What is Labor's Objective? - Australian Fabians Former Site - For Page Transfers

What Is Labor's Objective?


Jenny McAllister
06 May 2014
by: Jenny McAllister

Author: Jenny McAllister is the National President of the Australian Labor Party


I’d like to acknowledge that we meet on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present.


Tony Blair famously said in the debate over British Labour’s clause IV that we should say what we mean and mean what we say…. Start saying… what we stand by, what we stand for.

In our context, a frank conversation about what we stand for seems to me to be the best possible starting point.

We should always be open to refreshing our philosophy, and I thank the Fabians for kicking this off.

I’d also like to acknowledge both Chris and Nick. I suspect we each have slightly different visions about Labor’s objective – but I have the deepest respect for their decisions to play a role in philosophical discussion about our party and our movement.

Tonight, I want to make the case for retaining social democracy as the framework for Labor’s project.

It’s the framework that’s named in the objective as it currently stands. And it’s also in my view the most comprehensive, consistent framework within which we can describe Labor’s project.

I want to talk a little about social liberalism as a mooted alternative.

I’ll finish up by talking about what I think this means for a debate over our objective.


I have lost count of the debates I’ve had about whether the ALP is a truly social democratic party.

After twenty one years in Labor, I’m a little less enthusiastic about this topic when it’s raised at parties than I might once have been.

On this occasion though, I’m willing to give it one more go round, and talk a little about how I think about social democracy and Labor.

As an ideology, social democracy is an extension to liberal democracy. It asserts that the rights notionally accorded to individuals in liberal democracy cannot be properly realised if those individuals lack the means to participate in the society as equals.

The argument is captured in Anatole France’s famous dictum that the law, in its majestic equality … forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

Historically, social democrats also rejected revolutionary politics, preferring to leverage the universal franchise rather than waiting for capitalism to self destruct.

Sheri Berman has written that in rejecting both unfettered capitalism and revolution…social democracy was built … on a conviction that political forces rather than economic ones could and should be the driving forces of history...” (Berman 2006)

It’s a broad project, that ties together great narratives of democracy and equality.

When I think about the great Labor achievements that people in this room would be most proud of, they speak to these issues, including the early support from the Fisher government to expand arbitration, Hawke’s decision to reprosecute the case for universal healthcare, and Gillard’s introduction of the NDIS.

It is striking how few of Labor’s great nation building achievements involve nationalisation. I want to make a few remarks about this, because nationalisation – or common ownership – was at the heart of the Clause 4 debate in British Labor.

In that discussion, Tony Blair famously labelled a fixation on public ownership as the confusion of ends and means, arguing that Labour was in politics to pursue certain values, not implement an economic dogma.

I agree with him.

But it would be hard to level the same criticism at the ALP. Indeed, I’d argue that Australian Labor has been an early innovator in developing social democratic policies that harnessed the market, rather than seeking to replace it.

Take just one example, healthcare. Neither Chifley’s PBS, nor Whitlam’s Medibank, nor Hawke’s Medicare, nationalise healthcare.

Instead, our universal health system, built by successive Labor governments, relies significantly on the power of the state to purchase services – through bulk billing we purchase services from private GPs, and through the PBS we purchase medicine from private pharmaceutical companies.

Democratic socialisation is not nationalisation, and our policy history bears that out.

Equally importantly, a social democratic objective is not narrowly materialist.

Social democracy, is a creature of the enlightenment; it responds also to the humanism which pervades enlightenment thinking.

We are not simply talking about wages and income – social citizenship calls for equal access to a materially & culturally satisfying life. " (Dow and Higgins, 2013)

Ben Chifley might have described it as being something more than putting an extra sixpence in someone’s pocket.

At our best, Labor has pursued a more expansive vision – think about Gough’s decision to open up tertiary education, or Keating’s support for the arts.

To borrow from Race Matthews, while most politicians speaks to our purses and our pockets, these men addressed themselves “uncompromisingly to our consciences and intellects”.

I happen to think that re-engaging with this aspect of our social democratic purpose is more important now than ever. As Blue Labour recognises in the UK, I see here an enormous hunger in the community for purposeful and moral living.


Social democracy is different to social liberalism

My broad assessment is that Australian Labor’s past is best characterised as social democratic.

I know that others consider social liberalism to be a more accurate contemporary descriptor. I want to take a moment to reflect a little on the distinctions between social liberalism and social democracy.

I don’t want to gild the lily here; it’s true that social liberalism and social democracy are close neighbours.

But to me social liberalism seems to miss a number of points that are important to Labor’s tradition.

Firstly, it seems to me that by retreating from social democracy to social liberalism, we retreat from our commitment to using the power of government to build a strong economy.

Modern economies are more dependent on government than ever. Good governments underwrite skilled labor, they provide the social infrastructure in our cities, which are increasingly the drivers of innovation and productivity, and they provide the economic infrastructure to support private enterprise like the NBN and road and rail.

And of course in government we underwrote the banks and stimulated the economy in a time of genuine crisis.

It’s an achievement we should fight to defend with an assertive position on the interdependencies of states and markets.

Secondly, it seems to me that social liberalism leads us to greater individualism.

The Left’s great insight is that as humans, we are defined as much by our relationships with others as we are by our individual freedoms.

At a policy level, for Labor this has meant an emphasis on universalism in service provision, most obviously in health and education. We reject the notion of welfare as a safety net; a second class intervention to simply ameliorate the worst aspects of life for the very poor. Instead we recognise that institutions like schools create important platforms for social solidarity.

At a political level, we also recognise the legitimacy of collective action. A great example of our approach is the governance arrangements for superannuation. In establishing super, Labor’s policy affirmed that it is perfectly proper for working people to pool their funds, not only to secure individual benefits, but to secure national benefits through the application of those funds to positive purposes.

Finally, I don’t believe social liberalism provides the conceptual tools we need to truly tackle inequality.

For most of the twenty one years I’ve been a member, our leaders have talked about opportunity – equal opportunity, social mobility, even the ladder of opportunity.

From this perspective , inequality itself is not considered a problem. As long as the spots at the top of the ladder are available to everybody, it doesn’t matter if they are ridiculously well paid, or that the people at the bottom of the ladder are not.

I think it’s time to face up to the reality that opportunities are intimately linked to the distribution of wealth.

This is increasingly so in a privatised economy, where so many cultural and economic opportunities are purchased.

As a social democratic party, I’d like to see us start to think more deeply about what level of inequality we think is acceptable, and start to speak more directly about our belief that a more equal society is a better society.

For these three reasons, I don’t think social liberalism gives us enough to adequately describe our project.

I much prefer the social democratic story – with its overt recognition of the centrality of the economy to citizenship and democracy, and its recognition of the significance of inequality to the Labor project.


I want to turn now to the objective.

For me, the great strength of the objective as it currently stands is its emphasis on the social democratic framework.

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party…

Those words communicate a great deal.

Historically they link us to the great movement of working people in the twentieth century who sought to improve their communities through democratic means; rejecting Stalinism on the one hand, and unregulated capitalism on the other.

Philosophically they assert our core belief that government should ensure the economy works for all if us, not just a narrow few. For social democrats, liberal rights alone can never be enough to ensure all citizens can fully participate in Australian society.

Practically, they’re consistent with the great Labor tradition of combining market forces with state involvement. Democratic socialisation is not nationalisation – and we have a proud history of policy innovation interpreting democratic socialisation in sophisticated ways.

I’ll concede that that some of the language is old fashioned. If we started today, we’d be unlikely to refer to production, distribution and exchange. In the spirit of saying what we mean, and meaning what we say – we might just say – “the economy”

It’s also true that we might actually like to do more than “eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features”. The objective in the constitution is augmented by 23 additional clauses which express positively our commitments to a long list of outcomes, including the environment, the private sector, peace, and support for Australia’s first peoples.

However at the heart of the objective is the confirmation that we understand the relationship between the economy and our society, and that we’re willing to intervene democratically to make the economy work for all of us.

If we’re to have a debate about Labor’s objective, my starting point would be that social democratic principle. There's a high threshold to clear before I'd support replacing that core idea with anything else.

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