Where to From Here?

Where to from here? I don’t know any better than anyone else who struggles with this question. But as someone said of the British Labor Party opposition during the early period of Thatcher dominance, ‘Their cheerful motto was, “While there’s death there’s hope.”‘

Most of my views (indeed biases) about the contemporary situation of the federal ALP were articulated in detail in my Quarterly Essay ‘Beyond Belief: What Future for Labor?’ published in 2002. Not a great deal has changed since, although recently the Coalition’s industrial relations legislation has done something towards reuniting the ‘Labor Movement’. Hopefully on an on-going basis.

I suppose I am angry about some of the shortcomings of the federal ALP because the longer it wallows in opposition the more the society I would like to see in Australia becomes unlikely. As Gough Whitlam observed, the way of the reformer is hard in Australia. And it gets harder. Sadly the ALP has all sorts of built-in inhibitions which militate against it being a readily electable party.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

It is a federally structured party consisting of six state and two territory branches which have little to do with each other, except that they pay dues to a weak and functionally ill-defined federal secretariat. It is not a national party. While the debate about the strengths and weaknesses and desirable compromises in relation to the federal system moves on, the ALP structure remains as it was at the start of the 20th century.

The National Conference is elected by the conferences of the state branches. The membership has no direct access to the National Conference. This is not a democratic structure. The proposal of the Hawke/Wran Report of 2002 to provide elections of delegates by and from the federal electorates has been rejected. As one factional leader put it ‘this would be too difficult to manage’.

The decline of the union movement in membership and coverage has weakened the representative nature of the party with ALP affiliate unions now covering only 17 per cent of the workforce.

The professionalisation of politics has resulted in a drastic narrowing of the background and life experience of federal ALP Members of Parliament. The career path of nearly all new members is university, union or MP’s office and then parliament. This can mean a remoteness from community involvement and lack of understanding of the problems and attitudes of ordinary voters. The narrowing of ‘the gene pool’, as it is now described, results, for example, in five or six members of the parliamentary party seeing themselves as potential leaders, although they lack the support, or in most cases, the ability for such a role. There are no ‘stand outs’ as in the past.

Factions dominate both the policy and organisational agenda. The difference between factions are tribal rather than ideological or as Senator John Faulkner puts it ‘feudal’. This makes for an inward rather than an outward-looking party.

The consequence of these various inhibitions has been poor performance in terms of both strategies and policy formulation.

The most unfortunate strategy (borrowed from Howard) was the adoption of ‘the small target’ strategy following the defeat of the Keating Government in 1996. It was never appropriate for a party of progress and reform. Essentially it meant not announcing policies and positions on key issues until as late as possible or, in some cases, not at all.

The ALP, if it is to succeed nationally, has to be the party of ideas, pushing the envelope of reform and change and enlivening the democratic process. It owes this to the broad labour movement. It cannot sit around waiting for governments to fall out of office. It has to strongly differentiate its position from that of the government.

For the last eight or nine years the ALP has not been a party of ideas. More often it has been reactive and sometimes outflanked by sections of the Coalition (on tax, on asylum seekers and detention centres and on anti-terrorism legislation).

And it means that the question has been asked too frequently of the party and at times the leader, ‘What does the ALP stand for?’

That the introduction of new ideas into the agenda can enliven Australian politics was well illustrated by Mark Latham in 2004. Latham’s ideas on community forums and the importance of early childhood development stirred the interest of voters. In earlier times, the ideas of Gough Whitlam did the same.

In a review of The Latham Diaries my former ministerial colleague Neal Blewett articulates many of the criticisms of the federal ALP made above. I have, however, a problem with his conclusion that ‘…we have probably reached the point where, without real internal reform, the Labor party cannot win a national election, but such reform is a near-impossible task for a leader in Opposition. Fortunately, conservative governments can still lose elections.’

Is ‘reform a near-impossible task for a leader in opposition’? Perhaps, but neither Gough Whitlam nor Bill Hayden found it so.

And Blewett’s view that ‘fortunately, conservative governments can still lose elections’ is true. But this is the philosophical justification given by proponents of the small target strategy. The labour movement and the electorate are entitled to the best possible government Labor can produce: not one which falls into office.  

This article s based on an address given to the ACT Fabian Society in November 2005.

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