Labor has come to place too much faith in the ability of centralised government and markets to solve all of society’s problems.
With the Abbott government experiencing severe wobbles in its first year in office, and polls showing that it would be comprehensively defeated if an election were held now, comes the obvious temptation for the other side of politics to play a low-risk, small-target strategy. That would be a serious mistake.
Nothing that has happened since last September’s election defeat obscures the fact that the Australian Labor Party is at a tipping point in its 123-year history. Given the results of state and federal elections since 2011, Labor arguably risks becoming a boutique party that can barely muster a primary vote with a three in front of it. The next 2½ years are shaping up as the most important since Gough Whitlam became opposition leader in 1967. The party must conduct a searching analysis of its organisation, policies, personnel, and critically reflect on its history, whether its most recent past or formative phase.
Which brings us to the party’s official reason for being, a point of contention over the past week, eliciting contributions from Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen. In 1921, Labor adopted a socialist objective which aimed for "the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange". The outcome of a compromise and watered down over the years, the objective was a historic act of folly. Tellingly, it has been observed more in its breach.
The move cut against the grain of early Labor politics in three respects. First, prior to World War One, Labor ideology, call it socialism if you like, was always more a set of values, or an ethical vision, than a doctrinaire blueprint for government. Second, it was a popular ideology: Labor was the first party of its kind to form government in the world. Third, by elevating the principle of state ownership above all else, Labor arguably lost the ability to talk in simple human terms about its mission.
The socialist objective must now be tossed into the ashtray of history. It is simply irrelevant to the lives of modern Australians. In 1921 let alone 2014, Labor’s objective should not explain what the state ought to own, or what restrictions are to be placed on markets, but explain why the party was put on this earth: to ensure that all Australians are able to live long, fulfilling lives rich in meaning, living in a good society. This is Labor’s true "social"-ist objective.
Re-engaging with that simple, core purpose means doing some hard thinking about where Labor has been and is heading. As I argued on these pages last December, it means coming to terms with Labor’s "1983 and all that" moment, whereby the Hawke and Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and `90s have become some kind of Platonic ideal. This school of Labor history is a repressive force in two ways – one, the party in government struggles to live up to those herculean standards and, second, an overweening deference to that era blocks the path to philosophical and policy renewal. In any case, the mobile-phone-free, internet-free 1983 is no longer an entirely useful guide to our world. Simplistically reviving that legacy is like asking Australians to ditch their GPS navigators and return to physical street directories. But pulling out the political Melway is not going to cut it.
Labor also needs to be mature enough to speak openly about the negative aspects of that era. In the context of a debate about the party’s objective, Labor’s governing philosophy is particularly worth examining. Beginning with the ascent of Whitlam in the late-1960s, hastening under Hawke-Keating, and reaching its apotheosis during the Rudd-Gillard era, Labor has come to place too much faith in the ability of centralised government and markets to solve all of society’s problems, embracing a bloodless form of statist liberalism at odds with its core purpose.
The way forward requires a little historical imagination. Labor tradition has always been concerned with what the party wanted to conserve and protect rather than merely change. This much was suggested by the famous report of the NSW Labor Defence Committee issued in 1890. Only by forming a Labor Party, it announced, "can we begin to restore to the people the land of which they have been plundered, to absorb the monopolies which society at large has helped to create, and to ensure to every man, by the opportunity of fairly remunerated labour, a share in those things that make life worth living".
If you excuse the gendered language, it’s worth pausing over the last ten words. That’s Labor’s enduring mission. It’s not as famous as Ben Chifley’s iconic "Light on the Hill" phrase, coined in 1949, although it should be. It is also an excellent starting place for revising Labor’s objective, and a reminder that Labor has never been a straightforwardly "progressive" party, at least by the current meaning of the term. Standing against the commodification of people and place, and preserving time-honoured institutions and traditions, is both progressive and conservative, and an inherently Labor ideal.
The growing need for Labor to embrace its inner conservative seems timely given the radical prescriptions of the recently released Commission of Audit. This is to say nothing of the growing philosophical influence upon the Liberal Party of big "C" conservativism and libertarianism, ideas antithetical to the Australian way. Above all, Labor’s prospects rest with its ability to talk meaningfully about "those things that make life worth living". A good place to start that conversation with Australians is by revising its plainly archaic objective.
Nick Dyrenfurth is the author of several books on Australian politics and history, and recently worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter. This is an edited version of his address to the NSW Fabian Society’s debate "What is Labor’s Objective"’ with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen and ALP national president Jenny McAllister held on Tuesday evening.