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Trump and the future of progressive politics

Tim Ayres

I want to start in Abermain. It’s a town of about 2 500 people in the Hunter Valley, about 8 kilometres from Cessnock. It started as a coal-mining community in the early 20th century, and slowly became a commuter town for blue-collar workers in the Hunter industry.  Abermain has always been a Labor stronghold; but at last year’s federal election, something shifted. In the Federal seat of Paterson One Nation won 12.8 per cent of the vote—the highest in any seat outside of Queensland. In a result that is surprising, but not unique, the majority of One Nation preferences in Paterson went to Labor. In Abermain, they won 16.27 per cent.

Once a stronghold of mining, industrial and energy employment, the Hunter Valley now has the second highest rate of youth unemployment in the country, second only to rural Queensland. Towns like Abermain are the ground zero of Pauline Hanson’s appeal, and there are plenty of similar blue collar towns and suburbs across NSW.

Winners & losers

At the moment, progressive politics doesn’t have much appeal to towns like Abermain or its equivalents in Wisconsin and Michigan, or the villages in England and Wales that voted for Brexit. We are losing blue-collar communities because we don’t have answers for them. Regional NSW has effectively been in recession for years. Regional manufacturing capacity has shrunk by 20 per cent, which has seen incredible numbers of high-wage jobs go overseas. Often, there aren’t even low-wage service jobs to replace them—the poverty just compounds on itself.

I come from a country town. I know what those jobs represent, not just for the workers but for the whole community. When the jobs go the people who stay face a collapse of the social organisation around them. Those people see the political system as broken, rigged against them. Their living standards have declined, not risen, and every day is driven by anxiety about paying bills, housing security and insecure work. Can we be that surprised when they look for desperate solutions?

The success of Trump, Hanson and Brexit is that they harness the anger that failure generates and channels it into a perverse ethno-nationalism that is pitted against the communities that have benefitted from globalisation. The real risk for progressive politics, is that this split becomes the axis of future political contests. Dividing Australian society into the winners and losers of globalisation splits the progressive coalition in two.

In the past 20 years we have seen the rapid growth of the progressive middle class, or as the Sydney Morning Herald recently referred to them; Progressive Cosmopolitans: educated professionals, many of whom have benefitted from the progressive reforms to education championed by Labor governments. Similarly, we have created a unique and cosmopolitan society from the waves of immigrants who have made Australia home. LGBT Australians can live in a better, more liberated world than a generation ago. Women have won important rights that have dramatically furthered the cause of equality.

We will not pander to the social conservatives. These struggles for justice and equality must still be at the core of the progressive agenda. The elimination of racism has to continue to be a priority, suicide rates amongst LGBT youth in particular are still unacceptably high, women still do not have full equality in the workplace or in our society. But without a strong progressive coalition, these priorities are under threat. The ethno-nationalism of Trump pits those communities against communities that feel left behind; especially those stuck in regional towns once the factories have gone. It’s divisive, it’s dangerous and we know that it is effective.

Asylum seekers Australian politics has already seen this divide. As the writer Richard Cooke puts it: asylum seekers has become the way in which the different classes of Australian society argue about globalisation.

We have seen what this does to the progressive coalition. On one side, the Conservatives have used it as a way of winning working-class support in places like Western Sydney. On the other side, it has seen large parts the progressive middle class decamp to the Greens, especially in the inner-cities.

Unable to unite these two parts of its constituency, it has left Labor wedged—fecklessly supporting a torturous program of indefinite detention and flagrant human rights violations. Without unity, the progressive coalition will lose.

Re-industrialisation And while I have always been more of a Mark Lennon guy than his Russian namesake, the real question is Lenin’s: 'what is to be done?'

Inequality, the denial of people’s aspirations for a decent life is degrading, alienating and condemns some Australians to a life of desperation unimaginable to the professional middle class. We need to make the populist right redundant by actually listening to regional and suburban Australia. We need to practice a different kind of politics that treats their communities with respect and commit to delivering jobs to thousands of towns and suburbs like Abermain.

It is just as important to internalise the moral imperative as it is for progressives to absorb the political dynamics here. I think it starts by re-establishing economic justice as both a central and binding element of the progressive agenda and a moral imperative of our movement. We need to permanently retire the Blairite idea that social democracy should evolve away from inequality as a central concern. We can no longer accept a system that condemns entire sections of Australian society to a life of desperation and poverty.

The times are coming to suit us. I don’t think that the Labor Party’s recent shifts on economic policy are occurring in isolation. The Left is on the march. The party’s neoliberals—the Costas, the Tripodis, the Lathams—are a spent political force and have lost critical debates on the party’s policy. We have to have a credible plan to deliver economic justice to all Australians, and that will require a bold re-imagining of the role of the state in the economy, jobs and regulation.

I believe that our goal should be nothing less than the re-industrialisation of the Australian economy—to deliver full employment in our suburbs and regions. Eighty-three per cent of Australian voters support that objective, but it requires a commitment with the scale and the ambition of Chifley’s post-war reconstruction.

A radical re-orientation of economic institutions After 20 years of neoliberal reform, we have built a policy apparatus in Canberra that is failing to engage with the real problems facing our economy and unable to access the real drivers of productivity, growth and living standards. The Productivity Commission, alongside the Treasury, the Department of Finance and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, are committed to a discredited neoliberalism that is increasingly out of step with what our country needs. We will need a root and branch reform of these institutions to ensure that they are  able to reflect a more advanced, nuanced and progressive understanding of the role of the economy in our society.

Similarly, we should reform the Reserve Bank of Australia to include employment as a key objective of our monetary policy. I respect the independence of the Reserve Bank, but its current focus on inflation is too narrow—we must align our most powerful economic levers with our key economic challenges. Additionally, we need to revive the Australian Workplace and Industrial Relations Survey: rich data about the Australian labour market will be critical in shaping the future of work.

It is time to smash the orthodoxy that government cannot create jobs. Active government intervention in the labour market has been a critical part of Labor’s political agenda since it was founded, and I believe that it is worth revisiting. We need to build the economy we want, not simply what is dictated to us by a neoliberal elite. A National Industrial Strategy would find ways for governments to invest directly in critical industries that will create jobs.

This isn’t impossible or even that abstract. We should create a low-interest loans for investment in Australian manufacturing jobs. Our manufacturing sector has been starved of investment for decades, and it is time to put our money where our mouth is. It won’t be popular amongst the bean counters, but that’s the point really. We can build an advanced manufacturing sector by capitalising on the strength of our nation’s research and development capabilities and create a fairer and more productive future for our economy.

That means significantly reshaping the government’s bizarre narrative around ‘innovation’. As the economist Marianna Mazzucato describes in the ‘Entrepreneurial State’, real innovation requires sustained and creative government intervention and not a misplaced belief in speculative capital. Similarly, we need to renew the social democratic interest in establishing cooperatives, particularly in agriculture. We can deliver investment in regional communities, unlocking the quality and efficiency of Australian agriculture and create jobs in our food manufacturing sector. It is time that we radically expanded the scope of the Department of Employment and gave it the responsibility to shape the future of work in this country.

Labor took a policy of full employment to the last federal election, let’s create a federal department that can achieve it. Regional Australia is in recession—the Department of Employment should be at the heart of a ‘Working Nation’ style response to the crisis. The Department of Employment could oversee the mass pooling and retraining program for workers affected by the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, especially in the Hunter Valley.

Similarly, a rejuvenated Department could lead the government-wide response to mass automation, which will be a critical issue in the coming decades. By setting and enforcing employment targets, we can start ensuring that government is playing an active role in the labour market. It can also be a powerful force for equity: it should be leading the government’s efforts to reduce the wage gap between women and men, and stamp out discrimination in the workforce.

Two-thirds of the projected job growth will be in industries dominated by women: health, human services and education—aged and child care, hospitals, schools and other education. Good jobs for women are as important as good jobs for men. It would mean that we can offer real answers for people in insecure work. Portable entitlements, better protections for casual and contract workers and the muscular enforcement of our current protections have to be a priority of the next Labor government.

Finally, I support Thomas Piketty’s proposal to use an inheritance tax to fund a one-off capital grant for every citizen at the age of 25. According to the Community Council of Australia—a 35 per cent estate duty on all estates over $10 million would raise at least $3.5 billion in government revenue, while affecting only a fraction of the top 1 per cent of Australians. A universal inheritance would give millions of young people a future: they can put it to a house, they can start their own business, they can pay off their university fees. It may be bold, but politics as usual doesn’t offer the scale of policy that is required to genuinely tackle regional and intergenerational inequality.

Against nostalgia The rise of Trump and the far right is, I believe, clarifying moment for the Left. In the course of a single year, global politics has been transformed. We live in extraordinary times. But Hanson will fail and Trump will fail, because they don’t offer solutions to their voters. They offer nostalgia for more certain time—with a more limited form of globalisation, and more rigid boundaries around our social and economic spheres. Importantly, there is a strain of Left thinking that shares that nostalgia.

But those boundaries punished women who wanted to make their own choices. They refused to allow LGBT Australians to be themselves. And they were built on a model of racial hegemony that is not only immoral but fundamentally incompatible with the Australia that is all around us.

We deserve better. I remain powerfully optimistic about Australian democratic socialism. Not only can we build a model of social democracy that is capable of uniting both the winners and losers of globalisation, I believe that Australia is uniquely capable of doing so. We do not have nearly the economic and social dysfunction of the United States or the United Kingdom. We have a strong labour movement with strong connections to a governing political party. I have defended the union link and I believe it is now more important than ever. We have leaders who are committed to creating a new forms of organising and campaigning—especially Sally McManus, who I believe will be the new leader of the ACTU.

And finally, I am also an optimist because of our movement’s history. For over a 100 years we have demonstrated a capacity to creatively link our struggles to the aspirations of ordinary Australians and win. We had better get on with it.


Tim Ayres is the NSW secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union. This is the text of a speech given to the NSW Fabians Society on 8 February 2017. A podcast is available here  IMAGE: A fire burns near Abermain, which has the highest rate of youth unemployment in NSW; the second highest rate in the country.


Suggested citation

Ayres, Tim, 'Trump and the future of progressive politics', Evatt Journal, Vol.16, No.1, February 2017.<>


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