Just over two years ago I was in New York working with Larry Summers and Ed Balls to prepare a report for the Center for American Progress on inclusive prosperity. One morning, I had the opportunity to walk the High Line and on the side of an old brick building was a large advertisement that read “the French aristocracy never saw it coming either”.
It was yet another reminder of the groundswell of support sweeping around the world for a more inclusive form of prosperity, and it’s been an image seared in my mind ever since.
In early 2015, the Inclusive Prosperity Commission Report was published. Its first paragraph concluded that growing inequality is a threat to “the political system and for the idea of democracy itself”.
I don’t find it politically comforting that growing inequality is now more openly analysed and discussed because I fear that those who need to understand its impact the most are blindly oblivious to its consequences. Nowhere is that more obvious than here in Australia.
The IMF has been warning for some time that we ignore the distributional impacts of globalisation and inequality at our peril, yet the Abbott-Turnbull Liberals went to the last election with a $50 billion handout for multinational companies and radical proposals to undermine the voice of working people.
If you’re looking for reasons for Trump’s victory, look no further than the potent combination of powerful vested interests dictating policy and some progressive elites shoving their orthodoxies down working people’s throats.
If you’re a truck driver in Logan or a steelworker in Wollongong, you’re constantly told to work harder for less while tax cuts go to the top end — you’ll suck that up for a while because you have to. If you are a Medicare or Centrelink worker, your wages have been frozen for three years and many of you are on the hunt for second jobs. All the while you see progressive issues like same-sex marriage dominate the discussion nationally, and the interminable debate about immigration bubbles away. These issues make you uncomfortable and give rise to constant muted grumbles, because your priority is secure jobs and wages.
But once the orthodox economic crusade reaches a breaking point and your job has been sent off-shore or made casual, or you otherwise get tossed on the economic scrap heap, it’s like a drum of kerosene dumped directly on those smouldering social issues, and you have an inferno of white-hot rage erupting from large numbers of the working-class base. Our party has a proud record of progressive social reform, but we must always have at the forefront of the policy battle the economic interests of working people.
The Australian business elite (aristocracy) suffer from the blindness of affluence. The winners from our prosperity just don’t see poverty and injustice anymore let alone the persuasive case that a fair society produces a more prosperous economy.
They don’t understand that ignoring inequality leads us down a policy route to greater inequality. There is a small but growing group lead by Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch — the oligarchs, if you like — who are increasingly forcing their influence from the top of the stairs and seeking to have disproportionate control of our democracy.
There are some good people in the business community but there are also a noisy minority who only look to the immediate consequence of economic reform on their own business. This group preaches productivity and competiveness for the economy as a whole but they’ll never support it if it has a negative short-term impact on them.
As I warned in my 2012 Monthly essay, The 0.01%: the Rising Influence of Vested Interests in Australia, Australia’s fair go is today under threat from the business elites. To be blunt, the rising power of these business elites or vested interests is undermining our equality and threatening our democracy. We saw this most obviously in the ferocious and highly misleading campaigns waged against resource taxation reforms and the pricing of carbon pollution.
After the 2010 election, the corporate right mobilised against Labor as never before. Our removal of WorkChoices, the implementation of the Fair Work Act and the advent of minority government emboldened the business community.
Fair industrial laws, combined with our powerful Keynesian response to the global financial crisis, became a lightning rod as Labor was seen to be mounting a full-frontal assault on the dominant conservative narrative of the past 30 years: trickle-down economics.
They commenced an ongoing campaign to delegitimise and destroy the labour movement and through those actions, the Australian Labor Party.
We’ve seen this demonstrated time and time again over the last three years by the Liberals’ attempts to shift the tax burden onto working people via a GST and the attempts to dismantle the social safety net and Medicare.
In the 2000 days I was treasurer, I learnt a bit about what we need to do to defeat the survival-of-the-fittest trickle-down agenda pushed by the Tea-Partiers in the Coalition and their plutocratic allies. I enthusiastically supported my party’s decisions not to take a backward step on the 2014 budget. We stood up and fought the attempts by the Liberals to criminalise Labor’s progressive policies by persecuting Labor through the trade union (Heydon) and pink batts (Hanger) royal commissions. We opposed outright the outrageous proposals in their audit commission.
Growing inequality in the developed world is a direct consequence of the voice of working people being crushed, and that’s why Labor must never support the conservative agenda to split or dilute trade union participation in the Labor Party.
In office and over the last three years, Labor has fought for the big structural reforms required to secure growth with equity. At no stage has the business community backed sensible proposals, which are in their long-term interest; reform of negative gearing, a sensible price on carbon, the Gonski education reforms, to name just a few.
We see now in Australia, like in the rest of the developed world, that capitalism is dominated by a plutocratic family model backed up by an over-powered and overpaid financial and corporate elite. They want an economy run by the rich for the rich.
My party should more explicitly call out this behaviour for what it is: selfishness and greed camouflaged as a growth agenda for all. These people aren’t seeking consensus; they’re seeking to dominate our democracy.
Many thought Donald Trump would probably lose the election but his election is the final warning to both parties, but especially to Labor. Without a strong inclusive agenda we’ll end up like the US Democrats, or worse, end up like the British Labour Party — fractured and shattered.
A strong trade union movement and a strong Labor Party is the only antidote against the poison of politically inspired trickle-down economics which erodes living standards for ordinary people.
Tackling inequality isn’t a technical problem; protecting working people is our historical task and shared prosperity has always been our party’s sacred mission.
We won’t win the battle of ideas unless we are steadfast and consistent in the presentation of a progressive framework and a framework for a greater voice for working people.
We must never let vested interests divert us from the core message and never operate under the illusion the plutocrats operate in the national interest.
We don’t want to end up as a country ruled by a new plutocratic aristocracy where in the words from Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands:
“Poor man wanna be rich/ rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain’t satisfied, till he rules everything.”
*This article was originally published at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations