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The Labor Party leadership challenge: So what was that all about?

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 24 June 2003


Simon Crean is back as leader after crushing the Beazley revolt but the ALP is now riven by deep and apparently rancorous division. Meanwhile, the Howard government has escaped the scrutiny that Bush and Blair have been experiencing over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, because our media was distracted by the ALP leadership contest. Howard's honesty should be a key issue in the next election, but he may squirm out of it now. Talk about own goals …

For Labor, this is real deckchairs on the Titanic stuff. Australia is undergoing basic changes that will shape the way the nation fares for decades, and the ALP is fighting over which of two so-far-unimpressive men will lead federal Labor.

The whole party leadership is at fault here: Crean for giving his detractors hope in the first place; Beazley for his unbelievable new-found passion (as if he has not had every chance to show his stuff already); and the state party heavies and federal caucus members for not closing down the challenge quickly.

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All the old fault lines in the ALP have been reopened with one stupid move. Left versus right, New South Wales versus Victoria, policy versus strategy, generational change - it was all there in this toxic mix that was never going to generate anything but trouble. Whoever won, Howard was going to be handed some prize material for the next election and the preceding parliamentary debates.

And of course, despite Beazley's noble promise that he has had his one and only shot, the challenge is not necessarily over. There is plenty of talk that he was the unwitting stalking horse for other interests in the ALP. If Crean continues to poll badly, it will doubtless all start up again.

The deckchairs-on-the-Titanic metaphor is extremely apt. The ALP is cruising along like a vast ship full of passengers focussed on their own petty interests and crewed by incompetents. The ALP as an organisation is hopelessly outdated. It cannot generate appropriate policy, it cannot promote talent and it cannot run itself effectively. The iceberg of complete oblivion looms just ahead, and someone in the ALP better grab the helm and steer a new course before the ship strikes it.

But even if some brave crew-members get to the bridge, they will fail if the rest of the crew and the passengers do not cooperate. And herein lies the rub. This cooperation, which requires putting the overall good of the party (not to mention the country) over self-interest, does not arise out of nothing. It comes out of a sustained process of open negotiation and then the discipline needed to follow an agreed-upon course.

Currently, and despite the hard-fought but ultimately trivial reforms achieved by Crean, the ALP is completely incapable of behaving like the sort of organisation that can consistently succeed in 21st century politics. It is intellectually moribund and run like a cosy club for insiders. The very fact that the leadership contest was between the sons of two ALP ministers should in itself be ringing alarm bells (as should the fact that no woman has been mentioned as a serious leadership candidate since Carmen Lawrence dropped off the map).

Simon Crean had better learn the lesson from all this. He has to have a red hot go, take chances and make the media and the public take notice. He has to take risks and therefore make mistakes; and no more of this small-target crap. If the ALP is to be run by opinion polls, just change the name to Whatever the Polls Say Party so that old ALP people won't be embarrassed. Otherwise, take principled stands on core issues like health, education, industrial relations, the environment, Aboriginal land rights, globalisation, the role of the United Nations in world governance, and so on, and fight for them.

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There is a well-known tenet regarding leadership in a crisis: the worst decision is to make no decision. Showing leadership means having a vision and having a plan to achieve that vision, which in turn requires people to commit themselves as well. Such consistent and determined leadership will in itself eventually generate confidence in people, as Bob Brown has shown. But this courage to lead comes from knowing that the policies are inherently strong and the party is equally strong in its support of them. This only comes about when those policies are the result of a genuine negotiation process. And this only happens in organisations where there is sustained open process and promotion on grounds of talent.

The ALP's leadership problem is ultimately due to a general lack of direction, a lack of vision, and therefore a perception of lack of relevance by the electorate. Whoever leads the ALP, these failures must be rectified, and soon.

Meanwhile, the sound of John Howard's laughter echoes across the still, starlit ocean, and the iceberg looms ever closer on the port bow…

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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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