In reviewing “For the common good”, former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott described Bill Shorten as a “sentimental socialist”. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. The ideas outlined in this new book by the leader of the Labor opposition are pro-capitalist, albeit presented with a sympathetic tone.
Socialism is a system that seeks to do away with class divisions and use the wealth created for the betterment of all people. In contrast under capitalism a tiny minority of profiteers exploit the majority of working class people. A struggle takes place over how much of the wealth created goes to profits verses wages. The interests of the profiteers and the working class are opposed.
While Labor once claimed to represent the working class in this struggle, today the party is a very different beast. It now unashamedly represents the profit interests of big business and bases itself firmly on the capitalist system. As such it finds itself in a bind: how to represent big business while also winning the support of the people who are exploited by the system? In essence Shorten’s book is an attempt to try and reconcile this contradiction.
His theme, “For the common good” is an argument for the different classes to forgo the struggle over the wealth created and instead “work together”. While sounding conciliatory what this means in the context of capitalism is that the exploiting class continue to maintain the upper hand given their ownership of the means of production and control of the state.
Shorten openly says that he is influenced by Labor under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. In many ways his model of businesses, unions and governments coming together is similar to the Accord that was struck by Labor in the 1980s. While not proposing a formal compact, he does invoke the idea of calling a national summit in a similar way to Hawke did.
In many ways Hawke and Keating played a pioneering role in transforming the Labor Party into an openly capitalist party, and in turn reducing the effectiveness of the trade unions. In effect the Accord capped workers wages but put no such limits on bosses’ profits – as such wealth inequality increased dramatically in the years to follow.
Central to the Accord was convincing the trade union movement to give up on fighting over the wealth created and instead to just try and secure a “fair share” by collaborating with employers and the state. This approach has been disastrous. Not only have profits grown significantly at the expense of wages but the unions themselves have been greatly diminished.
In many parts of the world the employers had to fight tooth and nail to achieve these results, but in Australia it was sections of the union movement itself that proposed this course of action. It was a historic sell out.
Despite these ideas having a detrimental effect on the living standards of working people, Shorten proudly explains that it was Australian Labor that invented this so-called “third way” – neither pro-capitalist or pro-worker but a bringing together of the classes. He refers to this as the “Australian Way” throughout the book – as if working people sacrificing for the profit interests of a greedy few is somehow admirable and a part of our national make up.
The truth is the Australian working class has a long history of fighting for a bigger share of wealth. In many periods it has even gone further, with huge sections embracing the basic ideas of socialism and fighting for a different type of society.
The time since the Hawke/Keating Accord has been an aberration in many respects and when future historians look back on this period it will be described as a low point of capitalist infiltration of the labour movement and a blight on our proud fighting traditions.
While draped in Orwellian language, every single policy that Shorten outlines in the book is designed to further entrench the profit interests of the capitalists at the expense of working people.
He harps on continuously about education but what he means by this is support for the Gonski reforms. These reforms lock in public money for elite private schools and are designed to further entrench a user-pays education system. Under Shorten’s vision the public system would be diminished and debt and inequality would increase for working class students.
Shorten explains how proud he is to be one of the initiators of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) as a minister in the previous Labor government. Yet again the NDIS is a policy designed to further the interests of the private for-profit sector. It is a voucher system that will lay the basis for the further deregulation of disability care and a reduction in funding over the long term.
On the question of transitioning from the mining boom and stimulating growth in other sectors, Shorten suggests that Australia could instead become a leader in the fields of science and technology. At no stage doe he envisage a role for the state in these developments instead he confines himself to policy settings aimed at securing more private for-profit investment and allowing the anarchy of the market to rule in these crucial areas.
Even in regards to public infrastructure projects and the transition to renewable energy sources his approach is to continue down the road of Public Private Partnerships, whereby the public pay to subsidise the private profits of the major financiers, developers and construction firms.
In regards to world relations Shorten is light on details but he is an unequivocal supporter of US imperialism. Unlike Kevin Rudd, Shorten seems less inclined to try and straddle the competing interests of the US and China in the region. He dedicates an entire chapter to reassuring the ruling class that there are very few differences between Labor and the Liberals on the questions of defence and national security.
Shorten seems aware that many voters still view him as a “faceless man” because of his behind the scenes role in toppling both the former prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. In quite a shallow way he attempts to explain his changing allegiances but it is clear that his shifting support was far from principled and had more to do with positioning himself as a future leader of the party.
Changing sides has been a theme throughout Shorten’s life, whether it be switching football teams or shifting his allegiance from the Catholics to the Anglicans. In every case his manoeuvres have been about ensuring that he has positioned himself within reach of the trappings of power and wealth.
What lies between the lines of this book is that Shorten considers himself better placed to represent the interests of capitalism than the Liberals. His appeal to the capitalist class is that he understands that the economy is moving into more uncertain times. There is the potential for much more conflict between the classes as the fight over the wealth created intensifies.
In these circumstances the ruling class can sometimes prefer a pro-capitalist Labor government in power as they can often be better placed to manage the conflict. Shorten is putting himself forward as the leader of such a formation.
A Liberal government carrying out unpopular measures has the potential to provoke workers into struggle whereas a Labor government using pro-working class language, and with the support of the trade unions, can sometimes be better placed to keep the working class in check. This is essentially Bill Shorten’s pitch in “For the common good”. It’s a pledge to maintain class peace and to defend conditions for the profit makers.
The risk for the capitalists however is that working people see through this charade, break with the ideas of class collaboration and move to set up a party that genuinely represents their interests. That process has already begun to happen in many other parts of the world and at some stage it will also happen in Australia.
Once the working class begin to see through the lies of the Labor Party they will be much better placed to begin to reverse the trend towards wealth inequality and refocus on the task of building a society that uses the wealth created to lift the living standards of all rather than just a super- rich few.
Reviewed by Anthony Main
For the common good
Reflections on Australia’s future
By Bill Shorten, May 2016
Melbourne University Press, 184pp