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Itís time, again, if Shorten has the fortitude

By John Murray - posted Monday, 14 May 2018


In 1979, Judge Howard Zelling wrote:

The whole history of seven centuries of law reform shows that there are only some times and some generations in which the whole community is receptive to law reform. We are passing through such a period at the moment. Unless we seize with both hands the opportunity that is given to us it may not recur again for many years.

We are passing through another such period right now. The public mood is receptive to law reform on many fronts, after decades of bipartisan neoliberalism. The time is right for a reformist government. Is there any chance that we will get a reformist ALP government?

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The public mood in 1972, when the ALP was elected after 23 years of conservative rule, was highly receptive to reform. Whitlam signalled his intention to implement democratic socialist reform in no uncertain terms during (and even before) the election campaign. In his opening campaign speech, he said:

We will make a massive attack on the problem of land and housing costs. The land is the basic property of the Australian people. It is the people's land, and we will fight for the right of all Australian people to have access to it at fair prices.

This was the right policy in 1972, and is the right policy now. But if the ALP goes to the next election with such a policy, then it must abandon the bipartisan neoliberal agenda and honour its democratic socialist constitution. For whilst it has been a very long time indeed since any ALP leader has uttered the S-word in public, that is what the ALP claims to be. From its constitution:

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.

The constitutional objectives of the ALP include phrases such as "redistribution of political and economic power", "democratic control and strategic social ownership of Australian natural resources for the benefit of all Australians" and "the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity." By contrast, the current draft ALP policy platform doesn't mention the word socialist once in over 200 sleep-inducing pages. It has the notion of a "fair go" as its touchstone. A fair go is a noble thing indeed, but it is a long way from "democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange". This is how the ALP applies the fair go to economic reform:

For modern Labor, the fair go also means leading a new wave of economic reform: restoring the link between effort and reward, boosting wages and productivity and delivering a more equal share of national wealth for all those whose hard work helps create it.

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This kind of anodyne policy drivel captures nobody's attention, let alone the national mood. So we find the ALP in something of a bind. The public mood is a reformist one, and Australia desperately needs democratic socialist reform - deliberate policies to redress the harms of neoliberalism. But the ALP abandoned democratic socialism decades ago. It just didn't update its constitution.

How far has the ALP come from democratic socialism, and could it ever return? Even the Liberals in Whitlam's day believed that every Australian had the right to a decent house. No, this is not a jest. In 1974, newly-elected Liberal David Connolly, speaking in support of a Whitlam government bill to finance strategic bank lending to low-income earners, spoke of "the right of every Australian citizen, regardless of his income, or whether married or single, to have a decent house…". One cannot imagine any contemporary politician from either major party holding such a belief, let alone stating it publicly, any more than one can imagine the Liberals supporting an ALP policy. But if the millions of Australians who currently want to but can't buy into the housing market are ever going to be able to do so, certain things must happen. Even with a significant correction in prices, those people must either become a great deal richer, or they must be lent or given at least some of the money to buy property by the government itself. This means the ALP abandoning neoliberalism and returning to democratic socialism.

The ALP knows the extraordinary firepower which the elites can bring to bear against policies which threaten them. A $23 million dollar advertising campaign cost Rudd his job and scuttled a sensible tax reform policy. Any meaningful housing reform policy is going to directly attack the interests of banks and the property investing class, both of whom are determined to keep property prices high by any means possible for as long as possible. Vested interests will claim that any reformist policy will destroy the economy. But will the voters believe it, given the current national mood?

A reformist government needs an unimpeachable mandate. Even an opposition-controlled Senate, as Whitlam showed, is no obstacle to a government with a reformist mandate. The next ALP government will very likely find itself in a far better position than Whitlam, negotiating with independent Senators who might be persuaded to support reforms, rather than negotiating with a Liberal party which is savagely hostile to any kind of reform except the kind that makes their aristocratic sponsors even richer and more powerful than they already are. But Whitlam went to the electorate and got the mandate for socialist democratic reform, and wrestled with a hostile Senate from the moral high ground that comes with a mandate for reform.

By the time of the next election the banks will have released their annual reports for the current financial year, which will show just how much they have had to write down the investment grade ratings of their mortgage books. Their share prices, already declining, will very possibly be in freefall, and most Australians will be fully aware of the scale of misconduct in the banking sector. Here lies a great opportunity for the ALP. The banks donate generously to the ALP just as they do to the Liberals. The ALP could ceremonially hand back the money, delivering a giant golf tournament cheque to each bank as a declaration that it doesn't want or need the funding of the banks and no longer considers itself subject to their influence. Bill Shorten could call a press conference and say "from this day forward, the ALP does not accept donations from banks, and we hereby return the donations of the last three decades." Simple, effective electioneering that would match the public mood perfectly (although it might put a dent in party finances). Alas, it is a complete fantasy.

The ALP could conceivably honour its constitution and outline a program of reforms to address the retrogressions of neoliberalism so as to secure an unchallengeable mandate to implement that program. Alas, this too is almost certainly a fantasy.

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About the Author

John Murray is a former lawyer and parliamentary researcher.

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