Rethinking the Welfare State

Labor has begun the process of reviewing our platform. The welfare state is one of the major areas that will be reconsidered. As economies evolve, welfare states must evolve as well. Where should we start?

My fifteen years of experience as a policy adviser and speechwriter tells me that starting with the technical details of policy is a huge mistake. Simply bolting together a large number of discrete, fully-costed and rational policies, leads to a platform that is rickety and unstable because it lacks intellectual coherence and moral force. In the 2001 election, we had a folder of costed policies half a foot thick, but they inspired few people because they had no unifying idea that would give us a sense of purpose and direction.

The starting point for a Labor program on the welfare state or any other policy area must be the creation of clarity about our philosophy and our moral purpose. Graham Freudenberg used to say Labor in opposition had three goals: the party, the policy, the people. For me, the correct order for policy making must be:

• Philosophy first.

• Language and politics second.

• Technical policy detail third.

Over recent years we’ve tended to get this order backwards – which is a hangover from the technocratic and managerialist approach that has dominated our approach to politics for so long. To put the result in marketing terms (not something that is always helpful, but something everyone gets), we’ve got plenty of products but a weak brand. We can have all the welfare policies we like but if there’s no coherent idea by which to understand them, people will be left confused and bewildered. A lot has actually been attempted in this space in recent times. The efforts of Wayne Swan to frame Labor’s economic policies as a defence of Australian egalitarian values, and to urge the country to stand fast against the American disease of money-interest politics, have been notable. He has been strongly backed up at times, but this is the sort of brand-building work the entire party and movement needs to make a consistent priority in the future.

If I could therefore make two humble suggestions for the party’s policy-making before I get onto the welfare state question, they would be these:

Firstly, we need a debate, involving all party members from the rank-and-file branch members to the leader, to redefine and develop a consensus about what Australian social democracy means. I’m not talking about an endless public argument, but a purposeful and unifying debate that feeds into the deliberations of the party leadership to develop a platform for government that makes real moral sense to our members and which they can own.

The imperative for this is clear: at this point in the party’s history, we need not only to engage the electorate but the party too. Internal democratic reform is crucially important to the party’s future, but it can’t be about numbers, it must be about ideas as well.

Secondly, and this may sound like special pleading from someone who took part with others in the establishment of a think tank, but the party needs to invest seriously not only in processes like this one today, but in its think tanks. The organising principle for a new welfare state is going to come from intellectual leadership and debate, and think tanks are well positioned to play a crucial role.

Resources will be scarce, but I’m sure that with a little bit of commitment from the top, we can sort out a way for the party, its unions and its financial supporters to channel sufficient funds into the think tank scene to create a more vibrant intellectual atmosphere and solve our branding problem.

There’s no better place to start to create this positive intellectual atmosphere and rebuild a sense of purpose for Labor than a discussion about the welfare state. Our political opponents may deride the very idea of a welfare state, but in many ways it is the crucial issue for us, and the true starting point for determining the party’s future direction. That’s because our attitude to the welfare state is central to how we talk about Australian society. It crystallizes the crucial questions confronting us as define what social democracy means today.

The first such question that the issue of the welfare state raises – and I acknowledge this is unusual language these days – is: ‘what is our religion?’ What is our light on the hill now? What’s our ultimate objective? I have to tell you that for too many, the answer seems to be ‘economic reform’. We’ve swallowed the idea formulated by our opponents over the last few decades that the ultimate purpose of government – in fact the only truly ‘hard-headed’ purpose – is the pursuit of economic efficiency. If economic growth through efficiency is our number one objective, then the welfare state may not be doomed but it definitely becomes a second or third-order issue.

Let me put it this way: there was a time when we in the Labor movement were unable to conceive of creating a future that was unequal; now it seems we are unable to conceive of a future that is inefficient.

The answer to this isn’t to dismiss the importance of economic reforms, but to put them in their wider context. Must Labor reform the economy for the betterment of society? Yes. But does the Labor Party exist primarily to enact free-market economic reform? No.

Economic reform is not our ends; it is simply the means to an end, which is about creating a more equal and just and gentler society, not just a more efficient one. And if we accept this, then the idea of a welfare state moves far higher up our order of political priorities.

The second question that the welfare state issue crystallizes is ‘what should our language be?’ How should we talk about politics, economics and the welfare state?

This is crucial. Over a number of years we have stopped talking like human beings with moral priorities and started sounding like economists with statistical priorities. The welfare state is justified by moral arguments, not economic ones. Instead of asking whether something is right, we tend to ask whether it raises productivity. This way of framing politics is cold, morally flat and frankly uninspiring. To illustrate, ask yourself a question: Who would you fight and die for? Your husband, your wife, your partner, your children, your mother, your country, the flag… ‘the ratio of economic outputs over economic inputs during a given economic cycle’?

Nowhere – not even in the United States – are political and social debates framed so completely around this second-order economic issue of productivity. Framing everything from education to industrial relations and even the National Disability Insurance Scheme around the concept of productivity is a peculiarly Australian disease that we should inoculate ourselves against. So, before we can make an effective case for a better welfare state, we need to make morality not economics our language, and equality, not productivity, our measure of success. We have to find a way of addressing people as human beings who think not just about their bank accounts but about their families, communities, workplaces and traditions.

The third question raised by our commitment to the welfare state is ‘what should be our philosophy?’

There are some in Labor today who think the social-democratic project is over; that we should become the party of the ‘winners’ not the ‘losers’, of individual aspiration not social equality, of social-liberalism not social-democracy. There’s no point trying to create a new model welfare state until we resolve this debate first, in a way that can accommodate all tendencies in the party.

On this I’m with the English-American philosopher Tony Judt, whose recent death was a major blow to the international centre-left. Judt’s position is simple: social democracy bears little or no relation to eastern European state planning, should not be tarred with its failures, is not driven by ‘class warfare’ but by morality, and has been one of the great civilising forces of the last century. It holds out humanity’s best hope of halting the destructiveness still being unleashed today by the continuance of the Thatcher-Reagan revolution.

My belief is that before we can develop a new model for the welfare state, we need have to get our belief system straight. Figure out whether our goal is economic reform or a better society or get the balance right between both. Stop sounding like economists and start sounding like human beings, so we can argue for a welfare state more effectively. And get used to defending the broad principles of social-democracy once again. The devil for the welfare state won’t be in the detail but in the big picture.

About Dennis Glover

Dennis Glover

Dr Dennis Glover is a professional speechwriter, a Fellow of the Per Capita think tank, and a political columnist in The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. He has previously worked on the staff of Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, and as a senior executive member of the Treasury Department. He currently writes speeches for members of the Labor Government as well as business and community leaders. He is the author of two non-fiction works (Orwell’s Australia, Scribe 2003; The Art of Great Speeches, CUP 2010). He has a B.A. Hons from Monash University and a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he was a member of King’s College.

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