A glance at the Labor Caucus reveals a depressing sight. Among its ranks are a chorus of members of the “political class”, whose professional lives have been spent mostly, or entirely, within the Labor party or the labour movement. While their political opponents might boast lawyers, entrepreneurs and a variety of other white-collar professionals, the same cannot be said of the Labor Party.
According to a Parliamentary Library research note 34 per cent of Labor parliamentarians show “party and union administrators and officials” as their previous occupation, while just seven per cent worked in the law and 11 per cent as business managers. Among the coalition, only two per cent were in this first category.
We have long passed the point in Labor history when representing the party in parliament was a reward for achievements in the outside world. Instead it has become merely a logical continuation of work within the labour bureaucracy.
The starting point for this "career" (for want of a better word), is our university campuses. On campuses across the country, young, talented left-leaning students are sucked into the world of political machinations. For some this means playing the game of student politics, while for others it involves a plum appointment as a staff member of a state or federal member of parliament. The idea of seeking to achieve things outside the Labor machine is frowned on.
Much has been said about the total lack of perspective held by many inside student politics. To its participants, student politics is a life or death struggle for power, where every possible advantage is sought over an opponent. To those watching from the outside, though, it's a remarkably silly battle of little consequence. Regardless of which perception is closer to the truth, however, the bear pit of student politics is considered a training ground for the real thing.
It's doubtful, though, that it's teaching skills are worth learning. Rarely does student politics involve serious policy discussion or a nuanced understanding of different points of view. Rarely does it involve the art of persuasion. Rarely does it involve the tricky business of reasoning and rational argument. Instead, it's a bombastic power struggle. Participants are encouraged to count numbers and stack their way to success, and intimidation and deception are commonplace. Student politics involves the worst elements of the real thing, and that's just why it's such an unfortunate training ground, but lives on nonetheless.
It's also worth remembering that in student politics, the battle is rarely between Liberal and Labor. More often, it is between different factions of the Labor Party, who operate completely independently and consider each other to be their arch political enemies. The animosity between the left faction (Australian Labor Students and National Organisation of Labor Students) and the right faction (Student Unity) is the stuff of legends. It must be quite jarring for these junior pollies to leave university and find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Labor members they previously despised. Little wonder, then, that the factional divide lives on.
All this is not to say, of course, that Liberal-minded students aren't engaged in the same shenanigans. To some extent they are, although the lack of a political gravy train of student political and union jobs prevents Liberal students from venturing further down this path. (Perhaps, ironically, the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism will help the Labor Party by reducing the number of cosy political positions within the student union movement.)
There's also a clear realisation among aspiring young Liberals that their path to Parliament House must inevitably be via another profession. This realisation is part of the reason the Liberals have managed to avoid the same malaise in which the Labor Party currently finds itself.
There's no suggestion that factional warfare in the Labor Party is the result of factionalism in junior politics. The problem, though, is that the shallow gene pool of participants in junior politics seems to be the major source of future parliamentarians in the Labor Party. This depressing situation will continue as long as the Caucus is filled with career politicians, who spend their younger days wallowing in the pettiness of student politics and then make no attempt to learn skills or establish their credentials elsewhere.
The trend is not unstoppable. The preselection of entrepreneur (and, incidentally, former student politician) Evan Thornley to a state Labor seat in Victoria, and the preselection of lawyer Mark Dreyfus in the federal seat of Isaacs are steps in the right direction. What is necessary is that these preselections be the rule rather than the exception, in order to send a message out to aspiring young hacks and hackettes that they must broaden their skill base if they are to be successful in politics.
If Labor is to make a serious attempt at gaining government, it will need to work hard to change the composition of its party room. Rewarding talent ahead of loyal service would be a good start. These hackneyed Labor groupies are surely not the basis of the next Labor government.