Labour’s showpiece Future of Work conference is all about ‘open source’ policy development – putting ideas out and debating new ways of looking at jobs, incomes and education.

But the party is finding you can be a bit too open for your own good.

Party leader Andrew Little showed his irritation yesterday at one of the downsides of thinking out loud in politics: a suggestion being taken as a commitment. 

More precisely, his comments at his party’s ambitious Future of Work conference in Auckland were targeted at the constraints applied by the news media and his opponents on broad, long-term and blue skies thinking.

A pre-conference discussion paper suggesting the possibility of a universal minimum income at, say, $200 a week, was the focus of media and National Party attention in the lead-up.

The Future of Work is examining changes to the type of work and jobs New Zealanders face from technological changes and globalisation.

The conference’s first speaker, former Clinton Administration Labour Secretary Robert Reich, added change in the nature of capital markets – where companies from the 1980s-on focused almost exclusively on shareholder returns – as a third factor eliminating full time jobs.

Reich was clear Labour’s discussion document musing on a universal minimum income was the right way to go to address people’s security in the longer term.

“Eventually we are going to have to be talking about a Guaranteed Minimum Income.” But, perhaps aware of the criticism Labour has faced, he added: “Right now, it spooks people.”

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In a press conference after his speech and a lengthy question and answer session, Reich explained it is ‘spooky’ because people seemed to react poorly to a policy with a state ‘guarantee’.   

Labour’s finance spokesman Grant Robertson and Mr Little both emphasised any policy would be some way off, if ever adopted. “The important thing Professor Reich said is it is some way away. A universal minimum is not a policy statement.  It is just one of the ways we are looking at,” said Robertson, distancing himself still further by noting the discussion paper was clearly marked as ‘not Labour policy’.

Mr Little chimed in: ‘Let’s be very clear about what this [the Future of Work process] is all about. It is an analysis of issues of the future. It is about ideas and having a debate.’

Asked to comment on Prime Minister John Key labelling the concept ‘barking mad’, Little’s irritation showed: ‘We have a PM who is incapable of dealing with a Big Idea. He’s never had one of his own. He’s incapable of having a discussion on any important public issues.’

The next keynote speaker, Professor Guy Standing, from the University of London, was having none of Key’s criticism – or Labour’s reticence to embrace a universal minimum payment.

“Your Prime Minister said yesterday that something I have been passionately promoting  for 20 years is ‘barking mad’” Standing said. “Thousands of people around the world including Nobel Prize winners have been coming out in support of it.

“He should be very careful we don’t issue a very large Woof and bite his whatever….”

Standing is not one for waiting either. “I disagree with Robert Reich about a basic income being some way in the future. We have to deal with it now. We have to fight now for tomorrow – not say ‘kick it into touch and we will deal with it later.’”

A universal minimum could improve lives and people’s contributions. “It doesn’t make people lazy to have basic security. You need basic security to take risks in life.”

That the universal minimum income dominated media questions was perhaps not surprising. Labour’s “10 Big Ideas” on the future of work published yesterday were  broad brush and feel-good.

Something Equality; Something Technology; Something Business; Something Wealth; Something Justice; Something Income Security; Something Education; Something Tertiary; Something Maori and Something Pasifika. 

Then again, it is such a big subject it would be difficult to present these as anything other than topics, particularly as the task of the Future of Work Commission is only half way completed, a final report due in November this year.  Little said “not all 10 will make it through to issues we will campaign on” at the general election.

About 250 party members, academics, unionists and invited thinkers gathered for the conference, held among the workers of tomorrow at the Auckland University of Technology.

Reich, now at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of the book ‘Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few’.  He summarised the three big forces affecting work as we know it as globalisation (not trade but the direct investment regime it has become), technological displacement (which is happening faster than we can educate people to adapt to it) and the change in the nature of capital markets.

Many people would soon be in a ‘spot auction market’ for their labour where they sold some working hours as required.

Reich’s solutions include making higher education free and ensuring world-class technical and vocational education. He said corporate tax treaties would be needed internationally to prevent big multinationals minimising taxes in different jurisdictions.  And the wealthy would need to be taxed more to pay their fair share.

“We, all of us, can make the rules of the Labour market, and all the other markets that impact on labour. Labour is the most important market. We cannot just sit back and assume there is a market over which we have no control.”

Standing’s message was a forthright challenge to Labour to be bold in standing for the ‘Precariat’ – the group most at risk of rapid societal changes. “The old paradigms have failed. In order to move away from old paradigms, not only do they have to fail but you have to have a new paradigm to move to.’

“Define what is possible to the point that it becomes inevitable.  If you start to put out progressive ideas you are going to be mocked. We have to say to politicians: ‘You will make mistakes but you have got to take the risks.’

Standing said neoliberal thinking that had led to fast disappearing work, hope and belonging  was in part the fault of ‘Labour parties, social democratic parties and in the US, the Democratic Party which have not only been privy to this process but have been fundamentally guilty of accentuating that process.

“We must be honest about it as progressives and not pretend it is all about power and those nasty corporates. Labour parties: Look in the mirror, okay?’

He described an existential insecurity for those with little chance of finding meaningful work.  ‘You are reduced to being a supplicant, asking for favours, asking for pity, asking to be given something. That’s the reality for the mass of people in the Precariat.’

But going backwards was not the answer. Quoting graffiti from Spain’s protesting Indignados that ‘The Worst thing would be to go back to the Old Normal’, Standing said the concept of one job for 30 years full time, did not “excite their juices”.

“And we have to think outside the box in new ways of working. We have to confront the technology driven forms of work, the crowd labour and say ‘Okay, we are not going to be King Canute. But in return we need the voice to determine how and why it is done and we need a social dividend.”

The conference continues today (Thursday) focusing on education, training, technology, Maori economic development and the role of unions.

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