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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Critique of Labor and The Greens on ‘Policy Compromise’

above: Labor and the Greens can work together; But need to be conscious of each others' electoral imperatives ; Carbon Tax was good policy ; but a 'political death warrant' for Labor

Dr Tristan Ewins

Recently the Australian Greens negotiated a compromise with the Liberal Federal Government in Australia on the question of pursuing tax evasion by “Australia’s wealthiest private companies”. ‘The Age’ reported that as part of the compromise “Up to 300 of Australia's wealthiest private companies will be forced to disclose their annual tax bill for the first time.”   But that the legislation also will “shield up to 600 more companies that would have been brought under new transparency requirements.” 

Labor has branded the deal “a sellout”.  They had pressed for all companies with revenues of over $100 million to be affected by the reform – whereas the Greens negotiated a compromise with a threshold of of $200 million. Labor argued a compromise was not necessary – on the assumption the Government itself would have been forced to compromise before the end of the sitting of Parliament.

(Read more:
Follow us: @smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook  )

Also considered recently in discussion has been the decision by the Greens several months ago to agree to another compromise - tightening means tests on Aged Pensions in order to save $2.4 billion over four years. 

By contrast Labor was arguing for reform of Superannuation Concessions delivering windfall gains to some of the very most wealthy: though arguably Labor wasn’t considering a broad enough base (including the upper middle class) in order to bring in serious revenue without need for unfair austerity elsewhere.  

To summarise: Shorten’s plan foreshadowed savings of $14 billion OVER TEN YEARS.  But the Government is facing a deficit ballooning to over $40 billion a year ; and root and branch reform of tax is what is necessary – not only to get the deficit under control, but to pave the way for a reforming Federal Labor Government which actually improves the social wage, social insurance and social welfare by tens of billions in the context of a $1.6 trillion economy.

Again by contrast:  The deal agreed to by the Greens with the Liberals  had 170,000 of the most financially disadvantaged Pensioners standing to gain $30/week as of 2017; But approximately 330,000 (relatively better-off)   Pensioners would see cuts through tougher means tests ; and more than double that into the future. 



The following are some excerpts regarding my thoughts: not only on this specific compromise, but on the ALP working with the Greens generally.


SL in relation to the Greens ; Is it right for the SL to Criticise ALP Policy?


At the ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’ Group we’ve had plenty of debate on the place for criticisms of the ALP. Should criticism be considered ‘treason’ of some kind? Should we work for co-operation with the Greens – or should we fight them tooth and nail on account of the threat to several of our most talented Left MPs ; and the likelihood of declining Socialist Left influence in Caucus and Cabinet?


Nonetheless: Labor often gets it wrong on policy.  For instance, we often pursue symbolic policies for appearances sake which are far from the ‘root and branch’ reform needed to serve the interests of our constituents.   Shorten’s Superannuation Concession reforms are very modest , and at this rate Labor will be pressed to pursue extensive austerity if we regain government. Perhaps regressive policies such as more attacks on vulnerable groups such as Sole Parents.  Or an increase in the Age of Retirement.  And yet Labor’s Platform leaves the way open potentially for an expansion of progressive tax and social expenditure.  Labor still has options for a genuinely progressive mandate.

If as the most significant Left formation in the country (The broad ALP Socialist Left)  we do not criticise our own party's policies when our leaders get it badly wrong - then who will step into that space? There are a number of possibilities. Either groups like the Greens will step into that space ; or because of our silence the Left more broadly will be demobilised.  This would especially be a threat if the Greens’ tending towards compromise marked ‘a move to the Centre’ which again would leave a space in the Left of the Australian political milieu.  A new challenger on the Left of Australian politics could take a long time to re-emerge therefore ; just as it has taken decades for the Greens to establish themselves properly.  This would simply assist the broad Australian Right in consolidating their hegemony.


Don't get me wrong:... I'm all for staying and fighting within the Party. But when the Party leadership gets it badly wrong its up to us whether we vacate that (public) Left space and/or demobilise the Left - or whether we choose our battles - and publicly dissent at times – in the context of important debates – such as a much more robust winding back of superannuation concessions for the wealthy and the upper middle class.  We must do this because there is the alternative of Left demobilisation. And before we know it even our own people don't know what we're supposed to be fighting for anymore... (take privatisation, tax reform, social wage and welfare expansion and reform, industrial rights and liberties etc)


Insofar as criticism is constructive we shouldn’t just tolerate criticism of  Labor policy - indeed it must be encouraged. 

Nonetheless,  the trend towards Labor and Greens just trashing each other always seems to involve a degree of 'spin' and is not necessarily 100% honest.  What we need is honest, reciprocal criticism.


There's also the urgent question: What will WE (ie: Labor) do on Company Tax? Here we really need ALP and Greens to team up and vote down Company Tax cuts - because that is Corporate Welfare.  That is business avoiding paying their share for the services and infrastructure they benefit from!  So instead ordinary citizens, workers, taxpayers - are left to pick up the tab – directly or indirectly. (whether with an increased GST, or austerity elsewhere) Where does Shorten line up on this? (seriously)  There are many billions at stake.


More on Greens Compromises


Regarding Greens’ compromises it must be observed: It’s the old dilemma over whether to compromise and get something 'right here right now' - or whether to hold back - in the hope of discrediting the Conservatives - and getting something much better with the next change of government. Labor has faced these dilemmas itself at times.


For instance, the Carbon Tax was the best policy - but was politically impossible after Gillard’s commitment "There will be no Carbon Tax in a Government I lead". The Greens should have recognised this. There were other options. Like billions in annual direct public investment in renewables research and infrastructure.  In a convoluted kind of way the Greens’ insistence on the Carbon Tax could even have been considered an instance of opportunism in its own right.  The Greens got their policy – and it granted them prestige with their constituencies.  But arguably it sealed the fate of the Labor Government.  This is not to say the Greens shouldn’t press their leverage to get robust policy compromises from Labor.  And arguably Julia Gillard should never have backed Labor into that corner in the first  place.  But direct investment in renewables research and public infrastructure would not have involved a blatant, high-profile broken promise.  Of note:  Labor must not back itself into a corner on ‘small government’ now either!



What Reforms must Labor and the Greens pursue now as the 2016 Federal Election approaches?

Instead of just positioning against each other with the hope of gaining an electoral advantage over largely ‘cosmetic’ policies, again Labor and the Greens should be projecting root and branch reform in any Labor Government where the Greens hold decisive sway over the cross-benches

More specifically: Labor and the Greens need to move together to secure a minimum $35/week increase in all full pensions INDEXED upon Labor taking government.
This must include Newstart and Student Allowance.   Although I've been arguing for this for years already and $35/week isn't as much as it used to be. Full indexation is crucial, and perhaps now the figure should be somewhat higher.  (eg: $40/week)


Also in an exchange at the ALP Socialist Left Forum Facebook Group I accepted the need for subsidies to help the elderly invest in air conditioning and heating. Increasing the Aged Pension should be part of that. Existing pensions and payments make insufficient consideration of contingencies which vulnerable Australians may be faced with.  From a visit to the dentist to having to replace a washing machine – such everyday challenges can leave our most vulnerable destitute.  

Some would call the Greens' compromises through 2015 opportunism. Labor would attract that claim from the Greens themselves if it was Labor who had made the compromises. The Greens are trying to shake off their reputation as a ‘protest party’ – which never has to compromise.  Labor argues the Greens are about appearances re: policy protest – but are not about outcomes. 

But there is the argument that some of the the Greens have pursued have helped the most vulnerable. Though in a way which has hardly been fair to some people who would not fairly qualify as 'rich'.

There are two sides to this. What matters is that if we get a Labor Government - and if the Greens hold the cross-benches - there will be no more need for 'compromise with the Liberals'. And in that case we should see the whole policy schema recalibrated in a way which is truly fair - and doesn't involve 'compromises' whereby one constituency (not really 'privileged' by any reasonable measure) is played off against another (truly, genuinely disadvantaged). Better to target the top 15 per cent income and wealth demographics for redistributive measures aimed at improving the lot of those on low and middle incomes ; workers and vulnerable welfare recipients.


Target 'the top 15 per cent' as it is a narrow enough constituency for redistribution to be fair ; narrow enough to be electorally viable ; and broad enough to bring in serious revenue for serious reforms....


The problem right now is that most in the Parliamentary Labor Party will oppose taxing the sole residence of the elderly - fair enough - but they may not support other progressive measures (as listed) necessary to repairing the welfare state, social insurance and social wage.


Ideally we should pursue a more progressive tax mix which does not necessitate the elderly being forced to sell their home towards the end of their lives when familiarity can be so important. We should hit superannuation concessions for the wealthy and the upper middle class. We should restructure the income tax mix radically. We should consolidate Company Tax and begin to gradually wind back D...ividend Imputation - which most advanced economies manage to do without. (worth over $20 billion now)  Perhaps we should tax the banks. And perhaps we should tax the largest inheritances ; and introduce a Tobin Tax on financial transactions. Finally we should definitely raise the Medicare Levy - and progressively restructure it into more progressive tiers.

With this we can bring in tens of billions. We can introduce National Aged Care Social Insurance ; we can implement Medicare Dental, Physio and Optical and cut waiting lists. We can fully implement NDIS. We can implement Gonski and transform HECS into a genuinely progressive tax.  We can invest billions into social and public housing, as well as infrastructure of all kinds – increasing housing supply , making housing affordable , providing transport and services to new suburbs. We can revivify Legal Aid, and we can provide Federal Funding for Local Government - to make Local Government less dependent on relatively regressive levies/council rates. And we can reform welfare, support payments and pensions and lift the most vulnerable out of poverty. Finally, we can invest in the ABC and SBS. That's what we should do ; and it doesn't necessitate driving the elderly from their homes - even if their homes are valuable. And especially if their residence is their major asset - and they are not wealthy aside from this by any reasonable measure.

In conclusion – Labor needs to settle on policies of depth and substance. Because while ‘cosmetic’ policies may win over some voters – that is not our ‘reason for being’.  Labor should not be driven by the quest for government purely for its own sake: outside the context of winning deep, meaningful reforms.  Before Thatcherism and the decades-long retreat of the Left there was reference to the notion of “The Forward March of Labour’.  We need to reconceive of our reform trajectory.  Of what comprises our ‘forward march’ on policies which reform social wage, social insurance, welfare, personal and collective liberties, the extension of democracy – and more. 

And we need to establish our reform trajectory quickly and soon if we are to have the time and the opportunity to sell such a package to voters ahead of the Federal Election in 2016.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mental Health, Poverty and Life Expectancy – A Decades-Long Crisis which Finally Demands our Attention

above: Stigma is a major problem with mental illness ; But arguably there is another neglected crisis - mental health related life expectancy - which results in hundreds of thousands dying decades before their time...

Tristan Ewins

Last week was ‘Mental Health Week’ in Australia. Importantly this has drawn attention to related issues such as poverty, stigma and a decades-long crisis in mental-health-related life expectancy.

According to a study from The University of Queensland and The University of Western Australia mentally ill Australians are on average dying 16 years earlier than the general population. This would include sufferers of Depression, Bipolar, and Anxiety. The study noted that the  vast majority of cases of early death actually related to “physical causes such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, rather than from suicide or accidents.”    Medication can certainly play a role in promoting obesity – which as noted can lead to heart disease, but also diabetes.

Also despite this, recent research has established that suicide claims approximately
2,500 lives a year. Proportionately the most likely to commit suicide were elderly men. 

What is more, regarding mental health related life expectancy, “the gap is growing”. And
the figure for sufferers of Schizophrenia – which is estimated to be a minimum of 200,000 Australians  (some say closer to 300,000) – is 25 years.  That is, those with Schizophrenia in Australia die on average 25 years earlier than the general population.

according to the UQ/UWA study this result was worse than that experienced by smokers, and comparable to that suffered by indigenous Australians.  Indeed, research on Indigenous Australian life expectancy revealed a gap of around 10.6 years.  The figure for indigenous Australia is of the highest concern and demands a significant commitment of resources.  But the comparison begs the question why mental health related life expectancy does not attract the same relative amount of attention given the numbers, and given the dire plight of those involved. Indeed, both indigenous and mental health related life-expectancy warrant a very significantly increased amount of resources.

Furthermore the statistics on mental health related life expectancy
have not improved in 30 years revealing gross negligence by governments of all stripes.   

In early 2014 Ryan Bachelor of the Chifley Research Centre
condemned apparent moves by the Abbott Government to vilify and scapegoat disability pensioners. This approach was reinforced by a disgraceful campaign by Australia’s Murdoch tabloid press. Bachelor also emphasized that while the figures for the Disability Support Pension (DSP) were high (approximately 800,000 people), more recently these figures were slowly declining.  The cost to the Budget was approximately $15 billion in a $1.6 Trillion economy. And the proportion of Disability Pensioners with a psychosocial disorder was 31 per cent. 

Considering life expectancy statistics, no – sufferers of mental illness are not ‘having us on’ when it comes to the Disability Support Pension.  As
Frank Quinlan of the Mental Health Council of Australia argued in 2014, many amongst the mentally ill want to work – but cannot do so on account of discrimination. And they are also deterred because of severe means testing of their pensions. As Quinlan explained elsewhere:

“The reality of the experience of severe and persistent mental illness is that it can have a profoundly disabling impact on day-to-day living and social functioning, leaving some Australians requiring ongoing financial assistance despite their eagerness to work independently.

It may not be so popular to draw on Karl Marx in this day and age. ‘Marxism’ as such has been so distorted by those who claimed to act in his name that many would not give his ideas a second thought. But Marx’s maxim: “From each according to ability, to each according to need” should seem an eminently reasonable basis on which to fairly organize an economy and a society.  And it is a perfectly reasonable basis on which to organize pensions, and the social wage and welfare system more broadly.  This should mean an end to severe means testing, more positive incentives to find flexible work (rather than ‘punitive welfare’), emphasis on fighting mental health related discrimination, and positive incentives for employers to provide suitable flexible employment.  

Specifically, Disability Pensioners have trouble maintaining any kind of social existence; not only because of illness, but also due to poverty.  Poverty means it is often difficult or even impossible to run a car, for instance. This impacts on ability to even search for suitable work. There’s the option of public transport ; but that is not always available.  This can also make it difficult to keep friends, or to find friends in the first place. Poverty also makes fitness a more difficult prospect.  Again, ill health, obesity etc can contribute significantly to early death, while the mentally Ill need to work so much harder to maintain health and fitness due to the side-effects of medication.  Due to poverty Gym memberships are generally out of the question.  And health costs can also be prohibitive.  Consider Dental and Optical just to start. This affects all pensioners, but the disabled are likely to be dependent long term with no way out.

Also many experiencing mental illness are stuck in substandard and insecure accommodation. Further, not all the mentally ill have support from Carers, and many ‘fall through the cracks’ into homelessness. A 2002 report had also noted:

“many people with mental illness are unable to afford stable housing or make their own housing choices, and frequently have problems accessing appropriate housing and difficulty maintaining tenancies because of disruptions caused by their illness.”

New Turnbull Government Health Minister Susan Ley says there are “no easy fixes” and that the system must “[catch] people before they fall.”  (“The Age”, 5/10/15)  This implies some insight as to what people actually go through.  Though while early intervention is crucial in preventing such suffering few can really conceive of, healing for the afflicted is just as necessary.  Expecting people to just “pull themselves together”  demonstrates an appalling lack of empathy, understanding and humanity.  So if Minister Ley is serious she must decisively reject the disgraceful stigmatization and vilification of Disability Pensioners conducted by the Murdoch Press, and by some elements in her own party. 

We are yet to see whether or not there will be a decisive change of direction under the new Turnbull leadership.   Resolve to achieve the following will comprise the degree to which we can judge the extent to which the Turnbull Government is meaningfully addressing the crisis:

·         Increase the Disability Support Pension by at least $35/week indexed. To begin, this might make it possible to run a vehicle and to eat better quality food ; Improve support for Carers as well


·         Implement anti-discrimination legislation and provide positive incentives for employers to offer flexible work


·         Provide much more generous means-testing of Disability Pensioners – especially the mentally ill, slowing the rate at which the Pension is withdrawn ; and make it easy for those affected to immediately re-access the pension even if they had found full-time work – but relapsed into illness


·         Provide comprehensive Medicare Dental and Optical – ideally on a universal basis – but if this is not possible under the current government, then at least offer it to those in poverty, including those on welfare


·         Provide access to ‘physical health case managers’ – who assist in improving the physical health of the mentally ill – a dimension which is commonly neglected by mental health professionals


·         Provide funding so the mentally ill can actually act on such advice: subsidised access to health and fitness facilities, gear and services.


·         Condemn any stigmatisation or vilification of the mentally ill in the media, including the Murdoch tabloids


·         Subsidise internet access to help maintain social-connectedness


·         Promote social-connectedness for inpatients as well by enabling access to internet and social media where viable


·         Increase social expenditure on mental health to make it reflect its proportion of “the country’s health burden”; ie: raise it from 7 per cent to 14 per cent of the Health Budget ; but achieve this by increasing the investment; and not through cuts elsewhere


·         Finally follow through on the demand by ‘Australians for Mental Health’:  for “improved access to mental health services, clear pathways for treatment and support, more early intervention and prevention services, and service integration”


Again the mentally ill are not ‘having us on’ when some of them can expect to die on average 25 years earlier than the general population.  We have to hope that the new Turnbull Government will mark a shift in attitude.  But what is actually necessary is an increase in funding for programs assisting the mentally ill.  (as considered in the dot points above)  We must judge all the political parties and independents on the basis of action and not just words.



Monday, September 21, 2015

Socialism as Regulation: Is it Enough? A Response to Adam Ford

Above: An image of Nils Karleby:  Adam Ford's account of 'Socialism as Regulation' has some things in common with the thinking of this important Swedish Social Democrat

Dr Tristan Ewins
Veteran Australian Labor Party activist and blogger Adam Ford has put forward a critique of socialist metanarratives insofar as they retain a commitment to what I would personally define as a ‘democratic mixed economy’.  Specifically, by this I infer a mixed economy including a very robust public sector, but also a broader ‘democratic sector’ including various co-operative models, as well as co-determination, democratic collective capital mobilisation and so on.   Partly in response to my own consideration of the substance of modern socialism, instead Adam Ford proposes a reformed socialist project; one which breaks away from prior emphases on Marx, and prior emphases on public ownership.  Ford reserves the right to define socialism however he chooses, and not necessarily follow in the footsteps of Marx, or anyone else really.  Though in a Bernsteinian fashion (ie: after Eduard Bernstein)  he argues that socialism is a premise from which we depart rather than an ‘end destination’.  

Specifically at  his blog 'The Bloodied Wombat'
he argues:

The light on the hill is as a beacon, not a point of arrival. It guides us forward, rather than telling us where to stop.”  

So in its emerging incarnation Adam sees the concrete form of modern socialism as comprising the quite vigorous and indeed aggressive regulation of capitalism.   Though he is not very specific in detailing what form this regulation would take.  Nonetheless, perhaps he has something in common with the Swedish theorist Nils Karleby  - who saw regulation like a peeling away of an onion – where the prerogatives of capital were progressively removed ‘until nothing is left’.  For example: I would speculate that this could take the form of legislated provisions for co-determination, or industrial rights including minimum wages and conditions. (though to be honest this is against the grain of so-called ‘reform of the labour market’ under successive governments, Labor and Liberal)   Karleby was critical of narrow interpretations of socialism which focused only on nationalisation.

For Adam Ford ‘socialist outcomes’ do not adhere to “pre-determined” and “known” “socialist structures”.  And rather than comprising an enduring beacon for socialists, the figure of Karl Marx is seen as imposing a “straight-jacket” on socialist thought.

Finally, Adam Ford condemns not only ‘command economies’ as ‘stupid’; but he applies the same judgement to mixed economies where the public sector extends beyond “natural public monopolies”, and certain essential services and infrastructure which the market would not provide via its own devices.

What follows is a response to Adam Ford’s arguments.

The hinting of a Bernsteinian angle is appreciated.  Bernstein had a lot of relevant things to say about socialism and ethics, socialism and liberalism, and the notion there no absolutely-final ‘end point’ for socialism. 

Though Bernstein had also insisted of Marx’s theory:

“The fall of the profit rate is a fact, the advent of over-production and crises is a fact, periodic diminution of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, the increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact.”   (Bernstein, Pp 41-42)   

Ford is right to suggest that in Marxism we do not have the meaning of ‘life, the universe and everything’.  Ethics, for instance, was a blind spot for Marx and many who followed in his tradition and in his name.  As was the tendency of Marxists – not least of all Lenin – to pose socialism and liberalism practically as polar opposites.  (Whereas for Bernstein socialism comprised ‘liberalism’s spiritual successor’)
Certainly it is fashionable in this day and age to decry the ‘old’ socialism. The neo-liberal Ideology remains largely hegemonic throughout much of the world.  Public ownership is seen as an anachronism.  ‘The market’ is revered; ‘command economies’ are reviled.  And indeed – even for those proposing a democratic mixed economy, the spectre of the ‘command economy’ hangs over all debate as if there really is no ‘middle path’ or otherwise diverging paths from those of neo-liberalism and so-called ‘state socialism’.  Though to be fair to Adam Ford he personally diverges significantly from neo-liberalism in proposing a thorough regime of regulation.  And his allowance for natural public monopoly puts him at odds with the likes of Mises or Hayek.

As already observed: Nils Karleby shared similar notions to Ford in the sense of emphasising regulation as the substance of socialisation; the means of negating ‘capitalist prerogatives’. Though Karleby himself had also argued:

“How can one imagine a social transformation other than by the growth of collective property at the expense of private property, and through legislative changes together with social and cultural policy measures, and through changes in property rights brought about by the influence of free organisations?” 


And further Karleby anticipates a


“grinding away of capitalist society in the true sense, a steady progressive growth of new social forms.”  (Karleby in Tilton, p 82)

Hence despite his emphasis on regulation-as-socialism Karleby does not deny the mixed economy.  Though perhaps his position is also suggestive of strategies such as democratic collective capital formation for example.

Again: Ford rejects “predetermined” “socialist structures”. Most particularly this appears to relate to state ownership ; but perhaps it also applies to collective forms of property posed in opposition to exploitative labour-capital relations.  Though Ford also suggests “democratic markets”.  What could this mean?

In truth I have considered “democratic markets” myself.  But here I conceive of a wide variety of producer and consumer co-operative forms, as well as collective capital formation and so on.  I think of workers and consumers organising collectively and co-operatively in the very midst of markets. And I envisage of the state playing an enabling role here: via state aid, including cheap credit, tax breaks and so on.

Still - any role for the state is really the rare exception for Ford.  But is a truly robust mixed economy really “stupid”?

True: Ford and I agree on the need for “natural public monopolies”.  Ford is not specific, but for me here I think of energy, water, communications and transport infrastructure. I also think of near-monopolies in education.  But why not extend strategic socialisation beyond these strictly conceived boundaries?  Government business enterprises can enhance competition in areas as diverse as banking and health insurance; also providing progressive cross-subsidisation where that makes sense. Dividends can potentially be socialised into the tens of billions empowering the extension of welfare and the social wage.  In areas such as mining partial socialisation via some ‘super profits tax’ made sense ; but opposition to a direct public stake here could be seen as Ideological. In any case - even a public sector mining company would operate in a global and competitive market. As could other competitive state enterprises.

Furthermore: ‘the market’ could no-doubt ‘find a way’ to intrude upon just about every facet of our existence. But should we allow for it to do so?  Are ‘markets’ and the profit motive appropriate in Aged Care for example?  The public sector needs to intervene where the market fails.  And market failure takes many forms. This includes the lack of democratic forms; the exploitation of vulnerable people; as well as ‘Planned obsolescence’ and the creation of oligopolies and monopolies which fleece consumers. Also there is the potential for neglect of consumer minorities whose ‘market power’ is not sufficient to ensure the provision of the highest quality goods and services at competitive prices.  Perhaps Ford allows for this final case in his model, however.  Though the question remains: how would that work?

Then there’s also a case for strategic government intervention in support of ‘multi-stakeholder-co-operative enterprise’. Government has a potentially progressive role to play in helping to finance co-operative enterprise large and small.  Especially in the case of large co-operative enterprise large injections of capital may be necessary to attain the economies of scale necessary to remain competitive on global markets. This is where government can help.  And not only State and Federal government – but regions as well.

Underlying rejections of a larger role for government is the notion that private ownership is “natural”.  It is considered the ‘default” form of property compared with which the public sector is but a rare exception. 

I reject this notion. But I do suppose a large role for competitive private sector markets into the foreseeable future.  A ‘democratic mixed economy’ is realisable in the foreseeable future in a relatively modest form. To illustrate: I personally envisage an increase in public revenues and associated outlays by 5 per cent of GDP – achieved perhaps over a decade, and flowing in to social wage and welfare provisions.  As well as public borrowings for ‘nation-building’ infrastructure. 

But ‘autarky’ is not the answer.  As I have argued elsewhere: transnational enterprises from Samsung to Apple respond to ‘the intricacies of consumer demand’. And they innovate under pressure in the context of competitive markets where massive economies of scale are necessary.

Nor should we aspire to ‘nationalise the corner store’.  This has always gone without saying.  Though small-scale co-operatives could also potentially respond to those ‘intricacies’ at the local level as well; while addressing the alienation many workers experience where they have little creative control over their workplaces and their labours.

Australian consumers don’t want to be isolated from the innovations that go on in competitive global markets. And Australian workers also stand to benefit from jobs-creating foreign investment.  I accept this. No-one (or at least almost no-one) wants ‘socialism in one country, Stalinist-style’.  We can gradually build up to a robust democratic mixed economy. But the ‘traditional socialist society’ as epitomised by the old Soviet and Eastern bloc is ‘lost to us’. 

In some ways this is actually a good thing.  The old command economies produced a ‘dictatorship over needs’ (Fehr, Heller, Markus) where ‘needs’ were defined ‘from above’ and consumers did not enjoy the freedom to determine their own needs-structures via markets.  Markets can be appropriate to the extent to which they enhance responsiveness to consumer demand, and reasonably enhance personal determination of needs structures.

But we should not adopt an Ideological perspective which closes off the strategic extension of the public sector.  Nor should we fetishize markets – especially where they fail.  And we should not just jettison the Marxist tradition in its entirety – when there is such a rich and diverse range of viewpoints and insights even still.  Even though in today’s more plural Left there is greater tolerance towards the pursuit of ‘ethical’ or even ‘liberal’ socialism.  (a good thing) 

We probably can define socialism ‘however we choose’.  But we should also ask ourselves what is reasonable when we return to ‘first principles’.  Socialism began with notions of economic equality; notions of ‘equal association’. There was also the communist notion of ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’.  And that notion still retains its force today.  Though quite rightly the modern Left has also considered that economic equality alone is not enough to achieve ‘The Good Society’.  A ‘good society’ and a ‘strong democracy’ needs to include a participatory and authentic public sphere.  It must encompass mutual respect and free enquiry.  It must support peoples’ need for economic security; but also peoples’ search for meaning in many-varied ways.  Whereas the Left once focused its attentions on nationalisation too-narrowly, however, the opposite tendency to reject public ownership as a strategy is itself ‘Ideological’. Democratic socialists are learning from past errors.  But it is not a ‘clean break’.  Our efforts today should still be informed to a significant extent by past insights, and past tradition.


Bernstein, Eduard  “Evolutionary Socialism”, Shocken Books, NewYork, 1961

Tilton, Timothy; “The Political Theory of Swedish Social Democracy – Through the Welfare State to Socialism”; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Letter to the Prime-Minister Elect, Malcolm Turnbull

Above:  Australia's new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.  Will we see a shift in the Liberal Party towards small 'l' liberalism?  This is a letter to the new PM, expressing the hopes, I believe, of many progressives.

 Tristan Ewins

Dear Malcolm Turnbull: Prime Minister in-waiting;

The Abbott Prime Ministership is over.  Gone now perhaps are the scepticism about climate change; the bullying of the ABC; the broken promises and blatant breaches of mandate.  The night the change in Prime Ministership was announced the ABC coverage suggested that you and Julie Bishop would bring a ‘small ‘l’ liberal’ perspective to the Government. 

Certainly under Liberal governments across the country there has been cause to fear the withdrawal of civil liberties.  In Victoria freedom of assembly was compromised.  Now, though, can we hope that a Turnbull Liberal Government will recommit to civil liberties; and maybe even industrial liberties – as a genuine, philosophically-liberal outlook would demand?

Pluralism is also core to a robust democracy.  Tony Abbott attacked the independence of the ABC; and the independence and/or existence of various human rights commissioners. And he attacked the independence of charities who took positions contrary to his agenda.  Hopefully this ends now.  But further: what about a reformed National Curriculum that fosters political literacy and active citizenship?  Not ‘one sided indoctrination’ – but exposure to the whole gamut of political opinion ; preparing students to make informed choices as active citizens?

Hopefully under your leadership the Liberals will now remain within their mandate.  No cuts to education, no changes to pensions, no cuts to the ABC and SBS. 

But some of us will be hoping for more as well. The austerity of the 2014 Budget was obviously  ‘a bridge too far’.  Yet austerity needs to be questioned more broadly as well.  We already have ‘small government’ in this country by OECD standards.  We don’t need to venture further down that path.  We don’t need to bludgeon the poor and vulnerable any further.   Neither do we need to venture further down the path of privatising infrastructure.  A non-Ideological view would be open to a mixed economy – letting the public sector do what it does best.  Though of course as a liberal you want the private sector to do what it does best as well.

What is more we don’t need to dilute the progressive nature of our overall tax mix further. Towards the end of his Prime Ministership John Howard made it clear he believed in the principle of progressive taxation.  Mr Turnbull: there is a chance now ‘to break the consensus’ of ‘broadening the base’ in a regressive way.  And if balancing the Budget is a priority, withdrawing superannuation concessions for the most privileged needs to be considered first before hitting vulnerable or average Australians. There is an opportunity to genuinely occupy the centre-ground with a position of small ‘l’ liberalism. 

On climate change I understand you are committed against an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) or a Carbon Tax as a condition of many of your colleagues’ support.  But what about much more robust ‘direct action’?  What about ‘direct action’ in the form of a multi-billion dollar investment in renewables research and renewables infrastructure?  This can be done without a breach of mandate, and without a breach of trust with your colleagues.

Malcolm; On the rights of refugees, Australia can do more.  We can do more for Syrian and Iraqi refugees especially: whose plight has arisen partly as a consequence of earlier interventions which we contributed towards.  The wars in Iraq destabilised the region; they weakened Iraq, leaving it with a sectarian Shia government; and this emboldened the Iranians with their nuclear program. This was the background to the Syrian civil war. Sectarian government in Iraq was also a contributing factor to the Sunni ISIL movement – which was fuelled by Sunni resentment.

Now minorities and oppressed groups are suffering in a region torn apart by war, with maybe over 300,000 dead.  We can do more and we should do more. And we can use our diplomatic leverage with the United States and other countries in the Pacific region to do more as well.  On QandA American folk-singer and progressive activist, Joan Baez pointed out that if the United States accepted refugees on the same proportionate scale as Germany that this would mean support for some 3 million humanitarian migrants.  For Australia’s part we can also radically increase foreign aid – such as to assist Syria’s neighbours to provide for literally millions of refugees.

Finally, here: I don’t often find myself agreeing with Conservative commentator, Rowan Dean.  And I have a history of supporting non-discrimination in Australia’s humanitarian migration program.  But maybe the argument that Christians in these war-torn countries don’t have many places to turn within their region deserves to be considered with an open mind.  I’m not saying Rowan Dean is right.  I am saying his claims deserve to be assessed critically, rigorously and honestly.

Malcolm: I hope this doesn’t cause you to discount all that I have to say – but certainly I consider myself as being on the left-wing side of the political spectrum. So for instance I would believe in a more extensive public sector than you would as an economic liberal. Yet listening to John Hewson speaking regularly on QandA it is evident that the Liberal Party has made a quantum leap to the Right over the past few decades.  Amidst this, Hewson’s politics have remained steady. For progressives, the hope will be that a revivification of the Liberals ‘Wets’ faction will see a shift of the relative centre towards something more compassionate, generous and just. As well as an outlook which is more tolerant of pluralism, debate and dissent.  Egalitarianism was long part of this country’s culture, and of our identity.  Let’s celebrate that; and let’s not emulate the American ‘Tea Party’ movement with its extreme social Darwinist Ideology.  Instead let’s see some policies aimed at our most vulnerable Australians: those who experience the most intense human suffering.  Get the National Disability Insurance Scheme done. But what about a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme as well? 

With many others no doubt, I am hoping with your ascent to the ‘top job’ we can look forward to a new tri-partisan consensus around human dignity and human rights; and around compassion and respect for the rights of the poor and vulnerable.  Please do not crush that hope.

(nb: the author is still Labor to his bootstraps ; but consensus in areas of progressive public policy should be what we're hoping for as well - a shift in the relative centre)