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  Issue No 104 Official Organ of LaborNet 27 July 2001  




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1.4 The Shifting Sands of Ideology

Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel conclude the first part of their study of new politics by looking for core Labor values in a post-Cold War environment.




Looking at the change in the political debate in the past decade, you begin to wonder whether the world really has gone crazy. The speed of the change across the political economy has created new political fault-lines. While conservative political parties, catapulted into office on the back of resentment over the Keating Government's pro-change agenda appear happy to be swept along by the tide of global change, meting out political favours as they always have; progressive political parties like the ALP have an even more difficult dilemma to resolve. Are they for change or against it?

The alliance of the anti-corporatist Seattle and S11 'Green-Left' and the protectionist industrial bloc of the union movement has meant a large section of what was traditionally seen as the labour movement is placed in the corner opposed to change and arguing for, what is effectively, the status quo. They are pitched against the more pragmatic in the movement, who see the change as inevitable and the challenge to mitigate the negative impacts on people while maximizing the benefits. This necessitate a politics of picking winners and losers, something that Labor has always found difficult to reconcile with its egalitarian roots.

Symbolic of this confusion in core values is the debate at the 2000 Federal ALP Conference in Hobart over 'Fair Trade'. The left-wing Australian Manufacturing Workers Union led the debate for 'free trade' over 'fair trade' arguing that the opening of trade borders had gone too far and we should place social tariffs on trading partners who don't meet the same labour and environmental safeguards as Australia. Regardless of the merits of the debate - what was intriguing in Hobart was the way the protagonists lined up. While the proposed change to party platform was defeated on factional lines, members from both sides confided later that if there had been a free, non-factional vote the lines would have been very different. The outcome would have probably been about the same, but free of factional discipline, many in the traditional Left would have voted for 'Free Trade' and many in the right would have voted for 'Fair'.

What that debate showed was that the old factional alliances, based on the Cold War split had finally collapsed. Instead the industrial wing of the party is, quite rightly, taking positions that reflect the immediate interests of their membership. For workers in the old economy sectors like mining, manufacturing and rural labouring globalisation is a threat that should be resisted. To those in the service sector and IT as well as construction, the changes carry new problems for workers, but offers a net opportunity of more jobs. So as institutional self-interest replaces adherence to ideology, a factional realignment is inevitable.

This confusion, we believe, is largely caused by the absence of a focused and properly defined debate about the changes taking place through a Laborist framework. We need to pull back from a holistic ideology, look at the changes occurring and then apply core labour values to them in order to gauge where a progressive party should position itself.

One of the problems in making this shift is that Labor's faith has been placed in Industrial Age institutions to deal with the challenges of the Industrial Age. Big government, public ownership of assets, centralised wage-fixing all evolved to serve the interests of working people in a hierarchical society. They were structured responses to the structural issues that workers faced. But if these structural issues change, blind adherence to dogma may be counter-productive. We need to remember that these Labor icons were always only means to the ends of furthering the long-term interests of the trade union membership.

Another problem is that a 'Labor' philosophy has never been set in stone. Labor values have reflected the interests of working people, generally as articulated by the elected representatives of organised labour. For example, in the early part of the 20th century 'labor values' included an immigration policy that limited the entry of workers from non-Anglo countries. By the end of the century, Labor values were about embracing ethnic diversity and creating closer ties with Asia. Likewise, the 20th century saw a shift in the attitudes toward women in the workplace, to trade protection and to the notion of state ownership.

But beyond the doctrine there have been certain values that could be regarded as consistent. If we were to lay out the core values, they would look something like this:

- collective well being over individual rights;

- equality of opportunity and

- redistribution of privilege.

As a legacy of the Keating era, a fourth core value: 'diversity over homogeneity' could probably be added to this list.

It is these values that should provide the benchmark as Labor debates it's position on globalisation and technological change. In simple economic terms, it may be a matter of quantifying the number of jobs created and comparing it to the number of jobs lost and saying there is a net gain so that is positive. But this is not enough.

Labor needs to show where the jobs are going and how they advance the long-term interests of its core constituents. And it needs to convince the electorate that these often painful changes will do more than turn Australia into a cheap imitation of America, but rather help unleash a robust culture that gives us a sense of place and identity. Despite, the accepted wisdom that people do not want a Big Picture, without one they are left to be buffeted by global change without any understanding of why they are hurting.

Labor does not need to reinvent an over-riding ideology. Instead, it needs to place these values as the key reference point when making decisions. When dealing with the impacts of technological change it needs to apply these values openly and systematically. And when debating the broader merits of embracing the Information Age it needs to ask itself how the new technologies intersect with these values.

New issues such as globalisation of the economy and the resulting restructuring of industry, the opening of the education system, the changing ownership of capital, the shift in economic value from capital to skills, the influx of immigration and the end of the mono-culture all represent challenges and opportunities for government. Labor must decide how it adjusts to the changed external environment. Labor must find a way to engage its constituency as these changes occur - it can either try to force a fit with it's existing ideology, which may not work, or find a solution by evaluating each problem against the core values.

It is hoped that in the second part of this project, the discussion of the implications of network technologies on specific spheres of public policy will help us make this evaluation. The challenge for the labour movement is to come to a clear position on whether it wants to resist or shape the transition. Our argument is that active engagement is the only course that truly reflects core Labor values. We believe the challenge for Labor is not to resist the change, but to position our society to make the most of it - and ensure that Labor's natural constituency, working people and their families get a real stake in the great opportunities it provides.


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*   Issue 104 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: A Super Agenda
Labor's federal spokesman on superannuation Kelvin Thompson outlines the challenges a Beazley Government will face in managing the nation's savings.
*  E-Change: 1.4 The Shifting Sands of Ideology
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel conclude the first part of their study of new politics by looking for core Labor values in a post-Cold War environment.
*  Corporate: Locking Horns
The same names keep cropping up in the business pages as the web of corporate control stays tied to a few big players. Georgina Murray has been looking at the extent and depth of the connections.
*  Unions: The Workers Bank
With banks on the nose, David Whiteley looks at how unions and super funds have got together to create the real deal – the workers bank.
*  International: Phil Davey's Amazon Postcard
The CFMEU's Boy Wonder has downed the megaphone for three months in South America. Here's what he's been up to.
*  History: Faded Vision of The American Bounder
King O'Malley was an American ex-pat who dreamed of a people's bank. Neale Towart looks at what happened to his vision.
*  Activists: The Big Gee-Up
With the big guns of the anti-corporate movement in town, Mark Hebblewhite goes looking for a definition of globalisation.
*  Indonesia: Where to the Workers After Gus Dur?
At the end of a turbulent week, Jasper Goss looks at the impact of the overthrow of Wahid on Indonesian workers.
*  Review: Mixing Pop and Politics
'The Bank' is a new Australian film that takes a contemporary political issue and transforms it into a piece of compelling popular culture.
*  Satire: Milosevic's Defence: "I Was Just Issuing Orders"
Disgraced former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has brushed off against charges for war crimes against humanity and mass genocide.

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»  Coca-Cola Sued for Using Paramilitary Force
»  Activists Notebook

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Botsman Bites Back
»  How to Bash the Bank
»  Dreams Do Come True
»  Howard's Job Creation Policy

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