Nordic Policies: Will Australia 'look north' again?

A recent review of The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia (edited by Andrew Scott, Deakin University and Rod Campbell, The Australia Institute) written by Benjamin Clark and published by Crikey has drawn attention to the public policy successes of the Nordic nations (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland). As the review makes clear, notions that these northern European nations are 'monocultural', or that their extensive social spending are only made possible by 'free markets' do not stand up to rigorous critique.

The book's wide-ranging coverage of social, environmental, employment and industrial issues all together reveal how the myth of high taxation/low-growth so often touted by conservative Australian politicians and commentators is easily debunked, alongside a number of other misconceptions about Nordic and Scandinavian nations - such as a widely held yet outdated belief that these nations are deeply homogenous (Sweden, for example, is ranked 9th in the world for refugee intake, whereas Australia is placed 50th).

The book uncovers truths about the 'Nordic Edge' that are difficult to refute when careful research shines a spotlight on pathways to prosperity focused on investments in public goods, rather than a deference to business-led investment.

Importantly, The Nordic Edge and it's coverage in Crikey also remind us of the instrumental role that Laurie Carmichael played in the Australian union movement's early embrace of the solutions that the policy responses of Nordic nations posed to social and economic problems during the 1970s and 1980s. Carmichael's role in the ACTU and TDC's Australia Reconstructed (1987) report highlighted in particular the positive policy initiatives of Sweden's unions in collaboration with its Social Democratic government, designed to bolster industrial policy priorities that protected workers, guaranteed full employment and ensured wages growth in step with corporate profits.

The Nordic Edge, and furthermore, Crikey's review of the policy ideas inspiring its proposals for Australia, are again at the fore of public debate about Australia's post-COVID-19 economic trajectory. These are very real and achievable political choices Australia can make. And it is worth remembering that these ideas are not new in the Scandinavian, nor the Australian context - Laurie Carmichael championed the Australian union movement's embrace of policy possibilities that break with the status quo of Anglosphere neoliberalism. The way forward for our political choices is in revisiting the positions Carmichael held 30 years ago and placing them at the centre of public policymaking in Australia today.

The review is behind a paywall, but subscribers to Crikey can access it here.

Laurie Carmichael's legacy and its importance to Australia today

What values and vision can Australia look to in the 21st century to restore nation-building achievements of the labour movement?

Laurie Carmichael, trade union leader and activisit, was dedicated to collective values and principles that are deeply relevant to Australians today. As a nation, we again face the callous and corrupt rule of a Coalition government incapable of offering workers a vision that empowers them to participate in political, social and economic transformations that create quality jobs, a fairer society and a greener environmental future.

Carmichael's life was one of service to Australian workers. The values he held and the beliefs he demonstrated embodied ideas that all workers must hold close to their hearts when they next negotiate for better pay and conditions with increasingly powerful employers; when they next go to the ballot box to decide whether workers should have a bigger say in the economy or whether the investment banks, oligopolistic corporations and fossil fuel executives should decide what trickles down to the workers on a dying planet; and in choosing, in the workplace and in public life, whether this legacy might shape the union movement’s decades-long effort to leave future generations a better Australia – the kind that Laurie Carmichael wanted for all.

Exploring the legacy of Laurie Carmichael in this essay is how I have come to understand what unions have done for Australians, and how Carmichael’s values hold meaning for all workers. A study of Carmichael’s life and values uncovers guiding principles by which the Australian trade union movement could actively shape a social contract for the 21st century.