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The ALP leadership fiddles while the party's grassroots ideals burn

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 3 October 2003


Everyone in Australia who is not a right-wing zealot must be getting worried about the ALP. Even those who want John Howard back for another term must be getting a little toey about the lack of restraint on his power due to the weakness of Labor. At the heart of Labor's predicament is the hard fact that few in the party with any real clout actually seem to understand what the problem is.

The Labor leadership issue refuses to go away. In recent weeks we have seen talk of Bob Carr switching to federal politics, Kim Beazely muttering away in the background, Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan proffering criticism, Carmen Lawrence being touted as ALP national president, Lindsay Tanner getting active and the Mark Latham show rolling along. Meanwhile Simon Crean, who nobody could accuse of lacking perseverance and for whom it must all be an increasingly painful exercise, looks more and more like a dead duck.

Needless to say, most of this speculation is completely ludicrous, reflecting both the desperation and isolation of certain ALP and media people. Bob Carr would be just another clueless media junkie outside the Sydney bearpit (personally, I think Peter Beattie has better credentials if one is looking for a state leader to go to Canberra). As for Beazely he is dead, dead, dead as a serious leadership contender because if he wins the leadership the ALP is equally as dead, dead, dead. He has had his go, fluffed it, tried again, and lost. Goodbye, Kim, hope the book writing or visiting fellowship or whatever goes well. As for the roosters - Smith and Swan - they have never offered anything more than capable support capacity, limited as they are both in personality and ideas. Like Beazely, they have pretty much shot their bolt and have nothing new to offer.

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The idea of a popularly elected ALP president taking on the role of party conscience has some value. It is a role Carmen Lawrence appears to want. To a certain degree Barry Jones tried to do this while he was president, so it is a little ironic he is going up against Lawrence this time (but then Barry Jones has always suffered from being ten years ahead of everyone else in the ALP). As long as Lawrence can maintain her rage, she can contribute effectively in presenting the ALP as a genuinely open, progressive and democratic party. The traditional role of a president is to embody the abiding, long-term values of an institution, particularly as a counterbalance to the necessarily pragmatic approach of the operational leadership. Lawrence, who no one denies is intelligent and articulate, could play this role very effectively.

And as for the federal parliamentary leadership, it is to be hoped that the new generation - most notably Latham, Tanner and Gillard - can find enough common cause to collectively wield the proverbial new broom. There is certainly a lot of dust to be swept away.

However, the whole matter of federal ALP leadership is in reality something of a distraction from the real problem. And this is that the party, as a functioning social institution, is moribund and ripe for decline and possible demise. It is creaky, tired and tatty.

Institutions rarely work perfectly, especially one that attempts to combine as many disparate social interests as the ALP does. Even a quick glance at ALP history shows how tricky the whole project has been, not only because it has had to meld the various social forces into a reasonably cohesive political entity but also because it has done so in the face of sustained hostility from the most powerful economic forces in Australian society. So, for instance, the fact that the ALP survived the great split of the 1950s and 60s and did not go feral after the 1975 dismissal - described by some as a constitutional coup - is a testament to its long-term strength.

But times have changed, and the ALP hasn't - not enough, anyway. There has been a social and technological revolution in the past two decades that has affected everything. New ideas and technologies - especially information technologies - have brought about a transformation in our social structures and processes, including institutions of all kinds.

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This has not occurred to the necessary extent in the ALP. The harsh reality is that it is still far too hierarchical, secretive, rigid, and internally divided (read, faction-riven) to function as an effective mass political party in the information age. At the grass roots it is dying from lack of ideological fertiliser and choked by the weeds of personal ambition, while its party functionaries and parliamentarians suffer from a debilitating"'politics as public relations" approach. There is a "business as usual" attitude that defies belief, given the situation that Labor finds itself in. Overall, party morale is dismal - the ALP is facing the next federal election with the attitude of a condemned man forced to choose between hanging and a firing squad.

Whoever claims the leadership has to address this problem of institutional obsolescence as a matter of priority. But it is not just up to the federal parliamentary leader or leaders. The whole operational leadership of the ALP needs to review the nature and future of the ALP, in regard to both winning government and doing something meaningful while in government.

Simon Crean's reforms, as hard-fought as they were, were just the beginning. The ALP must learn to attract new members with expertise as well as good intentions, to properly exploit their talents, to access relevant expertise outside the party, to open up the processes of the party, and to allow real talent to move up through the party. These changes will in turn generate appropriate policy.

As things stand the ALP is headed for the rubbish tip, and it is overloaded with people going along for the ride. A new generation of federal leaders can turn it around but only hand-in-hand with fundamental institutional reform. ALP members, ALP voters and all concerned with the lurch and to the right and Americanisation of Australia under Howard have a vested interest in this happening.

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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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