The Australian Labor Party long ago purged its constitution of a commitment to “public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

From those days when Bill Hayden as Leader decided to put an end to such a theoretical support of nationalisation, Labor has retained no more than a nostalgic commitment to the word “socialist”. The party platform might say that it is “a democratic socialist party” but the words mean little. The objective of “the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields” has become nothing more than a motherhood statement.

The words are no longer even an electoral liability. The actions of the Hawke and Keating governments and every state and territory government have demonstrated that there is not a trace of socialism left in the actual policies of the Labor Party. Nevertheless the party’s new leader, Kevin Rudd, believes it necessary to finally expunge the offending word from the Labor Party record.

“It’s critical that when we say to the Australian people that we want to construct an alternative vision for Australia, that they know the values for which we stand. Socialism isn’t one of them,” Mr Rudd was reported saying in The Age today. “Any political party has to be absolutely confident in the objectives for which they stand. I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist.”

It was a theme he raised five years ago when as a back bencher he wrote in the Australian Financial Review that:

The ALP needs to be clear about the constituency it is seeking to serve. We must resist any temptation to retreat to the failed classical formulas of the Left … The constituency our party must represent is the new centre of Australian politics. This is made up of average working families, so-called aspirational Australians from our burgeoning middle class, together with the millions of Australians in small business.

Historically, we’ve been pretty good on the first, episodically reasonable on the second and absolutely atrocious on the third. Any major political party in this country (that) ignores any of these does so at its peril. This has been the lesson in Tony Blair’s Britain and Gerhard Schroeder’s Germany.

We should repeal the socialist objective and replace it with a comprehensive definition of core social-democratic values, including a recognition of the need to reward individual effort. By equality of opportunity, we do not mean equality of outcome. We must embrace the fact that some people work harder and take greater risks than others and deserve to be rewarded accordingly.

Presumably Mr Rudd will put the matter on the agenda for next year’s Labor Party Federal Conference where it is sure to lead to a passionate debate. The left will want to keep the socialist word as a sentimental reminder to times past but, just as with the abolition of the three mines policy, Mr Rudd will surely have his way.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey