The Public Good is good for everyone

Public GoodWhile the Abbott government continues to swing their wrecking ball, it would appear many people are waking up to just how extreme-right this government is. ‘Australia must be destroyed’ by Tim Dunlop is a good summary of the unfolding horror. Although I am usually keen to contribute to the growing chorus decrying the daily onslaught of right-wing ideological mayhem being imposed by this secretive, chaotic and incompetent government, I’m trying to look past this current disaster, by thinking about how this situation happened and how we can stop it ever happening again. #OneTermTony.

Abbott’s electoral success was mounted on a foundation of invisible villains that triggered a selfish ‘dog eat dog’ reflex in sections of the Australian public. Abbott made up reasons why people should be scared of a Labor government and then promised to save them from these fictional threats. From government debt. Electricity bills. Asylum seekers arriving by boat. The instability of minority government. ‘Wasteful’ government spending. Unions. It takes a pretty incredible propaganda machine to convince workers that unions are bad and Gina Rinehart cares about them. But, with the help of the mainstream media, that is what Abbott managed to do.

The Liberal Coalition’s negative message invited people to make a choice between two opposing camps – Abbott’s promise to look after the individual or Labor’s promise to look after the community. Abbott painted Labor’s ‘benefit to the community’ message as being wasteful and bad for the economy, while promising that his new open-for-business-cutting-red/green-tape agenda would bring prosperity back to nervous post-GFC capitalism. I’m sure deep down most Australians would like to think they care about their community. But when push comes to shove and they’re scared about their own futures, it’s not surprising that many voters believed what Abbott wanted them to believe – that a Liberal government was a silver-bullet to solve all their individual problems. And importantly – that it was a smart idea to vote selfishly. Even when in fact cost-of-living pressures didn’t exist, and even when the Australian economy was in fact Triple-A healthy, Abbott purposely attacked an already fragile consumer confidence, and then seized on the resulting insecurity of individuals and encouraged them to push their concern for the community down the ballot paper. Sadly the majority dutifully complied.

Knowing this is unhelpful if you don’t learn something from it. But that’s what the Labour Movement needs to do. Bill Shorten are you listening? I have a suggestion as to how Labor can use Abbott’s strategy to Australia’s advantage.

Not before time, wealth inequality is becoming a significant political battle for progressives worldwide. This is because thinking-people are starting to recognise the growing gap between the very rich and the rest of us is too big to just be called a gap. It’s becoming a gulf. In this article, Ben Eltham suggests that Bill Shorten should make the fight against wealth inequality a key pillar of Labor’s political narrative. Other commentators have suggested the ‘public good’ should be the new umbrella message encompassing the left’s political agenda.

I agree with these suggestions. Labor has always been for the community benefit. Think NBN, Gonski, PPL, NDIS, Mining Tax and Carbon Price. So the party’s policy platform won’t need to change much to accommodate a further emphasis on social mobility and a reduction in the gap between rich and poor. Unions are important in this message, with worker’s wages and entitlements a key factor in defending against a greater gap between the share of profit between labour and capital. Quality education and healthcare are also strong Labor policies crucial to social mobility. On top of this, inequality of wealth is an easy platform from which to judge Abbott’s government. No matter what Abbott promised to do for Australian people of all incomes, asset status and net-worth, it’s very easy to draw a straight line from every single one of his government’s policies, to an acceleration of the gap between the super-rich haves and the growing number of have nots. Abbott is not for workers at SPC, Holden or Toyota. He is for Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Rupert Murdoch. His treasurer just this week repeated the catch-cry of pro-income-inequality cheerleaders: a rising tide lifts all boats. Except no, it doesn’t. So yes, highlighting wealth inequality is a good strategy for Labor. But I don’t think it’s enough. Why? Because those who understand and care about wealth inequality are already Labor voters. Labor needs to remember what they learnt from Abbott’s success and appeal to people’s individual anxieties. And this is where the two strategies combined could just be a political master stroke.

Put simply, Labor needs to communicate to voters that a strong community, with a wealthy and large middle-class is good for everyone. That is, an individual is better off in a situation where he or she belongs to a community of similarly better off people. So no longer do we have to either vote for the benefit of the community or the benefit of the individual. By voting Labor, you can have both. The public good is good for everyone.

We already know that America’s shrinking middle class, growing population of working-poor and 1% of filthy rich individuals is not good for 99% of the country. As Nobel Prize winning US economist Joseph Stiglizt said:

“Our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth.”

It’s not hard to understand why a community is damaged when there is a small number of people taking the vast majority of growth for themselves without sharing it with everyone else. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is rampant and poverty is widespread. The uber-rich can afford affluent lifestyles, but how will they maintain this wealth if they don’t have a consumer market rich enough to afford to buy their products and services? Yes, the super-rich are using money to make more money, but speculative markets are unproductive and don’t benefit the wealth of everyone else. If someone who works at Walmart can’t afford to shop at Walmart, Walmart’s market disappears.

Labor needs to tell people this story. They need to explain it in a way that voters understand. They need to start by reinstating the lost value that it is wrong to be greedy. And that people who don’t feel good about themselves unless they are richer than their neighbour are part of the problem, not the solution. They can then go on to show that wealth re-distribution and social mobility isn’t just good for the country. It is good for the individual too. Labor needs to work out how to say this in a way that connects with individual anxieties, and then they need to say it again, and again, and again. Every time Abbott’s policies contradict these principals, Labor has an opportunity to say it even louder.

If Labor can get this right, it might not just be a winning strategy for 2016. It might be a policy platform that the likes of Abbott will never find a way of destroying ever again. Surely that makes it worth a try? And who knows, we might just save the world.


  1. Yes, governments are here to serve the needs of society and community

    It is not the job of governments to protect the needs of capitalism.

    • Capitalism is a great model for encouraging human flourishing. People are incentivised to work for their own benefit and are rewarded for effort.

      Businesses are confident in investing and expanding (more jobs, more money flowing around the system) when there is confidence that the government is stable and the rules they are playing by aren’t going to be changed given the investments they make. Labor’s position might not have been my personal favourite, but they’d have done themselves a massive favour if they hadn’t done policy on the run as Rudd did again and again and again. Or if they hadn’t painted business as the enemy.

  2. It is funny, the middle class is disappearing in the USA.

    In Asia, it is the rising middle class that contributes to them to become powerful economic nations.

    China is now challenging the USA.

    Why does Abbott insist on taking us down the USA path, which has proven disastrous for that country.

      • What a stupid reply. I would rather see a strong economy being built that leads to a fair society for all.

        Capitalism does not mean democracy.

      • Fedup: You’re putting China forward as the model of how we should be going as opposed to America. America, for all its failings, focusses on individual responsibility and liberty, responsible for your own failings and your own success.

        China is a communist country. Liberty is only meted out at the discretion of the government. The comparison is fair.

        Capitalism isn’t required for democracy, but your point would have held more water if your comparison country was a democracy.

  3. Obama is also touring his worse drought areas in 500 years. Yes handing out aid.

    He is also saying that Climate Change has added to the nation’s problems.

    I bet we do not hear such a statement from our illustrious and caring PM today.

  4. I think Labor need to think more how ‘ordinary’ people think and communicate- those who are not politically aware, university educated – just workers and mums and dads .They are the ones the three second sound bites and simplistic words got through to. They are tired, busy and don’t have a lot of time – they don’t analyse and dissect , they believe what TV news or newspapers tell them. And the media is clever with wording- to promote subtly or not so subtly the LIbs point of view.
    Get some people who can put together a message targeted to them – be simple ,( not like the stupid health ads) direct and tell them what you are doing to help them. Aussie values like being there for mates- etc.

  5. “Abbott is not for workers at SPC, Holden or Toyota. ”

    Why should the government bail out those particular businesses and not the small businesses that aren’t big enough or unionised enough to attract attention when they are in strife?

    I agree that wealth disparity is not good, esp what is happening in america, but are we really headed that way with large classes of working poor?

    • SPC made decisions on behalf of their shareholders, which is their responsibility.

      They have no obligation to stay in this country. They are free to go, where they make the most return on their investments.

      They gave the government an offer too good to refuse, to stay here.

      As far as SPC is concerned, whether they go, or the government accepts their option, they are in a win win situation

      Not accepting the offer, leaves Australia worse off.

      It is not a matter of cost. It is a matter of where the taxpayer gets the best return.

      • why is it the business of the govt to effectively pay blackmail to these businesses to stay here? If it isn’t economic to stay here unless we pay what amounts to protection money, either the fruit growers should band together and buy out the cannery, or the business shouldn’t carry on.

  6. Bullshit. Pure Capitalism has never flourished anywhere. No more than there has been pure Marxism. Interesting theories are all they are.

    That hidden hand, is none existent. Not much drivels down.

    Capitalism is based on winners and losers. Yes, we, it keeps canalizing itself. Keep collapsing , the rebuild itself with new winners.

    Yes, it is about boom and bust.

    Not a recipe for democracy or a civil society.

    • Since the days of Haweke, when it comes to Labor and unions, it has been about capital and labour pulling together. In fact, that is the only thing that leads to a better society.

      Labour is as important as capital. It is the capitalist and capital that sees the worker as the enemy.

      That is what this government is about. Getting rid of any power, the worker may have.

      Very short sighted attitude. Very dangerous in fact.

      • BS. The companies that I know of where there are strong unions, it isn’t a matter of pulling together for the common good, it has been about doing the bare minimum and getting feather bedding conditions. And this isn’t with toyota / SPC, but companies I’ve known personally.
        I’m not disputing the good that unions do in theory, or what they have done in the past, but right here and now they’re not the pure agents for good that you’re painting them as.

        If the business owner doesn’t have a workforce that is content, they’re not going to get quality or quantity of work out of them. screw the workers and they’ll undermine your business – hence only idiot business owners try to screw their workers. Not equating working with slavery, but slavery was never economic compared to having workers as slaves had little incentive to strive to better themselves. why put in that extra effort if your owner (or bastard boss) wont recognise it?

    • So which economic system has created more liberty and flourishing than capitalism in the past couple of centuries? where else is effort and work rewarded more directly? pure capitalism might be a theory, but the general principle of individuals being motivated by their own efforts being recognised by commensurate reward is something that is pretty core to human nature.

  7. Is it blackmail? The bottom line is, they do not have to stay. I am sure they can make better returns elsewhere.

    Why should they stay, if this is so,

    It could be a matter of who needs who the most. It is apparent, they do not need us. The question is, do we need them.

    Could be about how capitalism and the free market works. Yes, always winners and losers. Those with the capital, calls the tune.

    Does that answer your question?

    • If CCA are saying “give us $25M or we’ll shut up shop” it does rather sound like blackmail. Should we have, in years gone by, bankrolled wheelwrights when cars were starting to make inroads?
      People are innovative and will find ways to make money and make jobs. Always have. Always will.

  8. Honestly Victoria, if as you claim you are “trying to look past this current disaster, by thinking about how this situation happened and how we can stop it ever happening again.” And you don’t specifically mention the Murdoch media, then you are missing the largest part of the story.

    As you point out, there was nothing wrong with Labor’s policy agenda. There were some things wrong with Labor’s behaviour…instability, poor decisions, leadership go-round…but where did they originate? It couldn’t possibly have something to do with the avalanche of negativity that the Murdoch media swamped Labor with, for years prior to the election, let alone the unprecedented negative coverage during the election? Could this lead to bad polling, subsequent panic, poor decisions, leadership instability? Absolutely! It would be strange if it didn’t given Murdoch’s dominance of our print media.

    While it is indeed a useful exercise for Labor to fine tune policy and marketing settings, and analyse their performance. Without addressing the herd of elephants in the room, of what benefit is fiddling around the edges?

    • How were labor’s policy settings so wonderful with respect to boat people that it lured a thousand to their deaths? What made that setting better than taking in refugees from the UN at rates that make us among the most generous in the world?

      so to stifle market dominance with murdoch, you’d propose what exactly? a government censor? Tone police?

      • I am torn on refugees. We are quite possibly the richest and most blessed country on earth. We could quite easily process, house and accommodate the current amount of boat arrivals very very easily. And I believe that most of them are genuine refugees from inhospitable situations. However the undeniable truth is that, if we do this, the amount of arrivals would increase…exponentially. Thus, far more risk, far more casualties, a far greater problem to be dealt with further down the road. Reluctantly I believe we have to deal with this problem now…while it is still manageable…and also increase our official intake of refugees. Thus we assert control of our borders, AND our capacity as a rich first world country to accept the less fortunate of the world.

        In order to deal with Murdoch, who currently dominates and skews our public debate to his personal advantage, I would propose a commission…constituted as a Royal Commission. That simply examines and reports on the coverage of the last election…leading up to it, and during it. Call it as it undeniably was. Shine the spotlight on the Murdoch media. And expose them publicly for their warping of our democracy.

        Surely this should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with their recent actions in the UK?

  9. How do unions work with employers take away from democracy. I would think it would add to it.
    Yes, we have had some examples, such as the Accord and the unions pulling with the bosses during the GFC.

    The employer has to negotiate when it comes to property, materials, power, and transport, among other business. It appears that this is OK for all, except for the labour they hire.

  10. Victoria
    The main reason that the Labor party was thrown out was not, as you suggest because the voters were duped but because the voters finally got fed up with their utter inability to provide good governance of the projects they created or themselves. IN the first instance name me one project or scheme that they mooted that came in anywhere near budget or met the expectations they created by their rhetoric. There is no better example of this than the Carbon tax which was touted as a saviour of the planet yet all it has done is make everything more expensive and our businesses less competitive globally, the effect on the climate is, as predicted unmeasurable because it is so small. Another example is the NBN such a grand idea that is way behind schedule and way over budget. I could go on and enunciate more examples but the all telll the same story of a party that over promises and under delivers.
    Then we come to internal governance within the ALP. Well the whole Rudd/ Gillard/ Rudd story is enough to put the voters of the ALP for a decade and now their leader Shorten is about as credible as a telemarketer who tells you that there is a problem with windows on your computer.
    For the ALP to be credible they need to do more than dress the windows they need to change their political culture so that they address these substantive issue, until they do they will be unelectable.

  11. Victoria – it is a breath of fresh air to read you! Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And also, yes! The common-wealth is a concept that people need to be put back in touch with. Chance for the environment is possible, too!

  12. Meanwhile here in Tasmania the Liberal Party seem to be waging an identical campaign to the one that brought Tony Abbott to The Lodge. They are playing on people’s fear of minority government, dislike of the Greens and are promising to cut red and green tape. Quite a few people I know are buying it even though they are working poor themselves. I’m pessimistic about the future and feel that it is ironic that I was recently invited to participate in a focus group about mature age unemployment and how the Federal Government plans to address it – with an advertising campaign on the benefits of employing mature age workers.

  13. […] For the past year, Labor promised to oppose Abbott. Abbott has given Shorten a dream-run of policies to oppose, and to be fair Shorten has been passionately against Abbott’s budget and the few policies Abbott has managed to get through parliament. However what’s lacking from these policy debates is the overarching story about why Labor opposes the policies. It’s not enough to jump from an anti-Medicare co-payment campaign, to a pro-climate change action campaign, to a pro-tertiary education campaign without a rock-solid chain linking all these micro-campaigns together. Shorten has told Michelle Grattan that the party is working on such a narrative. It’s good to hear him admit this, as Labor clearly don’t have one yet. If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on what this narrative could possibly look like, I wrote about this very subject here. […]

  14. […] the left is finally waking up too, to realise they can argue for their policies using the ‘wealth inequality is bad for everyone’ narrative, where everyone really can see benefit in a well-resourced government equipped to […]

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