As 2016 draws to a close, commentators are making the point that in western democracies a disgruntled working class has wrought the unexpected in political terms. Brexit, the election of President-elect Trump, and the rise of Hanson and the minor parties in the Australian Senate are all being sheeted home to those who believe they have been poorly served by past governments which have allowed their working and living conditions to stagnate or deteriorate.
The coming year seems likely to be just as eventful, with the European Union facing a series of referenda and general elections across its key member states. The results of the Italian referendum this month highlight the European backdrop of rising nationalism and populist politics, fuelled by the migrant crisis, terrorism, and years of austerity measures.
Commentators argue that increasing uncertainty and a sense of insecurity, combined with an increasing inequality of income and opportunity, have given rise to a protest vote that has and will continue to produce outcomes which not long ago seemed improbable.
In this edition of the newsletter, the success of the Trump campaign sees Bill Frilay channeling JK Galbraith in identifying that we are in an age of uncertainty. Tony French speculates that we may be at a turning point in capitalism. Tim Harcourt is not so bold as to discuss turning points, but asserts that, if our economies are to embrace the model of open markets, they should do so only with well-developed market institutions and social safety nets in place.
Elizabeth Thurbon & Linda Weiss argue critically that many trade agreements have produced perverse outcomes, serving rather to entrench the monopoly market powers associated with intellectual property rights. They call on our governments to focus their efforts on trade deals which take a prudent approach to market access and a tough line on rent-seeking.
If we were to adopt a Christian social thought meta-narrative to what has occurred, we would perhaps not be quite so surprised as it seems were the commentators. Stephen Pope in Commonweal Magazine argues that Trump campaign proposals run directly contrary to core values affirmed by social teachings – solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, the common good, stewardship of the planet, and the intrinsic dignity of every person regardless of race, religion, or gender.
Arguably, over the 125 years since Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum, Christian social thought has evolved based on the application of Christian moral precepts and a sound understanding of developments in the social sciences.
On the other hand, the neoliberal policy agenda adopted in most western economies over the last 30 years or so has focused on deregulation of markets and the institutions, and on regulations to control them. This blind faith in the power of the markets to self-regulate and produce optimal outcomes through the so called ‘trickle-down effect’ has proven to be misplaced.
The increasing income inequality in many western economies, Australia included, is a stark indicator of the real outcomes of these policies. Gary Harkin (link) outlines the effect of record housing prices forcing young and low-income people out of the housing market, and the inadequacy of secure long-term rental housing, especially after retirement.
Even more alarmingly, in his talk, Returning penalty rates to the lowest paid, given to SPC members at the AGM on 30 November, Josh Cullinan spoke about large employers in the retail and food sectors contriving to underpay their workers, already among the lowest paid. (Watch the video in the Age‘s article New Union to challenge shoppies after massive wages scandal)
Little regard was shown here for the notion of wage justice; rather, the focus was entirely on profits and dividends. Surely this demonstrates the need for increased resources in the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman – increased not reduced oversight of the labour market. The market of itself, unregulated or poorly regulated, pays no attention to the values of Christian social thought.
If the value system of a society and its expression in its political and economic systems lose sight of the notion of wage justice, if they fail to recognise the inherent dignity of the worker and the right to a living wage, then it surely should come as no surprise that, over time, those same workers will come to lose faith in the political processes and the institutions which have overseen their demise. It surely cannot be that surprising that voices claiming they will in some manner restore the earlier status quo will be listened to, even if those voices are unproven or even false.
Clearly, a complex set of policy responses is required to begin to correct the injustices which have crept into Australian life. Let’s hope Tony French is correct, and that we are at a turning point, not just for capitalism, but for society. Let’s hope that the rampant individualism fostered by years of neoliberal thought will begin to temper in favour of the ideals so critical to the fabric of Christian social thought – the dignity of the individual, the right to a living wage, the right to be heard in the decisions of impact, and the overall adoption of the notion of the common good. Is that too much to hope for?
Finally, we wish all our friends and supporters a very happy and graced Christmas from the SPC team.
Peter Whiting is president of Social Policy Connections. Read his 2016 AGM report delivered.