Chris Bowen has emphatically rejected the idea that Labor will take a “Buffett rule” to the next election and he says progressive political parties need to balance the need to pursue redistributive policies with the need to boost economic growth.
In a wide-ranging interview on Guardian Australia’s politics live podcast, the shadow treasurer delivers a comprehensive thumbs-down to the idea that wealthy Australians would be forced to pay a minimum rate of tax, declaring the Buffett proposal is not a rule but a concept, “because no country has done it”.
“It is actually the Buffett concept because no country has done it, it is not the law of the land anywhere, and no progressive party has it as its policy,” Bowen says. “It’s a concept, an idea.”
He argues a Buffett rule is too blunt a policy instrument and could create a number of unintended consequences, such as harming the fundraising prospects of philanthropic foundations or impacting negatively on angel funding and venture capital – and he insists it “won’t be part of the policy we take to the next election”.
The emphatic nature of Bowen’s response won’t go down well in some quarters of the ALP, with a number of up-and-coming leftwingers, and the former treasurer Wayne Swan, a prominent rightwinger, declaring that Labor must seriously consider the merits of a Buffett rule as part of tax policy for the next federal election.
Proponents of the change say Bowen agreed during the last Labor national conference to properly consider the proposal and he has subsequently refused to do that.
The shadow treasurer neglects to note in his remarks that the Australian Greens last year adopted the Buffett rule as policy.
The interview with Bowen followed a blunt declaration at the National Press Club by the new Australian Council of Trade Unions national secretary, Sally McManus, that neoliberalism had run its course – and a disavowal of liberal economics by the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating after the McManus address.
The podcast conversation with the shadow treasurer considered the guiding principles progressives are bringing to economic policy development after the global financial crisis, the rise of the inclusive growth and inequality agenda, and the disavowal of neoliberalism by some prominent progressives.
Bowen says in the interview he has focused during the past term in opposition on pursuing policies that are both assertively progressive and redistributive, such as Labor’s proposed negative gearing and capital gains tax reforms.
He says Labor will pursue other redistributive measures and there will be more to say between now and the next federal election.
But in a message for internal consumption, Bowen warns it is important for the opposition to resist adopting “very blunt instruments” to deliver progressive and redistributive outcomes. He says he exercised care in the development of the negative gearing and capital gains tax policies to keep the policy sharp and the unintended consequences to a minimum.
Bowen says what Labor did during the past term of opposition “has to be the model for what comes next”. He says his message to progressive people who have grown tired of the status quo and want to achieve a fairer system is “work with us to deliver it”.
The shadow treasurer also argues the economic policy conversation in progressive politics needs to remain focused on economic growth as well as redistribution. “It’s not all about redistribution,” he says. “You’ve got to grow the pie and care how the pie is distributed.”
Bowen says the contemporary growth agenda is different from the orthodoxy that prevailed in the Hawke/Keating years. He says boosting growth now requires a more active role by governments.
“Growth is not about the retreat of government, it is about governments intervening,” Bowen says.
He says Keating’s commentary – in which the former prime minister said liberal economics had run into a dead end and had “no answer to the contemporary malaise” – needs to be understood in the context of the contemporary progressive agenda for economic growth.
Bowen says Keating’s reasoning is that opening up the Australian economy in the 1980s had been important and necessary “but there comes a point where you build on that by saying there’s got to be a dividend for the nation, and there has got to be government involvement”.
He says it is important to acknowledge that the reforms kicked off by Hawke and Keating had delivered an extraordinary run of uninterrupted economic growth but had also fuelled societal inequality.
As well as outlining his economic policy thinking, Bowen also argues progressive parties such as the ALP had to engage in a “values debate” and not vacate the field to rightwing populists.
He says parties of the centre-left need to tell voters “our answer is investing in you, not engaging in populism”.
“It is not about going back and making Australia great again,” Bowen says, borrowing Donald Trump’s campaign slogan from the US presidential race.
“I think there’s an important opportunity for progressive parties because people are craving a values debate. They are saying we no longer want a choice about who is the most efficient technocrat or who is the best insider.
“People want to talk about what sort of country we want.”
He says rightwing populism has gained a foothold because “the person who presents the answer is the one who gets the public support, even if it’s not the right answer. So Donald Trump has an answer. It’s the wrong answer, but he has an answer.”
He says Labor’s message has to be no retreat, and the pitch has to be inclusive and cognisant of the fact that inequality is at a 75-year high.
International evidence supports the idea that progressive political leaders can prosper if they are prepared to articulate a cultural agenda as well as an economic one, he says.
Bowen points to the victory of Justin Trudeau in Canada and the solid performance of the centrist independent, Emmanuel Macron, in the presidential race in France.
“Our values tell us we should be a modern, multicultural, outward-looking, sophisticated country which invests in people and brings people with us.
“I think we can win that values debate.”