The Age of Ambition - New Matilda

The Age of Ambition, New Matilda, 20 October 2016

Globally, these are tough times to be a social democrat. The cumulative social democratic vote share in Western Europe has fallen by one-third, to its lowest in 70 years. Angry politics is alive and well in the person of Trump and Le Pen, Farage and Wilders. It’s a politics that emphasises differences within the community, and urges citizens to jump at the shadows of trade, immigration and foreign investment.

Amidst secular stagnation, fear of terrorism, and a hate-filled politics, a message of inclusion, egalitarianism and multiculturalism doesn’t always resonate. In that environment, what is the best approach for the left’s party of government, the Australian Labor Party?

Labor is now in our 125th year – the seventh age for Australia’s oldest political party. Some have argued that we need to defend the status quo, and tweak our way to a better world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Indeed, there’s a bit of me that’s temperamentally technocratic – desiring to defend against cuts, and fight for better indexation.

But it’s not a whole program. Labor’s story has always had a touch of élan, a bit of vision, a sense of excitement. Ours has always been the party of ambition. 

To be a party of ambition means not putting a ceiling over the aspirations of any child. It means believing that a girl from Aurukun can become a High Court Justice; that a boy who is born blind can be a CEO; that a smart kid whose parents didn’t attend university has as much of a right to a place as someone whose grandparents were graduates. A disadvantaged child doesn’t merely deserve an education that gives them the basics of literacy and numeracy. We should aspire to pique their curiosity, enliven their sense of wonder at the world, light a fire for lifelong learning.

Likewise, an ambitious agenda involves playing a leadership role in climate change – the challenge that Nicholas Stern once called ‘the greatest market failure the world has seen’. Those who used the recent South Australian blackout as an excuse to promote their anti-renewables agenda weren’t just disingenuous; they are distracting us from necessary action. In what is likely to be the hottest year on record, the time has come to set aside childish things. As the developed nation with the highest per-capita emissions, we need to set targets that at least match the rest of the world, and we must be in the centre of global conversations about how to reduce world emissions.

On asylum seekers, we need to be part of the global conversation about resettling the 60 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. As with climate change, this is a problem best solved by nations working together. I don’t mean boasting at United Nations conferences, but finding genuinely fresh solutions in the mould of the middle-power diplomacy that saw Australia lead on nuclear weapons, the Cambodian peace talks and the APEC leaders’ meetings.

In the community sector, the widespread collapse of mass membership organisations can be seen in bodies as diverse as Rotary, Lions, Scouts, Guides and Apex. Compared with a few decades ago, we are less likely to go to church and less likely to join a union. Over recent years, involvement in social groups and political groups has declined, sporting activity has waned, volunteering rates have fallen, and fewer people donate to charity. We are less likely to know our neighbours, and the average Australian has fewer friends. As a nation, we have become more disconnected. For those of us who believe that a life lived together is an inherently better life, this should be deeply worrying. An ambitious Labor agenda is not simply to smooth the pillow as community life slowly dies away, but to think creatively about how we can work together to spark a civic renaissance.

On inequality, the past generation has been good for the billionaires, but not so much for the battlers. Earnings have risen three times as fast for the top tenth as the bottom tenth. The top 1 percent income share has doubled. The wealthiest three Australians now have more wealth than the poorest one million Australians. Measured in terms of top incomes – the longest inequality series we have for Australia – inequality is as high as it has been in three-quarters of a century. Reducing inequality, while still creating the environment for innovation, is harder than Green Left Weekly would have you believe. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the unintended consequences of the 1993 US changes to executive salaries, or the French rules on firms that employ more than 50 people. There’s no-one more passionate about Australian egalitarianism than me, but a bold agenda to narrow the gap requires new approaches – like randomised policy trials – and uncomfortable conversations – such as considering the ways that parenting affects life chances.

My point is less about which issues we pick than the breadth of our canvas. We need to think with the boldness of the best Labor governments, not allow the narrowness of our political opponents to define our response. In Manning Clark’s terms, Labor must remain the ‘enlargers’, not the ‘straiteners’, of Australian politics.

A truism of political life is that nothing is forever. Every political career ends. Every party eventually leaves office. This means that the question every Labor member must ask ourselves is not: how can I make my political career last a little longer? But instead: how can I make an impact? Each of us must act with an eye to the epitaph, not the gold watch.

There’s nothing wrong with personal ambition in politics – the problem arises with those whose ambition for themselves exceeds their ambition for the nation. To be truly ambitious is to want as much for our nation as every parent wants for their beloved children. There should be no limit to Labor’s reform ambition today.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. This is an edited extract from a speech delivered at Thirroul Branch’s 50th annual dinner, and which was first published by New Matilda on Thursday, 20 October 2016.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.