The Australian Post-Labor Party

Why the future is Workless

Tim Dunlop



The origins of Australia’s oldest political party remain murky. Though most Labor members would agree we began the fight sometime during the early 1890s in the wake of a calamitous economic depression, we are at odds as whether it all started in Barcaldine, Queensland when a group of disgruntled pastoral labourers threw down their tools and met under what myth has now enshrined as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, or in a room at the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain, New South Wales. Though the debate carries on with zeal, advocates for Balmain have this on their side: the local residents seem to have an uncanny ability to ride at the head of political trends. Recently the former bastion of unionists, single-tax Henry George Leaguers and doctrinaire socialists, has become the centre of political action for the NSW Greens Party, whose assorted membership of cashed-up yuppies, environmentalists and doctrinaire socialists expose some of the great changes that are occurring in the political demography of Australia.

Political scientist and journalist Tim Dunlop’s new work, Why the future is Workless, addresses why these changes are taking place and why slogans such as, “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” don’t quite have the political currency they once had. Dunlop is a deft writer, able to assimilate and explain pages of academic research without ever succumbing to academese himself, guiding the reader in a clear, conversational and yet penetrating style. Think Orwell with a dash of Australian humour. Dunlop’s main thesis is that Western societies are reaching a critical stage where the traditional capitalist system that has ordered our respective societies for so long is at breaking point. New technologies are emerging that threaten to automate the majority of our jobs and this poses a serious threat to how our society currently redistributes wealth and provides structural order to our daily lives. Why the future is Workless posits a brave new world which has the potential to radically alter how our economy, our communities and even our very own identities are shaped by our work.

To help elucidate his argument, Dunlop divides his work into a series of clear, distinct chapters, guiding the reader through a brief explication of the various philosophies of work, from ancient Athens to our own time, before turning our gaze to the current state of affairs in the workplace and what they portend for the future. In short, the answer in Dunlop’s view is relatively bleak: the current political project of market liberalisation and globalisation which has witnessed the steady erosion of the post-war welfare state and employees’ rights in the workplace is being aided by the emergence of new technologies such as computerised automation and jobseeking phone apps. Here Dunlop cites a recent report from Oxford University entitled ‘The Future of Employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?’ which states that up to 47% of jobs in the US economy are at a high risk of automation in the next two decades. Of course, we’ve all heard that hoary old chestnut asserting that new technologies, while replacing jobs, leads to the creation of new forms of employment. But Dunlop, with almost robotic precision, examines the evidence for this argument and suggests that anyone who believes the 21st century automated car will create as many jobs as the 18th century spinning machine is largely speaking on an act of blind faith.

Perhaps anticipating his reader’s growing despair, Dunlop proposes a readymade prescription, dedicating an entire chapter to the relatively new concept of a Universal Basic Income, a scheme whereby governments pay citizens an unconditional liveable wage . Advocates claim that only such a scheme can solve the emerging employment crisis that computerised automation seems to be bringing to realisation. Indeed, a Basic Income would have the additional benefit of empowering jobseekers who otherwise would face a grim future of infrequent and unreliable contract work, providing an effective security blanket if a potential employer’s terms seemed too onerous. Dunlop explores the feasibility of such a scheme, suggesting that objections that it could make people lazy or that it is too expensive, are refutable in the face of growing evidence and case studies. Rather, Dunlop suggests the main obstacle is one of political feasibility at this point in time. Surprisingly there might be just as much antipathy on Labor’s side to such an idea as we can inevitably expect from the Liberals; as increasing the bargaining power of individuals would reduce the need for workers to collectively organise and form unions.

Dunlop wraps up his book with the suggestion that three paths lie ahead for us: we can carry on as things are and put all our faith into trickle-down economics and the market, which judging by Prime Minister Turnbull’s recent announcement of corporate tax cuts appears to the Coalition’s approach. Or we can try and turn back time, reinvest in the welfare state and reinstate traditional worker protections so that workers can get the education and support they need to reskill as the job market rapidly transmogrifies before their very eyes. Or we can start to embrace a world where work is no longer a primary aspect in our daily lives, a world where, as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes once suggested, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to use his leisure…to live wisely, agreeably and well”.

For the Australian Labor Party, the final option would appear to be nothing less drastic than a complete existential break from the Party’s historical foundations. Indeed, the concept of work is in our very name! As former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard once said:

I believe in the importance of hard work; the obligation that we all owe to ourselves and others, to earn our keep and do our best.

Life is given direction and purpose by work. Without work there is a corrosive aimlessness. With the loss of work comes a loss of dignity.

But we should not mistake the historic fight for good, well-paying jobs as the raison d’etre of our party. Labor fought for the rights and pay of Australian workers because work was the traditional means through which we sought to realise our core values and beliefs in an egalitarian society and a ‘fair go for all’. As a movement we cannot keep harping on about the inherent ‘dignity’ of work while jobs grow increasingly scarce and those that remain become ever more precarious. It is time for the Labor Party to start considering its own post-work future. Can we ween our fellow Australians off a dependency on work as a means to structure their daily lives? What then would be the means of building a viable post-work society that can provide fulfilment and meaning to our lives? Tim Dunlop’s book offers an excellent analysis and provides some answers for the first question, but it remains up to us to ponder the second.