There Has Never Been A More Exciting Time To Be An Australian. (As Long As You're Well-Off)

01/02/2016 5:09 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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In the recent French elections, a predicted victory by Marie Le Pen's xenophobic National Front was only avoided by the Socialist Party working together with the right wing Republicans in agreeing to support each other's candidates in a tactical play.

This has spurred some commentators to argue that the traditional left-right divide of Western politics is being replaced by a new paradigm: that the biggest difference now is not between conservative and progressive parties, but between those that believe in openness and globalisation on the one hand, and protectionist, xenophobic and inward looking parties on the other.

This argument fundamentally misunderstands the importance of the progressive mission and the fact that modern, progressive parties of the centre-left are arguably more important now than they have been for some time.

Don't get me wrong: progressive parties always need to embrace openness and multiculturalism. But to suggest that this alone is a substitute for a driving passion for fairness and equity is just plain wrong.

In the context of modern Australian history, the Hawke-Keating Government had a vital task to open up the Australian economy and engender us with a sophisticated, outward looking world-view. This was crucial to the quarter of a century's economic growth Australia has since experienced. But nobody should kid themselves that this was all there was to the Hawke-Keating agenda. Improving equity, via Medicare, boosting Year 12 retention rates, superannuation and an activist urban policy (to name a few policy initiatives) were all just as important.

If anything, the need for strong progressive parties is greater than ever. Inequality is the topic of such global attention because its rise is seemingly relentless. When industrialisation began, it was a weapon for ruthless exploitation of low-skilled labour. The rise of labour parties and the growing strength of unions around the world meant that, over the course of the twentieth century, income equality actually increased when it might have gone the opposite way.

Now, those gains are under threat. The combination of unions in decline in the Western world and the effects of technology in bifurcating the labour market into well-paid professionals and poorly-treated, unskilled workers means that the need for political movements which care about tackling inequality is greater than ever.

Income inequality matters for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is lethal for equality of opportunity. Income disparities are inter-generationally reinforcing. Kids from wealthy families get better educational opportunities and better-off families have better health outcomes.

Malcolm Turnbull may say there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian, but the fact of the matter is there has never been a time when not having the skills to compete in a rapidly changing technological world can mean being subject to being frozen out of well-paying jobs, with implications not only for you but for your family.

And in Australia, the task for Labor as the progressive party is far from done. Not when, contrary to how we like to see ourselves, our level of income inequality is above the OECD average. Not when an Australian woman has to work 66 days longer than an Australian man in the same job just to earn the same amount. Not when indigenous infant mortality rates are double that of non-indigenous infants and the juvenile incarceration rate for the indigenous community is 24 times that of the non-indigenous community. Not when up to a quarter of the population of Western Sydney suffers from diabetes when the rates for other metropolitan areas are much lower.

Joe Hockey once boasted that it is not the role of government to reduce inequality. I ask this simple question: if it is not the role of government, whose role is it?

Promoting multiculturalism, immigration, an open economy and an outward looking world view is an important part of the modern Labor Party we have become. But it is not enough.

Those who argue that the main cleavage point in partisan politics is no longer between conservatives on the right and progressives on the left are wrong. There is too much in the Labor project left to do for that to be the case.

Gough Whitlam described our mission as being to promote equality and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people, aims which are even more important today than when he uttered those words.

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