The demonisation of Keynes and a progressive response to the Americanisation of the Right

Author: The Hon Wayne Swan MP is former Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer of Australia

I'm pleased to be with the Fabians again tonight.

Over the years we have worked well together to ask the difficult questions that progressive politics must face up to, as well as to propose new progressive frameworks.

This week we also remember the 42nd anniversary of Gough Whitlam's election in 1972 and the 25th anniversary of Wayne Goss's election in 1989. In retrospect it's easy to put their success down to timing, but their success flowed from leadership of exceptional quality - leaders with the right combination of political toughness, personal standards, moral purpose and above all true idealism. These are the leaders who bring down crumbling empires.

Both believed in social justice and both lived it every day.

Both memorial services were incredibly moving and reminders of what our proud Party can look like with a renewed sense of moral purpose.

I was fortunate enough for Gough to open my first campaign for the House of Representatives in 1993, and privileged to have as close friends two of his key advisors, the late Mick Young and the late Dick Hall.

Dick and Race Mathews worked closely together in Gough's office. Dick fondly told me the story of the day Race turned 33. Whitlam turned to him and said:

"What have you done with your life? When at your age, Alexander had conquered the world and Jesus Christ had saved it."

Classical Whitlam.

I'm not sure what Race's reply was, but through his service in the State and Federal Parliaments and his service to the Fabians, he has made an enormous contribution to progressive debate and progressive policy frameworks.

Indeed, we shouldn't forget Whitlam always referred to himself as Fabius Maximus, who in the Roman Empire was a dictator. Fabius Maximus appointed a lieutenant who held the title of Magister Equitum or Master of the Horse...

I can think of no more appropriate title for Race than that.

My most recent interaction with your fine society was in April 2011, when the Fabians published my essay "Keynesians in the Recovery". It is an essay that has stood the test of time, and goes to the core of my book The Good Fight.

The essay canvassed the broader legacy of Keynes in Australia which is the joining of social democratic morality to sustainable economic policy.

Like Keynes, we believe that during an economic crisis the government has a duty to act. Hence our quick and determined response when the global economy began to crumble in 2008. As a consequence Australia escaped a deep and damaging recession with all the hardship that it would bring. Our intervention underpinned an economic performance which from the end of 2007 through to 2013 was the envy of the world.

Our time in office made capitalism and social policy work together to create a wealthier and fairer society. And in that sense Australia had an economic strategy that wore the stamp of one of the 20th century's greatest thinkers. An approach firmly within our philosophical tradition that government should engage in the spreading of wealth to extend opportunity as far as it can be.

Lamentably, our period in office also wore the stamp and scars of powerful vested interests that fought tooth and nail against the great enablers of equal opportunity and social mobility: fair industrial relations, progressive taxation, universal health and education and a strong social safety net.

This policy battle was overlaid by a new development in the Australian political system, the Americanisation of the Right in this country. Quite plainly, they are obsessed with defending the wealthiest in our society, and sadly, sticking up for them alone has become their primary cause.

I've thought long and hard about the sustained campaign against Labor between 2007 and 2013.

My experiences have convinced me it was not the product of "politics-as-usual", but rather the product of something alien and new to Australia. A set of bloody minded vested interests more akin to what you find in countries such as Russia or the Right wing of the US Republican Party, than to the old boys clubs that once tried to run our country from perches like the Melbourne Club. Their goal is to seek radical change through the accumulation of evermore political power in their hands. This is both a recipe for political imbalance and social inequality.

Make no mistake that it is the very same vested interests who were the principal architects of both the Commission of Audit report and the Abbott Government's diabolical 2014 Budget.

The public backlash against this Budget, and indeed the recent Victorian election result, would suggest cause for optimism and hope in our labour movement.

Since May, there has been a public rejection of Tony Abbott's Tea Party obsession in the public debate that Australians have lost interest in egalitarianism.

But even this public debate has been an important reminder of the power and reach of the forces aligned against progressives who brutally attacked the Gillard government. For years now, we have seen significant sections of the business community combining with their allies at News Corporation to fight against the ideas that go to the core of our movement.

Last year, I spoke to Bill Hayden at a birthday party for a mutual friend and former Hayden staffer, like myself. As you know, Bill came back to the Labor fold after he left the post of Governor-General and has been a regular branch attendee at meetings throughout Brisbane. At the moment Bill is going through a tough spot in terms of his health. But as always, he was up for a yarn and I asked him how he compared the then political situation of the Gillard government in April 2013 with the Whitlam government during his time as Treasurer.

The week before our discussion, we had announced savings in the superannuation sector which would affect people with over two million dollars in savings. These savings impacted on twenty thousand of Australia's wealthiest citizens. In our Budget preparations that year we had run into an entrenched opposition in the shape of the Business Council of Australia, who over two years had distinguished themselves by opposing any of the structural changes proposed in our second term which had an impact on high income earners. Opposition that was supported every step of the way by those at News Corp HQ in Sydney's Holt Street.

I asked Bill how was the current behaviour of the Murdoch media compared with 1975? He was unequivocal in his reply: "three to four times worse".

It's always Labor governments that have the foresight to make the big social improvements. It's always the conservatives and their allies in the media who say it's never a good time for social reform. We're the builders, they're the demolition team.

As I sat through the very generous eulogies delivered last month for Gough Whitlam I reflected on the events of 1975 - having joined the party during the 1974 double disillusion election. The presence of Malcom Fraser in the room was very helpful in this regard with my instantaneous reaction being to pull out my "Shame Fraser Shame" badge and wear it to the service, but the better angels of my nature restrained the impulse!

Sitting in the Sydney Town Hall for Gough's service I recalled very clearly the people who tore Whitlam down and trashed his character for forty years.

I recalled the tactics used against Medibank and the tactics used against free tertiary education in the 1974 and 1975 double dissolutions.

Our country has now returned to the same fractures as in 1975.

There is one thing vastly different now, than in 1975; the vested interests in our society have got richer, more politically active and are more willing to side with one side of politics than any time post-war.

I've long been a believer that the Labor Party is the party of initiative, and the Liberal Party is the party of resistance. As a result it has always fallen to Labor to champion the big building blocks of social and economic reforms that have driven our country forward and for the Liberal party to hold reform back.

I now see this theory needs updating - there is a growing group of oligarch-like figures in Australia today who are using their power to set the clock back to the last century and create a new establishment based around vested interests. This is best described not as initiative and resistance, but initiative and reaction - sometimes-ultra-reaction.

As Treasurer, I didn't hesitate to take on their worst elements in the public debate. Now, they run the government.

Their intent is no more obvious than in their effort to attack and discredit institutions that deliver power to weaker and more vulnerable sections of society. Look no further than their persistent attacks on the unions, Medicare, the ABC and on the public sector more generally. It's also about shifting the balance towards corporations and away from working people via less corporate tax and ultimately higher GST for working people. It's why they trumpet spending cuts to vital programs rather than removal of large tax breaks for corporates.

It is the very essence of the survival of the fittest mentality identified by Thomas Piketty, rather than the traditional social democratic model where governments intervene to ensure more equitable distribution of wealth and income, and importantly, social mobility.

This is the goal that we, in this room, aspire to for all of our community.

There is now, as there was in the Great Depression, a clear ideological battle taking place in the global community between those who see government as a positive force for wealth creation in a market economy and those who would wish to shrink its role and move towards a winner-takes-all bear pit.

This is a big moment for the social democratic side of politics - globally and nationally the Right should have been thoroughly discredited by the GFC. And most certainly we now have the views of the Australian people slowly lining up with our side of politics, but now we need to summon the passion of Gough's time again given the size of forces opposing us. As Graham Freudenberg put it so well at Gough's service, our challenge is to "find the new set of Labor ideas that are relevant today just as Gough found the ideas that were relevant to the 70's."

In the last few months we have seen landmark contributions from three of the most prominent global thinkers and economic policy-makers - Christine Lagarde, Janet Yellen and Mark Carney. All calling for a more inclusive capitalism. In Carney's words: "Unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long term dynamism of capitalism itself." In other words "for markets to sustain their legitimacy, they need to be not only effective, but also fair."

As the trade unionists in this room know, if Government's retreat and don't play an active role in securing growth with fairness, then the labour movement and the Labor Party are the last bastion defending working people against the powerful vested interests that strangle fairness in market economies.

If we accept the conservative narrative - a fundamentally and demonstrably false narrative that laissez-faire would have seen us through the crisis - then the next economic crisis (there is always a next economic crisis) will result in mass bankruptcies, mass unemployment and mass human misery.

At the last G20 finance ministers meeting in Washington, the Australian presidency invited prominent American businessman, Rupert Murdoch, to address the meeting. He lauded the virtues of austerity and bizarrely claimed that global inequality was caused by the super-rich paying too much tax and central bank monetary policy. He was putting forward the not uncommon view you find in some circles that if you want to fix an ailing economy leave it to big business. A view as predictable as it is alarming.

Now, this may well please the plutocrats around the world, who are looking towards more unregulated markets, ripping out social safety nets and lowering taxes as their elixir for global growth.

But a country isn't an investment bank and policy makers shouldn't try to run it like one. We live in a community, not a corporation. It is about wealth creation, not uber-wealth accumulation.

Some time ago, I took the opportunity to walk the High Line through New York and on the side of an old brick building was a large advertisement which read "the French Aristocracy never saw it coming either". This is a powerful reminder of the groundswell of support for new inclusive prosperity.

As Lagarde observed earlier this year, the 85 richest people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world - that is 3.5 billion people and it is casting a dark shadow across the global economy.

Our challenge is clear. Globally inequality and wealth creation are now at levels not seen since the Great Depression.

What we do to stem the growing tide of inequality is the central economic and political challenge of our age. And that's why inclusive prosperity must be at the heart of our ideas agenda.

From the Labor Party's perspective there are some clear lessons for the future. We must not despair, nor let vested interests divert us from the core message.

We must be courageous, stand our ground and never operate under the illusion oligarch's operate in the national interest. They plainly don't.

Equally, we have to stand up to the most hostile media organisations by outing their underlying intent. By never cowering when they come at us.

Most importantly, we have to work together with unity of purpose. In recent years the far Right has been far more disciplined. In our policy debates too frequently progressive groups get locked into arguing an all or nothing approach in terms of an agenda, and if they don't get precisely what they want from the Labor Party they fail to fight the Right at all. Politics is seldom perfect. But surely we're better together than we are apart?

And in the Labor Party itself, it is the ideas we are fighting for that are just as, if not more important than the organisational structures and methods that we are sometimes consumed by.

That's why I was keen to talk here tonight, as Fabians have a vital role to play in developing the ideas for the future. You have been on the vanguard of progressive thought for generations, and may you be right there once again for many more.

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