Is there life after neoliberalism?

You might have recently read my mum’s guest post about Hugh Stretton’s book – Australia Fair. That post received some great feedback. Here is the follow up post:

Is there life after neoliberalism? Yes there can be, says Hugh Stretton in his unfairly neglected book, Australia Fair (UNSW Press, 2005). I recently wrote about the general argument of this book in Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton. Here, I’m going to look at the specifics. But just to recap, Stretton argues that the neoliberal economic reforms of the past thirty years – floating the dollar, reducing tariffs, privatisation of public assets, lower taxation and spending cuts – have not brought the economic gains claimed for them. And he says they make for greater inequality. There have been a few improvements since he wrote in 2005, but not many. Mostly, things have got worse. He argues that a rich country like Australia should be able to assure a comfortable living for all citizens, and outlines a program involving both the public and the private sector to achieve this. Interested?

It’s not possible in a short review to do justice to all that Stretton is suggesting, or to include all the for and against arguments, reservations and complexities he mentions. For this, you must read the book. Furthermore, the policies that make up his program are inter-related, though I am mostly discussing them separately. His writes in a somewhat idiosyncratic style, and though he tries to keep his economic discussion simple, he loses me sometimes. Please forgive my oversimplification.

Stretton begins with ‘work’, because in his argument, full or fairly shared employment should be the main purpose of economic policy. He says that ‘every consideration of economy and humanity should drive us to see that there is paid work for everyone who wants it.’ But having given up most of their power to control the economy in favour of free market prescriptions, the only way governments can control inflation is by sustaining a significant level of unemployment. This is not only disastrous for those experiencing it; it results in less production, less demand and less investment. It also means a higher welfare bill – and/or the demonization of the unemployed, even though there are no jobs for them. Furthermore it often results in an increase in working hours for the employed, not always paid, which in turn affects their quality of life. Achieving full employment depends on other parts of his program, so what he is advocating is quite complicated. It seems to be a combination of stimulating demand, including increasing some benefits, increasing some public employment and stimulating some private employment, particularly in the housing industry.

Stretton has had a long involvement with housing policy. He considers housing a right in a rich society like Australia, alongside the right to education and health provision. (This is the sort of ‘stuff’ Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly think Americans who voted for Obama are so remiss as to expect.) Here Stretton addresses the situation where as part of the neoliberal agenda, the Commonwealth has cut funding to the States for new housing investment, and States have sold off most of their existing stock of public housing. This has been replaced by a first home buyer grant and rent allowances to poor tenants who have to compete in the private rental market. The result of simultaneously cutting the supply and subsidising the demand was to raise prices, as first home buyers bid against each other for a limited stock of moderately priced housing. Waiting lists for public housing are years long, and homelessness continues to grow. His solution, which rather elegantly pays for itself over time, is to give Commonwealth money to the States who contract private builders to build good quality but relatively modest housing, half of which is for sale or rent to working families who pay full cost or rent, and half as welfare housing. If full employment reduces the numbers on welfare and increases the number able to pay market rent, then this proportion can change. An increase in public housing acts as a dampener on the private market, and everyone gains except those who are hoping for a large capital gain when they sell mum and dad’s house at an inflated price.

The next issue is what Stretton calls ‘children’, but is actually parenting. He asks how we can best bring up children and respect parents’ right to choose either paid employment or staying home to care for their young children. As things stand, women usually end up doing the unpaid housework in addition to paid work, and children end up in less than satisfactory child care. He agrees that family friendly work places may help, but argues that in addition, there should be a parenting wage equivalent to the basic wage available on a means tested basis to one parent so they can stay at home if they wish. He knows the arguments about rorting the system, but considers that the social good of the proposal outweighs the possible abuses.

In both health and education, Stretton argues that the Howard government favoured private over public provision, and allowed the latter to decline. The Rudd/Gillard government has made a start on these issues. There are some moves to fix the buck-passing between Federal and State governments, and the private health insurance rebate has been cut for some rich families. Stretton would have abolished it altogether, and spent the money on the public health system. He would also likely approve the Gonksi proposals to fund the public education system properly.

More surprising to me, he is also highly critical of current superannuation provision; he quotes another historian’s conclusion that ‘the privatisers of superannuation have presided over the creation of a league of parasites on a scale not seen since the close of the eighteenth century.’ Transparency, which is the best we are offered in relation to fees and charges, is not enough; he argues there should be a public superannuation scheme alongside the private ones to add some genuine competition. I find this chapter technical and difficult, but his general drift is clear.

On the environment, he says: ‘The neoliberal change of direction to greater business freedom, less public production, less government and steeper inequality could have been designed specifically to disable our environmental management.’ He outlines a ‘green program’ which is perhaps now somewhat out-dated, but more important is his warning of the further damage to equality that climate change and greedy consumption of resources could bring.

I also find Stretton’s chapter on managing money difficult, and guess that he might well revise the details post the Global Financial Crisis – which can only have confirmed his general critique; ‘the real fruit,’ he says, ‘of 25 years of well-intended blundering should be to discredit the economic theories on which the mistaken expectations were based.’

He has had a stab at costing his program, and suggests ways of finding the money. And here, you have to decide on whether he is unreasonably optimistic, or whether, as he argues, Australians really might support a program that offered better services and a more equal society, even if it meant higher taxes and forgoing some luxury consumption. It would take ‘guts and ingenuity’ to try, and of course leadership – which has so far been leading us pretty much in the wrong direction.

I do not know of any other book that not only offers a reasoned critique of the impact of neoliberal economic policies in Australia in the last thirty years, but also offers an alternative set that could just work. If only there was someone who would try them.

Kay Rollison


Australia Fair, by Hugh Stretton

This is another guest post by my mum, Kay Rollison. Mum writes a book blog and this review of Hugh Stretton’s book, Australia Fair, is a great edition to my blog. You can find more book reviews at What Book to Read (www.whatbooktoread.com).

This book came out in 2005, and as far as I can remember, attracted remarkably little interest. Hugh Stretton is one of Australia’s foremost thinkers, and he has an international reputation for his work in the area of values in the social sciences. Though he started off teaching history – at Oxford, then Adelaide University – he finished up as a researcher in economics. This book is a work of political economy; it looks at how we got into the political and economic trouble we are in, and what we might do to fix it. Stretton argues ‘that we should be doing whatever it takes in our changing historical conditions, by old means and new, to keep Australia fair’. And this was before the GFC. How could such a relevant and important book be overlooked now?

In this post, I’m going to look at what Stretton says about how we got where we are, and in a later post I’ll outline what he thinks we could do about it.

It’s actually quite easy to see why the book was largely ignored. It takes a lonely stand against the economic orthodoxy accepted at the time by the Labor Party, the LNP and most economic commentators. It sees the changes to the operation of the economy, started by the Hawke-Keating government and pursued further by the Howard government, not as great and necessary reforms that have benefited all of us, but as an abdication of the power to control the economy for the general good. Stretton wrote too early. It’s only since the GFC dented confidence in the free market’s ability to deliver a fair society that such arguments are again being entertained. Well, he certainly makes a good one and it’s time to look at it again.

Paul Keating, Stretton says, brought about a U-turn in Labor economic policy. Instead of using the state to pursue full employment and balanced development, Keating gave up the power to do this. As well as removing most tariff protection, he ‘reduced the regulation of business, privatised some public services and slimmed others to cut their costs, maintained some unemployment to restrain inflation, shifted taxation downward from the highest incomes, and thus increased some inequalities.’ Stretton says that Keating knew that this would hurt some citizens, and accepted that there would have to be a safety net that provided good health care, welfare and education to those left behind. He argues Keating’s motivation was good, that he believed such changes would result in optimum foreign investment, employment, growth, and low inflation. The wealth thus produced could be used to compensate the losers.

I well remember how inexorable this program seemed at the time, particularly as most commentators endorsed it. Labor values seemed to be disappearing, but what was the alternative? Once the process had begun, LNP governments, state and federal, would only take it further, and so it proved. In the face of frustration and impotence on the economic front, Labor activism shifted to the identity issues of gender, race and sexuality – important in themselves, but cutting across the economic divide of the haves and have nots. Other activists turned to the battle over conservation of heritage and biodiversity, and joined the Greens. And some of us withdrew from politics altogether. A pox on both your houses.

Stretton agrees that for some of the time – when for example the business cycle is in an up-swing, or there are (or were) short term profits from asset sales (or there is a mining boom) – some of these good things have happened. But he argues that the downside has been greater than any benefits. Our current arrangement, he says, ‘trusts production to private enterprise and market forces with minimum public aid or regulation. Government’s role is to rescue the resultant losers and correct the misdistribution of income by tax and welfare means. In practice that has become so expensive for an under-employed and ageing population that we don’t do it very well.’ He deals with specific downsides in the chapters about what might still be done to correct the situation in areas such as employment, housing, health and education, income and natural resources. But as a quick summary, the downsides include unemployment, rising numbers on welfare, a smaller tax base to pay for welfare, unaffordable housing, less effective public services (cut to trim costs), more user pays, unproductive investment aimed at speculative returns, some spectacular corporate failures and more inequality. And his point is that much of this comes down to an economic policy chosen by a Labor government which gives undue freedom to the market.

Stretton is far too subtle a thinker simply to be making a case for ‘government intervention’ versus ‘the free market’. He argues that government always has a role in even the most free of markets; it is a question of the public-private mix – with the addition of the contribution of the not-for-profit sector and households.  After all, as he points out, ‘It takes work by more than one of them, and often enough by all four, to get your dinner on the table, your car on the road or your children educated.’  Furthermore, unlike with market solutions, there is no ‘one size fits all’; it is a question of working with an eclectic mix of old and new, theory and practice, and experience and imagination. For the detail, see my next post.

Quite apart from the overall sweep of Stretton’s argument – and I have in no way done it justice here – there are two insights that in the light of current circumstances, struck me forcibly. One concerns pokies. As a result of spending cuts in pursuit of smaller government, revenue grants to states have been cut, leaving them less and less able to afford to provide the services for which they are responsible. ‘Desperate needs breed sickening remedies,’ writes Stretton. Most of the States have acted to expand gambling and their revenue from it … unlike the capital proceeds of privatisation, the gambling revenue is reliably, seductively sustainable.’ So the current plague of gambling addiction is an unintended consequence of economic rationalism.

The second insight is that where both sides of politics agree on the fundamental primacy of the market, politics easily degenerates into arguments about management – think BER and pink batts – and the trustworthiness of leaders – think JuLiar and sexism. These may be important, but they shouldn’t be all there is. What Stretton had before him at the time of writing was Mark Latham’s apparent acceptance that ‘the voters who matter are self-interested battlers, contemptuous of idlers living on welfare, and easily frightened by talk of higher taxes or interest rates or inflation.’ I would argue that Labor is now making some effort to initiate a debate about the role of the state, with the carbon tax, the mining tax (however watered down) and a modest assault on middle class welfare. But I’m not sure what direction these baby steps are going in – certainly Hugh Stretton would not be satisfied.

For all there is so much good stuff in it, I can’t say this is an easy book. You’ll see in my next post that his proposed solutions, though sometimes simple, aren’t easy either. But it’s a book that deserves much wider reading and discussion. Perhaps someone should send it to the Prime Minister for Christmas.

 


Out of bounds on the full

Following on from my last post, my mum, Kay Rollison, has contributed another great insight into the terrible standard of political reporting in our mainstream media. Enjoy!

Victoria, like many other independent bloggers, wrote last week about the failure of the mainstream media to understand the significance of Julia Gillard’s speech denouncing the sexism she has been subject to. As Victoria pointed out, for much of the media, it is apparently ‘just politics’. Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott was followed up by the very same journalists with reports about sexist remarks directed at Abbott’s female chief of staff. Tit for tat. See? Both sides are as bad as each other.

This is part of the ‘politics is a dirty game’ convention. Working within this convention – as the mainstream media do – day to day politics is a game in which both sides seek advantage. Both sides play hard, both sides are dirty, therefore they are no different. It’s like reporting sport. One side kicks a goal, someone fumbles a pass, the ball is out on the full, and the scoreboard shows the result, courtesy of the fortnightly polls. It’s just a question of who is better at the game. Look at the scoreboard mate.

It’s easy for reporters and commentators to write as if the daily battle of tactics means that the two sides are just the same, and as bad as each other. Of course some journalists (guess which ones) don’t think the parties equally bad; they cheerfully reflect the anti-Labor bias of their employers. But others present themselves as ‘independent’: think Sales, Uhlmann, Hartcher, Crabb, Taylor, Grattan, Cassidy or Oakes. They claim that their ‘equally bad’ treatment shows ‘balance’, or even handedness. They routinely argue that after all, the opposition will do anything to get rid of the government now or at the next election, and the government will do anything to stay in power now or at the next election, and this constitutes the (equally bad) politics they report on.

Of course there’s a place for day to day political reporting. It’s not just that it’s the Canberra Press Gallery’s bread and butter. It’s not just that politics tragics couldn’t live without it. What happens on a short-term basis affects the morale and effectiveness of both sides and the view the electorate takes of the parties. And the particular circumstances of this parliament render day to day reporting compelling for anyone interested in politics. The hung parliament itself makes this reporting important, as theoretically the government could fall at any time. Tony Abbott’s single minded strategy of trying to force an election by making the parliament unworkable also captures day to day attention. The more or less precarious hold the leader of each party has on their position as leader also feeds the daily round.

However the mainstream media don’t do a very good job of this day to day reporting. This is partly because some journalists just report what politicians say, very often word for word – ‘the Leader of the Opposition said…’ Some reporters find it easier to write stories based on press handouts from politicians than to do any actual research themselves. (It’s also editors who want a particular spin, but that’s another matter.)

Yet even when they report accurately on the success or failure of the day to day tactics, they rarely question the political strategies that underlie them. Abbott’s strategy of making parliament a shouting match feeds cynicism in the electorate about politicians and politics. We’ll all pay for that in due course. But do any of the mainstream media call him on it? Does anyone even give a nod to the realities of minority government? The tit for tat reporting of the debate over Slipper’s disgusting text messages was allowed entirely to overshadow the issue of whether the Speaker was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and, indeed, the issue of the separation of powers. We laughed when Bjelke-Petersen didn’t know what that meant, but apparently journalists don’t know either, or don’t think it’s important enough to comment on. And then of course there’s the whole issue of the undeniable use of sexism, personal denigration and outright lies by the opposition leader. Which side is doing the damage to the national interest here? You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media.

But presenting politics as a rather sleazy sport creates an even more serious problem. Concentrating on the day to day tactics means that substance, or lack of it, goes unreported. Politics is more than just tactics, or even strategy. It is about how power and influence should be apportioned, and how wealth distributed in a society. The whole issue of the long-term outcomes of policy decisions is all but ignored by our mainstream media. There’s a theory about how he thinks the world should work behind Tony Abbott’s attack on the carbon tax. Which mainstream journalists explore it? They just report his hyperbole. And what about the constant talking-down of the economy by the Opposition? What sort of economy do they want? Who would benefit? And turning the boats around? What view of Australian society does that represent? We don’t know much about the Opposition’s plans for Australia should they win office. But even what we have been told goes unquestioned. Who is analysing the winners and losers from the direct action carbon reduction plan, and asking Greg Hunt about it? Who is looking at how paying the salaries of women on maternity leave is going to work out for poor women and asking Abbott about it? Journalists say that their job is to report impartially, not to comment in a partisan way – that is up to columnists. But surely this doesn’t mean taking whatever is said at face value? Is anyone interested in fact checking? Even if politics as a world view is too hard for them, couldn’t they manage a reality check on the bits of substance we have been given?

It’s interesting to speculate how the mainstream media would treat an Abbott government. Media outlets that already cheer-lead for him would continue to do so, which hardly comes as a surprise. And the self-appointed ‘independent’ journalist? My guess is that it would be business as usual. It’s just a game, after all.

We are being served up rubbish. Whatever you think of any of the parties seeking power in Australia, no one’s interest (except possibly lazy journalists’) is served by promoting the assumption that they are all the same. We need to know the differences in how they understand power and influence and the distribution of wealth, as revealed in what their members say and do. Certainly there are policy similarities, and these deserve discussion too. The argument that the major parties are as bad as each other, and by implication without any substance, is at best blind, and at worst self-serving. Far from making journalists neutral umpires, the ‘they are just the same and as bad as each other’ convention distorts reality, and turns the media into players. And guess which side that helps?

After I’d written this post, I saw Kevin Rudd on Lateline saying much the same thing, though his emphasis was on the politicians who treat politics as a game, rather than the media who report politics as a game. (He did take a swipe at the media as well for over-emphasising personal differences.) I also saw The Hamster Wheel’s ‘obituary’ of Rudd, which suggested that all of his actions are self-serving. Well perhaps that’s partly true, but in this case Rudd is right. Political debate should, as he says, be policy based, and we should be asking if political power is being used to benefit the few or the many.  And did Tony Abbott really say, as Rudd alleges, he loves the smell of blood on the canvas? If so, I rest my case.


This is a public service announcement

After the success of the recent guest post by my mum, Kay, she’s contributed again with this post about public service cuts. Enjoy!

Why is it that conservative political parties feel so comfortable attacking the public service? We are seeing public servants sacked or threatened in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. The federal Coalition and the SA Liberals are promising cuts if they get into office – Isobel Redmond even suggesting that a quarter of the state’s public servants could go – though she later backed away from this. (No doubt someone in her party reminded her you tell people that after the election, not before.)

I think this is more than just a knee jerk reaction, and it reflects a conservative view about limiting the role of government that is quite scary.

It’s true that conservative administrations attack the public service because they can. When they want to cut expenditure (rightly or wrongly), their own employees are the easiest target. They tell the electorate that of course they are not cutting the front line staff who deliver services to the public. It’s just those wastes of space in the back room – you know, the ones that run the systems that support the front line staff so they can get on with their work.

They usually feel safe in doing this because lots of Australians love to hate public servants. Not the teachers and nurses and police, but the paper pushers, the bean counters, the generators of red tape. Everyone has a rude public servant story. The concern felt for bank staff, or miners or vehicle builders who lose their jobs isn’t extended to public servants.

However there can be an electoral backlash – as appears to be the case in Queensland – if it seems that front line services will be affected. It is also true that the savings from getting rid of public servants are often illusory, as outsourced functions are expensive and often unsatisfactory. The commonwealth public service has grown under Labor at least in part because they turned some of the contract staff the Liberals had employed into salaried public servants, having almost certainly made the calculation it was cheaper that way.

But there are actually more fundamental reasons why conservatives don’t mind cutting the public service. They don’t want the state to do lots of the things that the public service currently does. Some of these things they think private enterprise should do. Others they don’t want done at all.

Getting things done by private enterprise comes in two different forms. The first is the extreme version of user pays. Consider the Baillieu government’s plans to cut TAFE funding and therefore TAFE jobs. Don’t we need people with the sort of training you get at TAFE, like trades apprenticeships, and technical training of all types? Yes, but there are now private providers who do that sort of thing. They are more expensive than TAFE, but that’s not the government’s problem. They are passing the cost back to the customer. Can’t afford it? Live in the country where there are no private providers? Tough luck. This is called taking personal responsibility. (See what Mitt Romney says about this.)

The second is the contracting out model. Both Liberal and Labor governments already use this model, for example out-sourcing significant functions like running prisons and immigration detention centres. In Britain, they are taking this much further, contracting out whole chunks of government activity – such as children’s services. In Devon, Virgin Care (as in Virgin airlines) and Serco (as in Adelaide busses) competed for a contract to run services for children and families at risk. Neither has experience in the area. And naturally they expect to make a profit. The services are still free at the point of contact, so profits have to come from somewhere else. The conservative theory is of course that private enterprise must be more efficient than a government-run one; what this usually means is fewer staff and less accountability. Are the Liberals planning to follow the lead of the British Conservative Party should they win government?

Though the Liberal Party is not telling us where they would make cuts to the public service, they are starting to talk about a revamped federalism, handing responsibility for some functions such as health and environmental matters back to the states. This at a time when states are themselves cutting their public services; who will take on these extra tasks? How will they be paid? The states – even the Liberal ones – will want extra money to take on extra responsibilities. Who knows where that will come from.  A rise in the GST, as is being urged by the NSW Liberal government? And how will differences between the willingness and capacity of the states to administer these areas be dealt with? This is looking very like an attempt to curtail what government actually does.

And then there are the things that conservative governments just don’t want to know about. The Liberals aren’t telling us much about what they will cut, but Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says “The Department of Climate Change would be very high up the list for close scrutiny.” No surprises there. Since climate change is a hoax, we don’t need anyone to do anything in that area. But wait. What about the Liberals’ direct action policy to reduce carbon emissions? Won’t that need someone to administer it? Whoops. Worry about that later. Then there’s all that regulation – the red tape they are going to do away with; this presumably means they will abdicate oversight in various areas where they think private enterprise should have free reign. Other as yet unnamed programs will also go, though we aren’t being told the criteria to be applied. A further reduction of state responsibility.

None of what I’ve said is meant to suggest that public service can avoid scrutiny. It ought to be as efficient and effective as possible. Programs that don’t work should be scrapped, even if this means job losses. But what we need – from both sides of politics – is some explanation of their view of the role of the state, and what resources they need to sustain this. What services should governments provide? How equitable should they be? At what cost? What can private enterprise do better than the public service? What risks are associated with private provision? What areas should never be left to the market?

All these questions arise from cutting the public service. Liberals, state and federal, really need to tell us how they view them, and what they think the role of government should be.

Dr Kay Rollison


Politics 101 – a guest post

Long time readers of my blog will know my mum, Kay Rollison, is my writing buddy, and creator of What Book to Read. She also happens to have a PhD in history and after reading my left vs right post last week, she reminisced about the lessons she learnt in politics 101 and how some of this knowledge is still relevant today. Here is her guest post on this subject:

I keep seeing the suggestion that the political categories ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer have relevance. I don’t think that’s so. It may be more complicated than it used to be, but the distinction between left and right has never been more important.

Back in the far off days of Politics 101, we were introduced to an admittedly crude continuum running from left to right, with positions along it assigned by reference to a set of political options relating to the role of the state in the economy. At the far left was state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. At the far right was the unfettered free market. Positions along the way were determined by attitudes – or actual policies – on matters such as the state’s role in education, health, welfare, banking or transport, and on the issue of progressive taxation. The greater the role of the state, the further to the left; the less intervention in the market, the further to the right.

Bisecting this x axis was a y axis: at the bottom libertarianism – the unfettered individual (think Ron Paul), and at the top total state dominance of society. Positions along the way were determined by attitudes – or actual policies – on matters such as human rights, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, freedom of religion, separation of church and state and respect for minorities.

We then plotted political parties/types of government on the x and y axis. Needless to say the government of the Soviet Union fell in the top left corner and the American Republican party towards the centre of the bottom right quadrant. But dictatorships often fell in the top right corner, as authoritarian practices often went hand in hand with a laissez faire attitude to the economy, and veneration of property rights. In Australia, the ALP fell somewhere to the left of the centre and the Liberal Party somewhere to the right, but neither was extreme, and both were well below the line on the freedom/authoritarian index, if I remember rightly. As I’ve said this was a crude index, and no doubt served the prevailing cold war orthodoxy.

Now much has changed. We no longer have the Soviet Union (or even China) as examples of a so-called command economy. Very few political parties now challenge the dominance of the free market; it is more an issue of how far it should be regulated. I expect we were taught that in a democracy both the left and the right had the good of all citizens at heart, but believed in different ways of achieving it. This is increasingly hard to believe, as greater and greater shares of wealth accumulate in the hands of the rich. The rise of identity politics, to some extent independent of class, has thrown positions on the old freedom/authority scale into confusion as issues of race, gender and sexual preference challenge comfortable old views about personal freedom. Fundamentalist religious convictions also challenge the new conceptions of personal freedoms, for example on a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage. The political reaction to terrorism has undermined the rule of law and the respect for minorities. And then there is environmentalism, the issues of climate change, sustainability and the limits to growth.

I certainly agree that these factors complicate the picture. And they have changed where you might place a party on particular issues on my graph. US Republicans, for example, are even further to the right on economic matters, and on individual rights, like a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, or respect for minorities, they moved well above the y axis. The Australian Liberals are not far behind. Both Liberal and Labor in Australia fall above the line on anti-terrorism provisions and the rights of asylum seekers.  The ALP is pursuing a market based response to climate change, while the Liberals (apparently) favour government intervention.

Does this make the model irrelevant? I don’t think so. Positions on the y axis are all over the place. But the x axis still has a left and a right. You could argue that the left has shifted more to the right, with privatisation of government assets. There are also arguments that governments have fewer means of effective intervention in the market than they did fifty years ago. But none of this alters the fact that there is a left right continuum, and individuals, policies and even parties by necessity take a stand along it on any given issue. I’m sure there are lots of inconsistencies – the other day we saw Clive Palmer supporting a public service union – but in general individual positions – and party policies – cluster round either a more regulated free market, or a less constrained one. This is as true for regulating carbon emissions as it is for deregulating the labour market.

The bottom line is that the market does not and cannot distribute wealth in a fair and equal way. An unregulated market is not in the best interests of all. A rising tide (even if there is one) doesn’t raise all boats and wealth does not trickle down. So an awful lot depends on the state’s readiness to limit the inherent inequities of the market, for example by ensuring decent education and health, proper welfare provision, and by minimising large disparities of wealth through taxation. This is the agenda of the left, not the right. Everyone who thinks of themselves as being on the left, and maybe some on the right on the x axis regret that freedoms on the y axis have been compromised by parties of both sides. But that doesn’t alter the fact that an understanding of what is at stake in the left right division over the economy is crucial to our future. Maybe even the word ‘class’ hasn’t lost its usefulness.

Every candidate for political office – Labor, Liberal, National, Green, Independent – has views on these issues – even if they are not well articulated or thought out. By all means vote for the candidate who supports your view on hunting in national parks, poker machines or gay marriage, but don’t kid yourself that they – or you – are free of being left or right wing.


Guest Blogger: Conspiracy – Crazy or Rational?

If you have read some of my earlier posts, you will already know that my wonderful mother is my writing/plotter/editing buddy. You might not also know that mum writes a book review blog – What Book to Read. She will be reviewing Conspire soon, so watch out for it! But in the meantime, she has written a guest post on the theme of Conspire – conspiracies. Enjoy!

Victoria is writing about conspiracy theories, and has an earlier post about them. So it was with interest that I noted that regular Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton is having a go this week at conspiracy theorists, specifically those who don’t believe that Osama bin Laden is dead.  He notes their poor spelling, and concludes that maybe they are just plain stupid. He’s probably right on this one.

But his column reveals some of the problems of writing off all conspiracy theories as rubbish. To start with, he quotes one conspiracy theorist who doesn’t believe bin Laden is dead because of ‘America’s past lies about Iraq’. Well yes. There was a conspiracy on the part of the American and other governments to invade Iraq on the grounds that it had weapons of mass destruction. Only it didn’t, and they knew it didn’t. So the new and stupid conspiracy grows from and older conspiracy, which may appear just as stupid in retrospect, but was believed by many people at the time. If you lie to people often enough, it’s not surprising they stop believing you – and make up their own theories.

Carlton also puts forward his own conspiracy theory – that a lot of highly placed people in Pakistan knew Bin Laden’s whereabouts, and chose not to tell the Americans. This is denied by the Pakistan Government – but then it would be, wouldn’t it? Carlton’s conspiracy theory seems perfectly reasonable, and not plain stupid at all.

Some theories look like crazy conspiracies at the beginning, but end up being perfectly rational assessments when more is known. Others are always crazy. The trick is to know the difference – which is sometimes harder than you’d think.

This problem of conspiracy theories that seem crazy and conspiracy theories that seem quite sane is one of the underlying issues in Victoria’s book Conspire. When the public has been lied to by governments so many times, is it any wonder that people don’t believe them? And that when they are telling the truth, there are always people ready to say they are lying? Alex North, the journalist heroine in the story, is as dismissive of the standard conspiracy theories – around the assassination of Kennedy, the moon landing, 9/11 etc – as anyone else. But what if what she is discovering is not a crazy conspiracy, but one that it is quite sane to believe in? Governments have fooled us before … Like Mike Carlton, she has a foot in both camps.

It’s true that it comes down to the evidence, but even then we need to be clear that what we are being shown or told has a reasonable basis in fact. And we’re not usually in possession of all the facts. This is where Wikileaks comes in; they are providing evidence about things governments or big business don’t usually reveal to the public. Critics of Julian Assange argue that there are some things that need to be kept secret – and this is an issue also raised in the book. What can justify secrecy on the part of an elected government?

I find it really interesting that since Victoria started writing Conspire, so many examples of both crazy and sane conspiracies have come to light. Fact may turn out to be stranger than fiction. Either way, I hope you’ll read Conspire – if only to see from her spelling whether she’s a crazy conspiracy theorist or not.