I spoke yesterday at a Search Foundation Forum, Breaking the Addiction: challenging Bligh’s privatisation push, in Brisbane at the Workers’ Community Centre at Paddington. This is the text of my talk, written up from my notes:
The Bligh government’s decision to privatise a range of public assets, most significantly Queensland Rail, certainly requires explanation. It’s politically irrational, and as John Quiggin argues, the economic case for privatisation has no merit. Most observers of the 2009 Queensland election campaign concur that Labor’s victory was secured only in a few short days before polling day itself; in part because electors started to focus on the real prospect of a Lawrence Springborg led LNP government, but importantly also because Labor ran a more activist campaign than could have been anticipated – highlighting the need to preserve public sector jobs, and standing up to credit ratings agency in favour of an economic growth agenda to protect Queensland jobs and workers’ standards of living. Debt and deficit scares were pushed aside in the midst of the GFC.
Yet, a few short months later, with no advance warning or consultation, Anna Bligh and Treasurer Andrew Fraser dropped the privatisation bombshell. The polls essentially haven’t moved since, and the public trust that Anna Bligh herself had created collapsed almost instantaneously. Though the LNP opposition led by John-Paul Langbroek is hardly a convincing alternative government, they’ve looked ever since like they have a very smooth path to victory at the next election.
So, the political rationality of this push stands in question, and particularly so given that obvious compromises to reverse part of the privatisation have not been made. Though you can hardly walk up George Street without hearing rumours of coups against Bligh, it appears clear that it is now very unlikely that there will be any backdown, despite a very prominent and active community and union campaign (led by the ETU, in particular).
Labor faces a large defection of support – notably in the suburbs and regions – to the LNP, and a probably slightly smaller swing in inner city seats direct to The Greens. The optional preferential voting system, and the habit inculcated by years of ‘Just Vote One’ campaigning by Peter Beattie in the face of conservative disunity, make it likely that many electors will vote for The Greens, then walk out of the polling booth in disgust, without giving Labor a preference. The ALP’s rational political strategy would be to reverse at least the privatisation of QR, and make a turn to the left, but this almost certainly won’t happen. Rather all the government can offer – including to its own backbenchers – is a strategy of toughing out public criticism and hoping it will all be forgotten before we next go to the polls.
A number of possible explanations can be advanced for the privatisation craze. One would be in terms of the factional and political dynamics within the Labor party and caucus, the elimination of any real independent powerbases in Cabinet, the group around Bligh, and the relations between the ALP, the Labour Movement, and the community. Another would be the influence of local business, economists, bureaucrats in Treasury and the Premier’s Department, and the inter-relationship of a resources economy and global flows of investment, exports and capital.
As others will be focusing on these aspects of the privatisation push, I’ve chosen to look at the decision more in the light of longer term structural factors – particularly the influence of the twin forces of globalisation and the centralisation of state power in Australia, and the exhaustion of both Queensland Labor political culture and the New Labor style of state governance and politics. For me, the most important question, which I think could only be answered by Bligh and her crew in sound bite speak, would be what exactly the purpose of the Queensland Labor party is.
It’s not as widely known as it should be that, far from being the red neck state of Joh era mythos, Queensland has a very radical past. The work of writers such as Carole Ferrier and historians such as Ray Evans, and in particular their co-edited book Radical Brisbane and Evans’ History of Queensland, documents a continuing tradition of radicalism. Queensland saw the first Labor government in the world, Brisbane experienced a General Strike in 1912, T. J. Ryan was the only leader in the British Empire to oppose Conscription in 1916 and 1917. This state was the first in Australia to have free public hospitals, women’s activism dates back to the 1870s, and even the dispute which brought down the Gair government in the Split of 1957 was over a substantive issue of the extension of workers’ rights.
Space prevents me from developing this argument in full, but my contention would be that the Queensland Labor tradition was a far more properly democratic socialist one than the experience of NSW Labor, for instance, an obvious comparator.
So, where does the State Labor government stand today?
It’s simplifying things a bit, of course, but it seems to me that Labor does three things in government:
(a) Acts as cheerleader for and enabler of fractions of local and global capital; from the ever present developers to international coal. Little attempt is made to question the virtue of development in general, or specific developments in particular – including those which will do much harm to the government’s purported climate change abatement strategy. Anna Bligh appears captive and supine in the face of business interests, caught up in a spiral of zero sum competition with other Premiers, reliant on a drip feed of donations and jobs from resources industries and others to implement her ostensible economic aims;
(b) Plays to the worst in the communitarian New Labor text book; using “nudge” ideas to govern the soul, to shape our behaviour in the face of risks perceived or beaten up by the Sunday Mail or talkback radio. There’s a puritan element to Labor administration, which runs directly counter to a Left tradition I’d like to see revived; that of enhancing and facilitating the ability of citizens to develop autonomous capacities for self government and for using leisure time for self development and other directed activity in the family, friendship networks and local and wider communities.
Struggles over working time – to free the capacities of citizens through both greater leisure and a high standard of employment rights – have been displaced by a narrow economism which celebrates jobs and growth for their own sake.
(c) Ducks for cover when anything goes wrong in the services the state still has responsibility for delivering to its citizens. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Ministers on the ABC tv news throw up their hands and say “but the Department didn’t tell me!”.
Much of this futile activity, shaped by a now well established set of political tactics (“Labor has a plan!”, “Jobs, jobs, jobs!”, etc), takes place in a context where state governments have little power to stucture really distinctive outcomes outside service delivery. Even ten years ago, let alone fifty or a hundred, their influence was much greater. For example, the pay equity reforms, on which I worked as a consultant in 2000, held out the possibility of a real reconfiguration not just of conditions but also of social relations in a gendered workforce. And the Beattie government, perhaps suffused in something of a nostalgic glow now that we know what came next, pioneered an industry policy agenda based around human capital and endogenous growth theory, emblazoned as ‘The Smart State’. Much of this strategy, though continuing to influence the thinking of Rudd Labor, and Wayne Swan in particular, was dismantled by the Bligh regime.
Peter Beattie also understood, in resisting the push from powerful quarters for the privatisation of QR, that jobs were worth more to individuals, families and communities than a matter of mere calculation. There’s no question that he was right to be sceptical of PPPs, and to reject privatisation and the attack on working conditions and jobs which will follow in its wake. He had some awareness of both the dignity of labour, and the way in which public economic power could be leveraged for social purposes.
The Queensland government now stands empty of promise, displaying an inability to unify its areas of residual responsibility with any theme other than anodyne slogans, often ones imported – via the temporary return of Mike Kaiser – from a strategy which supposedly reinvigorated NSW Labor. We all know how that turned out.
And in its own domain, decades of managerialism have ensconced a drive for constant re-organisation in the public sector, a make work culture of reports on reports and the cult of the Excel spreadsheet, where productive activity is secondary to the reduction of all of us to worker bees in the public part of the capitalist hive, dreaming only of a credit card driven escape. Corporatisation and managerialism pave the road to privatisation, and the attendant adoption of a narrow balance sheet mentality (seen also by the fixation on numbers – numbers of jobs, billions of export dollars) which is what passes for thinking among some Ministers.
Purpose is lost.
Much could also be said, and will be said by others today, of the significance of global flows of investment, capital and exports. I’d prefer to emphasise, though, the sociological force of homogenisation as a globalising factor. Queensland becomes more like everywhere else, content, or apparently content to feed on the scraps of the resources buck; an increasingly deracinated and featureless landscape.
This homogenisation, which is also a social force, has huge implications for the evisceration of tradition and any vision of an alternative future; any ability to conceive of something different which blends the best of the old and the new. Another world is possible, but not here.
So, too, we see homogenisation in politics. One State Labor government is much like another. Queensland’s distinctive culture is lost, and no real vision advanced of a future for its citizens which would be both transformational and liberatory. The irony of the late arrival of the privatisation push in the Sunshine State is that it’s a reflex of the dying New Labor beast – as if the government were saying, we’ve done everything else except privatise. Decades on from Thatcher and the first throes of neo-liberalism, it’s a perverse form of modernisation, in a register heavily ironic. To privatise is what New Labor governments do, so let’s do it!
Here, if we had more time, we could focus more on the precise trajectory by which the links with past left tradition, with the labour movement and with public culture have become attenuated; the particular pattern where a governing impetus becomes deformed into the routine action of a political class, with all its connections into finance capital, and resources capital.
But, the central contention for me is that Queensland Labor has forgotten what it’s for. I doubt, I’d reiterate, that anyone in Cabinet really knows, beyond their own dreams of endless power. It’s this evisceration of purpose, driven by the diminution of responsibility and the globalisation of the same, which really explains the privatisation push. Ideology, stripped of ideas and a social purpose, reveals itself as irrationality, venality and stupidity.
So, what is to be done?
For me, one of the greatest irony in a litany thereof, was Anna Bligh’s supposedly knock down argument, delivered as part of her half-hearted defence of the privatisations, that it may have been appropriate for Labor to run State Hotels and Butcher’s Shops in the 1920s, but not in 2010. I’m not defending State Hotels per se, though perhaps they might stay open longer than Bligh’s wowserish desire to ensure that we can’t enjoy a drink because we can’t be trusted to do so implies. But there’s a significance in the trashing of the Queensland Labor tradition by its current leader which goes to a total failure of purpose and imagination, and a failure to see that public purposes have a role to play in socialising the benefits of economic life.
What we need now, I’d contend, is to start to reimagine what our forebears saw as the purpose of state government; to extend to the citizens the fruits of their labours, and to develop capacities for personal, civic and communal action beyond the narrow repetition of the same which is work in late capitalism. We need to start thinking of what public services are for, what democratic management of enterprise means, and what we can do, collectively, to both articulate and realise a dream of a more socially just and sustainable State.
In the wake of the GFC, and the exhaustion of neo-liberalism whose parallel is to be seen in the exhaustion of Labor’s purpose, I feel hopeful that we can actually begin to articulate such an agenda, and begin to dream big dreams again.
Elsewhere: John Quiggin’s talk at the same event.
Previous discussion on LP here.