JOIN LABOR'S CULTURE OF IDEAS

Sally McManus’ address to Toward 2022

Friends,

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

30 years ago there were high hopes that neo-liberal capitalism would, as Berliners broke down the concrete that had separated them from each other for decades, come to be a force that made people free, prosperous and happy.

Two generations later neo-liberalism has created the circumstances for democratic freedoms to be under attack, declining living standards, and existential anxiety bought about by a rapidly heating planet.

For thirty years we have been told markets run the economy and everything happens through a set of laws determined by the invisible hand of the market.  An invisible hand which exists outside the control of any individual or government. 

The job of good Government is to get out of the way and limit restrictions on the market to the most basic requirements of law and order. Implicitly and explicitly, this is a view that governments are bad and when they act, it is often maliciously – to “impose” taxes or to take something from you.

There is a narrative in some circles that “freedom” can only happen when there is no government. Of course, not in an anarchist type way, as the role of Government becomes to enforce a rule of law and crack down on dissent. At times this now manifests in a hateful, violent, almost post-apocalyptic mentality of everyone fending for themselves on an overheated planet while the State enforces law and order. 

It sounds like science fiction, but science fiction is what humans imagine before reality catches up. And reality is catching up; this year police raided journalist’s homes & media outlets, anti-protest laws have been proposed and our Government tried on laws to shut down unions.   

We talk about defending democracy, but this cry does not have the same moral power it once did. Too many people now think, “What has democracy done for me anyway?” 

We know that many people think government is ineffective or corrupt and democracy a waste of time.  

We should not be surprised given we have now had two generations of institutions, the media and even governments telling people “government is a bad thing”. 

The surprise is that there is any faith left in the role of governments at all. 

 And from there we should take hope.  Because after 30 years of the tide pushing “government is bad” people haven’t gone all the way to “government is bad”. They seem to be at “government is pointless”.

This is still a dangerous position to be in where people are less likely to revolt against the loss of democratic freedoms allowing Governments with an authoritarian streak to get away with doing just that. But it also means it isn’t too late. We can still demonstrate the point of government and the vital importance of democratic freedoms.  

But people need to see, not just be told what a social democratic government can do and how it can positively change their lives. 

This is about hope. But messages of hope must not just be delivered, they must be acted upon, otherwise people’s cynicism re-doubles and their lack of trust deepens. 

I always wondered what the consequences of unmet expectations might be as a result of the hope Obama set alight. Because it’s hope that makes expectations rise and there are consequences when it is dashed. I am not saying this was his, or the Democratic party’s fault. The failure to achieve universal health care is the symbol of the failure to meet expectations, but the inability to make a lot of the change promised must make some question whether change is possible at all. Or maybe many voters thought a more authoritarian, blunter, less bipartisan approach is needed to force change; so they found that in Trump. 

Because Trump was also offering change. Making America Great Again was the hope that better jobs and a middle class could be returned. 

Cynical billionaire politics tailor made for a working population battered and bruised by neo-liberalism and all its failed promises.

There is a cautionary lesson here. There are only so many times people will be prepared to invest their emotions in hope if it is to be squandered or betrayed. When a trust deficit exists, it has to be repaired and the only way to do this is by delivering on your core promise – by making real positive change to people’s lives.

The stories of Labor are stories of hope entrusted and delivered – the first generation of people to go to university when it was made free, a personal experience of leaving a hospital without a debt because of Medicare, experiences of paid holidays, from a party on the side of workers.

The core promise of Labor is a fair society for all where working people receive their fair share of the country’s wealth. 

But at the moment we are going the opposite direction.

We are going the opposite direction with growing inequality and declining living standards for working people. 

Labor and all who believe in social democracy need to address the growing belief that there is little that Governments can do about this situation.

This means we must break down the walls that protect the mythology of neo-liberalism.  The type of government we want and now need is one that ensures the future of democracy and social democratic institutions.  The kind of government where people are actively encouraged to participate in their unions, in their communities, in the issues that impact on their lives not one where people are begrudgingly herded into voting booths.

Because let’s face it, the neo-liberal advocates are pushing an agenda – tax handouts for people who don’t need it based on the idea that the extremely wealthy and big business will trickle it down. 

And here is the opportunity for Labor. 

Enough people do not believe this anymore. 

They know through their day to day experience that wealth is not trickling down.

Workers see companies making profits, executives getting obscene bonuses whilst their wages have gone absolutely nowhere for seven whole years. 

We have had the insatiable greed of the banks laid out for all to see.

We see the results of privatization: robo-debt, TAFE decimation, electricity prices.

We see the greed of businesses and the wealthy few who pay less tax than minimum wage workers. 

We feel the consequences in our everyday lives.  Falling education standards, overcrowded hospitals and out of control bush fires being fought by under-resourced fire authorities. 

We see what happens when businesses are free to do what they want once rights of workers are reduced and unions are restricted:

  • Wage theft on a monumental scale
  • The collapse of collective bargaining leading to the collapse of pay rises;
  • More and more forms of insecure work

This is the neo-liberal receipt. 

The tide has lifted the yachts way more than the other boats. 

Inequality has gotten worse, living standards for most people have gone backwards.  

The promises made to workers that growth in productivity would be shared has been broken. 

So people are ready for something different because the current system has not delivered on its promises. 

The end of history is turning out the opposite to what was promised, with the addition of the growing horror of the consequences of climate change.

But of course, taking on neo-liberalism is not, and will not be easy.

What is easy is what Scott Morrison does. Spin, marketing jargon and more trickle-down economics. 

The Morrison Liberals refuse to take responsibility for the negatives in the economy.  They blame the global markets, difficult conditions, economic headwinds or some other jargon that all means these are forces beyond any Government’s control.  

But the external forces that they blame for the negatives do not stop them from claiming credit for any positives.  

That won’t fundamentally shift anyone’s view about how the system works.  It probably won’t even change any votes.

But it will continue a 30-year narrative that the government can’t control “the market”.  And while the Morrison government maintains a perception that they are not intervening in the market, and thus cannot intervene positively in people’s lives, adopting the same strategy immediately places us into a position of weakness. 

Because Labor’s core promise is being able to deliver real positive differences to people’s lives.

Being a movement of hope is not easy.

Our hope is about change, and the experience working people have had of change has not always been positive over the last 30 years. 

At the core of this dilemma is job security. 

The neo-liberal agenda coupled by with weak and out of date workplace rights have led to far too many insecure jobs as once permanent jobs have been systematically replaced by casual, labour hire or fixed term contracts.

Technological change has created jobs that are uberised. Stressful, low paid jobs that cannot be relied on for an income you can live on, let alone provide a way to get ahead.

We live in the most technologically advanced age of human history, but we have record numbers of people holding down multiple jobs and record numbers looking for even more work. 2 million under-employed.  This is economic stress placed on people because employers have been allowed to shift risks by destroying jobs with guaranteed hours and rights.

So when workers hear the term “jobs of the future” they think robots and Uber, not more secure well paid jobs.

When they hear “digital disruption” they think it is their lives and security that will be disrupted. 

For too many people being told there is going to be a “transition” means being told you will lose your well paid job and your community is about to be smashed. 

Messages about change need to understand that people feel insecure and fearful that change is not necessarily better and could hurt them.  Because for many, change has hurt them.

The cost of the instability in our current systems of work, in our economy, in our politics are all borne by working people.  

Corporations have outsourced risk onto their workforce.  Now, the risks of illness, injury, financial impoverishment, loss of housing and all the associated problems have gone from a shared risk between the corporation, the citizen and the government to increasingly being on the individual.  

It is understandable that people are afraid of big changes, even if they stand to benefit, because change created by politics for the last 30 years has been both described and experienced most often in the negative. 

Some people have absolutely preyed on this situation.  Extremists of all types. Billionaire capitalists, murderous ideologues, the greedy and the vain.

It is easy to point out a threat posed by a change.  To say it’s risky. To suggest it might make your situation worse. Two generations of negative experiences of change at work suggest change will hurt most likely.

That’s why Labor’s hope needs to address the fundamental issue. Security. 

In this case job security. 

Many Australians remember a time that was better, where jobs were more secure just as Americans remember the pre-neoliberal working life and so wanted to believe that America could be made “great again”. Ironically, he was promising greater security, especially job security.

Australian Labor could dramatically increase the number of permanent jobs with proper rights and reverse the growth in insecure work. This would make a huge difference to working people’s lives, our families, our kids, our communities.  

It would also restore some faith to our democratic system, faith that real positive change can be bought about. The policy mechanisms to do this are actually straightforward, but it is not the mechanisms people want to believe in, they want hope that Labor can and will act to do it, that Labor understands their experience and is on their side to do something about it.

Australia has one of the highest rates of insecure work in the OECD at around 40%. This should be called out as totally unacceptable. Labor could aim to halve it, so the only insecure jobs are those that are genuinely short term, intermittent or by the genuine preference of the worker.

The fact that the Coalition is committed to neo-liberalism is their weakness when it comes to jobs. People know that many of the jobs that are being created are not as good as the ones that have been lost. We have a crisis in under-employment. The Coalition can only ever promise the “market” will create good jobs, but everyone knows the market is doing the opposite. 

Labor on the other hand believes in the importance of the public sector, is the party of full employment, is the party that had industry plans and many Labour State Governments are using their buying power to ensure their people are benefiting from good, properly paid jobs.

Labor has a story, a track record and current, state based examples to point to.

Labor could also promise that working people will fairly share in the wealth of our country by supporting them winning fair pay rises. Something that also goes to the heart of both fairness and rising living standards. Making a real difference to people’s lives. Again, the policy mechanisms are there, it is a matter of giving people hope and belief that it can be done. Again, Labor has the track record and a story.

Of course, these things will be opposed by those who have the most to lose. Our democracy and many other democracies across the world become a plaything of those who have done exceedingly well out of the last 30 years – the billionaire class. Next up is the UK and then New Zealand. 

You can imagine the billionaires (or at least one) that Jacinda has enraged dumping some of his small change into that country to pump out lies and fear with the aim of removing her. 

Our very own billionaire Clive Palmer who has virtually disappeared since the election as he goes about his main job of making money, dumped some of his small change to distort our democracy. We were his plaything for 12 months while he outspent all the political parties combined.

And then the tech billionaires combined with other vested interests to allow lies and fear to be directed with precision exactly where they intended them to go via Facebook and other social media platforms.

We saw messages circulated via Facebook messenger saying “Labor, the Greens and the unions have done a deal to introduce a death tax”. Fabricated tweets from me pumped out giving credibility to the same lie. Facebook refused to remove these lies. Elections are a big money spinner for this platform with huge increases in revenue from political actors. 

Targeted messages were sent to renters about their rent going up because of negative gearing changes, targeted messages to people who own multiple properties telling them the same changes would see them have to sell their investment property or lose money.  The same policy, groups in opposite positions to be impacted, same fears, same core negative message.  

Outcome?  According to a study by the ANU, renters who would have benefited from the policy by being more able to buy their home, swung against Labor.  Owners of a home and one negatively geared investment property, who have kids, swung against Labor.  

People are more susceptible to scare campaigns about their bills going up when they are economically insecure. When you don’t have a secure job and when your pay is going backwards any chance of increasing costs becomes a risk too great to take. 

How can Labor respond?  Address the core problem – job & economic insecurity. Messages of hope that Labor can and will address their job insecurity and their low pay. 

And when they are less insecure, they will have less to fear and will be less susceptible to cynical or self-interested fear campaigns.  

The loss of faith in democracy and the ability of Government to make a difference is also part of the reason why people are prepared to vote for the likes of Palmer and other so-called “outsiders”. As they believe it doesn’t matter who is in power as Governments are useless.  If someone is offering to “get up the elites” or if they are the elites – you may think they might shake things up or at least be entertaining. 

It is necessary for faith to be restored in our democracy.  Otherwise we have fertile ground not just for authoritarianism, but also extremists who thrive on hate and division. A lack of control over your life, which is created and fed by neo-liberalism and the consequences of its policy prescriptions, leads to people wanting some kind, any kind, of control. Those who point the finger of blame at other people, who can be seen and defined as the cause of falling living standards, create a real life enemy where responsibility can be attributed, and actions can be taken against. 

Of course, the fingers on neoliberalism never point the blame at the billionaire class, that would require them to hold up a mirror. Instead they point the finger of blame at migrants, refugees, the unemployed, our first nations or of course, the trade union movement and anyone who dares to speak up. 

This is dangerous.

We have been here before when there have been economic downturns. This is also why there needs to be a clear explanation for people about who is actually to blame for record inequality.  What is really to blame for our economic insecurity.

These same actors and this same system are also the cause of inadequate global action to address the climate crisis. Anxiety in our community will continue to grow. Not just because of the economic pressure people are under, but because our cities are choked with smoke, farms are shutting down because of drought and more natural disasters will come to terrify us with their intensity and power. 

The deep feeling of insecurity will grow. When Scott Morrison talked about it being irresponsible to scare children about climate change, he showed he does not understand that the adults are scared, and this anxiety is not about to go away as global temperatures continue to climb. 

There is no point standing still.  No point in complaining. No point in wishing it were not like this. 

We should not be defeatist and assume that fear and lies will always triumph. Nor should we try and match their lies and their fear. 

But people need to believe that change is possible. 

People desperately want POSITIVE change to be possible. 

But people want to know they can trust political parties to bring about that change AND look after them when they do it. 

 The Coalition can never do this whilst they remain captive of an ideology that people have seen, hurt them again and again. All they have to offer is thoughts and prayers.

We have something much more to offer people.  Something that people are looking for. 

It starts with honesty. 

We need to start talking to people about what they already know or what they suspected but have been afraid to say; 

There is a small class of people who are responsible for our current situation – our insecurity and our anxiety – the billionaire class.

And that secondly, our political system, our political parties are not all captured by this class nor by the ideology that has delivered them so much power. This means asserting that Governments can stand up to these vested interests and be on the side of working people.

It means taking strong action to address fundamental insecurities which most of the population face. This means addressing our economic and job insecurity, taking action to respond to the climate crisis, it means defending and guaranteeing democratic freedoms. 

Yes, this is about hope. But hope is not a bottomless ocean. It can be drained. It can evaporate. It can be squandered. 

While hope exists, we need to act, to show people that Governments can be on their side, that social democratic Governments make a difference; that they can make change that will make a real, positive difference to their lives.  

This means we need the courage to name the problem.  Courage to take on powerful vested interests. And courage to make the changes needed to address inequality and climate change.

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