The Guardian May 22, 2002


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.

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