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Critique of Labor and the Greens on 'policy compromise'

By Tristan Ewins - posted Wednesday, 30 December 2015


Recently the Australian Greens negotiated a compromise with the Liberal Federal Government 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."

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 $200 million. This meant "up to 600" more companies would be "shielded" from the reform. Labor had 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.

Several months ago the Greens agreed 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 most wealthy. Shorten's plan foreshadowed savings of $14 billion over ten years. But the existing Government is facing a deficit perhaps 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.

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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 ALP Socialist Left in relation to the Greens

Labor often gets it wrong on policy. Often Labor pursues symbolic policies for appearances sake which are far from the 'root and branch' reform needed to serve the interests of its constituents. Shorten's Superannuation Concession reforms are very modest, and as a consequence Labor will be pressed to pursue extensive austerity should they regain government if there is no change. Perhaps this will mean regressive policies like more attacks on vulnerable groups such as Sole Parents will be raised. Or perhaps an increase in the Age of Retirement will be pondered. 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 does not criticise its own party's policies - 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 the 'public silence' of the ALP Socialist Left, the Left more broadly will be demobilised. This would especially be a threat if the Greens' recent trending towards compromise marked 'a move to the Centre'. That would again leave a space on the relative 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. And this would simply assist the broad Australian Right in consolidating their hegemony.

The strategy of leftists 'staying and fighting' within the Labor Party remains valid. But when the Party leadership gets it badly wrong it's up to leftists whether they vacate that (public) left space and/or demobilise the left - or whether they choose their battles - and publicly dissent where necessary. Making the case for stronger superannuation concessions reform is a crucial example which could neutralise the drive towards austerity. Public dissent in such instances is necessary because there is the alternative of Left demobilisation. And before we know it even some of the ALP Left's own people don't know what they're supposed to be fighting for anymore... (take privatisation, tax reform, social wage and welfare expansion and reform, industrial rights and liberties etc)

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Insofar as criticism is constructive there shouldn't just tolerance of internal criticism of Labor policy. Instead it must be encouraged. Further, 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 instead is honest, well-intentioned, reciprocal criticism.

Between the Greens and the ALP Left there is a kind of 'double edged sword'. Should the ALP Socialist Left work for co-operation with the Greens – or should the ALP Socialist Left fight them tooth and nail on account of the threat to several of their most talented Left MPs ; and the likelihood of declining Socialist Left influence in Caucus and Cabinet? What must be kept in mind is that policy outcomes are what matters more than anything.

More on Greens compromises

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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