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The Australian Labor Party: incestuous, secretive, sclerotic

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 13 July 2005


There’s good and bad news for Federal Labor. The good news is that its most capable MP, Lindsay Tanner, is back with a plan regarding that perennial hot topic, taxation. The bad news is that, despite the efforts of Tanner and a few others, Mark Latham was probably right that Labor is irreparably damaged as a force for progressive change in Australia.

One should be careful in writing off the ALP. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s it was pretty hopeless, led by men who were either half-crazy or driven by bile, and yet Labor rejuvenated itself to become one of the most important reform governments ever. After the usual suspects ganged up on them and the weakness in Whitlam’s leadership style became clear, it crashed. But Labor then came back to govern effectively, if without much vision, through the 1980s and early 1990s.

Tanner’s instinct about focusing on tax is a good one. Labor needs to re-establish government as the nexus between society and the economy, with a clear intent to enhance social justice. A genuine debate on tax policy should do this. If Tanner can pull it off, he’ll be the obvious candidate for leader and Labor will be well served.

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However, the Labor Party itself is the biggest problem. It is pretty much entirely run by self-serving state premiers and hard-core factional warriors. The premiers have found out that media spin and middle-of-the-road government works well at the state level where people expect very little to happen as long as basics are taken care of. The faction warriors don’t really care about Labor as a socially progressive force, as long as their boys and girls get the jobs.

The internal culture of the ALP could hardly be worse. It is fundamentally corrupt and utterly introspective. The corruption is not the obvious kind, but an interconnected set of values and practices that have become normalised. The result is a party dominated by incestuous relationships, secret deals and an aversion to genuinely open process. Sometimes this pattern becomes public - as with the chronic issue of branch stacking - but mostly it resides at a systemic level where it is so pervasive few even recognise it any more.

The result is that not many self-respecting people with the sort of analytical skills any progressive party needs can tolerate the indifference and even hostility they encounter within the ALP. From branch level up, they are told subtly and otherwise that they don’t matter unless they have factional weight and toe the line. It is a perfect recipe for mediocrity and careerism.

And criticisms of this culture are met with superior smirks that say: “Look, we are the political professionals, and this is what politics is about these days. Now toddle off and leave the big boys to it.” Labor used to be full of all types of people with diverse and genuine experience and talent - it is now frighteningly homogenous.

Even if a few competent and progressive leaders emerge, as they do from time to time, they increasingly lack the support from the lower strata. More and more the staffers are careerists with their own eyes on the jobs ahead, or racking up experience to put on a CV before they move into something more lucrative. They revel in the complexity of political life and see ready compromise as the noble art of real politik.

Labor has been haemorrhaging members for years, and it is often the best people who leave. New members still trickle in, many fired by the need to do something positive. It is especially sad to see the expressions on their faces as the reality dawns on them, and then they mostly just disappear, taking their ideas and enthusiasm with them.

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Right now the ALP is bereft of both good ideas and principled, intelligent expertise.

The ALP was intended to be a reformist party whose intent was social justice. Its role has been complicated by the changes in class composition and the rise of new political issues such as feminism and environmentalism. But there is no reason why the original mandate could not be expanded to include these causes. No doubt it is difficult, but progressive politics either takes on the difficult tasks or it is meaningless. Unfortunately, the structure, practices and dominant personality types of Labor are stuck back in the days when toughness and a single-minded ruthlessness were the currencies of power in labour relations and politics generally.

Right now Labor is stuck with Kim Beazley - inherently conservative, not at all intellectual and far too militarist in these days of Bush’s bellicosity - who will take it nowhere. Latham failed, but his leadership was at least an attempt to shift the ground. Of course, he never had the party with him because it is still controlled by the dull, bankrupt but entrenched machine men.

For all this, it is not impossible - thanks to accident or Liberal incompetence - that Labor will eventually regain national government. But under Beazley and the machine men it will be of marginal benefit in terms of real social justice, environmental sanity, indigenous rights, and so on. Ultimately it will only prolong the agony, more of a distraction than anything.

If Labor were a business, it would be wound up and the assets re-invested elsewhere. The corporate culture has gone bad and too many senior staff have gone to seed. The investors - those who still vote Labor - just aren’t getting real value any more.

Can Tanner turn Labor around? I doubt it - Labor is just too sclerotic at every level. So those who still care about progressive politics better start seriously thinking about alternatives. Whether that means cranking up one of the other parties to real efficacy, starting up a new party or shifting focus from party politics entirely (to, say, networked grassroots activism) needs urgent, serious and sustained debate. Followed by decisive action.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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