Brett Gale
Monday, 4 February 2019

Inaugural Chifley Lecture: Introductory Remarks

Good Evening all, my name is Brett Gale and I am the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre – the official think tank of the Australian Labor Party.

On behalf of Chifley welcome.

I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respect to elders past and present.

The mission of the Chifley Research Centre is to promote a Labor culture of ideas, and, to develop informed, reformist public policy aimed at making Australia a fairer and more progressive country.

That’s why it’s my great pleasure to welcome you all to our Inaugural Chifley Oration.

Often in public discussion we hear complaints that Australian politics is too short term, too focussed on immediate political gain. This can be summed up in the mantra that “policy reform in Australia is dead”.

I don’t necessarily agree with that perspective, especially where the policy boldness of the current Federal Opposition is concerned.

But, as I move around the country in my role as Chifley ED I sense a great hunger for more substantive policy discussions than can be encapsulated in 280 characters on Twitter or in a 10 second grab.

That’s why the purpose of the Chifley Oration is to set the horizon further – to go beyond day-to-day politics.

We aim to make this annual event a chance for progressive thinkers to examine a wider vision, to give thought to the topic of the future of social democracy.

It is very much in the spirit of the person after whom this lecture is named, Ben Chifley – a true Australian visionary.

It’s for that reason that we are particularly pleased to have as our first Chifley Oration speaker one of Labor’s best thinkers and policy minds in Chris Bowen.

Anyone who has read Chris’ book Hearts and Minds  knows, that he has thought deeply about the role of Labor and of social democracy more generally in modern society.

And as someone who has been friends with him for nearly 30 years, and having once been his Chief of Staff, I know from first hand experience how Chris works everyday to make Australia a fairer place.

Of course, if you ask 100 different people what they mean by social democracy you are liable to get 100 different answers.

If you add in nuances of opinion between social democracy, democratic socialism and even plain old socialism, you could spend all day in a definitional struggle that would not solve the problems of society one wit.

From my point of view social democrats believe in a set of shared values and aspirations for what makes a good society.

Personally, I’m happy to use the terms interchangeably, not because definitions don’t matter but because outcomes matter more.

As the wartime British Prime Minister Clem Attlee said, “I joined the socialist movement because I did not like the kind of society we had and I wanted something better”.

The essence of social democracy is an ongoing fight to civilise capitalism and to create a more equal society.

Of course, the hard thing for social democrats is that this is a fight that doesn’t end and one we must constantly wage.

It is an ongoing struggle.

That’s why over the years the means of achieving a social democratic society have changed.

It is impossible for progress to occur if we remain hidebound to the past.

It is impossible to create today’s better society if we remain ossified in the solutions that worked generations ago without realising that conditions have changed.

As the great British Labour minister and political theorist Anthony Crosland wrote, “there is no reason why means that are suitable in one generation should be equally suitable in the next”.

To me however, ignorance of this truth is what has endangered the electoral viability of social democracy around the world.

Across the globe, with one notable exception, social democracy is under serios, even existential, threat.

In Europe, parties of the left and centre-left have rarely been in such a poor position.

In Germany the Social Democratic Party has recently been polling at just 17%.

In Italy the Centre-Left Coalition finished third in last year’s elections.

In France the candidate of the centre-left – the party that held the Presidency – received only 6.4% of the vote in the first round of the most recent presidential elections.

And we only breathed a sigh of relief at the election of a union attacking neo-liberal in Macron because his opponent was an actual fascist.

In Britain, despite what can only be called a shambolic Tory Government the Labour opposition consistently lags in the polls.

In the US the Democrats recorded fantastic results in last year’s mid-terms.  Yet after the experience of 2016 it would be foolish to ignore the ability that Trump has to appeal to working class voters who traditionally supported the party of the centre-left.

What has led us to this dismal state of affairs?

In my view, even 10 years on, there has been a failure by the centre-left to reckon with the effects of the Global Financial crisis.

By-and-large European and American social democrats have failed to effectively engage with the disenchantment of the populace since the GFC.

They have not responded quickly enough to voters’ changing expectations of what they want from government and society today.

The deliberate political strategy of the mainstream left throughout the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s’was one of playing down the role that the state could, and should, play in creating a better society.

However, in practice what this meant was that following the GFC, at the exact time that state intervention was warranted, the centre left in the US and Europe had neither the words, the vision nor the policy bona fides to make a renewed case for a way in which the state could temper the worst excesses of capitalism.

As the GFC hit, the third way soon became the wrong way.

The global financial crisis required bold action from Governments of the Centre Left who were in power at the time.

Instead, except for Australia under Labor, the response of most centre left parties to the GFC was straight out of the expected neo-Liberal playbook.  This was the case with both Britain under Brown and the US under Obama.

Globally it has in fact been the populist right that has stolen the clothes that social democrats used to wear.

This need not be the case.

With inequality once again on the rise, with the planet under threat from global warming and the palpable fear of losing one’s job to technological change the time should be right for another social democratic moment.

But this does mean, per Anthony Crosland, once again reinventing the means we use to achieve social democracy.

It means once again offering big and bold policy solutions to these big problems we face.

It means overcoming the incrementalism that characterised the last twenty years of social democracy.

It means for instance, championing the role of Government and of Government intervention and redistribution, and it means giving workers back their rights to demand wage increases.

I said before that there was one exception to the pitiful electoral state of social democracy.

That exception is here in the antipodes.

It is in New Zealand where Jacinda Ardern’s government is inspiring the centre-left across the world.

And it is here in Australia, where Australian Labor’s policy solutions are resonating so well with the Australian electorate.

Policy solutions that owe their provenance in no small part to the work of Chris Bowen.

Chris, Bill Shorten and the rest of the Labor team are proving everyday that social democracy does have a bright future.

They are creating new policies that reflect the challenges of today, not the problems of the past.

And they are paving a way forward for social democrats around the world just like Australia did in the Hawke Keating years.

That’s why I can think of no one better than Chris Bowen to join us for this first oration.

Before Chris outlines his view of the future of social democracy however, I’d like to acknowledge some key people in the room tonight

I would like to acknowledge the Chair of the Chifley Research Centre Linda White who has been leading this work with both her Chair hat and union leader hat for many years.

I also note Chris’ parliamentary colleagues Joanne Ryan and Tim Watts who are both great friends of the Chifley Research Centre

Finally, I want to thank Slater and Gordon for their support for this event.  Over the past year Slater and Gordon and Chifley Research Centre have become great partners and we are grateful for their backing.

Because without the assistance of partners like Slater and Gordon events like tonight would not be possible.

But it’s not just material support.  Slater and Gordon have themselves been fighting for justice and equality on behalf of workers for over 80 years.  They embody the values of social democracy that form the basis of our shared approach to public policy.

With that I’d now like to welcome James McKenzie – the Chair of Slater and Gordon to officially introduce tonight’s Inaugural Chifley Orator Chris Bowen.

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.