The three-party system in Australia

by John Q on December 1, 2018

A couple of years ago, I had a go at analyzing politics in the English-speaking developed countries in terms of a three-party system. The three parties were neoliberalism (in hard and soft versions), leftism and what I then called tribalism, but can now be better described as Trumpism. Trumpism combines what might be called dominant identity politics (for the countries in question, the relevant identity is white, Christian, heterosexual and suburban/rural) with crony capitalism and “big man” authoritarianism.

When I described the Australian political system a year ago, I noted a profusion of Trumpist parties. The most important is the governing Liberal party, until recently (like the US Repubs) hard neoliberals, but now increasingly Trumpist, with the partial exception of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull,

Malcolm Turnbull, a wealthy businessman, and smooth neoliberal who was widely seen as reviving of the soft liberalism of the past on social questions. As it has turned out, however, Turnbull has acted as a puppet for the Trumpists who dominate the party

A few months ago, the Trumpists finally tired of Turnbull and dumped him in favor of Scott Morrison, a former PR executive, who has praised Trump and even taken to wearing baseball caps.

The results, happily have been catastrophic, that is for the Liberals. After being tossed out as PM, Turnbull resigned from Parliament and his ultra-safe seat was won by an independent. Then the Victorian Liberals, running on a Trumpist platform involving a racist fear campaign on crime, the revival of the drug war and support for anti-gay discrimination by publicly funded church schools, were comprehensively thrashed in a state election. With moderate members defecting and others in open revolt, the Liberals are now in a complete mess.

Where does this leave the three-party system?

Hard neoliberalism, which I characterized as the position of “market liberals dedicated to dismantling the social democratic welfare state, most notably Margaret Thatcher” has been overwhelmed by the Trumpists, and is dead as a political force. Trumpism is a crony capitalism that’s totally inconsistent with market liberalism and truly hostile to the welfare state only when its beneficiaries are of the wrong colour or otherwise . A series of banking scandals and the failure of a market-oriented electricity reform program have forced the Trumpist government to act, threatening to embed regulatory officials inside banks and forcibly break up energy companies seen as exploiting their market power.

Meanwhile, on the other side of politics, the Labor party has very gradually shifted away from the soft neoliberalism that was unquestioned for decades, as rather earlier did the Greens, their main rival on the left. A notable feature of the Victorian election was the announcement that Labor would fund infrastructure programs by doubling state debt, an idea that was, until recently, anathema. Similarly, at the national level, Labor has campaigned on policies that would increase taxes for high-income earners, a rejection of decades of bipartisan low-tax orthodoxy. The result hasn’t been a radical shift to the left, but rather the revival of a fairly traditional form of social democracy. The big change is that the worship of “the market” and more specifically “the markets” [meaning financial markets] has lost its grip, particularly on the cohort whose political activity began around the time of the Global Financial Crisis.

In these circumstances, soft neoliberals have nowhere to go but left. They might not like all aspects of Labor’s policies but they have nothing in common with the Trumpist alternative. Of course, things may change, but the Trumpists are way behind in the polls and busy tearing each other apart. A Labor victory at the next election, due by May, seems inevitable. All the evidence is that the government will be, if not leftwing in the way the term is commonly understood, nevertheless the most leftwing in decades.

The one big exception to this is policy on refugees, where Australia has led the developed world in restrictionist policies of all kinds. Even here there are some limited signs of progress, but it will be some time before we can manage a decent policy in this area.



Murali 12.01.18 at 7:25 am

What is going to happen to the hard neoliberals who defected from the Trumpist liberal party.


John Quiggin 12.01.18 at 10:42 am

As in the US, many have capitulated to Trumpism in return for tax cuts. But enough are unhappy that they Liberals appear unelectable.


Murali 12.01.18 at 11:13 am

It’s unfortunate that neoliberals have capitulated to Trumpism. I consider myself a neoliberal/liberaltarian and pre-brexit vote, I would have been relatively comfortable in a Cameronite conservative party*. After all, its not like they were homophobes or anything like that. Post vote, I find myself a lot more sympathetic to the liberal democrats. I liked the Blairite labour party well enough, but labour will never get my vote so long as the Corbynystas are in charge of it.

*In Singapore, I vote for the PAP which is, when all is said and done, a conservative party, though mostly in a right-wing neoliberal sense.


Teason 12.01.18 at 9:50 pm

Of course they are tearing each other apart. Authoritarianism can only function when they are winning. By their very nature. Show me a one band that had transitioned successfully.


Reason 12.01.18 at 9:57 pm

But one question – I was surprised to learn recently how strong the greens have become in parts of Australia. Here in Germany they have just about passed the SDP. In Australia it is nowhere near that stage. But are left coalitions now likely in your view?

P.s. I think the SPD and the Links need to merge in Germany or face anialation. They are cutting each other’s throats.


Gregory J. McKenzie 12.01.18 at 9:58 pm

It’s time to dump the whole party system genre that infects democratic governments. As John has pointed out even when a so labelled small ‘l’ liberal like Australia’s last prime minister, Malcolm Turnball, shapes policies his own party turns on him. Fascism is never far away from hunting down democracies. The party system makes democracies more vulnerable to such extremism. Independents are the only answer. That way the extremist.view is just one voice NOT the only voice in decision making. Turkey, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and yes even Australia have suffered under the party system. As for the US of A it has an entrenched party system dominance. That is the main reason why their republic is failing.


J-D 12.02.18 at 2:40 am


But one question – I was surprised to learn recently how strong the greens have become in parts of Australia. Here in Germany they have just about passed the SDP. In Australia it is nowhere near that stage. But are left coalitions now likely in your view?

After the 1989 Tasmanian election, a formal Accord with the Greens allowed the ALP to form a minority government. In 1990 the Accord collapsed. After the 2010 Tasmanian election, the ALP formed a minority government in which one Green held a ministerial position; later in the year, a second Green was appointed a minister; in early 2014, a few months before the next election, the ALP Premier had the Greens removed from their ministerial positions.

After the 2014 Australian Capital Territory election, the ALP Chief Minister had one Green appointed as a Minister, and he’s still in office.


J-D 12.02.18 at 2:45 am

Gregory J. McKenzie

It’s time to dump the whole party system genre that infects democratic governments.

Moisey Ostrogorski argued for the same conclusion in 1902. Well, perhaps not exactly the same conclusion, because if he was right to argue that it was time to do so in 1902, then now it must be long past time and not just time as you suggest. But if what you mean by ‘It’s time to …’ is only ‘We should …’, there’s no difference in the conclusion. (It often confuses me when people write ‘It’s time to …’; do they always mean only ‘we should …’, and if they do wouldn’t it be clearer just to say so?)


Omega Centauri 12.02.18 at 4:43 am

This is an interesting development, and one I had hoped for. That the failures of Trumpism would become sufficiently obvious, that it will end up being only a short lived phase, a kind of temper tantrum almost.

So the inability/unwillingness of the hard neo-liberals to squirm away is going to bring then down. Kind of an unexpected outcome, and probably temporary. The conservative and neo-liberal sectors will re-organize, but that might take several years.

But, the sort of populist class-tribal zeitgeist isn’t really going away. Frankly the yellow vests have me scared, as to what may be in store.


nastywoman 12.02.18 at 4:47 am

– perhaps it’s time for Australia to change to ”the six-party system” like Italy, France or Germany – as ”democracy-wise” this system seems to be far more ”advanced”? –
Not only considering the fact that it wasn’t Von Clownstick BUT an Italian Comedian -who ”started” the first ”real insane populist movement” -(NOT ”Party”!) – which was so called ”totally anti-establishment” – ”right-wing” – and ”due to its anti-immigration stance” ”New Right” –
BUT at the same time ”promoting policies usually advocated by Italian left-wingers” – like a citizen’s income and green policies.

So the ”Five Star Movement” – also waaay before Trump – broke up the traditional left–right paradigm – and we really shouldn’t give Von Clownstick the ”dubious honor” to take his name for ”crazy confused political comedy”!

The honor belongs to ”Grillo” – and so it’s ”Grilloism” and NOT ”Trumpism” which started ”bats…it and non-politics politics”!


Alex SL 12.02.18 at 4:59 am

Gregory J. McKenzie,

Parties happen because they work. You plop dozens to hundreds of unaffiliated members down in a parliament and each of them will quickly find that alone, as one of so many, they don’t have any pull. But look, there are fifty others here who have similar views to me and/or represent pretty much the same interests. Maybe those of us who represent rural districts with farming as the most important economic factor can have a regular lunch together and discuss how to coordinate to help our farmers? Boom, party. Then the others have to do the same to even the playing field again.

This is one of those areas where things are the way they are not because everybody was silly or malicious, but because everybody took the logical next step, and then the next, and so on. A new set of people would merely recapitulate the very same steps.


Faustusnotes 12.02.18 at 6:43 am

John I don’t think you can fairly talk about “decades of bipartisan low tax policy.” Labor had the MRRT , they raised 11billion for NDIS from the Medicare levy, in 2013 they floated easing tax on super contributions, they put new limits on deductibles. It’s true that rudd’s first two budgets involved tax and revenue cuts but that put him against the run of the labor party and he was forced to introduce the RSPT (which became the MRRT) in response to a labor backlash to low revenue at a time of fantastic profits. This is without considering the carbon price, which was introduced by gillard and continued by Rudd and generally seen as equivalent to a carbon tax for its first two years of implementation. In the previous labor govt (now ancient history of course) keating famously delayed a tax cut and got punished for it. In opposition labor opposed the gst as a regressive neoliberal package. Keating’s “do you slowly” speech over fightback was a masterpiece of anti-neoliberal rhetoric.

It’s certainly true that in Australia all major parties subscribe to a balanced budget consensus (though of course in practice only labor adhere to it), but they have very different ideas about how to get to it. I don’t think you can fairly say that the party of Medicare, austudy (which got me through uni), the MRRT, compulsory super and the NDIS and the carbon price are neoliberal.

I think it’s also time to retire the idea that turnbull was a soft neoliberal. In power and as opposition leader he always acted as an agent of the far right, and we should judge him by his actions not his occasional pretenses to being endowed with a soul. He was a hard right nut job, willing to bow to all the social conservative stupidity of the far right of his party in pursuit of a neoliberal economic agenda that made John Howard and peter Costello look pleasant.

I don’t think your three party system idea works for oz and there’s no reason to bend facts to make it work. We have a perfectly functioning model if we think of it as the party of workers vs the party of the elite vs an insurrectionary party of climate emergency (the greens). Occasionally one party apes some ideas of the other if they think it will help electorally (eg the Rudd experiment) but they both have powerful stabilizing forces (the unions vs business) that drag them back to their mission. It’s not necessary to import either the ideas of the us right (trumpism) or the us left (the narrative of true left vs neoliberal). Australia was doing trumpist policy on asylum seekers back when trump was still dreaming of golden showers, and we had our own homegrown version of that stupid leftist neoliberal spat (“economic rationalism” and pilgers criticisms of hawke) 30 years ago. The Americans should be learning from us, not the other way around!


Faustusnotes 12.02.18 at 7:07 am

Talk of abolishing parties is particularly nonsensical in oz where one party was formed by the union movement as a political arm of the union movement, and has been enormously successful in that role. Abolishing parties would leave the country permanently in the power of the union movement.


J-D 12.02.18 at 7:07 am

Alex SL

Expanding on and particularising those thoughts, any government that has any desire to have its legislative initiatives approved by an elected body is necessarily going to seek support from members of that body, and that’s going to create a very powerful pressure on the category of members who support the government a majority of the time to organise themselves as a group or an alliance of groups; meanwhile, if there’s any substantial number of members who oppose the government a majority of the time, there’s going to be a similar pressure on them to organise themselves as a group or series of groups. Depending on the context, these groups may not be as highly organised as the political parties we are now familiar with, but they will still resemble them strongly. That’s largely how the first party systems emerged. It’s not sense to expect that people who want a legislative proposal adopted, or people who want it rejected, will restrict themselves solely to making speeches in a deliberative assembly as their sole means. Why should they?


Demigourd 12.02.18 at 7:11 am

In what way will a Shorten government be “if not leftwing in the way the term is commonly understood, nevertheless the most leftwing in decades”?

Looks like a regular third-way neoliberal mob from here.

Also, while we’re talking about Trumpism on the right, note there’s a resurgent if confused type of socialism on the left, as evidenced by the apparent gains of the Victorian Socialists, and cheesy attempt by federal Labor to launder its centre-right agenda through the Industrial Left front.


nastywoman 12.02.18 at 7:40 am

”The Americans should be learning from us, not the other way around!”

– especially since a two-party -(or even the three-party) – system seems to have the disadvantage that it doesn’t teach the children the very ”democratic” process of ”compromising” – or better said ”open-mindedness” – and NOT playing the foolish US duoplaygame – where idiotic ideas about ”we can’t vote for some lesser evil” are borne and discourage ”the people” to fulfill their ”democratic duty of voting”.

In a six-party system the choices are so… should we call it ”diverse” that the question of some lessor evil hardly ever comes up and everybody understand that ”voting” in a democracy means ”voting for ones favorite policies and politics’.’


nastywoman 12.02.18 at 8:12 am

”cheesy attempt by federal Labor to launder its centre-right agenda through the Industrial Left front”.

And see – in a six-party system nobody needs to launder any ”centre-right agenda” through some ”Industrial Left front” –
as there is always a party with a straightforward ”centre-right agenda” OR/AND a Party with a straightforward ”Industrial Left front.”

And the voters can choose!


nastywoman 12.02.18 at 10:08 am

– and just think how truly GREAT a six -(or even more parties) – system is for every so called ”Purist”?

No more confusing mixture or mush of often contradicting programs or political ideas -just always the ”Real Thing” the ”pure” Right – or Left or Middle or Green… ”thing” and for everybody who just loves to vote for comedy – insanity or anarchy –
There always is also a choice? –
and how GREAT to know – that if somebody voted for ”the Fascists” or the ”Racists” there are no endless discussion IF such a voter – actually thought he voted for some kind of ”anti-establishment” hero -(or a crazy Clownstick)


faustusnotes 12.02.18 at 11:59 am

Demigourd’s definition of neoliberalism: higher company taxes, free vocational training places, a living wage, higher wages for female-majority workplaces, investment in renewable energy, increased childcare funding and increased health funding.


nastywoman 12.02.18 at 12:24 pm

”higher company taxes, free vocational training places, a living wage, higher wages for female-majority workplaces, investment in renewable energy, increased childcare funding and increased health funding”

Oh my god! – somebody tries in Australia to get for Australians what the average European had for years?


nastywoman 12.02.18 at 2:11 pm

– and after my Californian mom had married my European dad (in the seventies) – and she returned for her frequent visits back to Lalaland she was sometimes asked by some of her Californian friends if Europe already was a democracy -(and already had color TeeVee) – and now when she returns for some frequent visits back to Italy she often get’s asked (jokingly) by her Italian friends if these Anglo-American Countries -(cultures) – still are like ”teh Wild West” – where political compromises are found by shoot-outs or Crocodile Dundee wrangling with a Moronic Clownish Alligator?

– ”and they have lots and lots of ”Parties” there in these cultureless colonies – but no ”parti’ – or only one or two ”parti” –



nastywoman 12.02.18 at 2:25 pm

– and furthermore – and if I’m allowed to end with the most important point?

A three -(or especially a two-party) – system always seem to have this problem that people question – if such a system is REALLY a ”democracy”.

The question might not be as ”pertinent” as in a one-party system – BUT nevertheless?

As anywhoo – what type of ”democracy” has only one – two or three Parties? – and especially what ”democracy” which is sooo… ”diverse” as the Australian or the American one?

Like if some Swedes only would have the Party of ”the Blond and Blue Eyed” and another Party for everybody else – that would be kind of… understandable? – BUT I once spend a whole half year in Australia – and just for being ”stocked” could have thought about ten Parties alone on Bondi Beach .


johne 12.03.18 at 4:07 am

nastywoman, @16: “… a two-party -(or even the three-party) – system seems to have the disadvantage that it doesn’t teach the children the very “democratic” process of ”compromising”….”

Long ago (1960´s) I was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. I loved the place (I´m writing from there now), but it was obvious that its government wasn´t working as well as it might. It was also obvious that Ecuadorians were as smart and capable as Americans, so what made the difference?

I hit on compromise. At that time, along with free elections, “compromise” (and I heard it from primary school on), was lauded as the necessary ingredient in American political success. Congressmen praised it, and moreover practiced it, easier to do in that era before redeye flights back to the district, when they spent most of their time in Washington and formed friendships, as well as rivalries, across the aisle.

That contrasted with Ecuador, whose legislature teemed with small parties representing a variety of factions and ideologies, and all boasting of their adamant refusal to compromise. (Indeed, it was fairly common for parties to become smaller still, when members found they were divided on some question and split, each side decrying the compromising heresy of the other.) At one point in a memorable session, a legislator stood up at his desk, produced a stick of dynamite with fuse inserted, lit it, and said, “I´ve always dreamed of emptying a large room, fast!” (The chamber emptied, fast, and he extinguished the fuse).

Later, in the United States, compromise was decreed to be a concession to evil by Newt Gingrich, who took effective steps to stamp it out, for example prohibiting any fraternization with the enemy across the aisle. I still remember my anger when moderate and liberal Republican congressmen left in droves, giving up a job that had become less fun, rather than do something so un-Republican as oppose their leader.


Demigourd 12.03.18 at 9:25 am

Using TAFEs to create an army of skilled labourers to serve capital is about most neoliberal thing imaginable, faustusnotes, but even if Shorten were leftist, his party isn’t.

Again, the fact that Labor is feverishly astroturfing to create the impression of leftist sentiment within the party doesn’t suggest any great commitment to challenging the neoliberal status quo.


Faustusnotes 12.03.18 at 10:41 pm

Demigourd, state support for technical and further education is not neoliberal. A voucher system for private colleges would be neoliberal. Words have meaning, you know, even shabby weasel words like “neoliberal “.

Furthermore, the labor party has been around for 117 years and is the party of organized labour. It has always supported state support of technical education because proud possession of industrial skills is the essence of the labor movement. Unless you think neoliberalism is a 117 year old idea that has always been the ideal of the labour movement, you need to accept that supporting tafe is a marker of a core commitment of the labor party to its members, and not a failing of its latter-day liberal lapses.

I’m sorry, but labor is not a neoliberal party and never has been. It has implemented some neoliberal policies and fell too hard for economists hokum when that Hokuman was mainstream thought, but it is not a neoliberal party. A neoliberal party would not be even considering doing away with negative gearing! Get your analytical framework right, or people will con you every day of the week.


John Quiggin 12.04.18 at 1:34 am

VET FEE-HELP was a voucher system for private colleges, and Labor was largely responsible for it. They’ve shifted back to supporting public TAFE now, but it’s a relatively recent development. From the election of the Hawke government until the recent past, they implemented and advocated mostly (soft) neoliberal policies, as you say. For example, the last Labor government had a minister for deregulation.

Perhaps in some Platonic sense, Labor was never truly neoliberal. If you want to view things that way, then Labor is now acting in accordance with its true essence, unlike the period from 1983 until recently.


faustusnotes 12.04.18 at 2:46 am

I don’t think that’s correct, John. FEE-HELP was introduced in the 2003 Higher Education Act, under a Liberal government. In 2012 the Gillard government introduced amendments to better control the program (in the Higher Education Support Amendment 2012). Although they were warned that their measures would not be sufficient to control unscrupulous colleges, they weren’t responsible for FEE-HELP. Also it’s not a voucher system, it’s a loan system. A voucher system would be a fixed disbursement that the colleges can charge above, and students have to make up the difference. Under a loan system the university can charge whatever they want and the government provides the loan. The challenge now is that the Liberal government gave universities greater flexibility on what they could pay.

So no, Labor is not truly neoliberal in only a platonic sense; it is genuinely not neoliberal in a practical sense. Also if it wasn’t neoliberal “from 1983 until recently” then it hasn’t been neoliberal for the last 30 or more years, and is currently in opposition, where it cannot enact any policies.

These details matter, because they show that your three-party system model simply doesn’t work for Australia – it founders on basic facts.


John Quiggin 12.05.18 at 2:24 am

As you say, the details matter. FEE-HELP was confined to universities (all non-profit and nearly all public) until 2009, when it was extended to for-profit VET providers. This was based on the Victorian model, also introduced by Labor and also a disastrous failure.
I first wrote about this in 2012 – here’s the reaction from ACPET, the private providers lobby

Of course, that’s just one example – there’s financial deregulation, privatisation, cuts in the top marginal tax rate, and much more. Or you could just look at where some of Labor’s leading lights (Keating and Bligh for example) have ended up, comfortably ensconced in high-paying jobs in the financial sector.


faustusnotes 12.05.18 at 2:59 am

In 2009 Labour was going through the Rudd years, which I have already noted were an abomination. A 2.5 year period of flirting with lower taxes and education deregulation is hardly a sign of a commitment to neoliberalism. Yes, we could decry Labor as a neo-liberal party if we focus only on financial deregulation and privatisation, and we could go back to 1983-86 when they cut the top marginal tax rate slowly from 60% to 48%, while also massively reducing tax rates on the poorest Australians (30% to 25%), increasing the tax-free threshold, widening the lowest-tax brackets, and increasing the number of brackets. But when we do this we need to also consider their trenchant opposition to the GST (a regressive tax), their much less regressive maternity pay proposals (or the fact they made any at all), the carbon price, NDIS, the MRRT, changes to taxation exemptions on super contributions for high income earners, and now their flirtation with eliminating negative gearing.

It’s certainly legitimate to criticize elements of Labor policy for being too focused on deregulation or free markets, but there has to be a difference between supporting private enterprise or free market approaches to problems, and being neoliberal, or the latter term has no meaning since it must then apply to everything that is not communism.

It’s also unreasonable to look at where Keating ended up as a marker of his policies. You should always consider where politicians came from, and the only neoliberal under this consideration is Rudd, who was a career diplomat married to a major private education provider. Keating was a knockabout, Hawke a union leader, Gillard a labour lawyer.

Your three-party model does not apply to Australia as effectively as the model we have always had, and it relies on constant contortions of the definition of neoliberal. Australia is not vulnerable to Trumpism, and its conservative politicians are much more vulnerable to religious and free market nonsense (or even agrarian socialism) than to fascism.


nastywoman 12.05.18 at 6:57 am


and I so agree! –
The most important advantage of (just) a three-party system is the possibility to ”out-define” what ”neoliberalism” really is – BUT as we know now – that ”Trumpism” -reduced to it’s core is:

”Not having the slightest idea what somebody is talking about”


”walking aimlessly around”

I have to agree more with Mr. Faust as when I was in Australia very few Australians were ”walking aimlessly around” –
and about being stocked – I mean ”stoked” – hardly anybody is ”serving” – I mean ”surfing” better – in a pretty relaxed manner?


Moz of Yarramulla 12.05.18 at 7:39 am

Um, correct me if I’m wrong but a lot of those counter-examples don’t seem to be.

“less regressive maternity pay proposals” was perfectly neoliberal, trying to extend the labour market into motherhood, or alternatively pushing mothers further into the labour market.

“the carbon price”, or massive subsidies to polluters as a way to neutering an idea that had massive public support

“MRRT” which was famously opposed by those due to pay the tax who discovered that it was cheaper to bury the tax than pay it.

I think we need to focus on what parties do rather than what they promise or talk about. Otherwise we end up with the Prime Minister for Women’s Affairs being the best ever at helping aboriginal australians. Looked at that way, “Another Liberal Party” is almost as neoliberal as the actual Liberal Party.


engels 12.05.18 at 1:22 pm

In related news, (parts of) CT’s anti-populist wonderboy, Macron, really turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving, didn’t he?


Nick 12.05.18 at 2:17 pm

To add to Moz:

“compulsory superannuation” ie. the government compels people to invest their retirement savings in the stock market, rather than a government managed “future fund”, as per other resource rich countries.


Faustusnotes 12.05.18 at 2:54 pm

Moz, can you suggest a non-neoliberal maternity leave program? If not, then in reality for you “neoliberal” means “capitalist.” Words have meaning, you know. Say what you mean. If your critique of labor is a Leninist critique of democratic socialism then say so. Don’t faff around with weasel words like “neoliberal”!


nastywoman 12.05.18 at 10:22 pm

”I think we need to focus on what parties do rather than what they promise or talk about”.

That might be a bit of a problem as parties often do things they haven’t promised or talked about at all?


Peter T 12.06.18 at 6:49 am


I was in the commonwealth public service during the Rudd government. Yes, it was full-on neo-liberal, if that term is taken as deep devotion to the creed that “market forces” (properly manipulated) will solve everything. There were stringent guidelines in place to ensure that non-market solutions were rarely offered and almost never seriously considered. And these were brought in under Rudd (Howard, after his near loss after one term, was flexible about means, although keen on seeing that the maximum flowed to his friends and associates).


faustusnotes 12.06.18 at 7:59 am

Nick, actually a lot of Australian savings are in union-managed funds that are relatively low risk with very low fees. They’re not just floating around “in the stock market.” Again, there are reasons to criticize the policy, but it wasn’t intended to compel people to invest their retirement savings in the stock market. You can see the history of Labor’s superannuation rules at this handy ABC explainer, but a few key points that should matter to you: before the ALP implemented compulsory super 65% of Australian workers already had some form of retirement savings in the stock market, and before the ALP introduced this law this meant that professional and white collar workers had much better retirement options than working people.

A neoliberal approach to the pension would be to abolish the government-supplied pension and then leave workers abandoned with no support, required to choose between various extremely shady grifters for their retirement choices. Compelling employers to pay into tightly regulated industry funds, with the employer also required to match the employee’s voluntary contributions, and making them tax deductible, is not neoliberal. Diverting pay rises into compulsory retirement savings is not neoliberal.

Once again, words have meaning. You can’t simply dismiss every policy a party introduces as neoliberal because it’s not 100% communist.


engels 12.06.18 at 5:34 pm

Neoliberal doesn’t mean capitalist but it doesn’t just mean laissez faire either (Peter T and Bruce Wilder have impressed this point on me in previous threads). Eg the NHS internal market, the WCA, the RAE/REF are all arguably neoliberal programmes but none of them are about simply rolling back the state, quite the reverse in some aspects.


John Quiggin 12.06.18 at 11:41 pm

Engels @38 Agreed. I had a go at defining neoliberalism ten years ago stressing the “neo” part

neoliberalism is a descendant of classical liberalism, defined by the fact that it is a reaction against social democracy, which also draws heavily on the liberal tradition

On Macron, almost as much a disappointment as Hollande, and for much the same reasons. I would like to see a good analysis of the apparently unshakeable belief in the necessity for neoliberal reform in France.


J-D 12.06.18 at 11:45 pm

It seems only fair to mention that Chris Bertram mentioned his disappointment in Macron earlier this year (and equal disappointment on the part of the French political philosopher who persuaded him to back Macron).


Faustusnotes 12.07.18 at 1:12 am

Fascism is also a reaction against social democracy. You need a little more detail than that. But to argue that the ALP govt of 1983-1986 is neoliberal because it lowered taxes when it also introduced Medicare and austudy is just ridiculous.

Let’s talk a little about austudy/abstudy, which was introduced in 1987 and ran until 1998 (note the dates). I have a suspicion most aussies commenting here don’t have a full understanding of its value because they didn’t use it, but austudy is the only reason I could finish high school, get to uni or finish uni. It was a guaranteed $100 a month with no repayment obligations, eligibility based on parental income, paid direct to the student even if they are under 16. I received austudy at the full rate for five years, and without it could not have even moved from my country town to the city to go to university. I have spoken to people my age from all around the world and never identified a program like it (I guess the northern paradises may have something?) It helped a generation of poor people go to university, a central goal of the labour movement in Australia. It wasn’t a scholarship or a competitive award, just money for poor kids to study. It was a lifeline for people like me. But John Quiggin – who i suspect never benefited from or needed this unique program – wants to argue that the labor party that introduced it and also introduced the Medicare system that gave me free healthcare at the same time was neoliberal because they lowered the top tax rate? Some people like to argue that labor were neoliberal because they introduced university fees and hecs but that argument is weak. Compared to the absence of austudy, the absence of fees is irrelevant, and there’s no evidence that hecs discouraged university attendance by poor people. It was also much more equitable than equivalent schemes in the uk.

The gillard govt tried to follow on those great labor programs by introducing a carbon price, the RET and NDIS, the next big step in expanding state care for the vulnerable. But somehow they’re neoliberal because the MRRT wasn’t aggressive enough? You need to find a word that makes sense, and stop using empty weasel words to describe the party that, whatever it’s flaws, has been the single greatest force for good in Australian politics for as long as you’ve been alive.

(I’ll also mention that when Rudd was deposed lots of people accused gillard of deposing him because his agenda was too leftist. Now he gets slotted into a new neoliberal alternative history and the rspt that he was supposedly dethroned for advocating is now recast as a neoliberal giveaway…)


bob mcmanus 12.07.18 at 6:55 am

Don’t really want to play, rather keep reading Ross on post-war France, but Faustus is confusing, although he illustrate how neoliberalism is perceived at 41. Quiggin at 39 gets it. I for one do not at all consider neoliberalism a uniformly bad totality. It is very good in ways.

The example of daycare. Direct state (or corporate on-site) provision and regulation of daycare (to the extent there was any) was “liberal” and choice-enhancing in that it liberated women in many ways: education, jobs, careers. Neoliberal daycare retains the state and the taxes but provides cash, tax credits, subsidies for the individual to make her own choice as to the daycare she wants, and provides subsidies to entrepreneurs for daycare businesses. This is an enhancement of liberalism, freedom, individual independence at the expense of the strong state and common good.

The post-depression Keynesian dispensation might better be considered as JQ does social democracy rather than liberalism and neoliberalism as an attack on social democracy in the interest of individual freedom, but there is a lot of confusion around. Are unions “liberal” and right-to-work, open shops “conservative”? This doesn’t quite make sense to me. How about Obamacare?

Faustusnotes 41: “It was a guaranteed $100 a month with no repayment obligations, eligibility based on parental income, paid direct to the student even if they are under 16. ”

Neoliberalism, but I won’t condemn this it helped people. They can’t sell neoliberalism without great incentives, real benefits…for some, the productive ones. And the common is probably lost for good, we are not getting that Fordist superstructure back.


bob mcmanus 12.07.18 at 8:11 am

Note also that Faustusnotes gives us in 41 a personal narrative. I happen to think this is very important, personal narratives as arguments in opposition to abstractions, theory, group analyses. Qualitative vs quantitative research. “The personal is political” was dead serious, political (economic) arguments have to be addressed to the individual and can be refuted by any assertive “exception.”

Of course, this played out bigtime in 2016, with one candidate running on social abstractions (Sanders) and two running on personal narrative and biography (Clinton, Trump). The problem with “fake news” is that if we rely on personal self-narratives truth will inevitably become tribal.

As always, Marxians (not inclusive) are great at analysis and bad at solutions. I got nothin, so am sometimes reduced to using “neoliberalism” as an epithet. Just frustration.

Discovered a new site yesterday, outa Stanford. I like Mackenzie Wark, both for his original ideas, and because he drops names almost hilariously, and so provides great introductions to bleeding-edge academic leftism. Reading lists.

21st Century Marxism Note again the personal narrative.

“My later, historical works are a kind of dialectical complement, bringing a Marxist media theory and practice perspective into the received ideas about what the canonic Marxist works actually are. It is in effect a rewriting of that canon as one finds it, for example, in Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, or Goran Therborn. Those versions of an archive seem to me to have been determined by the objectives and experiences of the postwar new left. Those are no longer our perspectives and experiences.”

Ouch, those are my homies. So I’m just another old-fashioned crank history has left behind.


nastywoman 12.07.18 at 8:35 am

”I have spoken to people my age from all around the world and never identified a program like it”.

You – and everybody else might want to look at ”Bafög”? – as –
”the maximum amount per month for students in higher education is currently 735 euros. The level of BAföG support depends on various factors. Generally speaking, the level of payments depends on the student’s income and assets and the income of his or her parents. BAföG payments helps German students to support themselves without having to work at all, or only as little as possible, in addition to their studies.
BAföG enables young men and women to choose the training that suits their personal interests, irrespective of their families’ financial means. Millions of young people have already benefited from this kind of training assistance”.

Is that… ”neoliberal” too?


Matt 12.07.18 at 10:02 am

It was a guaranteed $100 a month with no repayment obligations, eligibility based on parental income, paid direct to the student even if they are under 16. …. I have spoken to people my age from all around the world and never identified a program like it (I guess the northern paradises may have something?)

When I lived in Russia, students at universities got student stipends. (I don’t think they were means tested, though I’m not certain.) By that point, because of inflation, they were not huge amounts of money, but still mattered to students, especially the ones who came from villages and so didn’t live with their parents. I assumed it was a hold-over from the Soviet Union, but don’t know for sure. If they still exist, I expect they have been even further cut away by inflation, like most social benefits in Russia, to the point of being nominal, but they did exist and matter for some time.


John Quiggin 12.07.18 at 6:52 pm

Faustusnotes, the scheme you mention was a successor of a Whitlam government program, the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme, which I received when I went to university in the early 1970s. The same was true of Medicare. That’s not to say they weren’t positive achievements. The Hawke-Keating government did a better job of soft neoliberalism than either Blair or Clinton. Still, they clearly fit my description

Neoliberalism is mostly used to mean one thing in the US (former liberals who have embraced some version of Third Way politics, most notably Bill Clinton) and something related, but different, everywhere else (market liberals dedicated to dismantling the social democratic welfare state, most notably Margaret Thatcher). Here I’m using it to cover both versions, which I’ll call soft and hard. The central theme is the inevitability and desirability of a globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector. The difference between the two versions turns essentially on whether this requires destruction of the welfare state or merely “reform”, along the lines undertaken by the Clinton Administration.


bob mcmanus 12.07.18 at 9:01 pm

The central theme is the inevitability and desirability of a globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector.

Strikes me as kinda a hard sell to people who consider themselves on the center-left, and I disagree that this is the central theme. Like liberalism, the central theme is freedom and opportunity, based on a meritocracy. But I think a little more as a sociologist, rather than economist.

1) To repeat in better detail, social democracy is “Here is your free state daycare, same for everybody, take it or do without.”

Neoliberalism says: “Have some cash. For you professional UMC couples, you can add a grand a month and get top shelf professional daycare. You have earned it. You care for your kids. The factory worker will just have to settle for the minimum-wage immigrant labour daycare, but we just can’t afford top-shelf daycare for everybody” This will sell like hotcakes.

2) Oh, too OT, but yet another short 2016 analysis mostly for my fellow Bernie bros and overdetermination.

Both Clinton and Sanders have strong feminist and civil rights resumes. I would contend the Sanders as a socialist acted on principle, he helped blacks and women because it was the right thing to do. And when faced with a conflict, Sanders will ignore his personal feelings and do what’s right.

Clinton’s civil rights and feminism is based on biography and establishing personal relationships. When faced with a conflict, Clinton will take care of her friends and allies, principles be damned.

Blacks and women have been screwed by the rules and principles for generations. They were absolutely right to be horrified by Sanders and prefer Clinton. They don’t want a universal progressivism, they want it directed to them and away from the previously privileged.

Sanders lost, and will continue to lose. The political is personal.


Collin Street 12.08.18 at 1:15 am

I mean… if neoliberalism means anything it means something approximating the use of government coercion to create or maintain a domain with controlled incentives for private choice to work within, with the incentives being structured such as to achieve the desired social outcomes.

That’s… not inherently evil, is it? Obviously it is if the ends are, and it’s kind of roundabout and confusing which is neutral-to-somewhat-negative [makes it easier to hide a desire for bad outcomes], but on the other hand there’s a broad range of subjects that can be described as “Outcome X really works pretty well for most people, but we don’t want to insist because there’s a reasonable number of people it works poorly for, each in different ways so regulating the special cases individually is impracticable” where incentivated choice — or whatever the formal jargon is — is a reasonable approach.


Faustusnotes 12.08.18 at 1:27 am

Seriously McManus, the government giving financial support direct to poor students isneoliberalism? Is there anything a gift can do in this world that is not neoliberal?

Yes John, austudy replaced the TEAC. It widened the range of students who could receive it and paid by age rather than type of study. The year after it was introduced payments to adult students became larger by about 10%, and the number of recipients increased by 30% (the APH has tables). Is this “neoliberal “? Or is your position going to be that Whitlam was also “neoliberal “?

I can’t tell from your comment if your “definition” is by you or someone else, but your definition is meaningless and doesn’t even work in America. First of all, to boil it down, you say “neoliberal means a liberal who follows some kind of third way politics”. What kind of definition is this? You have just introduced a new weasel word. “What is x?” “Oh, x is z!” Can you give a valid definition of “third way”? I think you can’t, or you would just have put it straight into your definition of neoliberal. But then you say neoliberal outside of the USA means a political movement that destroys the welfare state and cite thatcher. But she never destroyed the welfare state and never tried. She reformed it! So now your definition rests on reform. But recent movements that are routinely decried as “neoliberal “ like Obama and the Australian Labor Party have expanded welfare, not reformed it. Obamacare is the biggest expansion of the welfare state In generations, the ALP introduced Medicare, austudy, and then NDIS. In the uk Blair restored funding to the nhs after a long period of declines.

As for Clinton’s welfare reforms as a marker of neoliberalism- maybe they were just racism?

You need a better definition of neoliberalism, or you need to recognize that none of the parties and political movements you have identified are neoliberal. That’s a big problem for your three party theory.


John Quiggin 12.08.18 at 3:37 am

I think we have run out of useful discussion. As I said, in the post linked at the beginning of this one, in my terminology “The central theme [of neoliberalism] is the inevitability and desirability of a globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector.” If you don’t like to use the word “neoliberalism” that way, feel free to substitute “Ideology X”. If you still disagree that Blair, Clinton and Keating were advocates of Ideology X, we are unlikely to find common ground.


faustusnotes 12.08.18 at 5:50 am

None of the examples you gave above have anything to do with “globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector.” You cited reducing the top rate of income tax, destroying welfare, and a poorly-managed extension of a student loan program. There’s no relationship between these things. Tony Blair, certainly, was big on increasing the influence of the financial sector (and “intensely relaxed” about people being “insanely rich”), but he also increased spending on welfare. Keating was certainly very serious about lowering tariff barriers and opening Australia to international competition, but he and Hawke also introduced Medicare and austudy. But back when he was doing these things Australians invented our own word for his policy framework, which we called “economic rationalism” and which perfectly adequately described what he was doing. Your definition of neoliberalism is vague to the point of meaningless, keeps being pared back and changed (you have dropped your insistence that we can distinguish between kinds of neoliberalism by ” whether this requires destruction of the welfare state or merely ‘reform'”, probably because I pointed out that most of your exemplars didn’t even try to destroy the welfare state), and doesn’t fit to the actual policy activities in place in the countries you discuss. So no, I don’t think there’s any point in simply renaming neoliberalism to something else, since the problem is the definition, not the name.

This is also not about finding “common ground.” Whether the Australian Labor Party pursued a policy of globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector, and destroyed the welfare state as part of its central theme, is a matter of fact, not opinion, so in this discussion one of us has to be right and one of us has to be wrong. I have pointed out clearly and simply how you are wrong about the ALP. There is an alternative definition of the ALP as the party of social democracy, funded and run by the unions, which passes policies to benefit the majority of its union supporters, but needs to cut deals with its enemies in business because that’s what unions always have to do. It is opposed by a broad church conservative party that is split between religious right, agrarian socialism and true liberalism, and the failure of both parties to deal with problems of generational inequity and environmental disaster – brought about by their commitment to the people whose interests they serve – has allowed in a third, alternative party that targets environmental emergency in its policies. Everything that happens in Australian politics can be understood through this framework, and without reference to irrelevant American silliness like Trumpism, or stupid democratic socialist party weasel words like “neoliberalism”.

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