Address to the NSW ALP Conference on Labor's enduring purpose

8.03am | July 29, 2014


Labor's enduring purpose

On Saturday, the NSW ALP Conference debated a proposal to replace Labor's socialist objective. I made a short speech, defending the core principles of social democracy, and the enduring importance of our history.


I am not opposed to a discussion or a debate.

But I don’t want a debate that starts with a fundamental mischaracterisation of the objective as it currently stands.

And I am opposed to walking away from our history, philosophy and practical traditions without a serious process to engage our members.


For me, the great strength of the objective lies in the first 9 words:

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party…*

Those words communicate a great deal.

Historically they link us to the great twentieth century movement of working people that chose democratic means over Stalinism, even while they rejected unregulated capitalism.

It’s a history that binds us to our sister parties in the social democratic world.

It’s a history conservative parties can only dream about.

Philosophically the objective reflects the insight that democratic promises mean very little if we don’t address the economic forces which practically limit our freedoms and our rights.

The great Labor institutions – our wages systems, our health system, superannuation, the NDIS -  all these policies respond to this central social democratic truth – that equality before the law means little without economic and social justice.

Practically, the objective is consistent with our pragmatic tradition of combining market forces with state involvement.

Let’s be clear - democratic socialisation is not nationalisation.

Let’s not fall for a straw man debate – just so we can mirror the British debate.

I know every leadership group wants a “clause 4 moment”.

The problem is that the circumstances are very different.

Nationalisation – or common ownership – was at the heart of clause 4.

But nationalisation is not at the heart of Labor’s objective.

Our policy history bears this out. It is striking how few of Labor’s great nation building achievements involve nationalisation.

Think about healthcare. Chifley’s PBS, Whitlam’s Medibank, Hawke’s Medicare – none of these nationalise healthcare.

Instead, our universal health system rests on the power of the state to purchase services – through bulk billing we purchase services from private GPs, and through the PBS we purchase medicine from private pharmaceutical companies.


If we want to have a debate – let’s have one.

But don’t let’s adopt a motion that prejudges the outcome of the discussion.

Don’t let’s start the debate on false premises.

Let’s have a real debate about our vision.

Let’s do it in a way that strengthens and enriches and our purpose. 

*The full objective reads The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.