Behind Mark Latham's "new ideas"
by Peter Symon (CPA General Secretary) On May Day (of all days), Mark Latham, who presents himself as a Labor Party guru and policy-maker, gave a talk to the Fabian Society on the "Future of the ALP". A few days later he launched a document entitled Ownership: A New Agenda for Political and Industrial Labor. He opened his speech to the Fabian Society by railing against the fact that for the last six years, since the defeat of the Keating Government in 1996, the Labor Party has been "raking over old debates and practicing an old style of politics". He is encouraged by the election of Simon Crean as Labor Party leader. "His theme of modernisation is music to my ears", Latham said. Mark Latham claims that Crean is modernising the Federal frontbench, modernising the Party's structure and rules, modernising the Party's policies and platform. Another of Mark Latham's favourite words is "new" — "new Labor policies", "new politics", "new public philosophies", "new economy", "new ideas", "new constituencies", "new growth theories", etc. Mark Latham's "new ideas" smack very much of Tony Blair's "New Labor" which is already running into trouble in Britain on a number of fronts. He quotes one of the Labor Party's early leaders, Andrew Fisher, "we are all socialist now". In obvious repudiation of this Mark Latham goes on: "Today we are all crossing over". What we are all crossing over to becomes apparent as Mr Latham warms to his topic. He has the regulation swipe at Karl Marx just to make sure that everyone knows where he stands. "For all his errors and delusions, Karl Marx got one thing right. The dialectic propels history towards a new synthesis, a new politics beyond Left and Right." One wonders whether any of his audience of Fabians saw anything wrong with that claim? Karl Marx never ever drew any such conclusion. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels said: "The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat." (Birth of the Communist Manifesto p 103) This hardly sounds like "a synthesis, a new politics beyond Left and Right". But Mr Latham's reference is not about giving his audience an understanding of Marx, it was to make it clear that he differentiated himself from Marx. Just to make doubly certain that no one will accuse him of any lingering socialist ideas he says, "A future Labor Government will not socialise the means of production, distribution and exchange". Despite enormous evidence to the contrary, he declares that "market forces work better than planned economies, free trade works better than tariffs and industry welfare, competition policy works better than monopolies, public and private, while job security lies in a good education and lifelong learning". Mark Latham claims that "the most powerful trend in Australian politics is the emergence of free agents — the new class of consultants, contractors, knowledge workers and entrepreneurs in the new economy". These "free agents" have "crossed over the industrial relations divide. Small and self-reliant, they see no need for trade union or employer representation. Their idea of a good society is a deregulated economy, quality education and safe and supportive neighbourhoods. [these] free agents are doing it for themselves, with flexible hours and lifestyles." "Free agents" It is on these "free agents doing it for themselves" that Mr Latham obviously wishes to orient the Labor Party. He claims that there are now 800,000 home-based offices. The fact that computer technology has created the possibility of doing work from home cannot be disputed, but how "free" are such consultants and contractors? Is it not a fact that many are consultants and contractors to big corporations? Many are no more than employees working for a contracted wage but without the legal entitlements of award workers. Many pay their own workers' compensation and insurance. They are pay for their own holidays, long service leave, sick leave and superannuation contributions. If one follows the telephone lines which connect the computers of the "knowledge workers" to the rest of the world it will be found that they are also tightly tied into one or another business enterprise or corporation. Otherwise, how could their "knowledge" become useful to the rest of society? It is a fact that "intellectual property" has these days also become a commodity for sale and purchase. However, knowledge by itself has little value. It only becomes of worth when it is applied. Following his pursuit of these "free agents", Mr Latham declares that "Old constituencies based on blue-collar work and organised labour are fading away." He goes on: "Old ways of thinking might produce a nice sense of nostalgia, but they are insufficient to win national elections and form national Labor governments". Organised Labour "fading away" The direction of Mr Latham's "thinking" is obvious. Those working people who build our houses and motor cars, drive the trains, work on the wharves, build roads, work in hospitals and schools, grow our food, make our clothing, and are a part of "organised labour", are an "old constituency fading away". To make Mark Latham's desertion of this constituency clear he says that the Labor Party "needs to find new issues, new constituencies and new ideas on which to campaign". Having his "free agents" in mind he says, "The language of economic intervention and protectionism belongs in a museum." Yet, just in these last few weeks the country often held up as being the freest of the free, imposed hefty tariffs on steel imports and decided to spend millions of dollars subsidising American farmers and ranchers. Furthermore, whenever a private company gets into financial trouble it beats a path to government offices in pursuit of handouts. There are even government handouts for prospering companies, some of which are listed in this weeks budget coverage in "The Guardian". So much for "intervention and protectionism" being museum pieces. Mr Latham applauds the policies implemented by Hawke and Keating — floating the exchange rate, financial deregulation, tariff liberalisation, competition policy and a national superannuation scheme. These we are told "set the foundation for Australia's record period of economic growth and productivity". The fact that there has been economic growth and a substantial increase in productivity cannot be disputed, but why has this resulted in the present period of "uncertainty" and why is it necessary for the Labor Party to be searching around for a range of "new policies" and a "new economics"? Why is it necessary to talk about "risk" and "risk management" instead of job and income security? Why is it necessary for Mark Latham to declare that "compared to the 1950s and 60s, working families are 50 per cent more likely to experience an unexpected decline in their living standards"? Isn't this an admission that the economic policies that have been pursued by both Liberal and Labor Governments in this period have been a failure as far as working families are concerned. Mark Latham says: "In the new economy, ownership provides a buffer against the contingencies of change. It acts as an insurance policy against income shocks. "The best way of reducing economic inequality is to make savings and assets available to all Australians. The answer lies in lifecycle policies: savings and asset accounts that allow people to provide for an uncertain future." How the unemployed and those on low wages can make savings and obtain assets is not spelt out. In another recent document, Mr Latham refers to share ownership schemes for low and middle-income earners, developing share ownership plans to increase worker participation and creating "nest egg accounts". Tony Blair, pursuing similar objectives, has launched a "baby bonus" scheme with contributions from government and parents. Perhaps those who held shares in HIH, Ansett, OneTel, or ENRON or who had money in Argentinean banks will have cause to question the talk about assets in the form of shareholdings and even money in the bank. The "mums and dads" who bought shares in Telstra might also have something to say, and the many workers who have been swindled out of their entitlements may also question Mark Latham's approach. Pursuing the idea of a "synthesis beyond Left and Right", Mark Latham's response to the criticism of globalisation and the worldwide movement against the policies of globalisation is to look "for a bridge from the local to the global, for a connection between communities and corporations". He calls for "new partnerships and alliances". Self-provision He believes that "answers are available, provided we embrace the politics of crossover. The era of either/or debates has ended." There is another side to Mr Latham's agenda which is not being stated. There is a long range plan afoot to do away with state provision of age pensions, unemployment benefits, disability pensions and other welfare support which have, up to now, been provided from tax revenues. The attack on disability pensions is a step in this direction. This process was begun by the Hawke and Keating Governments in the 80s. The introduction of compulsory superannuation had, among its objectives, relieving the State of the obligation to pay aged pensions. The introduction of "user pays" is also a step in this direction. The basic idea is that the individual not the state, takes responsibility for their own welfare — self provision as it is called. Mark Latham's "risk management" is not only about the elimination of support provided by the State after retirement from work, but also about the periods during which a worker is unemployed, or moves onto a lower wage or is retraining. No obligation is to be carried by the State to ensure that income is maintained. Another of the pet thoughts that emerges out of Mr Latham's view of the world is that "Instead of focussing on the accumulation of objects, economists need to focus on the accumulation of ideas". He claims that "education and research are the 'twin-carburetors' of economic expansion". Far be it from anyone to belittle the importance of ideas, research, education or cultural activities but as remarked before, ideas have to be related to the material world and can only become meaningful if they satisfy the material needs of people, entertain or satisy cultural pursuits. One cannot eat an idea no matter how good it is. Just try sleeping under the roof of an idea! Poverty Hundreds of millions of people in the world are living in poverty, without housing, hospitals, schools or adequate clothing. They drink polluted water, have no jobs and no hope. Their immediate problem is their total lack of material objects that have to be provided and could be provided by today's capacity to produce them. Under the heading of "corporate responsibility" Mark Latham declares that the "economic efficiency and productivity of capitalism is beyond dispute. Our critique now needs to focus on the social responsibilities of corporate Australia", he says. He appeals to the corporate executives to "comply with decent industrial, environmental and social standards." One can just hear these executives giving their "hear, hears" to that while giving priority to shareholder returns, cutting costs by sacking as many workers as possible, working out how to deny workers their accumulated entitlements, paying themselves huge salaries and share options, and rushing to use the punitive clauses of industrial legislation every time there is an industrial dispute. Mark Latham believes that his policies and ideas will put Simon Crean in the Lodge at the next election. The reality is that just such policies and ideas resulted in the lowest vote ever for Federal Labor at the last election. Why should anyone be inspired by policies and ideas that are basically a carbon copy of the thoughts of John Howard, Peter Costello and the corporate bigwigs who have generously financed both the Liberal and the Labor Parities. These policy ideas are the product of the think-tanks of the big corporations, the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank. Mark Latham is merely applying them to Australia and, perhaps, would like everyone to believe that they are his own original thoughts. They are not as some future articles being prepared for publication in The Guardian will conclusively show. Workers, and there are millions of them earning wages in real enterprises and offices, want policies which are clearly in their interests. They expect commitment to their needs, not policies which are really aimed to serve the interests of the corporations.