22 Aug. Melbourne Town Hall: There were 250-300 ALP sorts doing some hard listening at The GFC 10 Years On event presented by the Australia Institute and Guardian Australia. It was a good talk, despite gravel flu voices from both the Lenore Taylor and Wayne Swan, who soldiered on regardless. The conversation (with questions from The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor) went something like this:
1. What’s gone wrong 10 years on? Has it been the end of trickle down economics? How do progressives rethink economics?
Balls: With Brexit, the people were offered laissez-faire business as usual or nationalism. Stagnation means decreased growth and an increased sense of unfairness. Linked with immigration-driven population growth it’s very dangerous indeed.
The incumbent government and the media said: ‘Stay with Europe’. The people said ‘Well I don’t like the post GFC austerity recession, the 15 years of wage stagnation, the increasing inequality, the immigrant population growth. I want change. You said it would get better, it didn’t. So why listen to you?’
Swan: Australia has done better than many others over the last 30 years, matching growth and equity. We haven’t had ten years of stagnation. We were ahead of the pack until the last 3-4 years. The USA, in contrast, has had a huge decrease in living standards over that time and increased polarisation.
Growth with equity. There is no policy more important than working people getting a fair share of material output. A strong labour market and real wage growth are needed for a strong economy. You can’t cut wages to achieve prosperity, like the current attack on penalty rates. We need to strengthen demand by:
• growing a stronger labour market with renovated IR laws for put a floor under our future labour market
• using current low interest rates to increase infrastructure and human resource development
• strengthen the voice of labour in the economy and on corporate boards.
2. What might a free trade economy look like?
Swan: Australia and the UK have long taken seriously their international responsibilities and we have free trade agreements with labour and climate regulations that are effective.
However, fairness is key to public support for open economies. Unless we do something about increasing wage inequality there will be a Trump style focus on nationalism, stopping global growth. So fairness in trade agreements is critical. Indeed the ILO looks to ensure labour is protected in all counties. Some right wing pollies say nothing can be done about wage stagnation unless workers are all level internationally. But we can. It’s our choice. There are some basic things each country can do, and America does very little in this space.
We all need to look the changing nature of employment. There is increasing poverty not just in unemployed but also for full-time employed and also for self-employed workers, who often have no holidays, sick pay or super.
The other key issue is tax evasion. Low taxing regimes like Singapore have a beggar-your-neighbour approach that is fundamentally no different from raising tariffs. At a national level people are now realising that tackling tax evasion, far from increasing trade barriers, is something we have to tackle to retain public support for a market economy.
3. What is the role of media and identity politics? Is former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon right when he told American Prospect journalist Robert Kuttner on August 15: “The Democrats – the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Balls: We were surprised Bannon was so open about that. Trump has an underlying program for income concentration, disguised by race issues. It’s important to win support from ALL working people, but the left must not let these economic debates get drowned out. We must promote our economic agenda and expose theirs.
People clearly trust the traditional media less and less. Even with Murdoch demonising the left and promoting May, the public did not give May the majority. The best way to do get our messages out is to get out there, talk with people, face to face. We also have to promote the role of the public broadcasters, the ABC and the BBC, and recognise the role of the Guardian in offering free online content, funded from their supported revenue.
Then there were questions from the audience, including:
How can we support continued growth on a finite planet?
Balls: I don’t apologise for the fact that millions and millions people in the developing world, especially China, have lifted themselves out of poverty, thanks to economic growth. The issue for us is, what kind of growth, and what is its impact? We should be seeing the transformation of economies over the next decades, with a movement to create sustainable energy to truly tackle climate change.
Should we pay everyone a universal basic income?
Swan: I’m not a supporter. Australia has a fantastic income support system – why throw it out? If we want to grow more jobs, we should increase the public sector workforce.
What should happen with education funding?
Balls: Employers want young people who can analyse a problem, work in teams, communicate verbally. We undervalue vocational education.
Statement from audience member that British Labour moved fundamentally to the right under Tony Blair.
Ed Balls: I challenge that. In those years Labor introduced a minimum wage, significantly decreased child poverty, stopped the destruction of the national health system and had the best distributional outcomes in the Western world. But over this period we had a parliamentary majority. Without that majority, you can’t make big changes.
Do we need more workers participation and how should it happen?
Swan: company board membership is a closed shop. We have a corporate culture that says the companies’ sole responsibility is the budget bottom line. This is short-termism. We need worker representation. I would love to sit down with business to work out how to do this. Both sides of politics have been refusing to talk about big business, but big business is bad news in terms of job creation. Big business hides its head in the sand. It needs to reform and to open a dialogue with other groups.