Labor Essays 1998: New visions for government
Edited by Gary Jungwirth
Australian Fabian Society and Pluto Press
1998, 194 pp., $20 (pb)
Review by Sue Boland
The Australian Labor Party was soundly thrashed in the 1996 federal election. The resulting internal discussion about how it could repackage itself impelled the Australian Fabian Society to re-establish the Labor Essays series. While the series's primary purpose is to promote discussion and debate on policy issues in ALP circles, for me, the 1998 edition is a demonstration of why the ALP does not, and cannot, represent the interests of working-class people.
One of the most accurate statements in this book is Gareth Evans' assertion, "The basic core values and priorities that make us the party we are ... have remained essentially unchanged throughout our history". That unchanged core value is Labor's fundamental commitment to the maintenance of the capitalist economic system. All other social concerns are secondary.
This commitment to capitalism explains the failure of every attempt by left currents within the party to turn it into a party which puts the interests of workers first. The result has always been that some leftists are forced out of the party, and those who stay in become apologists for Labor's right-wing policies. The ALP has only ever granted significant social reforms under intense pressure from class-struggle forces outside the party, such as the Communist Party of Australia in the 1930s and '40s, and the 1960s youth radicalisation.
While the contributors to Labor Essays don't necessarily agree on every point, there's no disagreement on:
- the importance of maintaining the capitalist system and promoting policies which prioritise "wealth creation";
- the need to overcome the divisions between Australians, especially those between employers and employees, through promoting cooperation;
- social reforms and industrial relations policies being assessed on the basis of economic goals and the "national interest" as well as social goals;
- the need for government to intervene in the economy through assisting particular industries; and
- individuals, including the poorest, having obligations to the rest of society.
While a number of the contributors acknowledge there are victims of economic rationalism and that the problem of unemployment is serious, their bottom-line commitment to capitalism and "wealth creation" prevents them from presenting any real solutions. Thus, the shadow minister for industrial relations, Bob McMullan, acknowledges the "inherently unfair balance of power in the workplace" but says industrial relations need to "serve both social and economic goals" and "should be based on cooperation not confrontation".
In our class-divided society, the only class that benefits from industrial relations based on "cooperation" is the employing class. Because this class controls the economy, any appeal to workers to moderate wage demands in consideration of the "national interest" or the "national economy" directly advantages employers at the expense of workers.
Capitalists are in the business of maximising profits by any means necessary, so workers can never trust employers' promise not to sack workers if they agree to pay cuts or workplace restructuring. Such deals, in which unions cooperated with employers for the so-called "national interest", were thoroughly tested in the 1980s. The results were lower wages, fewer jobs and more stressful working conditions, and higher profits for employers.
John Button (former industry minister) approvingly refers to the 1984 car industry plan in which unions agreed to a restructuring of the industry which would lead to big job cuts. Button had convinced them the changes were necessary because of the industry's importance in the Australian economy and because some job cuts now would stave off bigger cuts later.
But there was an alternative. The car plants could have been nationalised, some of them could have been retooled to produce more public transport vehicles, and a shorter working week could have been introduced. Of course, the ALP would never dream of such a solution because it would be opposed vigorously by the employers, whose "rights" to make a profit and control the transport industry would have been eroded.
Most of the essays advocate workers giving up some of their rights for the "national interest". The Gough Whitlam Labor government is criticised for not having a mechanism to keep a tight rein on the trade union movement. Simon Crean, the deputy opposition leader, points out that such a mechanism was in place by the time the Bob Hawke government was elected in 1983.
That mechanism was the Prices and Incomes Accord. While it prevented workers from taking industrial action to win wage rises, there was no similar mechanism preventing employers from making greater profits.
Despite many pious comments about the crime of unemployment, the only solution offered in the book is more government assistance to industry. There is no mention of how companies can be prevented from sacking workers, nor of the many companies (such as BHP) that have received big government handouts to stave off job cuts, then proceeded to sack workers regardless.
A theme taken up in some of the essays is individuals' obligation to society. Victorian Labor "leftist" Lindsay Tanner writes that relationships between human beings are increasingly dominated by choice rather than social obligation. He indicates that the left is contributing to the resulting breakdown of community by focusing on freedom of choice in lifestyle and individual rights.
Tanner's argument that "individuals as well as governments have some obligation to help build the community" is echoed in Martin Ferguson's essay, which says the ALP is "committed to providing active job preparation programs based on the concept of reciprocal obligation".
In fact, it is the capitalist economic system that destroys the sense of community, not an abundance of choice in human relationships. Under capitalism, worker is pitted against worker in the quest for jobs, and the individual is blamed for being unemployed. Social solidarity breaks down when individuals feel they are alone against the whole system, powerless to change anything.
A sense of community — social solidarity — develops only when working-class people begin to defend their interests by organising collectively around issues such as working conditions, job cuts and defending social services, the environment and the rights of women, Aborigines and migrants. Yet the ALP opposes all campaigns that threaten the "national economic interest".
Mary Delahunty describes democracy as a "perpetual conversation between the leaders and the led — a dialogue among citizens and those they elect to govern". This accurately describes "democracy" at its best under capitalism.
But what a farce capitalist democracy is: a minority — the capitalists, judges and professional politicians — making all the decisions on behalf of the vast majority, decisions which can be a matter of life or death for working people.
Defending the capitalist system goes hand in hand with restricting the rights of working-class people to defend their interests and restricting democratic rights. Social democratic parties around the world (the book contains an article by John Pandazopoulos and Steve Booth outlining how the British Labour Party was restructured to weaken its left wing) are following this basic course.
Any leftist still inside the ALP would be wise to get out before they get swept into the trap of defending such assaults on the working class. The problem is not that the ALP has been captured by the wrong people; the problem is with the party itself.