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The ALP in search of new, bold policy

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A recent conference threw around ideas how Labor can improve its policy offerings (screenshot via YouTube).

The recent conference in Sydney organised by the Chifley Research Centre, the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) official think tank, had a promising start.

Hopefully, there is much more to come. Some 300 members, sympathisers and former members came together for a weekend of in-depth speeches by Party leaders, MPs, former MPs, sympathetic sponsors and foreign experts. In addition, there were informal conversations.

This was not to be a re-run of the 92-page review of the May election with that surprising outcome, and it was not, although its recommendations were discussed in one of the sessions by the authors. It was not meant to be, as the official program explained it and President Wayne Swan stated in the opening address, a time for introspection.

Swan stressed:

“It is a time to look ahead ….it is the spirit of renewal that brings us all together.” 

Nevertheless, that desire for renewal appeared to be demonstrated in the very first session which was a quite detailed analysis of climate change and the prognosis by the U.S. economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin. He discussed the radical changes in attitude by several major U.S. corporations accepting climate change as real and requiring action.

He detailed their comprehensive about-face as the driving force of major new revolutionary strategic decisions. Also pointed to the huge profits expected to be made and the large number of new jobs to be created. Rivkin is the author of The Third Industrial Revolution and The Green New Deal.

Chifley Research CEO, Brett Gale, opened this first session. A well-qualified panel of ALP’s environmental specialists presented further convincing arguments why the ALP needed to embrace this philosophy. It should become a strong "Green party", the suggestion being that its credentials were already considerable. 

Some critical views about the Australian Greens were heard, which is understandable in the light of historic clashes between the two parties, but the ALP’s strength and expertise is in political economy, wages, health, industrial relations and human rights.

This session at once brought to the fore a need to cooperate with the Greens as has happened in several social-democracies in Europe. This certainly also requires the Greens to drop their, at times, absolutist positions which can be neither helpful to themselves nor to the ALP and, even more important still, is detrimental to the nation as a whole.

If they cannot accept this their potential for being a partner in government will diminish rather than grow. No doubt the proportional representation electoral systems in European countries facilitate coalition formation with the Greens, unlike the single-member district systems here. Being in Government with the ALP would mean achieving most objectives and keeping the Coalition out.

Introducing the PR – Party List system here, used in 89 countries in the world, would change the adversarial political culture of Australia. 

New leader Anthony Albanese delivered a very polished speech, in particular, calling for the renewal of democracy. Speaking without notes he expressed his concerns about the decline of democracy and the role of Facebook and social media generally in this process. Furthermore, he called on Labor’s opponents to respect the views of Australia’s scientists in relation to climate change.

He also recommended that the dialogue with opponents needed to be civilised and not concentrate on petty point-scoring. Listing the priorities of ALP concerns, his strong support for “our ABC” drew applause from the floor.

The New Zealand Minister for Finance, Grant Robertson, attended the conference. The success of the "proportional party list system" is obvious there. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came to power two years ago as the head of a Coalition Government of NZ Labour, Greens and New Zealand First. Truly, an example to follow in Australia one would think. The session was aptly named “The only Light on the Hill”!

A session on “What would Hawke have done” yielded several suggestions. Bob Hawke’s strong support for the abolition of Federation yielded the response that this would be impossible as “the states would block it in a referendum”. If so, why? Would it not require a new flexible Constitution first? For Ministers selected from the entire society rather than the Parliament? The recommendation of workplace democracy in the Australia Reconstructed Report, rejected then by Hawke.

The contribution by ACTU Secretary Sally McManus was spirited but, regrettably, very traditional. As the first female Secretary of the ACTU, itself an important break-through, she has had to address the huge decline in union membership in difficult circumstances. Sub-contracting, casualisation, and new forms of work have colluded to reduce union membership in Australia.

What could be pursued is stimulating workplace democracy and also employee share ownership-ownership of which has proven to be winning combinations for productivity. Sally did not mention that.

Modernising the Constitution was mentioned by just one speaker, the Leader of the Tasmanian ALP, Rebecca White. But modernising is not enough because it suggests piecemeal tinkering and organising usually unsuccessful referendums. The Constitution itself has to be rewritten and be made more flexible, a prerequisite for any further adjustments.

There was a session “What voters want”, potentially a useful, even necessary investigation for any political party. Clearly, the major parties failed to a large extent in recent federal elections as the Coalition gained 42 per cent and Labor 33 per cent of the vote, respectively. 

Add to this that the number of minor parties has risen dramatically in the last three federal elections. To form a new party is quite a job and run it in a campaign effectively is an even bigger involvement and financial task. The chance of success is very small. What does that mean? Voters are unhappy with the two-party system. They want a system that offers much more diversity in representation. You may not hear that in the echo-chamber of the major parties but the truth is unmistakable.

Yes, the ALP could be a lot bolder in new policy formulation. There is widespread concern about the growing inequality of incomes. One would think that this is especially the ALP’s province to tackle. In 2009, the Party initiated an inquiry into high executive packages of corporations. 

It had some effect but not enough. Outrageous salary packages have been paid to the banks CEOs and other well-known corporations. There is NO correlation between achievement and executive salaries. This has been well researched and was proven again by the Financial Services Royal Commission and the recent drama with Westpac. 

The final session “The Politics of climate change – a wicked challenge” was well attended, and chaired by Jay Weatherill, the former South Australian Premier. This was obviously a more nuanced approach than in the very first session where the ALP was presented as the true Green Party.

What’s Labor to do in respect of the coal communities of Queensland? Here several speakers realistically, although hesitatingly, opted to consider cooperation with the Greens in spite of former misgivings, as a solution for the good of the country.

The conference was closed by Tanya Plibersek. Her status in the party and her sensible speech guaranteed a fitting finale to a weekend that could open up new pathways to political recovery for the ALP and Australia.

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor at Southern Cross University. He is a committee member of ABC Friends, Central Coast.

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