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The nadir of democracy in the ALP

By Marko Beljac - posted Thursday, 10 September 2009

In a recent edition of a local rag in the City of Brimbank, situated within Melbourne's western suburbs, it was reported that none of the local ALP members of parliament, either state or federal, have lived in the area for longer than 12 months. That figure is interesting in light of the fact that it is the ethically challenged practices of the local Labor Party machine that have rocked the Brumby Government in Victoria.

At first glance there would appear to be no hard and fast link between these two facts. However, a little thought would suffice to show that the link is intimate. If the ALP were a democracy, in which local working class members of real and genuine standing (i.e. not stackees) determine preselection, it would be difficult to imagine that right wing outsiders would come to dominate parliamentary representation.

Of the local federal members all are of the right; Bill Shorten, Brendan O'Connor, Nicola Roxon and Julia Gillard. This list would be disputed on grounds that Gillard is of the labor left. In fact Gillard was an important part of Brumby's "Labor renewal" push, when she served as chief of staff during his tenure as opposition leader, which partly depended upon the support of the Brimbank machine. Elements of that machine helped deliver the numbers for Gillard when she stood for preselection in Lalor.


Whatever principles she was committed to in a previous life were long gone even before she stepped foot into federal parliament. Her conversion is not recent. But at least she didn't declare herself to be a socialist in her maiden speech like Lindsay Tanner, Brand Rudd's socialist minister for deregulation.

To be sure these federal MPs might well all live in their electorates. Nonetheless, however, they would tend to do so in parts of their electorate where the traditional Labor working class vote is at its softest. The asymmetry is revealing. The dedicated representatives of the working class, no doubt all have sung teary eyed renditions of The Red Flag or something in the John Curtin hotel, wouldn't actually want to live among the yobbos now would they? After all, as The Australian Financial Review explained, Gillard "prefers the private school crowd".

The underlying sentiment was well captured by Neil McPhee, naturally of Surrey Hills, when he wrote in a letter to the AFR (September 3, 2009) that "I wouldn't so much mind Labor, but for the fact the boys simply have no sense of style".

The most important point here is that the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party has long been a part of the dominant neoliberal consensus. The core tenets of neoliberalism have consistently been opposed by the party's genuine membership. I was once a member of the ALP and I, for one, rarely ever heard a good word for tax cuts for the rich, for privatisation, for so-called free trade, for labour market deregulation, for financial market deregulation and so on.

It follows by simple logic that the only way such policies could indeed become party policy was by way of the restriction of democracy. Ever since Gough Whitlam (a man of style) started the process during the corporate media induced fakery over the "36 faceless men" that is what a procession of Labor leaders have done. By further consolidating party power in the leader's office Rudd merely continues the tradition.

To be sure the ALP tended to be ruled with an iron hand by Cyril Wyndham, but the point of Whitlam's seeking to take power away from the organisation was to enable corporate Australia to have greater leverage over the policies of this country's main working class party.


Now a curious, and long standing, scholarly debate on the nature of Labor tradition in the light of the party's commitment to neoliberalism continues to be waged. The best contribution to this debate has been made by Graham Maddox and Tim Battin. They argue that since the Hawke Government the ALP has betrayed Labor tradition because in adopting neoliberal policies the party has abandoned socialism. Rick Kuhn disputes this arguing that the ALP was never committed to socialism so there exists no socialist tradition for Brand Rudd and others to betray.

The Maddox and Battin thesis can be criticised, but not on the grounds presented by Kuhn. In the latest edition of The Australian Journal of Political Science, Kuhn (he has the obligatory quote from Lenin) argues that in fact Labor governments have always been committed to advancing the accumulation of capital. By this he means putting in place a broad policy framework conducive to corporate profit making. Because this is now best served by neoliberal type reforms, and has been from the stagflation of the 1970s onwards, it follows that since Hawke (indeed Whitlam) the Labor leadership cannot be said to be acting contrary to this practice.

Kuhn places too much emphasis on the actions of the party's leaders when in government. There is more to the ALP than simply its leadership. The hopes and aspirations of its members and working class supporters do not figure according to Kuhn. It is understandable that Kuhn, a Trotskyite, should view Labor tradition with a vanguardist lens. Those toilers who had trekked hundreds of miles, despite their smashed up lungs courtesy of a lifetime of hard yakka, to proudly vote "Labor" in the early years hardly did so in order to advance capital accumulation.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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