Beyond Left and Right

Vital Signs, Vibrant Society: Securing Australia's Economic and Social Wellbeing, Craig Emerson
UNSW Press, 2006, ISBN 0868408832, RRP $29.95

Vital Signs Vibrant SocietySocial democratic politics is light on content these days. Traditionally the voices of ‘the left’ have called for a better distribution of economic benefits. To ensure equity, they rely on government rather than private provision, and on heavy regulation. But as western societies age, income tax bases decline and universal public entitlements escalate in cost, the approach to pressing issues of public policy by many social democratic political parties have become limp, even outmoded.

They have been slow to embrace the benefits of market solutions in human services. They even demonise markets, if only to gain ‘product differentiation’ in the political debate. Yet public policy solutions require more than ‘spin’ and posturing. Well-reasoned analysis and rational robust frameworks susceptible to close scrutiny and assessment ultimately prevail. Only then will alternative policies receive support and will their architects gain credibility.

In the Federal Labor Party, many policy architects present their brand of ‘plans’ for Australia.  Recently the most famous was former leader Mark Latham. Current shadow ministers Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner have also made valuable contributions across the economic and social challenges facing Australia.  Now Dr. Craig Emerson, chair of Labor’s economics committee, has weighed into the debate with an intelligent and provocative book. It clearly approaches social and economic issues from the right of the party.  His starting point alone will win him friends and foes. But it will also put some energy into a staid policy making process that is more influenced by timidity than nerve.

Emerson’s challenge was to outline a series of policy positions that could withstand intellectual scrutiny and at the same time could reverberate with the instincts of an old social democratic party.  He has embarked on a project which can help shape a ‘New Labor’ on the political scene.
 
Craig EmersonIn Vital Signs, Vibrant Society, Emerson has demonstrated not only the breadth of his insights but also the landscape a modern political party must traverse if it is to gain popular appeal. He does not limit his discussion to macro economics. He also moves, somewhat less confidently, through specific segments of the economy, including the unfamiliar areas of health and aged care.  Here his critics may find fertile ground.  Emerson’s propensity to accept the private provision of services and to encourage personal savings and insurance schemes will unsettle his party colleagues.  Although he does not abandon Labor’s most prized policies, namely Medicare and free public hospitals, Emerson encourages a different future. Labor will provide incentives for private enterprise in health care, expect more individual responsibility in aged care, and allow two-tiered structures where better-off people will have the liberty to purchase more.

Some will say that Emerson’s perspective is more realistic than that of many to the left of his party. Others will say he risks moving too far to the right in the political spectrum. Most will recognise that he grapples with the real stuff of public policy making – how to provide essential services in a way that preserves social equity and economic efficiency. For that reason his contributions deserve serious attention. 

Emerson’s book comes as the political landscape is developing new contours.  The political spectrum has divided those pursuing public entitlements for all from those restricting public subsidies to some. Now a new politics has emerged.  It is more pragmatically based and seeks the middle ground in preference to the ideological high ground.

Other critics have claimed that the politics of ‘left’ and ‘right’ has passed.  Some even describe a ‘third way’ of negotiating public discourse and policy making.  But social democratic parties are slowly accepting the realities of market driven economies and the task of pursuing a just distribution of benefits.  This demands that they acknowledge that markets can work and that governments have a role in eradicating social disadvantage and lack of opportunity. Individual responsibility and community obligations must find a balance.  It acknowledges that government support is limited, but community initiative is often untapped.

This is the foundation stone of Emerson’s contribution. It is refreshing, and undoubtedly will help shape a future Labor administration’s approach when it is given the opportunity.

 

 

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