Social Democracy in Focus, Issue 1

December 5, 2014


A New Government: A New Opportunity for Social Democracy

Per Capita is dedicated to developing a credible and practical agenda for social democracy in Australia today, whether it is at the local, state or national level of government. Keeping in touch with what is actually happening on the ground is crucial to this endeavour.

Indeed we often miss important innovation because our eyes are too focused on the day-to-day drama that is national politics in the national capital. And too much think tank work is focused on the abstract and conceptual, not the here and now.

Victorians have just elected Australia’s first new social democratic government in a long time. This provides a new opportunity for social democracy.

With this in mind Per Capita has convened a working group of staff and fellows to monitor and evaluate the performance of the Andrews Labor Government, firstly as it makes the transition from opposition to government and secondly, as it settles in and develops its distinctive style and approach to policy making and delivery.

We intend to be “the place to go” for knowledge of what is happening in Victoria- and what it means for the national debate about the future of the nation.

Each fortnight, we’ll provide our audience with an analysis of new developments from the Andrews government. We’ll provide constructive critique and real-world interpretation of the new government’s policies as they are rolled out. We’ll explain in layman’s language what they mean for Victorians and how they rate on measures of quality of life, prosperity and fairness.


Women among equals

It has been observed of IMF Chief Christine Lagarde that she has been a lifelong outsider. She was a teenager from France in the US, a lawyer among economists at the IMF and, throughout her life in the upper echelons of global policy, a woman among men.

But then, that’s the predicament of women in the upper echelons of anything.

In Australia, we have one female cabinet member. So it is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of Andrews Government appointing nine women to its Cabinet this week. That’s 47% of the total Victorian cabinet. It almost feels like equality.

Women will now lead the portfolios of Health; Industry, Energy and Resources; and Public Transport, among others.

For the first time, we have a Minister for Family Violence Protection, charged with a Royal Commission into family violence and with an increased budget for women’s refuges, health and support in the workplace. Family violence and equality have also been elevated to the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

It is often said that when women support women, women win. The appointments of this new government, ultimately made by a man, show that gender equality is only a prospect if both genders support each other.

Campaigning versus governing

From the moment the result of last weekend’s election was known, party officials couldn’t wait to tell everyone what the decisive factor was: the innovative campaigning techniques they imported at great cost from America. But are they right? And is it necessarily a good thing?

It may well be that the Obama techniques – sending flying squads of young campaigners to in-play seats, endless sifting of voting intentions by means of phone polls, followed up by recorded third-party messages on the policy issues thus identified – actually worked. They may even have been decisive in some seats, but there are two reasons for doubt.

First, the scale of the win suggests it was more likely to have been icing on the cake. And second, the actual quality of the local campaigning is unlikely to have matched the near-perfect picture that has been painted of it. (Anyway, boiled down to its essence – relentless marginal seat campaigning and third-party endorsements – it doesn’t actually sound that ground-breaking, does it? And the fact that these grass roots have to be manufactured and targeted with bought-in overseas help doesn’t make it sound all that authentic either.)

While the campaign leaders undoubtedly ran a good campaign and deserve congratulations, the danger in over-claiming like this is that it creates the myth that good campaigning is all Labor needs (and, as part of this, that the campaign managers at head office are the only ones the party leaders should be listening to).

But think about it: does Labor’s biggest challenge right now lie in infinitely narrowing its campaigning to those voters most likely to switch their vote in the seats most likely to change hands? Because that’s what this American-style politics is about – endlessly narrowing the party’s appeal in the name of efficiency and big data.

And let’s not forget that today’s brilliant new campaigning technique is tomorrow’s cynical, see-through gimmick – especially when the secret of its cynicism has been spelt out in such detail in the op-ed pages. Given this, it’s likely all this has a very short use-by date indeed.

So perhaps what’s needed here is a little bit of perspective. Labor didn’t just win because it hired a field campaign team from the U.S. It won because (a) the State Coalition was divided and hopeless; (b) the Federal Coalition has lost the people’s trust; and (c) the message about putting people before the market was hugely popular.

It is in (c) that the real potential for Labor exists. It has given Labor a mandate to be its better self – and in the process regain the community’s trust and potentially aid the rebuilding of the party’s own base. The party’s and the Government’s real efforts should now be put into developing a strategy to put people first as it modernises the economy and meets the big population and ageing challenges the state now faces. Labor’s hope lies in developing ideas and purpose around its central beliefs, not in importing new techniques about field campaigning from overseas.

It’s time now to start generating the big-picture idea for governing over the next four years, and inspiring the people to follow the lead given, not just planning the election campaign four years from now.