Two very different visions for Australia’s future are going to be tested at the next election – Labor’s new push to portray itself as the cure for ‘inequality’ and the Coalition’s ongoing campaign to rid Australia of ‘big government’.
The problem the Turnbull government faces is that the neoliberal dream of small government is more than ever at odds with the nature of the Australian jobs market.
For instance, its scheme to get unemployed youngsters into retail jobs, via $4 per hour ‘internships’, copped an absolute pasting from Maurice Blackburn lawyer Giri Sivaraman on Wednesday.
Mr Sivaraman, who has been involved in representing exploited employees of 7-Eleven stores, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “…the Turnbull government has made its intentions clear – it has no problem with the legal creation of a low paid underclass of young Australians, much like what has been seen in the US.”
The new reality
Heading into the next election, Australia will be struggling with chronic youth unemployment, widespread underemployment, the loss of jobs to automation, more insecure or gig economy jobs, and our trading partners growing more competitive by the day.
In that environment ‘big government’ spending, especially in education and training, becomes more, not less, important.
Labor Senator Doug Cameron, who holds the shadow portfolio for skills and training, put that view forcefully on Wednesday, in a speech to the Community Colleges Australia conference in Melbourne.
He told the audience Labor wants a “resurgence in government support for education across the life course” and that poor provision of vocational education and training (VET) in the private sector should shift back into the public system.
“We will secure funding for VET in the budget and ensure that two thirds of it will go to TAFE,” he said. “The days of the skills and VET gravy train [in the private sector] are coming to an end. Vocational, second chance and foundation education cannot be simplified to the status of ‘a business’.”
These are big rhetorical shifts for Labor – a party that from the 1983 election onwards adopted many of the tenets of neoliberal economics: privatisation, deregulation, trade liberalisation, and a tendency to see people as servants of the market, rather than the other way around.
Mr Cameron drove the point home in his Melbourne speech: “After decades of so called ‘reform’ that makes housing less of a home and more of an investment; that makes our workplaces more ‘flexible’ for the growing army of casuals, contractors and ‘gig-economy’ workers; that imposes punitive conditions on the provision of government support; that promotes the idea that public spending on education and health are ‘unsustainable costs’ or a ‘burden’ – is it any wonder [young Australians] consider the dreams [older Australians] made a reality, an unattainable utopian ideal of the past?
Just a few years ago, Mr Cameron would have been disciplined by his own party for such a ‘lefty’ rant. Now, the economic ground is shifting beneath everyone’s feet.
All developed economies are grappling with a future in which an ‘underclass’ – whether by design or accident – will arise without a rethink of the role of ‘big government’.
Australian politics, for decades, has focused on making ‘Team Australia’ competitive, based on the deeply held article of faith that the wealth created would ‘trickle down’ to all levels of society.
But that “obsession”, as Mr Cameron put it, “has finally run its course”.
What we are seeing in this major repositioning of the Labor Party is part of a global trend exemplified by the likes of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
Whatever their merits as policy makers or politicians, those leaders – and even the bizarre President Trump to an extent – are giving a voice to people to whom nothing much ever trickled down.
In Australia, the recurrent spending in the budget that the Coalition calls ‘wasteful spending’ funded by ‘debt and deficit’, may finally be called for what it is: an investment that produces healthy, educated citizens, without whom business itself would grind to a halt.
If that investment is not made, Team Australia will be dragging around its own underclass as it tries to compete on the world stage.