What are true Labor values in the 21st Century? If it is true that we live in a post-ideological era, does a political party need values at all?
These questions must be answered if Labor is to form a national government. The absence of any coherent answer in the period since the loss of government in 1996 goes a long way towards explaining our lack of electoral success. It also explains much of the malaise in Labor Party branches.
A subsidiary question is how Labor values differ from those of the Coalition. But we should not seek to differentiate from the Coalition for the sake of differentiation. Labor must set its compass by the stars.
True Labor values differ profoundly from those of the Coalition. No artificial differentiation or fancy packaging is required if we define our values clearly and stick to them in developing our policies.
Public advocacy and advertising can then convey our value-laden policies to the people. But as John Singleton once said to me: ‘mate, I can’t sell bad beer!’ So let’s make sure our product is good (and is better than beer).
A Labor vision for Australia
We need a 20-year vision for Australia as a great society. My Labor vision for Australia is as follows:
A nation prosperous and self-confident in the world, imbued with a deep sense of fairness, understanding and enjoying a multicultural society, where families care for and respect older Australians as wise elders, where indigenous and non-indigenous cultures are reconciled, a country of magnificent natural splendour, secure from terror and oppression.
In short, a modern Labor view is of Australia as a prosperous, fair, tolerant and compassionate nation.
A prosperous Australia
For 13 years the Australian people had put their faith in a Labor government devoted to transforming the nation into an open, competitive economy. Labor had recognised that today’s productivity growth is tomorrow’s prosperity and, with the cooperation of the trade union movement, implemented a comprehensive, productivity-raising reform agenda.
Yet after the 1996 election loss Labor seemed to lose its focus on the task of generating prosperity, shifting its attention to redistribution of existing incomes. Labor regressed to supporting a closed economy, advocating tariff freezes, railing against competition policy and condemning economic rationalism (presumably in favour of economic irrationalism).
Labor in opposition handed its hard-won economic credentials to the Howard government on a plate. The government gleefully accepted Labor’s bequest and continues to claim credit for the longest period of sustained economic growth in Australia’s history — the legacy of Labor reforms.
Now Labor has sought to re-embrace the open, competitive model. We are doing so at a time when productivity growth has slipped into reverse gear — the legacy of Coalition neglect.
Labor must never again regress. Under Kim Beazley’s leadership the signs are encouraging.
But more than avoiding recidivism, Labor must embrace its own modern reform agenda designed to secure the next round of productivity growth.
The centrepiece of Labor’s 21st Century agenda is the most powerful source of modern productivity growth.
It is the torch that brightens Labor’s light on the hill, our greatest value — opportunity for all in a fair Australia.
It is education.
And it is a timeless gift.
The striking shearers of 1891 created the Australian Labor Party not just for better pay but to provide an education for their sons and daughters.
And now, 114 years later, education is the greatest endowment an Australian national government can give to the people of Australia. It is, at once, both productive and fair.
Labor in government expanded opportunities for young Australians, more than doubling the proportion of students completing high school and opening up access to universities to anyone who studied hard, regardless of their parents’ incomes.
The Howard government is returning Australia to the pre-Whitlam era of full fees, where privilege, not talent and hard work, is again determining who goes to university.
Labor must invite all young Australians to take a great leap forward to mass participation in higher education, in the spirit of Whitlam and of the reforming zeal of Hawke, Keating and Dawkins.
A fair Australia
The Coalition views those who fail to break out of dependence on the state as bludgers. Labor should not treat them as ‘no hopers’ but as people who lack the skills, self esteem and confidence to grab opportunities presented to them.
Labor must go further than providing opportunity by helping build the capacities of the disadvantaged to seize opportunities offered to them. Society must not write off a generation of Australians and their children as a lost cause. To do so would only breed resentment, perpetuating in the children the attitudes of their parents as victims of a system that has turned its back on them.
Labor must remain willing to deploy the industrial relations system as a vehicle for achieving fairness in productive, harmonious workplaces.
Advocates of lower minimum wages supplemented by increased taxpayer-funded income support payments are, in effect, advocating the substitution of one form of regulation for another. Taxes, as a form of regulation, have their own deterring effects on work, hiring and investment decisions.
Instead of funding a race to the bottom of low skills and low wages, scarce budgetary resources should be used to enter vulnerable Australians into a race to the top of high skills and high wages.
Labor’s success in lifting the wealth and living standards of working Australians has taken many of them out of earlier social constructions of a working class. They have moved on and so must Labor — by supporting the self employed, independent contractors and small business people.
But Labor must never loosen our bonds with the union movement, a community-based organisation of almost two million Australians, a force for good, a force for reform, a force for a fairer Australia.
A tolerant Australia
Labor supports a tolerant Australia, a country that respects the cultures of other peoples and is enriched by them without subsuming our own traditions and values.
Labor rejects the so-called wedge politics of playing to prejudices for political advantage, whether it is false pre-election claims of asylum seekers throwing their children overboard or assertions that indigenous Australians will make native title claims over most of Australia.
A compassionate Australia
When John Howard was opposition leader he complained that Labor should not claim a monopoly on compassion. We did, because the Liberals had vacated the field!
In the early 2000s Australia had a genuine problem of unauthorised arrivals of asylum seekers. But in dealing with that problem the Howard government displayed no compassion.
Labor is and must always be a party of compassion for the disadvantaged, for those who fall on hard times and for those fleeing terror and oppression.
The way forward
Labor must never accept the proposition that Australians live in a post-ideological era. Ideology means a set of ideas. A political party bereft of philosophy and ideas deserves to die and inevitably will.
We need again to stir the Australian spirit.
A modern Labor philosophy of a prosperous, fair, tolerant and compassionate Australia is founded on the traditional Labor value of opportunity for all.
These are true Labor ideals. They are timeless. They set us apart from the conservatives.
They can guide us in developing policies and telling the Labor story of our plan for a better Australia.