The Australian Labor Party is sometimes accused of not being clear about what it stands for. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the accusation can be heard even within Labor’s ranks.
The accusers typically want the party to stand for something other than the core beliefs it has long held. Yet they themselves are none too clear about what they think should replace those beliefs.
Last month’s ALP national conference carried a resolution calling for a review of the objective Labor adopted in 1921: ‘‘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 antisocial features in these fields.’’
Reviewing the objective does not imply scrapping it. It has been reviewed several times before, most recently in 1981 when 23 explanatory subparagraphs were added to it. These set out goals such as full employment, the abolition of poverty, a more equal distribution of wealth and the elimination of exploitation in the home.
The subparagraphs clarify and specify the meaning of the socialisation objective. Labor has taken great care to say precisely what it stands for. Yet still there are those who suggest that the party isn’t sure.
Early last month Labor’s NSW leader, Luke Foley, delivered a speech in which he argued that the existing objective is confused and confusing, and should be consigned to history. He repeated this argument at the national conference, and since then a flurry of media commentary, especially in the Murdoch press, has rushed to endorse it.
Yet what does Foley offer as a replacement for the 1921 objective? ‘‘The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential. We believe in an active role for government, and the operation of competitive markets, in order to create opportunities for all Australians, so that every person will have the freedom to pursue their wellbeing, in co-operation with their fellow citizens, free from exploitation and discrimination.’’
It is not surprising that the right-wing commentariat like these words, because most members of the Liberal Party could adhere to them. Who does not say that they believe in equality of opportunity?
The debate about the socialisation objective is about what values can inspire and guide Labor in tackling the fundamental question of politics: who gets what, when and how. A tepid aspiration to equality of opportunity in market relationships won’t get us there.
The idea that fairness can be reduced to an individual’s right to choose, to negotiate and to bargain is like saying that a millionaire and a homeless person have the same freedom of choice to sleep under bridges.
The defence of the weak and the exploited must begin with the recognition that although markets may be necessary for efficiency, markets alone cannot be relied on to deliver equitable outcomes and to build a better, fairer society.
Achieving those goals will depend on public intervention by effective government, because markets in which everyone has equal buying power exist only in textbooks.
Many people have nothing to sell but their labour: individually they may be picked off but if they act collectively they have some clout.
That is what Labor’s socialisation objective is about.
It is not about the straw man of extensive public ownership and a centrally planned economy. But it is about public entrepreneurialism, and public investment in the forms of human endeavour that are necessary to build and sustain a democratic, just and technologically advanced society.
Socialisation is about defending a just minimum wage and fair working conditions. It is about the creation and defence of Medicare, the enhancement of a great public education system, and the construction of national infrastructure such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the National Broadband Network.
In the fourth industrial revolution – the transformation of economic life through digital technologies – the principles of socialisation are as relevant and necessary as they were in the first.
The internet does not exist because individuals such as Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee had a series of light-bulb moments. It exists because substantial public investment, research and enterprise created the conditions in which they were able to work and flourish.
That aspiration has inspired social democracy around the world for more than 100 years. It is the reason that I and many others are in politics. It is what distinguishes Labor from other political parties.
It is, simply, why we know what we stand for.
Victorian senator Kim Carr is the shadow minister for higher education, research, innovation and industry.
This opinion piece was first published in the Age on Monday, 10 August 2015.