What the left can learn from Australian Labor

By combining radical economics with patriotism, the party has made itself the favourite to win this May’s general election. 

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Across much of the West, the left faces an existential threat. Less than 20 years since a majority of Western governments were centre left, social democrats and socialists are in power in just six countries which, with the exception of Spain, are all small: New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Luxembourg and Malta. That could soon change: the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is on course to win the federal elections due in May 2019 and become the country’s dominant political force.

The ALP governs in five of Australia’s eight regions and holds a consistent, election-winning poll lead over the right-wing coalition government. Under Labor leader Bill Shorten, a lawyer and former trade union national secretary, the party has moved left on the economy, welfare and work while remaining moderate on many social and cultural issues. By combining a radical vision for economic justice with a commitment to patriotism and social cohesion, the ALP’s ideas and strategy hold key lessons for those out of power and struggling to forge a majority coalition, not least UK Labour and the US Democrats.

Like Britain, Australia is governed by a centre right that is divided and directionless. In common with the British Conservatives, the ruling Liberal Party, which governs with the National Party, lacks a majority in parliament and is preoccupied with political bloodletting. Since 2013, the Liberals have endured three coups against their leader and prime minister. Last summer, Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull who had replaced Tony Abbott as prime minister in 2015.

The Liberals are paralysed by ideological contradictions between their liberal and conservative wings; infighting betrays deep divisions over fundamental values. In the contest that followed Turnbull’s ousting, Morrison, a fairly moderate conservative, narrowly won against the challenger Peter Dutton and his divisive politics of immigration and race.

But Morrison has so far failed to revive the fortunes of the Liberal-National coalition. His party lost a safe seat in a recent by-election and has proven unable to articulate an alternative to the coalition’s traditional fusion of free-market fundamentalism with right-wing identity politics. In consequence, the government has lost ground to the One Nation Party led by the far-right populist Pauline Hanson and to a resurgent Labor that is capturing the popular mood on economic injustice.

Australian workers face a double squeeze of stagnant real wages and rising living costs, which together exacerbate inequality and precariousness. Much of its banking sector is beset by corruption and cartel capitalism. Meanwhile, the coalition has doubled national debt without any meaningful investment in housing, infrastructure and education. Twenty seven years of uninterrupted economic growth in Australia, which avoided a recession following the 2008 financial crash, have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest 20 per cent.

In response to rising inequalities of wealth and power, the ALP has developed an ambitious agenda of spending commitments on housing, health, infrastructure and education, funded by the proposed abolition of tax concessions that favour home and financial share ownership. Signature policies include fully implementing a National Disability Insurance Scheme, providing more equitable, needs-based school funding, and expanding both university and vocational training places. The party is also considering introducing worker representation on company boards and other forms of stronger workplace power.

Labor is seeking to fuse fiscal responsibility with economic egalitarianism in ways that renew the party’s historic commitment to civilising capitalism through transformation, rather than incremental reform or wholesale revolution.

The ALP’s economic ideas are underpinned by a public philosophy of the common good – providing everyone with a share of those things that make life worth living. In his book For the Common Good, published in 2016, Shorten describes it as an attempt to “bring together the people of this country – the men, women, children and families of our inner cities, suburbs, regions and remote communities; indigenous, local and immigrant; small and big business, workers and unions; young and old; progressive and conservative. It’s time to transcend the cycle of division that has characterised our politics for too long.”

A commitment to the common good is about pursuing personal fulfilment while meeting our obligations to one another and wider society. This provides a richer conception of justice than the coalition’s arid philosophy of maximising utility and promoting freedom.

Australian Labor’s ethical purpose helps the party to address not just economic injustice but also social fragmentation and cultural instability. Migration, and ethnic and religious diversity provide both dynamism and potential for community conflict. With almost 30 per cent of Australians born overseas, popular participation in democratic decision-making is as vital as effective citizenship. Hence the ALP’s promotion of a patriotism that balances respect for diversity and difference with integration into a common culture and an appreciation of the Australian way of life – “mateship” and a “fair go” for all.

These specifically Australian values reflect universal principles of work, family, community, country and a sense of decency.

The need to build a cross-class, cross-cultural coalition involves rejecting both liberal centrism and revolutionary utopianism in favour of a paradoxical politics  – at once progressive and conservative, romantic and rational, secular and religious, patriotic and internationalist. Across North America and Europe, the left has much to learn from Labor Down Under.

Adrian Pabst is head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author of Liberal World Order and Its Critics (Routledge). Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianPabst1​.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain