In the late 19th century, the newly formed Australian Labor Party was founded on the core values of equality, liberty, democracy and social co-operation. As the political manifestation of the union movement, the new Party’s core aim was to improve the conditions of working people everywhere. It was a clear rejection of the existing Parliamentary forces that were unable to act as an effective voice for workers and their issues.
In essence, the early pioneers of the ALP recognised that the existing, unrefined capitalist institutions were largely responsible not only for the poverty and exploitation they observed but also for the undesirable concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. Importantly, it was clearly acknowledged that a democratically elected, representative government could, and must, play a positive role to prohibit the excesses of unbridled capitalism and reduce what they saw as blatant injustice and oppression.
Over time, however, this view was watered down, to differing degrees, by elements within the Party.
During the 1980s, the Western world rejected and dismantled the long held Keynesian narrative and instead saw the rise of ‘neo-liberal’ ideals that expounded the practice of privatisation, deregulation and a ‘retreat of government’ overall. The famous dictum of Thatcher – ‘there is no such thing as society’ echoed across the international stage and helped set up a new paradigm aimed at re-asserting control firmly in the hands of capital.
Unfortunately, this approach seeped into the Australian Labor Party by forces entirely comfortable with neo-liberalism practices. Over time, however, this approach, despite the warnings and protestations that accompanied it, has been largely discredited. The promised benefits of ‘trickle down’ economics have been exposed as a charade. The GFC itself remains a vivid testament to the failure of the market, privatisation and deregulation. There is a very important role for government and any government worth their salt cannot and must not abandon this role.
Even now, with the union movement and its emphatic call to ‘Change the Rules’, the tide is turning against hyper-capitalism and its ill-effects. The critique of capitalist excesses is strong and is growing. Even those elements within the Labor Party that once strongly championed neo-liberal policies have become increasingly silent.
However, this silence could be temporary.
Although it is encouraging to see a growing chorus within the ALP express concern about the negative effects of the neo-liberal paradigm on the lives of everyday Australians, it is clearly time for the Labor Party to draw a line in the sand by acknowledging it was wrong to embrace the hyper-capitalist beast and by repudiating any return to such ill-fated policies. The sooner this is done, the better.