18 November 2008

Reclaiming Liberalism for the Left: Social Justice in the 21st Century


Address to the Sydney Institute, Sydney

Thank you for the opportunity of speaking tonight.

There is a certain pattern to the development and refinement of the philosophies of Australia's political parties.

Following a defeat, a political party whether it's Labor or our opponents goes into a period of reflection and introspection.

The defeated political party wonders why the Australian people rejected them.

They review their beliefs, with a view to modernizing their core principles, to take into account developments that occurred while they were in office.

This is often a healthy process.

The winning party, on the other hand, gets on with governing.

The Ministers become loaded down with the tasks of administration. Books on the philosophy of the party dry up.

And there appears to be little reason for introspection any way. The formula works, elections are won.

While eminently understandable, this pattern certainly has its risks for the governing party. Mainly the governing party's philosophy will become stale and will not be modernized and rejuvenated, particularly over a long period in office.

This is something we are alive to. In our short time in office, the Prime Minister has made several speeches about our governing philosophy, governing from the "reforming centre" and my colleague Craig Emerson, in a speech to this institute has laid out his views on our philosophy, which he terms as Labor being "market democrats".

The thread running through these expositions of our philosophy is our determination to govern from the centre.

It's particularly appropriate that we continue to discuss and modernize our political philosophy in light of the 2007 election.

In this election, many people voted Labor for the first time.

It was a diverse cohort of first time Labor voters.

Young people worried that the Howard Government was singularly unconcerned about the challenge of our age: climate change.

Workers, who while impressed with the economic good times that co-incided with the Howard years were angry with the diminution of their rights at the workplace and even angrier about the diminution of their children's rights.

And people looking for a political party which governs from the centre. A party which respects the rights of individuals and cares passionately about social justice and equality of opportunity.

People who could be described as small 'l' or social liberals.

People who were derisively described by some in the Howard Government as 'doctor's wives'.

Some see this type of view as an inner city phenomenon. In my experience, people looking for this type of leadership are spread throughout the country.

People who were disillusioned with the Howard Government as no longer governing from the centre, no longer caring about the individual and always being contemptuous of matters of social justice.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, as Labor struggled its way back to Federal office, and as the cold war continued to rage, Labor thinkers were engaged in a fierce battle as to whether we were to be a party of democratic socialism or social democracy.

Despite the fairly obvious joke that this was akin to the battle between the Judean Peoples Front and Peoples Front of Judea, both these philosophical frameworks fail to adequately describe the way of modern Labor.

Social liberalism, on the other hand does.

Social liberals are the heirs of John Stuart Mill, who argued for the protection of individual rights against an over reaching government, but who also argued that:

"A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development."

Social liberalism recognizes that for an individual to obtain true freedom, to live to the most of his or her potential, social justice must be at the forefront of a governing philosophy.

In order to fully celebrate the individual, we need not only to ensure political freedom, but economic and social freedom.

For example, the freedom of people from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach their full educational potential.

This strand of liberalism rejects the notion that government involvement in the economy and society to achieve more equal outcomes is both ineffectual and ill advised.

Being a social liberal means recognizing the powers and benefits of markets. It does not mean believing in the form of government which is most indifferent to the ills of society.

You may be surprised to hear a minister in a Labor Government referring to liberalism, even social liberalism as his guiding political philosophy.

But the view of liberalism as a philosophy of the right is almost an uniquely Australian phenomenon.

And in any event I will argue that the Liberal Party of Australia has relinquished its right to be viewed as a truly liberal party.

In Britain, the home of liberalism, the liberal philosophy is seen as of the left.

The radical reforms of the early 20th century were pioneered by courageous Liberal Governments.

Asquith and Lloyd George, who introduced the Peoples Budget of 1909 and reformed the House of Lords when the Upper House blocked these left wing efforts at redistribution, were radicals, opponents of privilege and left wing activists of their day.

They recognized that if they were to promote the individual, they needed to tackle the squalor and rancid class structure which restricted millions of individuals to poverty.

They were firmly in line with radical liberal thought.

Take the views of the early liberal thinker L.T. Hobhouse who argued:

"the struggle for liberty is the struggle for equality."

Lloyd George's 1909 budget introduced old age pensions and confirmed progressive taxation as a permanent feature of Britain.

He argued that this budget was:

"a war budget…for raising money to wage implacable war against poverty and squalidness."

And the two authors of the biggest economic and social innovations of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge were both avowed British Liberals, even though it fell to Labour Governments (and in the case of Keynes conservative governments around the world as well) to implement their plans.

Today, the modern British Liberal Democrats outflank the Labour Government from the left.

It is not just in Britain that liberalism is synonymous with progressive causes.

In the United States, of course, the term 'liberal' is regarded as an effective insult by conservatives.

In Canada, the Liberal Party is the main party of the Left, being responsible for most of the social reforms in Canada this century, and is in communion with progressive parties such as British and Australian Labor.

Following the recent Canadian election there is speculation about a possible merger between the Liberal Party of Canada and the more left wing New Democrats.

In fact, looking around the world at comparable developed countries, it is only really Japan that together with Australia has a 'Liberal' party as the mainstream party of the right.

And in Australia, as I say, the Liberal Party has, in my view, removed itself from contention as genuinely liberal party.

Moderate Liberals are fond of telling us that Robert Menzies, faced with the choice of name for his new party, chose the nomenclature 'Liberal' over the perhaps attractive 'Conservative' used by the equivalent British party.

It is arguable, however, that Menzies ever had a strong claim to the liberal mantle, being responsible for the only attempt in Australian history to limit people's political freedom by banning a political party.

But putting this aside, if Australia's main right wing party was ever truly liberal, this era has long passed.

John Howard reveled in the title of being the most conservative Liberal Party leader ever, and governed firmly in the conservative tradition.

On any objective analysis, the foreign and refugee policies of the Howard Government were not as liberal as those of the Fraser Government. As former Howard Government Chief of Staff and disgruntled Liberal Greg Barns has argued:

"the title of Liberal Party is now a total misnomer. There is nothing liberal about the Howard-led party. It is a conservative arrogant machine that….has shown a cavalier disregard for the key tenets of liberalism – freedom of thought and the primacy of human rights."

Small 'l' liberals had their preselections regularly challenged. Talented moderates who survived preselection like Bruce Baird, Marise Payne and Petro Georgiou languished on the backbenches while less talented right wingers flourished.

But the conservative tilt of the Liberal Party has outlasted the Howard era.

Here in NSW, the biggest branch of the party is controlled by the conservative religious right, for whom freedom of choice on many issues is an anathema.

The Liberal Party in Queensland has merged with the National Party, Australia's most illiberal party.

The Nationals believe in single desks and in agrarian socialism.

They oppose freedom in social issues.

Moderate Liberal Party members around the country should be very nervous indeed about moves for a nationwide merger.

And now the Liberal Party has a leader who professes traditional liberalism as a cause, but who finds the most objectionable part of the Federal Budget, the measure to give low and middle income earners the choice as to whether to take out private health insurance by removing a tax impost.

The small 'l' liberal rhetoric has not been matched with policy reality.

In the Liberal Party the fifty year battle between conservatives and liberals has been decided.

The conservatives have won.

True liberals now find their most comfortable home in the ALP.

An examination of Labor governments over the past 30 years shows a strong streak of liberalism.

At the state level, Labor governments in the 1970s and 80s swept away years of conservative restrictions.

The Dunstan and Wran governments led the way in promoting the liberal agenda, introducing anti-discrimination, equal opportunity and homosexual law reform.

Neville Wran himself described his legacy in these terms:

"The state's economy was if anything, stronger, its laws more liberal (in the best sense of that word).

Federally, the Whitlam Government ended conscription and made university education free. Economically, Whitlam cut tariffs by 25%.

But perhaps the most unsung achievement of the Whitlam Government was giving the then Industries Assistance Commission responsibility for identifying the economy wide costs of protection.

The Commission had, until that point been charged with establishing the appropriate level of protection to promote sectoral growth.

The Whitlam Government changed the mandate of the Commission so it became a powerful voice for liberal microeconomic reforms.

The economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating years hardly need repeating. Floating the dollar, trade liberalization and micro-economic reform. All with an eye on the social wage and social justice.

Liberals are well known for their belief in the power of the market.

Liberalism has never been about unfettered markets: regulation is needed to facilitate more perfect information and deal with market failures.

Belief that markets can only work with regulation to ensure lack of domination by monopolies has been a core element of liberalism.

The distinction between the Tories and the Liberals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Britain- the golden age of liberalism, was that liberals were pro free-trade and anti-monopoly.

This way of thinking is directly descended from Adam Smith, who wrote in Wealth of Nations:

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

I do think Adam Smith was being a bit harsh on business. There are times when business gets together without conspiring towards monopoly and collusion.

However, I agree that strong regulation is necessary to ensure vigorous operation of the market.

This is firmly in line with the thinking of the Rudd Government.

Adam Smith wouldn't have called it competition policy: but that is exactly what he was talking about.

Competition policy is something that hasn't received adequate attention in Australia since the National Competition Policy reforms of the mid 1990s.

When Kevin Rudd rang and invited me to be the first Minister for Competition Policy in Australia's history, he told me he'd like to see this area receive more attention.

Thus, the reforms of the last 12 months – rejuvenating the Trade Practices Act to deal with predatory pricing, criminalizing cartel conduct and regulating creeping acquisitions.

All reforms necessary to deal with the evils that Adam Smith identified two centuries ago.

To make sure that markets operate through vigorous competition for the benefit of consumers.

There is a difference between being pro- business and pro- competition. It is an important distinction.

We are both.

Of course, as I indicated earlier, being a social liberal is not just about economics.

To have a commitment to individuals being fully able to participate in society requires a commitment to social justice as well.

Of course, the key the difference between the Labor Party and the conservatives is our commitment to social justice.

When I joined the Labor Party at the age of 15, I'd be the first to admit my political philosophy wasn't fully formed.

But as a Western Sydney public school boy, I had a gut feeling, an intuition, that there were opportunities being denied me, being denied all of my peers - because we came from the wrong side of the tracks.

Because our schools, as good as they were and as dedicated as the teachers were, were under resourced.

Because our area did not receive the same investments in education, public transport and health, we were not able to reach our full, individual potential.

I was instinctively drawn to the Labor Party as the party which cared about our area, and therefore cared about me as an individual and about my family and friends.

At the time I wouldn't have described this as social liberalism.

The theoretical construct came later.

And while I have grown naturally more cynical than that pimply boy who joined the Smithfield Branch of the Labor Party in 1988, I still regard the Labor Party as the only party in Australia that can approach social justice matters with the necessary vigour. With a passion to ensure that every Australian, every last individual Australian, can live life to their full potential.

There is still plenty to do.

Any country, in which the 25% of young people who come from lower socio-economic groups make up only 15% of university students, while the 25% of young people from higher socio-economic groups make up nearly 40% of university students, still has a long way to go.

That these figures are slightly better than in the US or the UK may be encouraging to us, but means little for those young people who miss out on reaching their full potential.

It is of course, not necessary to go to university to lead a full and meaningful life. But it is an undeniable case that hundreds of thousands of young people are missing out on living up to their full potential. And most wouldn't even know it.

I also didn't realize when I was 15 that, in many respects, the fate of me and my friends had perhaps already been determined.

I hadn't read the studies which make it clear that an individual's life chances are so closely linked to their development and nurturing before they go to school.

That's what makes our commitment to early childhood education so important.

That every four year old should have the opportunity for a pre-school education is vitally important.

Schemes which give kids from disadvantaged areas a head start to get into university have their place, but they also divert us from the main game.

I prefer schemes which ensure that no head start will be needed in years to come.

Of course, in Australia, no discussion of social justice and equality of opportunity can be complete without a discussion of the status of our indigenous people.

The facts and figures speak for themselves.

  • The life expectancy of indigenous people is estimated to be 17 years lower than that of the Australian population;
  • In 2006, indigenous students were half as likely as non-indigenous students to continue to Year 12;
  • In some states the infant mortality rates for indigenous children are two to three times higher than the total population of infants.

There is a huge gap to be closed. The Rudd Government, and Kevin Rudd personally, are committed to closing it.

The road will be long, but I can tell you that there are few issues that the Rudd ministry is more dedicated to than this. And Jenny Macklin is devoting all of her very considerable talent and energy to the challenge.

We all know that the old collectivist solutions of throwing more money at health, housing and welfare won't solve the problem.

More money is needed, but it is not enough.

The indigenous population needs policy settings which encourage them as individuals.

This is what Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson have been talking about. This is the sort of approach that Kevin Rudd, Jenny Macklin and the Government have embraced.

The social justice ethos of social liberals and of this government is actually quite simple.

Search out the barriers to people's complete fulfillment, and knock them down.

A social liberal should not rest until a boy from Western Sydney or a girl from Weipa have the same capacity to fulfill their dreams with hard work and sweat as boy or girl from any other part of Australia.

This is not a short term challenge. Perhaps as Ben Chifley would say, it is a light on the hill.

But it is one which marks a distinction between true liberals, and those who claim to be liberal simply because they belong to a party of that name.

Of course, social liberalism must adapt to emerging challenges and current challenges, drawing on an enduring and underlying philosophy.

One of the founders of liberal thought, Jeremy Bentham, saw the fundamental challenge of public policy as maximizing the happiness of the majority.

In some respect, happiness is a quaint term, not a term you read in government briefing notes, or certainly not a term I read in my briefing notes from the Treasury or the Australian Tax Office.

But in a world where so many are struggling with depression and so many are struggling with suicide, perhaps the Benthamite interest in happiness is something we should rekindle.

This is of course very much not an issue of party politics. But those of us concerned about the capacity of individuals to achieve all they can be need to be alert to emerging challenges like depression.

Individuals can't live to their maximum potential in society if they are dealing with an all encompassing fog of depression.

A frightening number of Australians are so overtaken by depression that they take their own life.

Today, seven Australians killed themselves.

Tomorrow it will be the same.

More Australians will take their own life this year than will die on the roads.

A full one quarter of all deaths of men aged between 20 and 34 in Australia are self inflicted.

Governments can fund more programs, and we are. Nicola Roxon has announced the development of a National Suicide Prevention Strategy and a suicide prevention pilot program.

But more important is the role we can all play as leaders to remove the stigma of mental health, depression and suicide.

Organisations like Beyond Blue, Inspire and Lifeline have done a good job in putting this issue on the agenda.

But more needs to be done.

Deaths from cancer and the road toll have been dramatically reduced in recent decades by a concerted societal action to do so.

And similar societal action in relation to depression and suicide needs to be tackled as a nation.

Depression and suicide will always be with us, but as a nation and society we have to tackle this curse, which is stopping thousands of individuals living life to its full potential.

To conclude,

In 1913, it was said of the Australian party system:

"The Australian Labour Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives."

I never thought I'd have the opportunity to quote Vladimir Lenin to the Sydney Institute in approving terms.

The ALP is not and should not be a bourgeois party. But the other elements of Lenin's analysis have proven to be correct (although he clearly didn't mean the descriptor as a compliment!)

Conservatives in Australia have attempted to create a false dichotomy, arguing that a party that cares about how membership of a class, ethnic group or gender impacts on an individuals life chances, undermines respect for the individual.

I argue that the contrary is the case. Only a party that cares about the factors that impede an individual's ability to live to their full potential can truly be seen to care about the individual, can truly be seen as a liberal.

Accordingly I argue that Labor is the home of the genuine Australian liberal.

One the one hand you've got a modern Labor Party committed to equality of opportunity – and giving a hand-up to those individuals who are suffering or who were born into poverty.

Against that you've got an ever-conservative Liberal Party that has purged itself of wets or small 'l' liberals in its determination to occupy the right of Australian politics.

It is nigh impossible for one to claim that the Liberal Party is still the keeper of the tradition of Alfred Deakin.

The fight against inequality and for social justice is what inspired the inspired the creation of Labor

These are the qualities that attracted me and many other members to the ALP.

As a social liberal in the Labor Party, I can tell you that it is a very welcoming home.

Immanuel Kant once said that the objective of society must be that each individual deserves respect and to be treated as an end and not a means.

Only a party with a true commitment to social justice can fulfill Kant's objective.

It now falls to Kevin Rudd and Labor to turn that theoretical vision into policy reality.