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17 February 2014

The Public Good is good for everyone

While the Abbott government continues to swing their wrecking ball, it would appear many people are waking up to just how extreme-right this government is. Although I am usually keen to contribute to the growing chorus decrying the daily onslaught of right-wing ideological mayhem being imposed by this secretive, chaotic and incompetent government, I'm trying to look past this current disaster, by thinking about how this situation happened and how we can stop it ever happening again. #OneTermTony.

Abbott's electoral success was mounted on a foundation of invisible villains that triggered a selfish 'dog eat dog' reflex in sections of the Australian public. Abbott made up reasons why people should be scared of a Labor government and then promised to save them from these fictional threats. From government debt. Electricity bills. Asylum seekers arriving by boat. The instability of minority government. 'Wasteful' government spending. Unions. It takes a pretty incredible propaganda machine to convince workers that unions are bad and Gina Rinehart cares about them. But, with the help of the mainstream media, that is what Abbott managed to do.

The Liberal Coalition's negative message invited people to make a choice between two opposing camps, Abbott's promise to look after the individual or Labor's promise to look after the community. Abbott painted Labor's 'benefit to the community' message as being wasteful and bad for the economy, while promising that his new open-for-business-cutting-red/green-tape agenda would bring prosperity back to nervous post-GFC capitalism. I'm sure deep down most Australians would like to think they care about their community. But when push comes to shove and they're scared about their own futures, it's not surprising that many voters believed what Abbott wanted them to believe, that a Liberal government was a silver-bullet to solve all their individual problems. And importantly, that it was a smart idea to vote selfishly. Even when in fact cost-of-living pressures didn't exist, and even when the Australian economy was in fact Triple-A healthy, Abbott purposely attacked an already fragile consumer confidence, and then seized on the resulting insecurity of individuals and encouraged them to push their concern for the community down the ballot paper. Sadly the majority dutifully complied.

Knowing this is unhelpful if you don't learn something from it. But that's what the Labour Movement needs to do. Bill Shorten are you listening? I have a suggestion as to how Labor can use Abbott's strategy to Australia's advantage.

Not before time, wealth inequality is becoming a significant political battle for progressives worldwide. This is because thinking-people are starting to recognise the growing gap between the very rich and the rest of us is too big to just be called a gap. It's becoming a gulf. Ben Eltham suggests that Bill Shorten should make the fight against wealth inequality a key pillar of Labor's political narrative. Other commentators have suggested the public good should be the new umbrella message encompassing the left's political agenda.

I agree with these suggestions. Labor has always been for the community benefit. Think NBN, Gonski, PPL, NDIS, Mining Tax and Carbon Price. So the party's policy platform won't need to change much to accommodate a further emphasis on social mobility and a reduction in the gap between rich and poor. Unions are important in this message, with worker's wages and entitlements a key factor in defending against a greater gap between the share of profit between labour and capital. Quality education and healthcare are also strong Labor policies crucial to social mobility. On top of this, inequality of wealth is an easy platform from which to judge Abbott's government. No matter what Abbott promised to do for Australian people of all incomes, asset status and net-worth, it's very easy to draw a straight line from every single one of his government's policies, to an acceleration of the gap between the super-rich haves and the growing number of have nots. Abbott is not for workers at SPC, Holden or Toyota. He is for Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Rupert Murdoch. His treasurer just this week repeated the catch-cry of pro-income-inequality cheerleaders: a rising tide lifts all boats. Except no, it doesn't. So yes, highlighting wealth inequality is a good strategy for Labor. But I don't think it's enough. Why? Because those who understand and care about wealth inequality are already Labor voters. Labor needs to remember what they learnt from Abbott's success and appeal to people's individual anxieties. And this is where the two strategies combined could just be a political master stroke.

Put simply, Labor needs to communicate to voters that a strong community, with a wealthy and large middle-class is good for everyone. That is, an individual is better off in a situation where he or she belongs to a community of similarly better off people. So no longer do we have to either vote for the benefit of the community or the benefit of the individual. By voting Labor, you can have both. The public good is good for everyone.

We already know that America's shrinking middle class, growing population of working-poor and 1% of filthy rich individuals is not good for 99% of the country. As Nobel Prize winning US economist Joseph Stiglizt said:

Our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth.

Itís not hard to understand why a community is damaged when there is a small number of people taking the vast majority of growth for themselves without sharing it with everyone else. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is rampant and poverty is widespread. The uber-rich can afford affluent lifestyles, but how will they maintain this wealth if they don't have a consumer market rich enough to afford to buy their products and services? Yes, the super-rich are using money to make more money, but speculative markets are unproductive and don't benefit the wealth of everyone else. If someone who works at Woolworths can't afford to shop at Woolwoths, Woolworths' market disappears.

Labor needs to tell people this story. They need to explain it in a way that voters understand. They need to start by reinstating the lost value that it is wrong to be greedy. And that people who don't feel good about themselves unless they are richer than their neighbour are part of the problem, not the solution. They can then go on to show that wealth re-distribution and social mobility isn't just good for the country. It is good for the individual too. Labor needs to work out how to say this in a way that connects with individual anxieties, and then they need to say it again, and again, and again. Every time Abbott's policies contradict these principals, Labor has an opportunity to say it even louder.

If Labor can get this right, it might not just be a winning strategy for 2016. It might be a policy platform that the likes of Abbott will never find a way of destroying ever again. Surely that makes it worth a try? And who knows, we might just save the world.

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