Dr Race Mathews in conversation with Professor Paul Smyth: Of Labour & Liberty.

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David Moloney.

Social Policy Connections Forum 16 May 2017

Dr Race Mathews.

Dr Race Mathews, former Federal MP and Chief of Staff to Gough Whitlam, and Victorian MP and Minister, introduced a lively conversation by recognising some of the influences in his appreciation of Distributism, the widespread ownership of productive property as defined by Catholic Social Teaching. These included a Jewish childhood friend who lived on a kibbutz as an adult, contact with members of the Mount Waverley parish credit co-operative, and meeting Fr Bruce Duncan. The most critical influence was Gough Whitlam, from whom he learned that an “informed and participatory … consenting community” was imperative for successful social change.

Professor Paul Smyth.

In his newly released book Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891–1966, Race canvasses the roles of Archbishop Manning, Rerum Novarum, the Chesterter-Belloc school, and Quadragesimo Anno in the development of Distributism. In Australia, it was taken up in particular by the Campions (“a Catholic Fabian Society”), who passed it on to the Melbourne YCW to implement. “We owe the modern [Victorian] credit co-operative movement to the YCW”, he told the gathering.

Race’s journey brought him to the remote peak of the co-operative movement, the Mondragon conglomerate in the Basque country. In the ruins of the Spanish Civil War, this co-operative emerged after long years of formative education and discussions about the “good society” initiated by YCW priest Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta. Premised on “solidarity” and worker ownership, Mondragon now employs some 83,000 people in manufacturing and engineering, agriculture, retail, banking, health insurance, housing, and a host of other co-operatives. Mondragon ensures meaningful, fairly remunerated work, social security, superannuation and, most critically says Mathews, education of the workforce in participatory democracy.

He regretted that this “triumph” remains unknown in Australian seminaries and parishes. Not Catholic himself, Mathews encourages the Church, equipped with its social theory and practical experience, to instil new energy and formative direction to a wide social movement. Church support would greatly assist the Australian co-operative movement, which has recently implemented an important national restructure.

Mondragon, says Mathews, is simply the new “light on the hill” for a democratic social order. Its successful implementation of “labour employing capital”, in the process realising personal dignity as insisted upon in Catholic social thought, is an alternative model to neoliberalism, now widely held to be failing.

Race was deeply pessimistic about a business-as-usual alternative, citing Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s study of the disengaged, isolated society that the West is rapidly becoming. He believes we have no more than three years in which to arrest this incremental “death of democracy”. But the institutions of civil society (including churches and unions) are now weakened, and the prospect of failure is high.

Similarly, at the global level, the current model is impotent in the face of crises, including growing economic inequality, climate change, and the looming collapse of work.

Paul Smyth: redesigning social policy

In contrast, Professor Paul Smyth (Melbourne University honorary Professor of Social and Political Science, and member of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council) was far more sanguine, arguing that the need for deep-seated change, as proposed by Race, was not critical. He was appreciative of the Church’s history with co-operatives, but, however valuable mutualist solutions might be, they were peripheral. While Catholic Social Teaching had noted the role of “local associational communities”, it had also validated the role of “the State” in ameliorating the market economy on behalf of the needy.

He strongly endorsed the prevailing Western welfare state on the model of Scandinavia. In Australia, there were good leaders of civic (including church) institutions who were working at different levels for fairness in wages and welfare, and he thought the recent boom of “the social and solidarity economy” indicated a participatory society. Internationally, the benefits of globalisation, such as economic development in Australia, and in recently developing countries such as Indonesia and China, outweighed any injustices, he believed. The larger challenge was to “re-embed the economy into society”, for which, he conceded, “we need a model”.

Race acknowledged that the state has an indispensable role in delivering universal services, and redressing inequality. He cited the Whitlam government’s introduction of Medibank as an instance of how the present ‘top-down’ state model and a mutualist ‘bottom-up’ model can work together. Conceding that the existing mutualist sector was indeed incapable of running universal and affordable health insurance, the Whitlam government nevertheless successfully introduced a ground-breaking state alternative through a process of broad “dialogue”.

Achievement of the ALP’s present policy of “inclusive and sustainable development” will require such an approach, he said.

Race Mathews’s story of Distributism offers a credible alternative to a failing neoliberal economic model. How seriously it will be taken will depend on political assessments of the profundity of the social and economic crisis, and of the importance attributed to one of the primary pillars of Catholic social teaching.

David is a town planner and professional historian who has worked mainly in the heritage field. He is currently a part-time PhD candidate researching the YCW in Melbourne. He is joint secretary of Cardijn Community Australia, and active in his local community and parish.


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