Former Bracks- Brumby speechwriter, Joel Deane has written a very lively, entertaining and insightful book on the history of the Bracks-Brumby Governments.
Joel’s book sets out the story of how Victorian Labor was able to come back from the crushing defeat by Jeff Kennett in 1992 to be returned to government in just seven years. It focuses closely on four people who were pivotal to that success- Steve Bracks, John Brumby, Jon Thwaites and Rob Hulls.
Joel Deane was never a factional person. But interestingly this has not prevented him from setting out in his book, a fascinating account of the factional shenanigans within the Victorian ALP and how these impacted on events and the careers of his four central characters.
Joel quotes Steve Bracks on his approach to winning back government in 1999:
“I had a strong view of the sort of leadership that we needed in the Labor Party in Victoria…That meant bringing people with you. That is your shadow cabinet, your own party more broadly. Not just the caucus, but the whole party and the trade union movement. But it also meant, ultimately bringing the people- the public- with you when you were reforming and changing and pursuing some of those policies”.
In this article, I want to focus on one story that Joel recounts in his book in which I had some personal involvement.
In August 2005 Steve Bracks released his national reform agenda entitled ‘A Third Wave of National Reform’ (‘Third Wave’).
This 52 page policy document had been developed from within the Victorian bureaucracy, the Department of Treasury and Finance and the Department of Premier and Cabinet, then led by Terry Moran.
Joel states that “Moran’s bureaucrats met with the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group, briefing both on the need to invest in human capital and offering regulatory reform as a carrot. Their message was if you want to red tape cut, back healthcare and education reform. The ACTU and Brotherhood of St Laurence were also briefed… The Victorians also prepared the ground by sending Moran and other senior bureaucrats to brief the editors and commentators at ‘The Australian’ and the ‘Australian Financial Review’.”
You might notice that this description of the consultation process around the ‘Third Wave’ document does not mention any consultation with the Labor Party or ALP policy committees. There is a good reason for this. There was none.
Joel goes on to describe criticism of the ‘Third Wave’ policy from the Socialist Left Policy Development Group. This group was a small group of rank and file members of the Socialist Left(SL) who were mostly members of ALP policy committees or SL aligned unions. The group’s criticism of the Third Wave document received some press coverage.
Joel mentions that I was the primary author of the SL Policy Group document, which is true. He summarises some of the criticisms we made of the ‘Third Wave’ document.
He then mentions that I was subsequently invited to a meeting in the Premiers Private Office (PPO) with the then chief of staff, Tim Pallas, PPO policy advisor Nick Reece and DPC’s Rod Glover. He describes our meeting by stating “the four men debated the Bracks reform agenda without giving ground”. This correctly describes the discussion on the actual contents of the ‘Third Wave’ document. But there was no argument against my assertion that there had been no consultation whatsoever with the party, or ALP policy committees, in developing the document.
This lack of consultation with the party is interesting. What can we learn from it? How do we square it with Steve’s comments, as set out above, on the need to take the Party with you on the process of reform? Was the lack of consultation on the ‘Third Wave’ merely an oversight? That seems unlikely. How do we square it with the fact that Nick Reece, Rod Glover and Steve himself have subsequently all been strong supporters of the ‘Open Labor’ reform group, a group which says that the ALP must “become more democratic – in how it organises itself, how it develops policies, and how it connects with its members, supporters and the public.”
What do we make of the fact that a small group of SL activists were able to attract press coverage for their criticisms and alternative policies? What do we make of the fact that (predictably) not a single SL member of Parliament came out in support of the ideas in the SL policy development group document? Would such press coverage have been afforded if the criticisms and alternatives just emanated from a local branch of the ALP? What does this say about the relationship between factions and the hearing of voices within the ALP outside of the Parliamentary leadership? If the position of unions and factions within the ALP is diminished, will this actually strengthen the voice of rank and file members of the party as many critics of the union role and faction’s believe?
Others may wish to offer their own perspectives on these issues. I believe a major explanation for lack of consultation with the Party often lies with the manner in which modern government is now so media driven. This means that Labor in Opposition will usually tend to consult with the Party more than Labor in Government will do. Once in Government, just as Joel describes, media “bounce” is maximised by privileging access to information and through the careful priming of selected journalists and powerful interest groups. The reality of modern politics seems to be that the need for favourable media coverage, and keeping well organised vested interests on side, will usually trump internal party democracy. We do the cause of ALP democratisation no favours by failing to recognise these realities.
But we should also recognise that at least two other things are potentially lost where consultation does not occur. The first is greater party unity, transparency and sense of ownership. The second is the potential to actually improve upon policy. Neither the bureaucracy, nor the Parliamentary leadership, is the repository of all wisdom. Indeed I would argue that many of the criticisms of the ‘Third Wave’ policy, as well as the alternative approaches contained in the document produced by the SL Policy Development Group, have stood the test of time very well. I have no doubt that if greater consultation had occurred, some policy approaches supported by the SL group still would not have been reflected in the Third Wave document. But in other areas I think that the ‘Third Wave’ document might well have been substantially improved upon. But would the confidentiality required for the desired media bounce have been maintained? And how far down into the Party can confidentiality realistically be expected to extend? How far down does consultation have to go before confidentiality, the need for media bounce and internal party democracy are appropriately balanced? Politics is an inherently messy business. There are no straightforward answers to these questions.
You can read the entire Socialist Left Policy Development Group critique of the Third Wave document here. Unfortunately I can no longer find a link to the ‘Third Wave’ document itself.
For those who want less reading, a high level summary of the areas in which I believe the SL Policy Development Group document still stands up is set out below. Some of the policy approaches are still relevant today, some have subsequently been adopted by Labor, and others appear to be in the process of being seriously considered for adoption.
Finally I should mention that Joel describes in his book how, within a few months of the meeting I had with Tim, Nick and Rod, I was employed in PPO as a policy advisor, first to Steve Bracks and then later to John Brumby. This is correct, and as Joel hints, was somewhat ironic. For the record however, my employment in PPO was unrelated to the ‘Third Wave’ document or subsequent criticisms of it. It was much more related to yet another emanation of factional arrangements within Victorian Labor.
Nevertheless I enjoyed my time in PPO. I believe my advice proved to be of worth. And I remain grateful for the opportunity.
Summary of Socialist Left Policy Development Group Document
- There is support for removing redundant or unnecessary regulation. But the aim of 25% reduction in regulation without regard to consequences other than cost cutting for business, reflects a narrow and ideological approach; How can one know that there is 25% too much regulation?
- To some extent, greater regulation is a necessary by-product of privatisation and the need to maintain community service standards.
- Efficient provision and use of infrastructure is critical to international competitiveness; In general, government is able to raise capital for infrastructure expenditure less expensively than the private sector; The ALP nationally had set up a committee to evaluate how public infrastructure can best be provided (which the ‘Third Wave’ document pre-empted).
- The call for an emphasis on combating chronic disease through increased emphasis on prevention is welcome as is the identification of obesity as a major health issue. But having identified obesity as a major priority requiring a preventative approach the paper offers little by way of direct measures to attack the problem and the Government refuses to regulate for healthier food in schools;
- Other areas where increased emphasis on prevention is critical include mental health and preventative dental care;
- There is a need evaluate the effectiveness of private as opposed to public or community based approaches towards preventative medicine. We wish to see serious evaluation given to the effectiveness of preventative approaches by community health centres.
- The Third Wave paper emphasises the need to spark the interest of every child in lifelong learning and to target early learning programs to disadvantaged children. But overemphasis on vocational goals is unlikely to lead every child to develop an interest in lifelong learning;
- In relation to vocational education and training (VET), the only point raised about is one about the need to lift private contribution (Note: This warning in the SL paper was very prescient. In 2008 Labor introduced a system whereby TAFE’s had to compete with private training organisations for training subsidies. This led to a transfer of public funds from TAFE to private providers and to the expansion of dodgy private providers and courses);
- The performance measures proposed for education are quite narrow and in the VET sector do not include the vital question of increasing the numbers who hold portable national qualifications, particularly at higher levels.
Work incentives and taxation
- The Third Wave paper correctly identifies that more reform is possible to increase the financial incentives for people to move from welfare to work. But there are significant obstacles to workforce participation other than the interaction between the welfare and taxation systems. These include absence of suitable jobs and disability;
- The Third Wave paper hints at support for reducing the top marginal rates of taxation; we oppose reducing the top marginal tax rate from 47% and we regard Bill Shorten’s call to cut the top marginal rate to 30% as extraordinary and as potentially prejudicial to the ALP’s electoral prospects (Note: Bill is no longer calling for a cut in top marginal rate to 30%);
- Reform negative gearing which currently operates to produce large tax expenditures, house price increases, reduced housing affordability and little increase in supply for low and middle income earners;
- Increased economic inequality increases crime, poverty, drug abuse and social dislocation. Nordic nations of comparable size to Victoria are combining high levels of economic equality with world-class entrepreneurship and prosperity (Note: Andrew Scott has recently written more on this in his book ‘Northern Lights’);
- One of the reasons most commonly offered for cutting taxes is that this allegedly creates incentives for people to “work harder”. But generally Australians already work the longest hours in the developed world. Longer working hours can diminish quality of life and or contribute to breakdown in family relationships with severe impact on human capital. Longer working hours are associated with lifestyle illnesses such as obesity, alcoholism and vascular disease.
- Housing unaffordability, imports exceeding exports, reduced growth in export of Elaborately Transformed Manufactures, Australia’s high current account deficit relative to GDP, are all economic problems that will not be overcome by another round of deregulatory reform or privatization. We agree with the Premier that enhancing educational and health outcomes and increasing provision of infrastructure are an important part of the solution .
- There are at least four other areas where efforts at national reform should be focused. These are the inter-related areas of regional development, the environment (including climate change and the need to solve water shortage issues in the regions) and the need for community building. All of these factors directly affect the development of human capital.
- In the context of global warming it would be highly irresponsible for Labor to commit to a model designed to foster ongoing economic growth without identifying the need to protect the environment as an area in which fundamental reform is required.
- Carbon sequestration technology is new and unproven and requires 20 per cent of the energy generated from burning the coal in the first place. The national reform effort should focus on more renewable energy and less carbon-intense fuel.