‘My Plans for the Nation’ – Labor politicians’ designs on Australia’s future

Frank Bongiorno, University of New England

Wayne Swan Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation North Melbourne, Pluto Press Australia, 2005 (180 pp). ISBN 1-86403-360-6 (paperback) RRP $26.95.

Craig Emerson Vital Signs, Vibrant Society: Securing Australia’s Economic and Social Wellbeing Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2006 (233 pp). ISBN 0-86840-883-2 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Modern Australian politicians are usually busy people, balancing the demands of party, parliament, and electorate—and perhaps even family life, friendship and occasional relaxation. And writing a book of any worth takes a pretty large commitment of time, energy, and resources. The political memoir is usually a product of the leisure that follows voluntary or forced retirement from the tumult and the shouting. It allows politicians to advertise their own achievements, settle old scores, and influence the writing of history by others. It can also attract very tidy royalties. For US presidents, of course, this business is a veritable cash bonanza, and presumably a welcome supplement to the piddling millions they receive on the lecture circuit. Political leaders in power, being especially busy, might arrange for their better speeches—now largely written by professionals—to be collected and published, an exercise involving little or no commitment of time from the busy one.

But the ‘my plans for the nation’ book—if it hasn’t been ghosted by a speechwriter—would normally be written during scraps of time snatched from the heavy duties of a working politician. It would also, at least in this country, be read by a relatively small number of people, while laying authors open to having their words quoted back at them in uncomfortable or inconvenient circumstances.

So why do politicians write such books? This generation of Australian politicians isn’t, of course, the first to produce this kind of publication. John Dunmore Lang’s Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia (1852) and Billy Hughes’ The Case for Labor (1910) belong to this tradition, as do more recent examples such as Arthur Calwell’s Labor’s Role in Modern Society (1963), ghosted by his speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg (2005, p. 47), and Gough Whitlam’s Fabian pamphlets and published lectures of the late 1950s to early 1970s. All of this would suggest that the practice is essentially the preserve of Labor politicians or, at least, of radicals such as J. D. Lang, although there are some notable examples from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century of non-Labor politicians such as Bruce Smith (1887) Henry Wrixon (1896), and Anthony St. Ledger (1909) producing works articulating their own political philosophy, and/or condemning the dangerous socialism of their political opponents. Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People: And Other Studies in Democracy (1943), based on a series of radio broadcasts, is perhaps the best known example of a non-Labor politician attempting to lay out, in book form, a philosophical foundation for the conservative side of politics. But his effort seems among a few exceptions to the rule that such works are most commonly produced by the Left.

Why do politicians write such books?

It isn’t hard to see why the genre is dominated by Labor politicians. Alongside the anti-intellectualism of the labour movement there has also been a resilient faith in the power of the printed word and a modicum of respect for books and book-learning. Mark Latham’s reputation as a man of ideas—a reputation that helped propel him to the leadership—was nourished by awareness of him as a man who had written books, including a very thick one (Latham 1998). It didn’t really matter whether you’d read it or not; in these matters, size counts. As he came closer to the centre of power in the federal party, his books became both more readable and somewhat thinner (see, for example, Latham 2003), but they continued to bolster the reputation of politician who might otherwise have been dismissed by some as a crude thug from Sydney’s west and the right-wing of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party. And, if there’s still anything in the old idea of Labor as a ‘party of initiative’, perhaps those who are most eager to change things are likely to be attracted to a genre that allows them to lay out their blueprints for the edification of others.

In our own times, the impulses that might lead a conservative politician to spend much time staring at a blinking word-processor seem especially weak. Why waste time writing books when you have well-funded think tanks and well-paid op ed columnists to do your job for you? As Dennis Glover has recently pointed out, the Left had been massively outspent by the Right in the war of ideas in recent decades; conservative think-tanks have spent about $45 million to promote their ideas, beside which spending by the Left had been desultory (Glover 2006).

So here we have two books by federal Labor parliamentarians, both of them—incidentally—Queenslanders. Both have academic backgrounds; Wayne Swan, Labor’s Federal Shadow Treasurer, lectured at the Queensland Institute of Technology for twelve years and Craig Emerson, formerly a shadow minister but now on the backbench (having fallen foul of the party’s factional system), has a PhD in economics from the Australian National University. Of the two books, Emerson’s is the more obviously ‘academic’ in the narrow sense: it contains no overt personal note, beyond a touching dedication to his children; it has plenty of references, and a substantial bibliography; it includes an index; and it is the production of a university press. Interestingly, I also found it the more readable of the two—Emerson does well in explaining economic concepts to a lay audience—although neither author is a stylist.

The Left had been massively outspent by the Right in the war of ideas in recent decades.

At the risk of being accused of cultural cringing, it was an interesting exercise to read these texts beside the 1950s and 1960s writing of Anthony Crosland, the late British Labour MP and cabinet minister, which I’ve been studying for an historical project. Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) ran to over 500 pages, many of them devoted to pretty heavy economic and sociological analysis. But there is a grace and elegance in his prose that is never approached by either of these authors. You can’t help but feel that this distinction is something more than a mere matter of prose style. Here’s Crosland in his concluding chapter to The Future of Socialism:

We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafés, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing-hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating-houses, more riverside cafés, more pleasure-gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing-estates, better-designed street-lamps and telephone kiosks, and so on ad infinitum. The enemy in all this will often be in unexpected guise; it is not only dark Satanic things and people that now bar the road to the new Jerusalem, but also, if not mainly, hygienic, respectable, virtuous things and people, lacking only in grace and gaiety (Crosland 1957 [1956], pp. 521–22).

There are plenty of good ideas, but not much grace or gaiety evident in these two more recent books. Of course, there is a vision of a good society lurking between the lines; and, while Wayne Swan is no Orwell on The Road to Wigan Pier, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his account of the struggles faced by many poor Australians, some of their problems inflicted by a thoroughly brutal federal government and bureaucracy.

Swan’s general argument is that the economic buoyancy of the last decade has had a very uneven impact on the Australian population and, in particular, has created some sharp spatial differences in economic experience. Australia is like ‘a fraying patchwork quilt—with some patches or postcodes looking especially weak, while others around them seem to be holding up’ (p. 31). These days, your postcode matters more than ever, and he devotes considerable space to the prevalence of poverty in Australia’s coastal sunbelt and its declining industrial areas. He also suggests that middle Australia is undergoing a splintering process; some are doing very nicely, thank you, while others—‘blue, light blue and pink collar’ battlers and better-off ‘debt pioneers’ (p. 104)—are extremely vulnerable because of the size of their mortgages, job insecurity, an unfair income tax system, and the general difficulty of meeting household expenses, especially those connected with children. Swan is much more nuanced in his whole approach to these matters than, say, Clive Hamilton. In his recent Quarterly Essay, Hamilton generally ignores disadvantage, and defines concepts such as poverty and affluence in such narrow, static and restricted ways that almost everyone is presented as enjoying material abundance (2006). Swan, by contrast, believes that an individual’s ‘circumstances relative to their community’ (p. 13) should be considered in these calculations.

There are plenty of good ideas, but not much grace or gaiety in these two books.

There’s a note of nostalgia in Swan’s book for the values of egalitarianism and decency that he identifies with the Australia of his youth. Early in the book, we encounter little Wayne walking ‘to school along the narrow-gauge sugar train tracks, barefoot and sucking a stick of cane’, in ‘a place of greenness and idyll and wonder’ (p. 7). Sometimes, his nostalgia is unfortunately unhampered by basic historical fact, as in his ridiculous claim that ‘In the first three quarters of the last century, an unemployment rate above 1 or 2 percent would have spelt political doom for an Australian government’ (p. 83). He is disturbed by the manifestations of massive inequality in our society, but doesn’t offer any radical remedies for them. He also rather tediously keeps returning to the phrase ‘The Australian Way’ which, apart from sounding like an ad for airline, has an unfortunate resemblance to Arthur Calwell’s silly ‘We are Labor because we are Australian and we are Australian because we are Labor’ (Freudenberg 2005, p. 21).

Emerson also has some annoying habits as a writer—his taste for the five I’s (intellect, ideas, initiative, infrastructure and immigrants) and the three Ps (population, participation and productivity) grates. Sometimes, the clichés are—if you will forgive this cliché—almost too bad to be true (‘Our children are our future’), and he loves ‘bands’, whether they be of ‘gold’ or ‘prosperity’ (pp. 8–9, 33). Definitely no Emersonian, he seems a little more tentative about grand visions than Swan—perhaps the product of his training in economics. He spends fewer words on the deficiencies of Australian society under John Howard, and more unveiling and defending his proposals for economic reform. Taking advantage of the comparative freedom of an Opposition backbencher, he’s bolder and, arguably, more imaginative, than Swan in his prescriptions, attacking Australia’s system of middle-class welfare roundly where Swan treads warily, and making specific proposals for reform across a wide range of policy areas.

Among Emerson’s ideas include measures to boost immigration, population, infrastructure and development in regional inland areas, to attack bracket-creep and reduce marginal tax rates, and to provide a universal family-tax benefit to all families for children under three years of age—the latter an effort to increase the incentives for workforce participation. Like Swan, he is concerned with the interaction of family payments and the unemployment benefit with the tax system; high marginal tax rates are seriously discouraging workforce participation at the lower end, and acting as a brake on the efforts of middle-class families. He points out that with an ageing population and a declining birth rate, Australia’s future prosperity will depend on maximising productivity and workforce participation.

Emerson also has some annoying habits as a writer.

Meanwhile, in areas such as health, aged care and education, he wants to encourage an injection of private money alongside public resources, but is unable to explain how you do so while avoiding a two-tier system in which those dependent on public provision get second-rate service (or worse). This is especially marked in his ill-considered proposal for government encouragement of an equity market in tertiary education. Even on his own admission, your average financier will be more interested in investing in the fees and living expenses of students enrolled in law and medicine—that is, those ‘leading to the highest salaries’—than in those studying ‘courses such as pure science’ and ‘artists, historians and other creative people’ (pp. 124–25). The latter would form a kind of residual welfare state for those who didn’t make it into the prestigious courses and universities, or have the temerity to want to study medieval history, pure maths, French or social work. They would remain dependent on the HECs, government subsidies, Austudy and casual part-time work—but I suppose would at least be a source of cheap casual labour for law and medical students on university bar nights. In the world of the Labor economic rationalist, this amounts to winners-all-round; more seriously, it points to a remarkably impoverished vision of the future of tertiary education funding. Perhaps, in a sequel to this volume, Emerson might give some consideration to how to encourage young Australians to undertake the courses in science and arts that are a precondition for the ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ on which he elsewhere places so much emphasis.

In fact, these students would be rather like the doctors and patients in the bulk-billing surgeries that Emerson advocates for poor areas. Governments, he believes, shouldn’t worry unduly about bulk-billing for other than ‘disadvantaged’ (p. 87) communities. His proposal for asset-tested accommodation deposits for high-care residential aged-care raises much the same problem, in no way mitigated by Emerson’s stipulation that the private finance ‘must be used to cross subsidise services for the poor’ (p. 94). This only increases the likelihood of stimulating downward envy, as elderly people’s hard-won assets are mortgaged to subsidise the aged care of others. At the very least, those paying out of their own pockets will demand superior services to others, thereby generating new demands. On the other hand, it takes very little imagination indeed to picture the kind of education, health care and aged care those on the receiving end of a residual approach can expect, even under the more generous public provision of Labor Government.

Swan doesn’t go near the private health insurance rebate with a barge-pole.

The other problem with Emerson’s approach is how to get the politics right. Admittedly, his book isn’t really about this side of things. But when you have a Labor politician advocating a rebalancing of expenditure from consumption to investment—‘Every component of the plan for Australia is investment, not consumption’ (p. 194); a winding-down of the Howard-Costello upper- and middle-class welfare state; and even a move against thirsty, irrigated agricultural industries such as rice and cotton, one does have a right to ask how it’s all going to be sold to the electorate. Emerson is admittedly aware of this problem, but gets himself into a horrible tangle when he tries to grapple with it. For example, he acknowledges that the private health insurance rebate is bad public policy, having failed either to increase the proportion of people taking out cover or take any pressure off public hospitals. Yet he accepts its retention, recognising that some less well-off people have come to budget for it. All the same, one can’t help but feel this is a case of Emerson the politician rather than Emerson the economist, doing the speaking. Needless to say, Swan doesn’t go near the private health insurance rebate with a barge-pole, and he tip-toes around middle-class welfare, while making it clear that marginal tax rates should be reduced rather than welfare means-testing being further liberalised; a welfare bill of $80 billion a year is already ‘staggering’ (p. 186). But as Emerson acknowledges elsewhere:

Everyone likes their negative gearing. Everyone likes their deductions for work-related expenses. Everyone likes their private health insurance rebate, and their child-care rebate. Company executives like their tax-favoured executive share schemes. And the Coalition government likes nothing more than Labor politicians advocating their removal (p. 184).

The preferred model for these two politician-authors is the Hawke Government; Emerson was actually an economic advisor to Hawke in the 1980s, and its reform program is seen by both authors as the basis for Australia’s positive economic performance in recent times. In their presentation of it, this was a government that carried out the hard reforms in the long-term interests of the nation, even though it involved pain in the short-term. Not unfairly, they contrast this approach with the squandered prosperity of the Howard years.

But there’s a problem with the Hawke analogy: Labor came to office in 1983 during a recession, and, in any case, it mainly didn’t advertise in advance the kinds of radical economic reform that it actually came to carry out. Instead, it promised a social wage in return for wage restraint; indeed, for all its faults, it delivered social policy on a scale that is largely outside the terms of political debate in this country today. The introduction of Medicare, for example, might have occurred only a quarter of a century ago in real time, but in terms of political culture it belongs to another era entirely, when political parties still dared to appear before electors with something more to offer than cash hand-outs.

Naturally, they make all the right noises about balanced budgets etcetera.

The Hawke Government’s political stocks declined as it actually went about the process of economic reform, a point its champions rarely acknowledge. High praise in the financial columns of the nation’s press is not the same as votes in the electorate, and the longevity of the government was due, in large part, to disarray among its opponents, some of that caused by having been outflanked on key economic issues by Labor’s economic rationalists. None of this is meant to downplay the achievements of the Hawke Government, nor is it to question the economic wisdom of any or all of its policies; it’s merely to point out that its longevity was not primarily due to the popularity of those policies among electors. Its initial breakthrough in March 1983 was most certainly not based on a promise of radical economic reform along the lines eventually carried out.

All of this leaves the ALP with a fair bit of thinking still to do. But it’s reassuring that there are some within the party, such as Swan and Emerson, with the industry and energy to play a role in these debates. They share quite a lot of ground, and one can see in this some kind of crystallisation of a Labor approach to economic and social policy. Naturally, they make all the right noises about balanced budgets, low inflation, low interest rates, the need for markets and price-mechanisms. But they argue that government needs to play a greater role in skill formation and investment in national infrastructure. Poverty and disadvantage must be reduced, and education and training are to play a key role both in achieving this goal, and in lifting Australia’s economic performance generally. Private debt and consumption must be wound down in favour of investment, and a more rational interaction between the welfare and tax systems created. Some winding back of upper- and middle-class welfare needs to occur in favour of reducing marginal tax rates. Australia will need to improve its international competitiveness and lift its export performance if its people are going to prosper. In achieving this object, multilateral free trade should be preferred over bilateral agreements.

There’s much that’s attractive in all this although not, perhaps, the grace or gaiety after which Crosland hankered. But it might be that governments in Australia are no longer expected to promote such fripperies.

REFERENCES

Calwell, A. A. 1963, Labor’s Role in Modern Society, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne.

Crosland, C. A. R. 1957 (1956), The Future of Socialism, Jonathan Cape, London.

Freudenberg, G. 2005, A Figure of Speech: A Political Memoir, Wiley, Milton (Qld).

Glover, D. 2006, ‘Ideas with currency’, Weekend Australian, 13–14 May.

Hamilton, C. 2006, ‘What’s Left? The death of social democracy’, Quarterly Essay, Issue 21, Black Inc.

Hughes, W. M. 1970, (1910), The Case for Labor, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Lang, J. D. 1852, Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia: The Right of the Colonies, and the Interest of Britain and of the World, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London.

Latham, M. 1998, Civilising Global Capital: New Thinking for Australian Labor, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW.

Latham, M. 2003, From the Suburbs: Building a Nation from our Neighbourhoods, Pluto Press Australia, North Melbourne.

Menzies, R. G. 1943, The Forgotten People: And Other Studies in Democracy, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Smith, B. 1887, Liberty and Liberalism: A Protest Against the Growing Tendency Towards Undue Interference by the State, with Individual Liberty, Private Enterprise, and the Rights of Property, George Robertson, Melbourne.

St. Ledger, A. 1909, Australian Socialism: An Historical Sketch of Its Origin and Developments, Macmillan, London.

Henry Wrixon 1896, Socialism: Being Notes on a Political Tour, Macmillan, London.

Frank Bongiorno teaches Australian History at the University of New England and is a member of the ALP.

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