Tag Archives: policy

Labor, Public Policy and the Infiltration of Economics

The points Tony Judt makes in this lecture are so relevant to Australia and the Labor Party right now, that it is as if he had this country in mind when he was developing his thesis. Either that or we are politically far more similar to Europe than we think. These ideas have since been solidified and published in his book, ‘Ill Fares The Land’, which I would highly recommend to read.

I have personally transcribed some of the essence of Tony Judt’s lecture on social democracy. The quotes are in chronological order and develop as a narrative. The only other transcription available on the internet is an adaptation from his speech notes for the New York Review of Books and is quite different to what Judt actually says.

Tony Judt, in his lecture, ‘What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?’:

“There is this curious cognitive dissonance between the ends that people are willing, in very large numbers, to approve and even seek, than the means that they are willing to consider.”

“Our problem is not sociological, it’s not economical, it is… discursive, we don’t know how to talk about these things anymore.”

“We have lost the capacity to think of public affairs except in, and in a very restricted sense, in economic terms. When we ask of a policy or a proposal, is it good or bad? We don’t actually ask, is it good or bad? We ask, is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Would it be efficient in that respect? Would it contribute or not contribute to growth and so on. We ask, in a very restricted sense, economic questions, we talk economics as a language of public policy. That is not a natural condition, it is an acquired one.”

“How did we come to think in exclusively economic terms? Such that, when we have a purportedly national debate about whether or not we should fix our collective arrangements for health care, we can only ask, how much will it cost? Who will pay? How much are we willing to sacrifice? And will it be efficient? Rather than, is it good, is it right, is it wrong, is it bad, is it just, is it fair?”

“It’s not accidental that today in Europe social democrats do badly again and again and again at elections, even in traditionally social democratic countries, even in the midst of a shameful, catastrophic financial crisis. The reason is because their language no longer bears any convincing relationship to their programs.

Social democracy emerged as the alternative within the left to Marxist socialism and a little later to Communism. If you look at the great texts of the social democrats in the 30s and 40s they are all defensively targeted towards their left. “We are democratic”, they say, “not authoritarian, we believe in freedom, not repression. We are not communists”, to some extent, although this varied, “we are not Marxists, we are democrats who happen to believe in social justice” and so on.

When the main objective of social democrats was to show that they were not communists and to implant themselves firmly in liberal societies as plausible alternative governments this made sense. Today this rhetorical tick makes no sense. It’s not accidental that Angela Merkel can win an election in Germany against a social democratic opposition with a set of policies that essentially resemble theirs.

The social democrats of today have a problem, they won in Europe. Social democracy in one form or another is, with apologies to Moliere, ‘the prose that people speak’, so social democrats have nothing distinctive to offer, they have no narrative to offer, no story which distinguishes them from the centre and centre right, and the mainstream. It’s different in this country (America), I’ll come back to that.

But social democrats need a new language, they need to begin by asking how should we talk politics before asking what are our policies. The policies are not the problem. So what can be recovered? Well we could begin with the practices of social democracy.”


Now a small number of you may ask, what does this have to do with Australia? Well, if you haven’t thought of any examples I’m gathering you may have read these quotes passively and have not taken Judt’s thesis in, in which case I would ask you to re-read it or come back to it later. If you’re on the ball today you may have applied this argument to the Australian Labor Party and/or some of its policies and policy debates. Now this is stating the obvious, but there really is very little distinguishing them from the Liberal Party anymore, and this is because they have lost their hold on the language of social democracy, or rather, this language has become an empty signifier (for all socially democratic parties). There is a scattering of linguistic relics which remind us of what once was; a party for the worker who primarily looks after lower-middle class interests. Or what PM Gillard would now refer to as caring for “working families.” This stark change is of course a natural product of history and progression. No one expects the Labor Party to stay the same; a strongly unionist, hard left, socially democratic party. The only problem is that Labor still thinks (to a slightly lesser extent) and promotes publicly that this is what they are and that these are the same values they continue to stand for. This is, in my opinion, far from the present reality.

So what then isn’t quite working for Labor at the moment? I believe that we all have an intuitive feeling that Labor merely lacks an ability to communicate their policies well. But as Judt points out, it is more than that, it is a failure to speak about issues within a socially democratic discourse and this highlights a fundamental tension between the old Labor values and the new. The new Labor lives in a world centred on obsessively economic-focussed policy creation. There are obviously good reasons for this focus with global competition becoming more intense, economies becoming more linked and a constant fight for growth. But what we miss, what we lose, in this public and legislative discourse is the ability to weigh more equally the economic with the moral, equitable, fair and ethical questions and dimensions of policy. At the moment it seems that the numbers, efficiency and growth are more important than the actual outcomes. This can be said for Labor’s health policy (where is mental health in all of this?), Paid Parental Leave Scheme, seriously depleted tertiary funding, empty and superficial changes to education from a Federal level (MySchool, National Curriculum etc.) That is just scraping the surface, and don’t get me wrong, the Liberal Party also suffer from this, but the difference is that they don’t purport to be a party with socially democratic values, they are liberal conservatives and they make that position fairly clear.

I do not want to dismiss the Labor Party’s attempts to improve socially-supportive policies such as a proposed increase in superannuation to 12%, the NBN, an un-capped number of CSP-supported tertiary places, a change to and relaxing of the criteria for Youth Allowance and their continued welfare support to those in the community who truly need a little help to get back on their feet. My point here is that if Labor is looking to be a credible, robust and distinctive long-term alternative to the Liberal Party (and the Greens), something radical needs to change in party thinking. And personally, I care about this because of the current and future effects this current direction will have on a balanced liberal and socially democratic policy creation in Australia. Foresight and innovation is required for Australia to transition into this new carbon-conscious and sustainability-focussed world and with that said, I’ll leave it there.

Liberal Party and conservatism post to come…


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A Post On Why I Haven’t Posted

From the title of this post you may think:

– Oh, how very post-modern and self-reflexive of you;
– I really don’t care; or
– Maybe I will (or won’t) get something from reading this post about not posting.

Well, to put it bluntly, after the 2010 election campaign and the hung parliament result/hectic period of Independents and ALP/COAL negotiations, I was decidedly OVER the current political debates. Or perhaps I should really ask, what debates? Policy is a six-letter-word but it might as well not exist as a word or a concept at the moment.

This blog was created to engage with policy and the political debates in parliament, the Internet and the media. Since the beginning of the new parliament (as in, the end of 2010) there has been nothing in policy or Australian Federal politics that I have found particularly engaging, intellectual, robust (in terms of debate) and held to be important by at least one party or interest group. You might say, but what about the NBN, or WikiLeaks, or dams, or… ahhhh… Someone help me out? Discussions in the media and between people might not have been fruitless but I have not wanted to add to anything to an issue when it seems to me be going round and round in circles.

I enjoy writing, sharing/listening to information and ideas on Twitter and on this blog, but I prefer to engage in topics with facts not speculation or personal opinion. And it has been my rather subconscious decision to refrain from writing about anything political or policy-oriented until I have something relatively new and worthwhile to say.

I don’t believe in being negative and I hope it doesn’t come across this way because I am optimistic that whatever “slow policy period” we are going through will subside. And don’t get me wrong, in the meantime I still enjoy reading other bloggers and Tweeters posts. So until then… I will be posting, but it won’t be original pieces. I will be sharing ideas that other brilliant people have been cultivating and hope that a discussion or …debate (!) might arise out of that, on this blog, at home or just with yourself.

If anyone else has a view on this “slow policy period”, please feel free to post a comment below (NB: I have an respectful discussion policy).

All the best for the New Year, GS.

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Thousand Dollar Babies

There’s a big difference between the Labor Party’s Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme and the Coalition’s Paid Parental Leave policy, in more than just the simple monetary figures. Have a scan over the policies and see if you can find the disparity:

Coalition –
The Coalition’s Paid Parental Leave scheme will:
1. provide mothers with 26 weeks paid parental leave, at full replacement wage (up to a maximum salary of $150,000 per annum) or the Federal Minimum Wage, whichever is greater;
2. include superannuation contributions at the mandatory rate of nine per cent;
3. allow two out of the 26 weeks to be dedicated paternity leave to be used simultaneously or separately to the mother’s leave, paid at the father’s replacement wage (up to a maximum of $150,000 per annum) or the Federal Minimum Wage, whichever is greater, plus superannuation.
4. use the same work test and eligibility conditions as the Government’s recently legislated scheme;
5. be funded by a 1.5 percent levy on companies with taxable incomes in excess of $5 million. The levy will apply only to taxable income in excess of $5 million.
6. be paid and administered by the Family Assistance Office and will not impose an unnecessary administrative burden on employers, unlike Labor’s scheme

Labor –
Paid Parental Leave:
* is government funded
* is for eligible working parents of children born or adopted on or after 1 January 2011
* can be transferred to the other parent
* is paid at the National Minimum Wage – currently $570 a week before tax*
* is for up to 18 weeks
* can be taken any time within the first year after birth.

*The 2010 national minimum wage order has been set at $569.90 per week, calculated on the basis of a week of 38 ordinary hours, or $15 per hour. The PPL scheme payment is calculated at the hourly rate of $15.

You see, with the Coalition’s policy those in high-paying jobs (earning up to $150,000 P.A.) who become parents will receive their normal wage from the government, and those earning much less (eg. $40,000 P.A.) will receive their normal wage from the government for 6 and a half months (26 weeks). Now, if I were in the higher income bracket I would be pretty darn happy, whilst if I were in the lower income bracket I would be feeling pretty ripped off. This is because, essentially, the Coalition has put forth a policy that favours the (upper) middle to upper class over those in the so-called “working class” (I cringe to use such general terms, but they are necessary to make a clear point). In other words, the Coalition’s policy unintentionally sends a message that the relationship between a newborn child and its mother (and/or father) from Toorak is worth more money than the relationship between a newborn child and its mother (and/or father) from Dandenong. And the farce of it is that we will all, as consumers, be paying for the Coalition’s PPL policy when big businesses put up the price of their products to cover the 1.5 percent hike in company tax rates.

It will be paid for with a modest levy of 1.5 percent levy on companies with taxable incomes in excess of $5 million, which will be offset by a 1.5 percent cut in the company tax rate from 1 July 2013.

And as the SMH reports, “taxpayers will supplement the scheme to cover parental leave for Commonwealth public servants.”

One cannot deny the logic and practicalities of the situation: that businesses (who feel the pressure from their shareholders) will not allow their annual profits to reduce as the bottom-line is everything and instead we will all share the burden. So why then should the middle and upper classes profit more from this PPL policy, if we all have to pay for it? And even if the most staunch advocates of this policy deny that the burden will be passed on to consumers, why still should one family be paid more than another by the government?

The Coalition’s policy is in stark contrast to the Labor Party’s Scheme which pays every mother (or father) the same amount of money, the minimum wage of $569.90 per week, for 4 and a half months (18 weeks) – parents will be able choose to receive paid parental leave or the baby bonus when their child is born (same as the Coalition). Labor’s policy is fairer, more equitable and does not favour (monetarily) any family or parent-child relationship over another. This policy avoids discriminating between low, middle and high income earners, unlike the Coalition’s policy which, by providing different amounts to people in different income brackets, will reinforce pre-existing class barriers and the financial burden already felt by those earning a lower income. Now I’m not advocating for the reverse either (a Robin Hood-approach), I am merely advocating the position that monetary assistance from the government, especially when it relates to the relationship between any newborn child and its parent, should be given equally.

Paid Parental Leave is one of the most important policies to be put forth by both parties in this election and they should both be commended for bringing Australia into the 21st century on this issue as we are well behind many other countries like Italy, Canada, Austria, Belgium and France.

But when you are judging both policies, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Would you expect all consumers to (indirectly) fund a Paid Parental Leave scheme?
2. Do you then deduce that it is reasonable that these payments should foster and ensure that the rich maintain the lifestyle that they are accustomed to, whilst the poor continue to struggle with the costs of living?
and so, when it comes to a Paid Parental Leave scheme for all Australians
3. Should your parent-child relationship be worth more (or less) than someone else’s?

The Coalition – Real Action on Paid Parental Leave policy
Australian Labor Party (Australian Government, Family Assistance Office) – Paid Parental Leave scheme
SMH Online – ‘Abbott delays start of paid parental leave scheme, eases blow on business’, Phillip Coorey, 3 August 2010

Productivity Commission – Paid Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave
Business Spectator – ‘Abbott’s MPs to fight parental leave plan’ 6 August 2010
The Greens MPs – ‘A Strong Paid Parental Leave Scheme’ 25 May 2010
Liberal Party – Full policy document on Paid Parental Leave – will open as a PDF file

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