THE HON WAYNE SWAN MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LILLEY
The Hawke-Keating agenda was Laborism, not neoliberalism, and is still a guiding light
Language in politics is a fraught business. Certain terms and words are thrown around so often and so easily that they can lose their punch, if not their meaning.
The recent article ‘Australian Labor led centre-left parties into neoliberalism’ had at its core a grossly erroneous claim – that the Hawke-Keating governments were the tip of the arrow for neoliberalism, globally and at home.
In recent times, ‘neoliberalism’ has re-emerged as a catch-all term for the economic policies of free trade, deregulation and privatisation implemented primarily in the US and UK, but also to varying degrees in other western democracies, during the 1980s and 1990s.
A lot of economists would chide anyone using the term for imprecision, and in truth it applies only to varying degrees in different countries, and to none of them in its entirety.
It’s a notably poor fit with Australia under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
Over this period, the Hawke and Keating Labor governments certainly undertook a series of economic reforms designed to open Australia’s trade with Asia and reinvigorate our domestic economy.
But to call the entirety of the Hawke/Keating agenda ‘neoliberal’ is to look at it squinting through one eye.
Far from the caricature that ‘the price of prosperity was social equality’ Australia has enjoyed 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth since 1991. The US and UK have not been so lucky.
Hawke and Keating recognised the consequences of unleashing market forces on the Australian economy and more importantly, unleshing them on Australian society. At the beginning of the 1980s Australia was one of the most highly protected economies in the developed world. The meticulous crafting of policies from 1983-96 ensured that prosperity and social equality went hand in hand.
If Hawke and Keating were simple merchants of neoliberalism, they wouldn’t have reinstated Medicare, nor introduced a capital gains tax to rein in the excesses of the financial sector. They would never have established a more progressive income tax schedule across the board. They wouldn’t have struck the Accords with trade unions to help bring down unemployment and deliver a social wage, which included greater funding for health, education, childcare and welfare for those who the market might otherwise have left behind.
The Hawke-Keating economic reforms should be more accurately described and recognised as ’Australian Laborism’, which pre-dated by a decade or more the Third Way ideology embraced by some US Democrats and part of the British Labour Party, and to which they are often compared.
It is a curious type of cultural cringe, that I think distorts our debate to this day. Australian progressives in the 80s and 90s were distinctive and creative, and we do well to capture some of their spirit in thinking about reform today.
The difference between Australian Laborism and Atlantic ‘Third Way’ is borne out in the data today. The share of income going to the top 1 per cent ‘is nearly 20 percent in the United States, compared with 14–15 percent in Britain…and barely 9–10 percent in Australia’, as Thomas Piketty has noted.
Australian Laborism showed that when the circumstances are right, policies that liberalise an economy, delivered in conjunction with policies that taper the excesses of market capitalism, can provide economic benefits for working Australians.
Finally, to attempt to pin the Hawke-Keating governments to the wall for opening up the Australian economy (because elements of the reforms were neoliberal) while not acknowledging the lift in living standards is totally disingenuous. It also conveniently overlooks the utter failure of the protected ‘settlement’ status quo which was taking Australia, and working families across the nation, absolutely nowhere.
The ethos of Australian Laborism guided the Rudd and Gillard governments when Labor was returned to power in 2007. The ambitious reform program—a price on carbon, a National Broadband Network, a National Disability Insurance Scheme—appreciated that social and economic objectives were intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Equality could not take a back seat to the pursuit of economic growth. As Labor has long recognised, economic equality must be a driver of prosperity, not an afterthought to it.
When the GFC arrived, Labor’s response was swift, sweeping,substantial and most importantly stunningly successful. The mantra ‘go hard, go early, go households’ captured Australian Labor’s recognition that a robust economy depends upon a thriving middle class—the very antithesis of the trickledown vision of neoliberalism (It’s incidentally also why, from Malcolm Turnbull to his paymasters in the Murdoch media, there is such a frenetic effort to write that successful stimulus out of history).
Labor’s response helped keep Australians working and a recession at bay. US and UK stimulus measures emphasised cutting taxes and bailing out banks, but were insufficient to curtail the downturn or contain unemployment.
The Rudd and Gillard reforms also exposed the hypocrisy of those in the corporate sector posturing as champions of neoliberalism. The business community baulked at Labor’s proposal to cut the corporate tax rate—in exchange for a resources super profit tax—but subsequent Senate Inquiries and ATO investigations have revealed that as many as one in three corporations were systematically and illegally avoiding their obligations. Far from embracing a level playing field, captains of industry sought to entrench their established power, acting out a grotesque pastiche of neoliberalism by corporate rule.
Since the Labor government left office, and particularly since the Global Financial Crisis has subsided, two schools of thought have developed.
The first school believes an appalling economic crisis like 2008 changes everything and that economic policy must change too, lest we end up in the same place again.
The second school are those who have ‘learnt nothing and forgotten nothing’, as it was said of the House of Bourbon after the restoration of the French Monarchy in 1814.
It seems bizarre that the second group can still spout their failed ideology with a straight face, let alone be tolerated in polite society! Nearly ten years on from the crisis, many are still in positions of power and implementing similar policies to those which led to the crisis in the first place. However, if centre-left parties cannot articulate an economic framework which delivers rising living standards for workers, then cloaked in Trumpian populism, the real neoliberal ideologues may lead us down the road to ruin once more.
The Hawke and Keating years showed Australia could shake off the ‘Lucky Country’ epithet and create its own luck with pragmatic policy. The Rudd and Gillard years embraced the spirit of Australian Laborism, reinvigorating domestic economic policy to combat contemporary challenges. These governments proved that growth and equity are mutually reinforcing, not diametrically opposed.
Just as it is mistaken to conflate Australian Laborism with neoliberalism, it would be doubly foolish to propose neoliberal reforms in the name of Hawke and Keating. Paul Keating himself has wisely observed that ‘[neo]liberal economics has run into a dead end and has no answer to the contemporary malaise.’ This is not, repeat not, a repudiation of the reforms he implemented as Treasurer and continued as Prime Minister. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgement that different challenges require different solutions. As rampant inequality grips the global economy and populist revolts sweep aside the Atlantic neoliberal consensus, centre-left parties must respond with imaginative policy solutions.
Australian Laborism provides a guiding light. A dynamic public sector which pursues activist fiscal policy and honours a commitment to full employment is entirely compatible with the pragmatic heart of Australian Laborism. If centre-left parties wish to escape the poison of trickledown policies they could do far worse than properly understand the real intent and outcomes of policies implemented from 1983 onwards in Australia.
This article was originally published on the Guardian Australia