Principles Matter, Values Matter

Wayne Swan launches "Story of Our Country: Labor's Vision for Australia" by Dr Adrian Pabst, 23 August 2019

By Wayne Swan – President of the Australian Labor Party

There are a wealth of ideas in this book and it canvasses the rich history of my Party.

Its title is a huge compliment to our movement. As Adrian observes: “the evolution of the Labor Party mirrors Australia’s national story. A story of nation building anchored in the lives of ordinary people rather than the privileged elites represented by other parties.”

More importantly it’s a timely reminder that the heart and soul of the Labor Party is the shared ethical principle of economic justice drawn from both Catholic and Protestant ethics and translated into the secular practice of a just wage.

Adrian frequently quotes Graham Freudenberg – perhaps our finest wordsmith and historian – that “more than any other political party in the world the Australian Labor Party reflects and represents the character of the nation which produced it.”

The launch of such a work in the wake of a devastating electoral defeat risks conflating current debates on what went right or wrong with Labor’s electoral policy and tactics with a serious assessment of the Party’s long term electoral prospects and policy direction. 

I would recommend to all a read of Kim Carr’s Melbourne launch speech of Adrian’s book.

For some years now, and in my national Presidency campaign I have warned of the threats faced by centre-left parties here and around the world. Currently the radical right is using race, immigration and climate change to hollow out centre-left voter support among working class and lower income earners to camouflage the right’s wealth concentration agenda.

This was evident in our recent campaign, just as it was in a recent tranche of Scandinavian national elections.

A few months ago Graham Freudenberg passed away.  At his tribute dinner in 2017 he observed “there is now an urgency and menace in Australian affairs that was absent even in the Cold War years.” He said “the attack from the extreme right is now an attack on the Parliament itself – just as it was in the West in the late 20s and throughout the 30s.”

He once said to me the most significant speech he ever wrote was Arthur Calwells rejection of Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War. In that speech, as many of you will know, he warned us that although we would be traduced for our courageous stand, and suffer at the election that followed, we would emerge from that loss stronger because we would be on the right side of history. By showing the courage of our convictions, he said, we would be vindicated.

History vindicated us. Ignoring the truth and acting as if nothing should change would cost us our integrity and our dignity. 

The same now can be said about climate change.

Just as we were right to oppose participation in Vietnam because Menzie’s case was built on a collection of lies, we are right to oppose climate change denial because it too is built on a collection of lies.

Science is on our side.

Freudy’s argument retains its relevance especially after the shock loss of the last election. 

What Graham Freudenberg and federal Labor realised in 1965 was that principle matters, values matter. Labor is united by core beliefs that go far beyond making a buck for your mates. If you just want to cut taxes for your dinner party guests and work out how to screw the workers, you’re not going to find any friends at a Labor Party branch meeting.

When Graham wrote that famous “drum beat” speech, our leadership and campaign bosses knew it would cost us votes, but we could not, in good conscience, do or say anything else.

A victory built on winning a race to the bottom on cheap tax cuts or consolidating power in the hands of a few is not a victory at all. Sometimes you’ve got to take one for history and maybe, in a sense, we did that in May.

Because friends we were right when we argued for a fair distribution of wealth and when we argued to stand up on a pivotal issue like climate. We might not have got every bit of messaging and campaigning right, and our defences could have been constructed better, but we were where it mattered, when it mattered. And we will be again, in the future. It’s in our DNA.

And this is where Adrian in his introduction, in my view, confuses an analysis of the underlying challenges facing social democratic parties with short term political tactics.

He says on page 2 “fighting climate change and closing tax loopholes are important, yet secondary concerns. The primary priorities are secure, meaningful jobs, to feed one’s family and a sense of belonging to both people and place.”

Unfortunately the latter objectives are not achievable without significant changes to taxation and climate policy.

Labor didn’t do enough to defend our vulnerabilities on tax and climate and our policies were ruthlessly demonised by the “surround sound state media” of the Murdoch press and the biggest advertising spend ever seen by a single plutocrat in the modern history of Western elections. (And irony of all ironies, the original source of that spend was the Chinese!)

Labor was literally outspent 6 to 1 so we couldn’t hope to compete in dollar terms.  I firmly believe we didn’t focus enough on defending our vulnerabilities – especially on tax measures and the negative characterisations of Labor’s economic management credentials.

Conservatives offered a massive tax cut for high income earners while Labor proposed modest tax cuts for low and middle income earners and the closing of gaping tax loopholes to spend on the social contract, particularly health, education and child care.

This is an agenda to be proud of, not resile from, after a narrow loss. There is an old saying that has never lost its good sense: pay tax, buy civilisation. For social democrats constructing a progressive tax system to build a better society is what makes real aspiration for all possible.

The conservatives try to tell Australians we have a choice to make: between a tax system that is progressive and a tax system that is aspirational.

Yet progressive taxation is the platform that makes aspiration possible. Without it, aspiration is the dream most people have to tell their children to forget. 

Progressive taxation has never been class warfare, it was created to counter the class warfare that ripped the world to pieces during and after the Great Depression.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once called conservatism “the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” And the constant attempts by conservatives to demonise mainstream tax policies as “anti-business” is one social democrats cannot afford to let stand.

In the wake of this election result Labor won’t let the conservative trickle-downers from the Coalition and elsewhere rewrite history. Nor can we go into denial about what went wrong.

Our Party will never stop working to dispel the myth of trickle-down economics and not take the tough decisions to deal with growing inequality. Our mission past, present and future is to create a fairer and more prosperous society.

Adrian is right to point to our failure to put forward a strong message centred around growth and jobs. 

In an economy where underemployment and insecure work are at record highs too frequently our economic messages were drowned out by worthy debate on other issues or undermined by negative campaigning from the Liberals and minor parties.

There is no doubt in this election Labor failed to win the votes of many on low incomes and in insecure work. This is a cause for concern.

If you’re a truck driver in Logan city or a steel worker in Wollongong you are constantly told to work harder for less while tax cuts go to the top end.

All the while progressive issues, such as the Falou case, jump the queue of daily concerns and workers think their priority issues of jobs and wages are not on the agenda.

When your primary concern is economic insecurity of your family, hearing constant debate and conflict over social issues makes you feel like you don’t count.

Our Party has a proud record of progressive social reform but we must always have at the forefront of the economic battle the interests of working people.

And that means jobs, jobs and jobs.

Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement – which had its own off-shoots here in Australia – understood that without basic economic equality, legal equality, racial equality, gender equality is a fiction. Economic equality is vital if these other worthy goals are to have real meaning.

Dr King was pointing out that in order to succeed, the progressive movement has to be a broad movement. It has to include not just the progressive middle class, but also working people and their unions. It has to talk about jobs – who has them, what they pay and what conditions they come with.

Good jobs are an essential element of freedom. And therefore a central part of any social democratic platform. A central part of any Labor platform.   

Adrian, like Thomas Frank, argues that some social democratic parties have abandoned their working class base and become more remote, technocratic and managerial – representing a new professional class that is predominantly urban, metropolitan and liberal progressivist.

As a Party member of 45 years I have seen our representation in the Parliament change dramatically. And in many ways this has mirrored the change in the wider electorate.

Our Labor Party affiliations are the ballast that hedge against this trend. Our foundations haven’t changed but we have to be constantly at work and involved with the entire community. We always have to remember the tea room when we are in the boardroom and vice versa.

Which takes us back to Adrian’s beginning. We are anchored in the lives of ordinary people rather than privileged elites.

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