national planning processes. Indeed this hostility is quite separate from the actual content of any national vision that we on the progressive side of politics might then put forward as a result. The Murdoch media, for example, have a pathological disdain for the sort of nation-building approach that we believe in for the nation’s future. The “Nine” media group, following the 2018 takeover of what used to be Fairfax media and to be headed by Peter Costello, is likely to be similarly intolerant of a considered, progressive vision. Indeed, even before the merger, Fairfax was not exactly a uniform beacon of progressive sentiment. The editor of the Australian Financial Review, one of the three major Fairfax mastheads, has run an editorial line for the better part of a decade that has consistently been one of the most right-wing in the country. The Labor Party must be realistic about all this. Our country’s mainstream commercial media now lies in the hands of political forces who, by and large, wish to destroy us, the values for which we stand and the policies we seek to construct.
For the Murdoch media in particular, and the two thirds of the Australian print media Murdoch controls, the technique is simple. First, unapologetic bias in news coverage. Second, unapologetic bias in editorial opinion, to the point that editorial opinion and news coverage become one. Third, delegitimisation of everything the Labor movement stands for – past, present and future. John Howard is a protected species. So is Abbott. And now, so is Morrison. Whereas Labor leaders of the last decade are held to be collectively guilty of all the country’s current ills. It’s a relentless morality play with a wonderfully predictable script. But institutionally damaging nonetheless. Fourth, particularly through the Murdoch tabloids, the standard stock in trade is “Labor hypocrisy”. This charge is made much easier because we as a movement are sufficiently audacious to say we stand for core values beyond naked self-interest, whereas our conservative opponents, by and large, are not bothered by any such standards. Nothing better than to skewer the moral authority of a Labor government by reducing everything to a question of personal character, while happily excusing, for example, Howard’s participation in the illegal and failed invasion of Iraq as a demonstration of strength of character, as George Bush’s “man of steel”. Finally, the Murdoch media also run rolling campaigns against Labor governments and parties at both state and federal levels to demonstrate their power. Surprisingly these also happen to coincide with the Liberal Party’s rolling campaign against Labor as well – the hardy perennials being debt, deficit, government waste, asylum seekers and the culture wars involving the Anglosphere, indigeneity and multiculturalism. The conservative media agenda is clear – destroy Labor at all costs because they are a threat to conservative interests. And then destroy the ABC, as the only remaining independent media platform remaining in the country, while you’re at it.
Furthermore, once the Murdoch media prints what they define as a major story, they seek to set the national agenda for all that follows in the electronic media. This is not just confined to the conservative echo chamber of right-wing radio shock jocks and Sky. It has a broader effect as well because Murdoch knows that across the electronic media in general, independent journalists are now thin on the ground. It’s just so easy to “rip and tear” the story of the day, taking your lead from what is already screaming at you across the front pages of the Murdoch print media.
So the idea that Australia’s mainstream media are going to be remotely tolerant, let alone supportive, of a progressive national vision from the Australian Labor Party, is laughable. At least under our current media laws. But rather than be cowered by it, as a number of Labor leaders have been before, or believe that we can do a deal with it, we should treat it for what it is. We should be loud and proud and declare open warfare on Murdoch and all that he stands for through all the alternative media at our collective disposal. In fact, we are wimps if we don’t. The Murdoch media have long behaved as bullies. And bullies must be stood up to. There is no downside. The truth is Murdoch seeks to destroy our reputation as a party, as a movement and as a body of progressive ideas. We are perfectly entitled, based on the facts alone, to go on the attack. We are in a war against Murdoch. The Murdoch media is not an independent media organisation. It is a political party, acting in pursuit of its own clearly defined commercial and ideological interests, and doing so in partnership with its coalition partner, the Liberal Party. And the sooner we realise this the better. After all, these are the terms of engagement Murdoch set against Labor many decades ago. And we underestimate, to our great disadvantage, the stench of the Murdoch media that already sits in the minds of much of the Australian public. The Australian people have never forgotten the man who thirty years ago traded in his Australian citizenship to become an American billionaire.
The Enduring Affliction of the Faux Left
Nonetheless, the business of framing a progressive vision for the nation’s future, the right-wing media is one part of the problem. There is also the challenge of what is left of the left-wing media and commentary as well. The sad fact is that there is nothing that the putative left-wing commentariat enjoy more than ripping a Labor Party or Labor government apart for failing to live up to the high ideals of the progressive political cause, or at least as selectively defined by self-same commentariat. Indeed, there is a perverse psychology at play on the part of a number progressive commentators which compels them to demonstrate that they, the progressive commentariat alone, are pure, whereas those in the progressive political class, are all fallen. This is part of a wider psychosis on the part of the arm-chair left that always prefers to eat its own, rather than attack the conservatives. In this “chic-left” view of the world, Labor governments must deliver a 100 per cent progressive reform agenda because, after all, Labor is supposed to believe in these things. Whereas from the comfort of the arm-chair’s recline, it’s assumed that because the conservatives have never believed in the progressive cause, what’s the point in ripping into them? And from this same bourgeois-left view of the world, such practical matters as the need to build a political constituency to support the passage of progressive reform by appealing to the centre and even the right is ridiculed as simple backsliding, rather than the essential business of politics to entrench reform for the long term. So whether its marriage equality, asylum seekers, climate change, poverty, homelessness, foreign aid or human rights, unless Labor agrees to deliver the totality of the Green left’s definition of the progressive agenda, we are written off as a bunch of backsliders, whereas the conservatives are often given a leave pass because “they don’t know any better and we don’t have any expectations of them anyway”.
We see this psychology particularly at play in the ABC where the Green Party is often covered as co-equal with the Labor Party, and where the ABC is so terrified of funding cuts from the conservatives that they will bend over backwards to attack Labor in order to be seen by the Liberals as “balanced”, comfortable in their cynical assumption that a Labor incumbency would ever cut their funding, but only enhance it. Of course, in fashioning a progressive vision for the nation’s future, it’s easy to write a script that the Greens would be delighted with. But the Greens have zero interest in ever forming a government of Australia. Indeed when they have had the chance to be constructive partners with reformist Labor governments in the past, they have elected instead to skewer Labor by voting with the conservatives in the Senate on the spurious grounds that Labor’s proposed reform program was not progressive enough. The Green Party’s real agenda has simply been to bleed more of the Labor vote in their direction, and to further entrench their preferred position in Australian politics as permanent, institutional critics of the Labor Party, rather than as substantive participants in policy change for which they too might be actually held to be responsible. Of course, the worst example of this was their decision to torpedo the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009, in partnership with the conservatives, preventing Australia from entrenching a robust carbon price for the long-term future.
Therefore as Labor forms its own progressive vision for the future, it must also do so with its eyes wide open to the likely ravages from the faux left who’s historical pathology has been to attack its own, and by and large leave the conservatives alone. But as with the right, Labor should not be cowed by the left commentariat either. It’s generally not friendly fire. Like the right, it’s designed to delegitimise the Labor Party, and in doing so often serving a range of personal, political and media agendas which have little to do with the durability of the long-term progressive governance of the country.
The Dilemma of the Reforming Centre
Being a mainstream progressive party can therefore be a lonely business. Vilified by the right, although the right lionise their own, as they have done with Howard and Abbott. And cannibalised by the left who, almost literally, prefer to eat their own. The heroes of the left, like Whitlam, are almost always dead. When in office, they too were demonised as sell-outs to the right. This happened with Hawke. It happened with Keating. It has ever been thus for us. The right-wing commentariat, for a range of reasons, ideological, personal and purely social, nonetheless want their own team of political miscreants in power, however politically wacky (e.g. Abbott) or ideologically impure (e.g. Turnbull) they may have been. Whereas much of the left commentariat would prefer an eternal seminar on why we failed to win power. Or if we do happen to win, give a thousand reasons why we are undeserving of it. It’s a curious left psychosis on which Freud, had he lived in our present age, would have had much to say.
However, the reason for discussing this question at some length goes beyond an interest in the underlying psychology of much our national politics . It also goes to the different levels of expectations of political parties of the right and the left, as shaped by the attitudes of the conservative and progressive media over time. The political right, for example, are expected to deliver on basic security and economic stability with an ‘acceptable’ minimum of social provision. Anything beyond that is seen as a generous bonus, an unexpected benefit, almost a form of political noblesse oblige. The left, by contrast, are expected to provide the same security and economic stability as the right, while also deploying equal political vigour in the provision of social justice (including labour rights), environmental protection as well as an innovative international policy balancing, in our case, the US alliance, the region and the United Nations. Whereas the far left (The Greens) represent a constituency which have little interest in security and the economy, and at best a partial interest in a structural approach to social justice, concentrating instead on environmental and selective international concerns to the exclusion of all others, reflecting the fact that ultimately theirs is the politics of protest, with not even a marginal interest in forming government.
In other words, under the political equivalent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the conservatives are ultimately expected to deliver on only the most basic of Maslow’s needs. If they do, they pass. Whereas the centre-left is expected to cover the total spectrum, otherwise they fail. And as for the far-left, tilting at windmills is all that matters because “gesture politics,” focussed on the tip of the Maslowian hierarchy, is all that matters. Without attending to the base of the pyramid, the far-left know they can never be elected, But as noted above, that doesn’t really matter. That’s not what they are interested in.
Deep structural tensions inevitably emerge, therefore, when a progressive party tries to address the full range of policy needs across Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s why Labor inevitably finds itself in political trouble both to its right and its left. It’s also why the Labor Party is structurally correct when it says that the expectations on it in government are invariably higher than those for the conservatives. And that’s before we add the additional reporting bias of the Murdoch media who’s strategic interest lies in the continuing delegitimisation of Labor by magnifying conservative attacks from the Right against Labor going “too far” to be “economically responsible”, or from the left for “not going far enough” to be “fair.” In other words, they get you both coming and going. In fact, the Murdoch media, aided and abetted by significant elements of the ABC commentariat, delight in this rolling pincer movement against the legitimacy of the Labor Party. And it underlines why Labor must therefore take on its adversaries on both flanks if we are to prevail in our efforts to provide an effective, progressive vision for the nation from the reforming centre. Our political and policy challenge, by definition, will always be more difficult than for the conservatives. And infinitely more difficult than for the Green Party.
The Question of Australian Identity
Given the nature of the international forces bearing down on us, and the domestic political and media constraints we must confront, what then constitutes a credible, progressive, national vision for Australia? This should begin with a confident definition of our national and cultural identity. If the centre-left fails to address this question of identity, we vacate the field and leave a vacuum. Whereas the right and the far-right will always seek to occupy this ground, thereby comfortably defining the terms of the culture wars of the future. The conservatives, whatever political wallpaper they may use, are ultimately believers in an Anglo-Saxonmonoculture. In recent years, they have broadened the tent just a little, reflecting the rising wealth of Australian Catholics and the growing political conservatism of the Australian Catholic hierarchy, by expanding their preferred conservative identity to now include an Anglo-Celticmonoculture. But that’s where it stops. Whatever might be said in polite conservative society on the question of Australian national identity in order to soundas inclusive as possible for electoral purposes, other minority cultures are at best tolerated by the conservative monoculture, and always on the implied condition that “they” ultimately become “just like us” – namely the Anglo-Celtic white majority. That’s why multiculturalism is formally shunned by conservatives. For conservatives, national identity is still ultimately about race, rather than the laws which define the rights, duties and common beliefs of our civil polity. Conservatives therefore find it irresistible to play with the politics of racial anxiety whenever the opportunity arises because properly manipulated, they know it becomes a potent source for fear, capable of masking so much else in the core political and policy debates of the nation. And this task is made much easier if the centre-left simply disengages from the identity debate because we find it all too hard.
For the centre-left, our definition of Australia’s national identity must be grounded in the ideals, institutions and conventions of our democratic society, not in its racial composition. That’s because Australia has indeed become a “coat of very many colours” and we are infinitely richer for it. Our definition of identity should begin with a profound pride in Australia’s indigenous origins – the oldest continuing cultures in human history that reach back to the very beginnings of human activity on earth. This invokes a sense of wonder that we are able to share this vast continent with a people whose understanding of the land comes from the Dreamtime itself. This of course must also be anchored in a shared responsibility for past injustices to our indigenous brothers and sisters and a common resolve to chart a fully reconciled future as one national family. Unlike conservatives, because of the values we also represent, but also because of the harsh realities of the historical record, we cannot choose to sweep uncomfortable facts arising from European occupation under the carpet, just because they happen to be uncomfortable. Notwithstanding the complexity of our national origins, our modern Australian identity should also own with pride our Anglo-Celtic traditions, not in some tradition of vicarious triumphalism as part of a once great British Empire, but as the inheritors of the common law, centuries of legal constraints against the arbitrary exercise of absolute power and an independent legal system to give effect to the principle of equality before the law. Just as we should celebrate the levelling experiences of our Irish inheritance, including its deep intolerance of the arbitrary abuse of authority. So too has our identity shaped by the arrival of millions from other lands whom we have welcomed to these shores because we have indeed, as the anthem proclaims, “boundless plains to share”. The truth is that together we have all built the nation’s economic prosperity and social diversity, widening the Anglo-Celtic monoculture into a living, dynamic, creative multi-culture, all within the framework of the common rights and responsibilities of our nation’s citizenship.
Our founding fathers, in our constitutional arrangements, also invoked the blessings of a higher spiritual reality in the crafting of our then embryonic Commonwealth, reflecting a deeper yearning for a broader purpose beyond the narrower material interests of our national life. Nonetheless, our founders wisely declined to establish anything resembling a particular religious orthodoxy for this “Australia Felix”. It reminds us, however, that our identity from the outset was more than bread alone. While the national census reminds us that the question of spiritual sensibilities remains a deeply contested question for Australians, the centre-left would be unwise to concede the domains of religious faith, Christianity and our broader national spirituality to the conservatives. By contrast, we should accept, appreciate and even celebrate the contribution to progressive politics of generations of Christian social reformers, trade union Chartists, Irish Catholic rebels, and more recently the various forms of Aboriginal spirituality to the overall shaping of the Australian identity. The uncomfortable truth for some is that the strident, secular, atheist voice, however unimpeachable its appeal to the rational and empirical mind might be, has been only one of many progressive voices shaping our common Australian identity. Indeed, any dispassionate reflection on the nature of our ANZAC Day commemorations reveals a uniquely Australian secular spirituality that unites our civic consciousness and does so in a way that should give pause those in the centre-left who contemptuously dismiss religious sensibilities as mere sentimental guff. In short, our concept of national identity needs to embrace both mind andsoul.
A further element of our identity which we should unapologetically claim as our progressive own is our deep sense of a fair go for all. This is as much a question of “who we are” as a people, as it is “the values we believe in,” which will be addressed in the following section of this essay. But for our purposes here, because we are a nation that has been formed “from below” – that is from a motley collection of convicts, rejects from European society, fortune hunters, asylum seekers seeking safe haven, migrants seeking a better life or dispossessed indigenous peoples – there is little room for cultural and class pretension in our great Australian society. Nor is there room for any sense of “upstairs-downstairs” amid the deepest, levelling instincts of Australian identity, where from the earliest days we have rightly despised the sort of class society which had riven the old countries from which we came. Instead we are a country where “Jack has always been as good as his master.” Ours is a national identity too which has belatedly recognised that women indeed hold up half the sky, where equal rights are honoured not just in the breach, where we are enriched by the feminisation of our national identity beyond the tediously macho stereotypes of the past, and where gender diversity no longer divides but indeed enhances the nation. So too, finally, with our fuller understanding of human sexuality as a reflection of loving relationships in all their forms, while always being a nation that protects first the rights of our children as the future inheritors of the nation. And in all the above, a proud Australian identity that has freedom, a fair-go for all and compassion for those in distress wherever they maybe, etched deeply into the nation’s soul. These are things that should and, I believe do, define us as Australians.
It is critical, therefore, in defining our national identity that we not yield the ground to the conservatives. The conservatives, with their own selective appeal to history, tradition, religion and race, will only seek to cover partof our identity, and then cynically use this narrow definition to consolidate their political constituency against “others” who are then defined as “outside” this identity and threatening to it. On closer inspection, however, the conservative embrace is still limited to the mono-culture, as if our evolving sense of ourselves will always remain hermetically sealed in some distant Arcadian past buried deep in the conservative imagination. It’s part of the comforting rhythms of an Anglo-Saxon and now Anglo-Celtic nostalgia, found little place else these days but in the ever-shrinking pages of The Spectator and Quadrant. But in the midst of great economic and social change, this conservative definition of identity offers the illusion of cultural certainty, and the culture wars become its call to arms. A progressive definition of national identity will always be a more complex task than our opponents because as progressives we are required to embrace an identity of what holds together bothour past andour future – while never excluding anyone from the membership of our national family, whether they are from the Dreamtime, the first fleet or a refugee from Iraq. Progressives must embrace our past while equally anticipating our future. Our identity is not just about who we have been, but equally importantly of who we can still become. And to have the national self-confidence to do both.
How do we Define Australian Values
The same logic applies to the definition of our national values. Within the framework of a national vision, “identity” and “values” are similar although not identical concepts. The ideas of “who we are”, and “what we believe in” cover discrete but overlapping realities. However, given the culture wars, the distinction is still important. And on both of these, as progressives ours offers once again a wider canvass than the conservatives.
So what are our enduring Labor values? As a movement we are grounded in values of fundamental human dignity, that human beings are worthy of intrinsic respect for their essential humanity, not because of their material worth, while recognising that this core value is still far from respected universally and where many still see human beings as mere political constructs or as economic commodities. We are also grounded in values of freedomin a land where working people were once far from free and in a world where freedom is still denied to many. We are grounded too in values of justice, fairness or what we call a fair go for all– meaning at a minimum equality of opportunity for all and a decent safety net for those who collide with a brick wall at some stage of their lives and need society’s helping hand to preserve their basic human dignity and that of their families. We also believe in values of opportunity, prosperity and enterpriseso that through hard work, innovation and achievement women and men can build their own futures and reach for the stars of their own imaginings. We believe equally in values of empathy, compassion and human solidarity– the “other-regarding” elements of our human nature – which cause us to extend a helping hand, not just through random acts of private charity, but also through properly informed public policy, to support those in poverty, hardship and distress because we share with them the bonds of common humanity. We are anchored as well in values of family, community and nation-building, as the natural antidotes of unfettered markets, which when left unrestrained would happily destroy all in their wake. So too are we now animated by values of sustainabilityso that Mother Earth herself can live to sustain us all with air to breathe, water to drink and a climate worthy of handing on to the generations that come after us – because we believe in inter-generational justice as well. And finally, we believe in security, both at home and abroad, so that all can peacefully go about their work and their lives, free from the threat of fear, remembering with pride that it has been Australian Labor governments that have lead our country for the most part through both world wars. These then are Labor values. Values of human dignity, of liberty, of equality, of opportunity, of solidarity, of family, of community, of sustainability and of security. They are not only Labor values. They are also Australian values. And they are universal human values. In Australia, it was also the Labor movement that grafted many of them deep into the Australian soul. There was nothing about “a fair go” in the values 19th century colonial Australia. We the Labor movement put it there.
The conservatives will try to own some of these values – through their partial embrace of concepts of human dignity, freedom, family, opportunity and security. But when did you last hear conservatives talking about a fair go, about solidarity, about community, about nation building or about sustainability. For them, these are a foreign language – almost a foreign country. Whereas we believe in the full monty. There is a deep philosophical reason for this. For all our faults as a movement, we believe that human beings are designed not just to be self-interested. We also believe that a fulfilled human life is both self- regarding andother-regarding. Conservatives regard this is inherently contradictory. But we have sufficient grounding in reality, and sufficient “audacity of hope”, to believe that they are not, and that indeed these values are mutually complementary, mutually reinforcing, mutually tempering and deeply empowering of both the individual and society, of both family and community, of both nation and the world, of both human beings and the natural order. Our philosophical view is that values that are exclusively selfish are ultimately self-destructive. Indeed that is the essential nature of unfettered capitalism – or what the theorists call “creative destructionism” – so much so that time and again through modern history we the Labor movement have been called upon to rescue market fundamentalism from itself, most recently in the Global Financial Crisis. It is not, therefore, simply a question that ourvalues are different to the conservatives. They are. It is because these different values go to a fundamental philosophical principle concerning the absolute core of human nature and human responsibility.
The conservatives seek deliberately to deny an essential part of our common humanity – namely other-regardingness. They do this in order to advance individual greed, however they may try to mask it, as their unfettered project. This reached its apogee with Hayek’s market fundamentalism, later embraced by Thatcher, Reagan and Howard’s “Work Choices.” It also carried with it a reckless disregard for where this ideology ultimately leads in the destruction of people’s intrinsic dignity, their families, their communities, their economies, cultures and even their planet. Conservatives also seek to ‘externalise’ any other-regarding values as if they lie naturally beyond the proper province of government – as if they are at best a matter of random, personal ethical discretion. This indeed is the conservative world of “noblesse oblige” rather than systematic social justice. Yet in privatising these values, conservatives also place us in collective peril when people find themselves ravaged by the untrammelled forces of an unfettered free market. Which is why working people inevitably react with anger towards the political system if and when these most basic and inclusive values are traduced by forces beyond their local control.
The Labor Party, by contrast, has always sought to ‘internalise’ these other-regarding values within the politics and economics of the nation. We see the intrinsic dignity of labour, of families and communities; the principles of social justice; and the imperatives of the planet as demanding a public policy response, not just as an occasional act of private, discretionary charity. This is why our values are so different from the conservatives, And this is why we should be proud of the difference.
Clarifying our Enduring National Interests
In building a framework for a national vision for Australia’s future, we must be inclusive on our definition of our national identity, open-hearted about our values but equally clear-minded about our enduring national interests. These interests go to the long-term survivability of the nation itself, well beyond the individual policy choices we may make from time to time on what sort of nation we may wish to be. For us, therefore, such national interests are existential. Of course, these too will be shaped by our values. But so too will these existential national interests also, by definition, temper our values.
First among these must be the defence our territorial integrity. Without this there is no “nation.” An effective national defence is easier said than done in a country with a small population, a middle-sized economy, the world’s third largest exclusive economic zone and with one of the longest and most exposed coastlines on the planet. Since the beginning of European settlement, Australia has been advantaged by the fact that for all those 230 years, the most powerful countries in the world happened to have been our two closest allies – the United Kingdom followed then by the United States. As Britain faded in economic and military capacity, Australia looked to America for its national security. How long that remains credible is now an open question, given the relative decline in American power, the rise of China and the rolling debate in American politics about whether the US should continue to shoulder a global security burden. There is also a widening range of threats to our territorial integrity which compound our future challenges beyond the classic defence of the mainland. These include cyber security, people smuggling, quarantine protection and climate change. Each of these affects our wider ability to defend our national borders. And collectively they point to our national political and economic preparedness to provide sufficient resources for an increasingly self-reliant defence posture in the future.
Second, there is the enduring national interest we have in the maintenance of Australia’s political sovereignty. Short of any large or small scale assault on Australian territory, this particular interest embraces the broader question of whether there may be emerging factors that might impinge on Australia’s future ability to make sovereign political decisions though our own democratic institutions, free from the reality, or the perception, of foreign influence. This may not seem to be a problem at present. But the international environment in which we operate is changing more rapidly than we think. The geo-politics of the East Asian hemisphere is evolving rapidly. The radical rewriting of the global geo-economic distribution of power represents another factor. So too the declining impact of global “rule-setting” and “rule-enforcing” institutions to protect the interests of small to medium powers from the arbitrary use of political, military or economic influence by larger powers. Taken to its extreme, this in turn results in the forced, unwanted policy change by smaller states. This by definition is a violation of the free exercise of these states’ national political sovereignty. History is full of examples of various “droits de regard” by large states over the internal decision-making processes of smaller states. Our challenge is to prevent that from happening to us in the future. This is quite separate from recent debates on foreign interference in the integrity of democratic electoral processes by cyber intrusion, social media manipulation or campaign finance. These too, however, represent new, emerging challenges to our national political sovereignty.
Third, the maintenance of Australia’s long-term economic prosperity also represents one of our foundational national interests. Of itself, it too poses a range of fundamental policy challenges for the future. Without the successful prosecution of this core and continuing interest, our living standards will not be sustained. Nor will there be sufficient national wealth to redistribute to health, education, housing, family payments or pensions – necessary for the most basic forms of social justice and the maintenance of social stability. Furthermore if growth stalls, without a major re-allocation of public finance away from these social services (which already consume the vast bulk of total government expenditures), or else major increases in taxation, we will be unable to finance our future national defence, notwithstanding our rapidly changing international security circumstances. Australia’s enduring economic interests therefore bring us back to focus afresh on the three inescapable drivers of long-term economic growth – our level of population, our level of workforce participation and our level of productivity growth. They also cause us to face again the international drivers of our economic growth, including the ongoing challenge of maintaining an open international system governing trade, investment and capital flows. We need to be reminded of the fact that our total annual trade in goods and services represents a staggering 42 per cent of total Australian GDP. By definition, a global trade war and a retreat to international protectionism would be disastrous for Australia. Indeed, if the international trading or financial system were to close down on us, as has happened several times before in our relatively short economic history, our national and individual levels of wealth would simply collapse. Therefore, sustaining these multiple, complex drivers and determinants of our long term economic prosperity represents an enduring national interest for us all.
The inescapable corollary of our continuing interest in maintaining economic growth is our parallel national requirement for long-term environmental sustainability. In fact, economic growth and environmental sustainability now represent enduring and mutually dependent national interests. One without the other is impossible. The growing global scarcity of clean water, soil and air now imposes real constraints on growth. As does declining global bio-diversity, not as a simple aesthetic preference to support other life forms, but as a deeply pragmatic recognition of radical inter-dependence within the biosphere and its impact on our collective survival. On top of these is the mother of all planetary constraints – climate change. Indeed, Mother Earth has now been saying to us for generations that there are a range of planetary boundaries (of which climate is one of perhaps eight) where a failure to operate withinglobal tipping points potentially lands us in planetary disaster. This is now a matter of scientific fact. It is neither a matter of social fashion or political opinion. The data does not lie. Nor does the planet itself. Environmental sustainability has long ceased to be an optional extra for the radical political extreme. It has now become a core and enduring national interest for us all. It must therefore dictate much of our national and international policy behaviour given that climate change, in addition to the growing vulnerability of our other planetary boundaries, is no respecter of national borders. And for the driest country on earth, these matters will become existential.
Finally, there is our abiding national interest in developing, sustaining and enhancing the international rules-based order. In fact, this now permeates the prosecution of the rest of our enduring interests as well. Great powers may have some capacity to independently prosecute their core interests simply as a product of national scale. Smaller to middle-sized powers like Australia do not have that luxury. Great powers may be big enough to provide for their own defence as would deter others from ever contemplating a violation of their territory or political sovereignty. Just as their domestic markets may be of a size that the traded sectors of their economies, while important, are nonetheless not vital to their overall economic survival. Nonetheless, the rapidly changing nature of the global environmental commons means that any form of national “autonomy” is now illusionary. For example, the US as a superpower may be secure from fundamental military threats to its national security from China. Given the size of its domestic economy, the US may be less affected by a global trade war than China might be. But the US, like the rest of the planet, remains hostage to China’s future policy direction and implementation of China’s own national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. If China fails in this task, or later India, other countries, including the US, will suffer greatly. Indeed some states may no longer exist as a result. In other words, the growing reality of global interdependency means that a properly functioning global rules-based system is now of fundamental importance for all states, both large and small.
Nonetheless, the unsettling truth is the smaller the state, the greater the dependency on the international system, and not just on climate. Indeed, for Australia, at best a middle power, we are more dependent than many on a fully functioning, rules-based political, security, economic and environmental order. A functioning order develops norms, agrees rules of international behaviour and gives these effect through properly empowered international tribunals such as the UN Security Council or the World Trade Organisation. These are exercises in shared sovereignty because the threats they seek to address are bigger than any single nation state can deal with on its own. Our alliance with the United States does not satisfy all our security interests. The reality is that both our bilateral security alliance, our own national defence preparedness andan active multilateral security system are necessary to advance our long-term national security interests. It is not a matter of either-or. Indeed, an effective global rules-based system can significantly enhance Australia’s national security, territorial integrity, political sovereignty, economic prosperity and now, perhaps most of all, our environmental sustainability. That is why defending and advancing a global rules-based order of itself represents an enduring national interest for Australia. The bottom line is we need it.
These five, fundamental national interests don’t often find their way into our normal domestic political discourse. They are usually confined to more rarefied debates dealing with economic, foreign, defence or wider national security policy doctrine. But given the “globalisation of everything” and the increasing collapse of what was previously seen as the “great divide” between “external” and “internal” factors affecting the nation’s future, it’s now more important than ever to recast these enduring national interests into an integrated national policy whole. For example, investment decisions in Beijing now directly affect factory closures or openings in Melbourne. Terrorist events in the Middle East affect the behaviours of various ethnic constituencies in Sydney. Cyber-attacks from Pyongyang can affect the integrity of electoral systems Australia-wide.
This convergence between what were once neatly distinguishable international and national policy domains can no longer be ignored. Nor can these international factors and forces now permeating the domestic political space be regarded as the exclusive preserve of an anonymous professional class of policy officials, separate from the mainstream public political process. The impact of these factors on our enduring national interests cannot simply be seen as part of the “high policy” of the nation, unrelated to our mainstream domestic political debate. This sort of distinction is a luxury we can longer afford. The reality is that our enduring interests are nationally existential in nature. Just as the threats to them are equally existential. They must now become an essential, indeed foundational, component of the big policy debates of the nation. Indeed, to assume that any discussion of alternative visions for the nation’s future can ignore such fundamental questions, and instead be confined to lesser questions of what sort of society we wish to be, does Australia an elemental disservice. Put bluntly, if the nation itself fails, then all discussion of what sort of nation we wish to become is rendered redundant.
Setting Our Core National Priorities
As with the earlier discussion of national identity, national values and national interests, it’s important to emphasise that conservatives and progressives approach the current policy challenges facing the nation through different ideational prisms. On all three of these, i.e. identity, values and interests, I argue that we on the centre-left have a wider set of policy responsibilities than the conservatives. We have a sense of national identity beyond a selective rendition of history, culture and race. We argue a broader set of values which appeals not just to our self-interest but equally to our social conscience. So too with our understanding of the broad sweep of our enduring, fundamental and existential national interests.
The conservatives argue a narrower proposition of our national interests focussed almost exclusively on limited definitions of national security and macro-economic management. We of course argue these as well. But to these we add the need for democratic renewal; a more comprehensive definition of national security; a concern for bothmacro-economic management as well ashow to effectively harness the micro-economic drivers of long term growth; a comprehensive and substantive commitment to environmentally sustainable development; as well as system-wide engagement with the international community on maintaining the principles and practice of the global rules-based order.
This wider definition of our core national interests is not simply a reflection of a classically progressive worldview. It’s because we see this wider set of national interests – including new approaches to democracy, growth, sustainability and the global order – as also fundamental to our long term national survival. My central argument is that the world has now entered a new, 21st century reality infinitely less predictable than the world of the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, a more anticipatory political and reformist agenda is necessary if we are to secure our national future, let alone our progressive future. The alternative is simply to consign ourselves to being tossed about on the wild winds and currents of international change, uncertain of our course, and potentially to our national peril.
The Future Drivers of Australian Economic Growth – Building a Big Australia
The Big Five:
- Small business tax reform;
- Mandating superannuation funds to invest in venture capital to take innovation to market;
- Radically investing in STEM Education, Training and Research;
- Establishing a New Jobs and Training Agency to manage the impact on work of the disruptions and opportunities flowing from AI;
- Providing a new mandate for Infrastructure Australia to plan for a Big Australia and using new National Building Bonds to fund Australia’s future infrastructure build;
On growing the economy, the essential challenge is not tax. That is the consistent conservative script. According to the US Congressional Budget Office, Australia has one of the lowest levels of effective business taxation in the OECD. If there are fresh tax measures to consider, it should be to reduce the effective tax impost on small business so that they have the incentive over time to grow into the medium and big businesses of the future. The effective tax mix and rate for small business should slowly taper up to the normal corporate rate once they become confident of their future in the marketplace. The uncomfortable truth, as revealed by the 2018 Royal Commission into the Financial Services Industry, is that the Australian banking industry have by and large had a predatory culture towards small business finance. That must change. The Australian finance industry more broadly must realise that their purpose is to serve the needs of the real economy, not just serve themselves, by over-charging for the services they say they deliver, while under-financing the sustainable aspirations of the small business sector. The finance industry is licensed by governments to provide these services, not just to provide themselves with record levels of remuneration which bear little relationship to the growth of their customers’ businesses. This too must change. A seminal challenge for the Labor Party is to become the clarion-clear voice of Australian small business through reducing the regulatory burden of the sector while also minimising the tax impost on them. Small business are the “little guys” of the Australian economy who provided the bulk of the nation’s employment. They are a natural constituency for the Australian Labor Party. We should champion their success.
Australian big business has always been more than willing in their criticism of governments – in particular Labor governments and the unions. Indeed their peak bodies have been critical of most other institutions and influences at work in the Australian economy other than themselves and their own members on our national economic performance. That of course is their right. But its time big business also had it served back to them on their own international competitiveness. Against international benchmarking surveys on management, innovation, entrepreneurialism, export orientation and R and D, much of Australia’s corporate leadership does not measure up to most their international competitors. This stands in stark contrast to a self-congratulatory culture among many corporate leaders, despite sub-optimal long-term growth strategies and a general failure to grow market share through exports. It also contrasts with generous remuneration structures which are insufficiently linked to long term sales growth, but based instead on short term share market capitalisation.
If you were to survey the BCA, for example, on the proportion of Australia’s top 100 firms and ask what proportion of their chief executives or board members have served in a management positions in Asia (the largest centre of global growth or the 21st century) the answer would be thin. Australian corporate elites have remained, in large part, a self-satisfied, white, male elite for whom Asian markets have proven to be just too hard. Yet we are the only western country located on Asia’s doorstep which should provide us with a major natural advantage. But the uncomfortable truth is that beyond commodities, education and tourism, our corporate performance in the world’s largest emerging markets in China, Japan, India and next door in Indonesia has been statistically abysmal. Beyond Asia, the fact that Australia’s major corporates have failed to generate a single, universally recognisable global brand since the war says everything.
There is something deeply lacking in the entrepreneurial culture of much of Australia’s major corporates. Australian senior corporate remuneration structures need to be adjusted to reward national and international benchmarking performance. Asian Australians should be appointed in large numbers to the boards of Australian firms and to senior management positions to build bridges to Asian markets. And innovation and enterprise should be taught in the nation’s secondary schools so that school and university graduates conclude that its natural, not unusual, to start up a business, rather than simply flushing the nation’s talents down the drain by always sending our brightest and our best off to the compliance-based professions of law and accounting. Much of Australia’s business leadership, despite reflexively laying the blame for their own corporate performance at the feet of government and the unions, in reality leads the nation in our great national and self-satisfied complacency.
One further impediment to economic growth is the rolling failure of Australia’s venture capital markets to back Australian innovation. The loss of Australian IP abroad is the continuing story of much of our post-war economic history. WIFI is the most recent tragic case in point. Developed in large part in Australia, this critical innovation was lost abroad in 1999 because of a failure to locate sufficient venture capital to take it to global market. Imagine the global branding opportunities for Australia if this had become one of ours around the world. Everybody uses WIFI. It could have become our very own Apple. The loss of these opportunities in IT, Biotechnology, Nanotech, new materials research, AI, block chain and big data must stop. We have five of the world’s top 100 hundred research universities. We also host world-class bio-medical research institutes in our major cities. They produce world class research and innovation. Yet the constant failure lies on the entrepreneurial and venture capital side in taking world-class innovation to its full market potential.
Governments cannot mandate the banks to adopt a more creative approach to national wealth generation. But because the nation’s superannuation funds, both public and private, benefit from a legislated superannuation guarantee levy, the time has come to consider mandating a small sub-percentage of their combined investments to be directed to Australian venture capital projects in order to commercialise Australian-sourced innovation. Although representing a tiny amount for each fund, given the overall size of the industry, in aggregate this would create sufficient critical mass in the venture capital industry in this country to meet the demand of our innovators who are hungry for new investment. This could make a strategic difference if funds are forced to work hard to find new investments from our thousands of innovators in generating new sources of long-term wealth for their members. The funds, of course, will scream about the impact any such directive would have on their fiduciary duty to maximise returns to policy holders. The funds scream less, however, when these returns are compromised by the fees structure these same fund managers happily impose on a generally unwitting public.
On the impact of technological change on existing industries and employment, the challenge of course is large. Given that these changes are likely to gather in pace rather than the reverse, there are three types of responses necessary for Australia. The first is a large scale re-investment in STEM subjects (i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics) across the school, further education and higher education systems. All other serious countries are doing this. Australia, according to PISA rankings, is now falling behind. This must be urgently reversed as a strategic national priority. Second, the creation of a critical mass in Australian venture capital funds, as recommended above, is urgent. This is the only way new industries and new jobs will be created. Third, given the growing likelihood of major employment disruptions though automation, IT and AI, Australia will need a new National Jobs and Training Agency to provide retrenched or otherwise longer-term unemployed workers with a universal training guarantee for newly emerging industries, as well as placing retrained workers in new jobs within a specified period of time. At present, the training and employment functions of government agencies are separate, underfunded, and ineffectively incentivised. They must be brought together with a new, demanding mandate, and with the resources necessary to give effect to that mandate. Failure to do this effectively will result in a growing generation of unemployed and alienated Australians who no longer have a stake in the country’s future.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I believe we must aim to build a Big Australia. Neither maximum workforce participation nor productivity growth alone will generate an economy large enough and a workforce young enough to pay for the country’s future. The ageing of our population is real. The impact on future retirement income, health and aged care costs will be prohibitive. These cannot be wished away. This leaves to one side the future cost of our national defence. For Australia to sustain its future standard of living and meet its future social policy and national security policy needs, we will need a much larger population. That’s why we need to plan effectively for an optimum population size. A big Australia is not incompatible with properly mandated urban planning, infrastructure development and environmental sustainability. Nor is it incompatible with the development of new population centres in the water-rich northern parts of the country. Nor does it prevent mandating new migrants to move to these regions rather than the capital cities to avoid over-crowding. All this is doable. And at a pace and composition of migration flows that maintains social stability on the way through. Of course there will be vigorous reaction to this proposal. There has been in the past. That’s because everybody is running for cover while no-one is answering the core question – that in the absence of continuing significant migration flows, who on earth is going to fund our most fundamental future national needs, from health and aged care, to retirement incomes to national defence in an increasingly unstable region. We run the risk of being a young country which becomes old before its time. These are the seeds of national decline.
To accompany this, we will need an even more robust Infrastructure Australia to ensure we have the roads, rail, ports, electricity supply, water supply, waste management systems and high speed broadband to meet the future needs of a growing nation. The conservatives have effectively destroyed the NBN as an effective fibre optic to the premises network nation-wide. We will have to rebuild the network. Otherwise we will fall even further behind the rest of the world. Infrastructure Australia will also need new sources of infrastructure financing. New types of Nation Building Bonds will be needed, with returns comparable to those offered for regular Australian government paper. This will be necessary if the big projects of the future (for example high speed rail between our major capital cities) are ever to be built. Otherwise we will be full of plans but with limited finance to give them effect. And our growth potential will be strangled as a result.
Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change
The Big Five:
- Meeting our Paris commitments on GHG reductions by maximising use of renewables, radically enhancing energy efficiency and the rapid expansion of domestic gas use against coal-fired power generation;
- Introduce a carbon trading scheme with a robust carbon price;
- Resuming global climate change leadership;
- A Global Solar Enterprise under the G20 focussed on a global R and D “moonshot” on long-term solar energy storage;
- Planning for climate change refugees in the South Pacific.
Australia must transform itself over time into a zero-carbon economy. We need a globally competitive carbon price set through the market mechanism of an emissions trading scheme. We will also need to maintain the existing Mandatory Renewable Energy Target. This can be done in a way which guarantees energy security. It can also be achieved without building new coal-fired power stations. We must maximise the domestic deployment of our massive natural gas reserves for the domestic economy. All clean energy options should be embraced. The reason Australia must act on climate change is not because our aggregate emissions are so large. They are not – in fact barely two per cent of global greenhouse gases. But if we become free-riders on the global system, other much bigger emitters will use our free-riding as an excuse not to act themselves.
There is a further reason for Australia having its own house in order as well. There is at present a growing global leadership vacuum on climate change. We have a fundamental national interest at stake in ensuring global GHG emissions are contained in order to keep global temperature increases within two degrees centigrade this century. We are already the driest continent on earth. The Barrier Reef is at tipping point. The Murray Darling is under unprecedented pressure. We therefore have no alternative but to contribute to global leadership on climate.
Apart from France, and possibly China, no other countries are rising to this urgent international challenge. We must work as genuine global activists on climate change and do so in all global fora of which we are members. We should turn global climate change action into one of the two core agenda items of the G20 – the other being a return to long term sustainable global economic growth. It’s precisely for purposes such as this that we helped create and then secured Australian membership of the G20 in the first place. We must therefore use it.
We should use the G20 to create a new Global Solar Enterprise to fund and coordinate global R and D on solar energy storage – the single greatest “moonshot” still needed to achieve the strategic breakthrough necessary for the long term delivery of renewable energy to meet the electricity system’s future “base-load” requirements. But none of his can happen in the absence of Australia resolving its domestic inertia on climate change action. And then having a government with sufficient political courage, imagination and fortitude to lead globally. The uncomfortable truth is that because of domestic political distractions around the world, very few governments are providing such leadership. And time is running out.
There is one further implication arising from climate change for Australia. A number of neighbouring island states are facing the future disappearance of their countries altogether through coastal inundation. The most vulnerable of these Pacific Island states to the impacts of climate change are Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru. Australia should consider developing a proposal to these three states to enter into formal constitutional condominium with them, as we currently have with Norfolk Island. This would require constitutional changes in all four countries. If our neighbours requested this, and their peoples agreed, Australia would become responsible for their territorial seas, their vast Exclusive Economic Zones, including the preservation of their precious fisheries reserves. Under this arrangement, Australia would also become responsible for the relocation over time of the exposed populations of these countries (totalling less than 75,000 people altogether) to Australia where they would enjoy the full rights of Australian citizens. This figure is less than half of the total Australian regular immigration intake in any given year. If these countries start to submerge in the years ahead, Australia would face international pressure to provide safe haven for our pacific neighbours anyway. In effect, they would become climate change refugees and the world would look to Australia for leadership. As foreign minister, I had prepared a 2012 cabinet submission on this, just before leaving that office. As a result, it was not considered by the government. This work remains deeply relevant today. And will become even more so in the future as sea levels continue to rise.
Reforming the Australian Social Contract to improve Economic Equality
The Big Five
- Radically reducing university fees for the children of low to middle income families to a maximum of 10% of cost recovery;
- Increasing superannuation adequacy by boosting the SGL from 9% to 12% while gradually increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69;
- Rebuilding the Australian Health and Hospital Network from the 2010 Blueprint;
- Reforming the aged care system;
- Funding fee reform for university education from a new Resource Super Profit Tax imposed on Australia’s three biggest mining companies.
Sustainable economic growth has two basic conditionalities: a natural environment that can support it, and a social contract that ensures that society does not fracture as a result of the inequalities that arise from our existing growth model. Absolute inequality in Australia, as measured by the nation’s “Gini co-efficient” is rising. Just as equality of opportunity is falling. If this trend continues, political support for our current economic growth framework will eventually collapse, polarising politics away from the centre-left and the centre-right towards the extremes. This process is already well down the road in Europe and America. It also contains clear warning signs for Australia.
Australia must now re-define its social contract to reduce inequality before the system begins to fracture. This will depend on multiple policy instruments. Future tax reform must benefit low and middle income earners, not further advantaging the rich. Childcare must make greater workforce participation easier not harder. So too with paid parental leave. An Australian Jobs and Training Agency, as argued above, must be fully empowered to deal with structural unemployment arising from the great disruption now unfolding across labour markets from the explosion in labour-disrupting technologies. The Australian Health and Hospital Network, first negotiated in 2010, must be revisited with the states and then implemented in order to ensure that our universal health system is financially sustainable for the long term – rather than slowly dying the death of a thousand financial cuts. STEM reform across the education system is not only designed to ensure that the economy can perform in the highly competitive global markets of the future. It is also part of a social contract to ensure working class and middle class kids have access to the well paid jobs of the future. A reform of housing policy must also respond substantively to declining levels of housing affordability for young Australians.
One further needed reform of the social contract goes to the declining affordability and accessibility of higher education. The cost of degrees has now become prohibitive for many students, other than the children of the rich. This represents a major assault on equality of opportunity for the future. This must change. Future cost recovery for undergraduate degrees must be properly means-tested so that the spectrum of cost recovery ranges from 10 per cent to a 100 percent depending on parental income. Every young person qualified to attend university must be accommodated without being deterred by financial disincentive.
The gap between the total cost of the undergraduate system and the fees recovered should be met in large part by a new Resource Super Profits Tax imposed on Australia’s three biggest mining companies. These companies have gotten away with minimal effective tax rates in Australia over many decades, despite exploiting a non-renewable resource that is actually owned by the Australian people and leased by the corporations. None of them have established charitable foundations at any scale. They have simply maximised hundreds of billions in profits for global shareholders. The time has come to have these corporations “pay it back” to the nation by becoming a strategic source of funding for the future expansion of the Australian university system.
Finally, the Australian social contract should be expanded by ensuring retirement income adequacy for those on low and middle incomes. The superannuation guarantee level should be restored to 12 per cent as we originally legislated in 2010. The current retirement age of 67 may need to be further adjusted to 70, reflecting the benefits of greater longevity as well as further sustaining the long-term financial affordability of the aged pension and entitlements system. Our national aged care system is also now ripe for fundamental national review as quality control, financial sustainability and labour shortages emerge as long term constraints in providing acceptable care to our seniors. All these measures are designed to make Australia a fairer society than the one it has become.
The Rejuvenation of Our Democracy
The Big Five:
- Campaign finance reform that bans corporate donations, caps individual donations as well as the total amount that can be expended in a single local and national campaign
- Entrenchment of existing democratic reforms for the election of the party leader and the adoption of these reforms by all parties to ensure leadership continuity between elections;
- A Royal Commission into the future of Australian media ownership and diversity;
- Pilot programs in various models of direct democracy such as “My Vote” and “Citizens Juries”;
- Acceptance of a constitutionally entrenched National Indigenous Assembly with advisory powers on matters relevant to indigenous peoples.
This leads us in turn to the long-term sustainability of the Australian democratic project itself. How healthy is our democracy after 120 years? Despite the occasional blip, the Australian Electoral Commission is world-renowned for its honesty, impartiality and transparency. The integrity of the electoral rolls, the determination of the electoral districts in which elections are conducted and the counting of the vote are corruption free. This is no small thing against many other democracies where democratic institutions remain weak. For us, the physical conduct of elections is not the problem with our democracy. The problems lie elsewhere.
The first is unrestricted corporate campaign finance, both from home and abroad, which causes voters to conclude that political and policy decisions have been purchased elsewhere, other than through the mandate of the ballot box. As in Canada, all corporate donations should be banned in Australia. Private donations should be limited to $1000 per individual for the entire campaign. At the same time, a cap of say $100,000 should be placed on what can be spent in total for each electorate campaign to avoid the slide into American practice where tens of millions are spent on each House race and where congressmen do little else other than fundraise. A separate national cap should also be placed on what can be raised and spent privately on the entire national campaign. Similar caps could be imposed on individuals and institutions wishing to donate to the national campaign of a political party. This in turn should be supplemented by public funding based on the primary vote of the parties at the previous election.
This could also be enhanced by a proportion of free advertising being required of all media networks and newspapers at election time as part of their public responsibility for the functioning of the democracy, and in the case of the electronic media as a condition of their licence. This would help ensure that if limits are placed on the total amount that can be raised and spent nationally for an election campaign, this does not leave all power at the discretion of biased news organisations like New Limited who would otherwise have an even freer hand to dictate the terms of the campaign. These campaign finance reforms would go some ways towards maintaining public confidence in the democratic process.
The second challenge is media reform. The 2013 Finkelstein Commission resulted in no real reforms to the concentration of media ownership in Australia. Nor the related abuse of monopoly or near-monopoly media powers in Australian politics. The cold hard truth is that Murdoch has become a cancer on the Australian, American and British democracies. Murdoch’s print media have overwhelmingly backed conservative political parties in all three countries, and conservative policy causes, to the virtual exclusion of all other political voices. Murdoch is free to express his editorial opinion. But long ago this converged with his “news” coverage so that the two have now become indistinguishable. A long time ago, Murdoch effectively became his own conservative political party, masquerading as a news corporation, in prosecution of his mutually reinforcing ideological and commercial interests. His editors routinely become senior political staffers working for conservative governments. There is no longer any pretence of independence or impartiality in news coverage, if indeed there ever was.
Some have questioned whether the Murdoch media, given the advances of both the digital and social media revolutions, continues to have the political influence that it did a decade ago. I contend that it does because the migration of news on line has also seen alternative news mastheads, like Fairfax and Australian Consolidated Press, either shrink or disappear. Murdoch’s loss-making newspapers are cross-subsidised purely in order to maximise their political impact in an otherwise shrinking news market. Murdoch also knows that this influence is magnified by the electronic media where declining viewership and listenership has seen cutbacks in the number of journalists charged with independent reporting. It has become easier and easier for the electronics therefore to run their daily news coverage from what appears on the front pages of the remaining print media. On that score, Murdoch remains the dominant national and regional platform with 70% of national circulation. It’s easy therefore for a television or radio station to just “rip and read” what is already sitting before their eyes on Murdoch’s front pages. That’s quite apart from far-right shock jocks who have had a long-term symbiotic relationship with Murdoch’s print media, and where their principal function is to broadcast to a wider audience that day’s right-wing rant from the Murdoch broadsheet or tabloids. Of course, that still excludes Murdoch moving directly into Australian television ownership for which his 100 per cent takeover of Sky is but the first step. Just as Murdoch intends to dominate all Australian digital news platforms as well. Therefore, for those who assume that technology will simply render Murdoch politically redundant in the Australia of the future, his capacity to fundamentally share the parameters and the content of the nation’s political debate will continue to be formidable.
In America, Murdoch’s Fox News has been the single largest factor contributing to the radicalisation of the hard right of the Republic Party and its further procreation of radical fringe movements way beyond the Party as well. By creating a self-reinforcing, self-contained echo chamber of the American far right, Murdoch created first the Tea Party, and out of the Tea Party now the Trump Party. This has greatly aided the radical polarisation of American politics and the resulting triumph of the political extremes. The extremes no longer debate. They simply abuse. This is also consistent with the culture established by Murdoch’s papers long ago. Murdoch is now seeking to do the same with Sky News in Australia as he has done with Fox in the US. In the United Kingdom, Murdoch’s papers actively backed (unsuccessfully) Scottish independence from Great Britain, and then backed (successfully) Britain’s separation from the European Union through Brexit. Few Australians have a full appreciation of the destructive power wielded by Murdoch across the world against all forms of progressive politics, and even mainstream conservative politics, as demonstrated in the Scottish and Brexit referendums. We often ponder why democracy has been in such a mess across the Anglosphere. While Murdoch cannot be blamed for the lot, he’s been a big part of the equation. By contrast, the Canadian democracy has been in reasonable shape and it’s significant that there is negligible Murdoch presence there. Furthermore, there is little evidence that the Murdoch syndicate will change its behaviour once Murdoch Senior is dead. Murdoch Junior is just as conservative, and just as commercially driven. The Murdoch media is therefore likely to remain a long-term cancer on our democracies.
For these reasons, as well as the 2018 takeover of Fairfax by Nine Media, the time has come for a full Royal Commission on the question of the abuse of media monopoly power in Australia. This should include examining Murdoch’s past behaviour – including his campaign to kill the NBN because it was a commercial threat to his empire. It should also make clear recommendations for the future on how to maximise media diversity in a complex media market. This should include questions of regulation of social media. It should also consider legislated funding levels for the public broadcaster for the future. Future conservative governments would find this more difficult to repeal than they do at present when budgets can be slashed at the stroke of a pen, always mindful of the Murdoch’s deep contempt for both the ABC and the BBC. The political independence of ABC board members should also be entrenched under statute.
One further element in the debate on the future of our democracy is the growing alienation between the public and the mainstream political parties themselves. This in part has to do with the failure to deal with growing public dissatisfaction with the content of public policy solutions on offer as the social contract begins to fragment. It also has to deal with the “hypocrisy” factor between the actions of those in the political process, compared with the policies they publicly profess. Whether this is a growing problem or not is hard to judge. In many respects the “hypocrisy” charge has been with us since the beginning of politics itself. It is certainly more evident than it once was as media reporting rightly exposes monumental double standards. Its cumulative impact, however, is beginning to tell, as public confidence in the institution of parliament begins to fray, where it is now believed that representatives are more likely to be in politics for personal gain rather than the public good. This too, over time, is wearing away at the perceived integrity of the democratic project overall.
The question arises therefore as to what to do about the “corruptibility” of individual politicians. Codes of conduct are now generally strong. Lobbyist registers are now in place. Pecuniary interest declarations are mandatory, although certain conservative politicians have routinely refused to apply this to their spouses. I have already recommended a fundamental reform of campaign finance laws. A formal Federal ICAC has been recommended by many. This may now be necessary simply to restore public perceptions in the integrity of the institution of parliament itself. I fear that unless we do so, the public’s trust in their parliament will continue to be whittled away bit by bit.
Then there is the internal democratisation of our mainstream parties themselves. Both parties are plagued by factions which are non-democratic oligopolies functioning within the formal structure of a party in order to wield substantive power without reference to normal democratic processes. In Labor’s case, unions which represent about 12 per cent of the national workforce, through the factions they control within the party, still control the party’s future. These factions should be banned under the party’s rules. New rules for the election of the party leader is one thing. But similar rules are necessary for the preselection of our Senators so that any party members can stand and all party members can vote. At present the union-based factions control practically all our senate preselections. This must change. Just as our national and state conference delegates should be elected directly. The present 50% rule (whereby unions are guaranteed 50% of the delegates) should be changed to a formula whereby the level of union representation at conference should be double that of the level of unionisation of the workforce. That would mean reducing the current level of representation from 50% to 25%. This is essential if we are to open up the party to a wider membership from across the broad spectrum of progressive politics. The Labor Party must in time become a grand coalition of unions, progressive business, small business, community organisations and environmental defenders. In time we must evolve into a coalition of progressive social democrats capable of bringing the whole country with us, not just part. This is also the only way of ensuring we are capable of capturing a clear democratic majority in the elections of the future.
In doing all this, we should also be open to experimenting with the various forms of direct democracy that are now on offer – from rolling digital referenda as recommended by organisations such as “MyVote”, as well as recent recommendations for “citizens juries” selected to forge consensus on complex, intractable policy questions. The idea that democracies just speak once at an election time and then remain silent for another 3-4 years seems increasingly arcane. We at least need to be open-minded about how other approaches might supplement the formal electoral process in tackling challenges where the current partisan divide renders parliamentary agreement impossible. Or else unsustainable, if the political tables are turned at the following election. If a citizen’s jury conclusion ends up being consensual, even if its powers are purely recommendatory, these may well have real persuasive effect on an otherwise divided legislature.
Finally, and for similar reasons, Australians should have nothing to fear from an Indigenous “voice” advising the elected parliament on laws affecting indigenous peoples, as recommended by the Uluru Statement of 2017. Nor is there any inherent problem in the constitutional entrenchment of such an advisory body as part of the formal constitutional recognition of our first peoples. Parliaments would learn something from this. It would never be perfect. But the same applies to the existing Houses of Parliament. The argument that it would represent an “unelected third chamber” is hollow for the simple reason that its powers do not replace those of the formally elected parliament. They are recommendatory only. Indeed, an indigenous advisory body would enrich our democracy. Not undermine it.
National Security – Navigating Major Changes in the Global and Regional Order
The Big Five
- Develop a balanced National China Strategy that defends our democratic values, preserves regional strategic stability through a continued US forward deployment while maximising our national economic interests;
- Sustain national defence expenditure at 2% of GDP over time through legislative entrenchment, and enhance the capacity of the Australian foreign service, aid program and international broadcasting arm;
- Develop a strategy with other middle powers to enhance the global and regional rules based order, its institutions and disputes resolution processes as a core objective of Australian diplomacy;
- Transform our regional security architecture over time by building an Asia Pacific Community out of the East Asian Summit, while enhancing ASEAN within it by Australia becoming a member of the institution.
- Reform global burden sharing arrangements under the UN Refugees Convention re source, neighbouring, transit and destination countries for global asylum seeker flows;
There is another reason to reinvigorate the democratic project at this time. That’s because for the first time since the end of the Cold War, serious doubts are now raised around the world about the durability of liberal democracy in the face of the challenge of other authoritarian political models. Whereas until recently, the long-term global ascendancy of democratic capitalism seemed assured, the rise of China, the resilience of Russia, India’s equivocation about its future global role, coupled with the internal challenges facing western democracies across the board, have created a new and more complex international political reality. Indeed, if the sun has begun finally to set on western economic dominance in the world, by the same logic some argue the same will follow with the declining global appeal of the dominant western political idea – namely democracy itself. My argument, nonetheless, is that notwithstanding the fact that democracy in the west is only a relatively recent political innovation, and despite the multiple challenges it is now encountering in its own democratic heartland, rumours of its death and decline are premature. There is still enormous power in the essential idea of a free people, freely able to choose their own government, that continues to animate and inspire peoples everywhere.
When China becomes the world’s largest economy, measured by market exchange rates, sometime during the next decade, it will be the first time since George 111 was on the throne that a non-western, non-democratic, non-English speaking state will occupy that dominant position. China’s chosen development model accompanying its rise has been a form of authoritarian capitalism driven by a one party state. The Chinese Communist Party has never accepted the inevitability of its own demise. It has judged that its political and economic model is appropriate for China’s domestic circumstances. And further, following the rise of Xi Jinping in 2012, the party has doubled down in its level of political and economic control, explicitly rejecting the idea that China is in some form of long-term evolution to become a Singaporean-style, semi-democratic system. Instead, Xi Jinping speaks with growing candour about Marx, Lenin and China’s own hierarchical Confucian tradition as his ideological guides for charting China’s national and global future. This spells the end of American and wider western assumptions that decades of engagement strategy with China would eventually cause Beijing to accept the inherent wisdom of the existing liberal-democratic rules-based order, crafted by America since the war, and one which China could happily accept and sustain once it eclipsed American power. Instead, China’s chosen future development model, and the emerging patterns of its own global engagement, are likely to have major implications for the future shape of the rules-based system, for China’s particular role within our own hemisphere, as well as for Australia itself.
Australia therefore needs a deeply realistic understanding of China’s worldview under Xi Jinping. Under Xi, China will consolidate its one-party state rather than the reverse. It will prioritise the preservation of national unity, including conforming Hong Kong and increasingly Taiwan to its own domestic image. It will seek to continue to grow its economy with a revised growth model, but one which will be compromised by a continuing determination to preference state-owned enterprises over the growing ascendancy of major private firms. Xi’s China will also seek to navigate the constraints of climate change despite China’s continued chronic dependency on coal-fired power generation. China will seek to expand its geo-economic and geo-strategic influence across the Eurasian continent to Europe, Africa and the Middle East through its multi-trillion dollar “Belt and Road Initiative”. Just as China will deploy its economic and foreign policy influence in East Asia to prize regional states away from the US sphere of strategic influence into its own, while also using its own military modernisation to gradually push the US out of its current dominant military position in the Western Pacific. Elsewhere in the world, China will seek to become the indispensable economic partner of all, and over time work to change the rules, institutions and practices of the current liberal international order in a direction more compatible with China’s own indigenous interests and values.
Each of these individual elements of China’s emerging worldview has implications for Australia – some positive, some negative, others still to be determined. Australia will need a strong, sophisticated, balanced national China strategy for the future, as we once had in the past. Because China deeply respects strength and is contemptuous of weakness, Australia must be resolute in the defence of its values and national interests. We will need significantly to increase our national defence expenditure over the decades ahead to expand our future naval and air capabilities. This should be entrenched in statute as a minimum of two per cent of GDP to prevent the inevitable complaints and predations of Treasury who institutionally see much of defence as a waste. We should deepen the military relationship with the United States because in the eyes of the wider region, ANZUS represents an Australian force multiplier which enhances our strategic and foreign policy leverage, rather than the reverse. Australia will also need radically to enhance its strategic diplomacy across the Indo-Pacific region. This will require a much better-resourced Australian foreign service. It will also need an aid program capable of having competitive influence in the wider region, rather than one now seen as increasingly marginal. Australia should also seek to join ASEAN, although this will be resisted by various ASEAN members to begin with. ASEAN is becoming weaker and more divided over time. Australian membership would add to ASEAN’s economic ballast by more than a third. It would also help Australia and Indonesia manage their own long-term bilateral relationship, particularly as Indonesia becomes more powerful, as common members of an important regional institution. Australia should also work to re-engage future US administrations on US membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership to enhance regional economic growth between the open economies of the region. Chinese membership should also be considered in the future. Australia should also seek to enhance the East Asian Summit as an emerging piece of the region’s future security architecture. We should hold open the vision of the long-term development of an Asia Pacific Community, based on the evolution of the EAS, in order to provide a forum for open security dialogue, the encouragement of multilateral security cooperation and, in time dispute resolution, rather than simply watch the region degenerate into two armed camps – one in Washington and Tokyo, the other in Beijing and possibly Pyongyang. Finally, Australia as a G20 member country, will also have a responsibility in the years ahead to work intimately with other G20 states like France, Germany, the UK and Japan to defend the liberal rules-based international order against the threat of US dismemberment during the period of the Trump presidency, and possibly beyond. If we fail in the above, our friends in China will increasingly find themselves pushing on an open door.
Global and regional instability is also likely to greatly increase the numbers of asylum seekers worldwide. Already there are nearly 70 million internally and internationally displaced persons. The Europeans once thought this was not their problem. Then they thought it was only their problem. The American experience has been much the same. The truth is it is a global problem. Because Australia is the only western country in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia will become an even more attractive destination country than before. It will become critical therefore for Australia to lead the international debate on the reform of the global institutional arrangements underpinning the 1954 Refugees Convention. This must be done multilaterally. It must deal with the economic development needs of potential source countries. It must deal with the immediate humanitarian aid requirements of neighbouring countries where asylum seekers first flee. It must also deploy the UNHCR to transit counties to organise proper reception centres, processing arrangements and humane conditions, funded by international agencies, until the status of asylum seekers is determined. Then it must develop an international agreement on global burden sharing for all potential destination countries, commensurate with national capacity and economic size. It would be based on this agreement that successful applicants would be resettled. It is only through such an approach that order, humanity and secure national borders can be restored for the future.
Towards a National Vision for our Future – Towards a Big Australia
These are my views on the core elements of a vision for our country’s future today. Its unapologetically a vision for a Big Australia because I do not believe we can safely guarantee the nation’s future in this deeply uncertain world unless we become much bigger than we are. Precisely how much bigger will be a matter for detailed research on what we will need for our future national capacity, although a figure of 50 million should be within our reach for the second half of the century. That would begin to place Australia in the same league as France, the UK and in time Germany. We would need at least that level of economic critical mass to sustain our long-term defence needs in a future where we may no longer have the support of our traditional alliances. It would also consolidate our position as a member of the G20 over time as other nations pass Australia in absolute economic size. Detailed urban planning for how we sustain our cities, our infrastructure and our environment on the way through would be mandatory to accommodate this level of growth. But it is doable without choking our cities and without destroying our environment.
However, this is not just a matter of size. I also believe in a big-hearted Australia where compassion is writ large in the nation’s soul, where equality is no longer a lost idea and where the fair go is never thrown out the back door. Equally it is an Australia that thinks big about the type of country we could become, of the new industries we can create from our own home-grown innovation, about the solutions to climate change and water we can pioneer, about how to preserve the peace and prosperity of an increasingly fractured region and world. A big Australia is therefore about the scope of our national imagination.
This is an Australia big enough and bold enough in its national vision to dream on a wide canvas, rather than simply contenting ourselves be a small and provincial place, of what Manning Clark once called the “narrowers and straighteners.” Instead, ours can be a strong Australia, a competitive Australia, an inclusive Australia, a compassionate Australia and a sustainable Australia. Neither conservative, nor neo-liberal nor the blind socialism of the utopians. Ours indeed can be a fourth way. It is a vision for an Australian social democracy that is capable of bringing the nation with us as we navigate the difficult challenges and complex world of the future.