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Ghosts in the party room: the past, present and future of the ALP

Does Labor have a future after Julia Gillard? AAP/Alan Porrit

Every day seems to be the worst day for the Gillard government. With an opposition that has refined negativity into a stilleto, it seems that nearly everything the government attempts backfires, leaving Tony Abbott and his crew to reap the benefit.

With a historically poor primary vote mired below 30%, the question is being asked: is it not a case of the Gillard government alone being doomed, but the Australian Labor Party itself as functioning political entity that can win majority government?

I argue this is not the case. Labor in 2012 faces serious, even potentially fatal, challenges, but these are not insurmountable.

The lessons of history

In the 1960s the ALP was experiencing an existential crisis. This was reflected in arguments about our future as a nation and the future of the ALP as a political party. Strong influences were at play – the struggles of colonial peoples against their masters, The Cold War and its contesting ideologies, and the new social movements demanding liberty and equality.

Remember too that the labour movement was deeply divided between the left and its communist influenced unions, the centre and its ALP loyalists, and the right and its Democratic Labor Party. These divisions provided the backdrop for the success of the Menzies-led Coalition. Menzies was strategic and most adept at exploiting the divisions within Australia’s working class majority.

Labor needed a circuit-breaker and that meant leaders who could transcend sectarianism and support change. They came in the form of a political leader (Gough Whitlam) and a union leader (Bob Hawke).

The Whitlam revolution

Whitlam led the way. He embraced religious, racial, ethnic and cultural diversity and made human rights rather than class struggle his ideological catchcry. Catholics no longer felt threatened, the entrepreneurial and creative felt emboldened, unionists knew that the right to associate and strike was fundamental to Gough’s left-liberalism and Non-White Australians and others subject to discrimination felt a new sense of hope and power.

Gough Whitlam meeting with Richard Nixon in 1973. White House Library

Just as importantly, he fought for and won the principle that Labor Leaders should be able to lead – note “to lead” rather than “to control”. A new and creative element was introduced into the mix that was Labor politics.

Whitlam captured the growing sentiment that economic reform was needed and that free trade would serve Australia’s economic interests better than protectionism. However, on this issue it was Hawke who sealed the new deal that was modern Labor.

Challenging the union base

Labor is a trade union-based political party. If it was to be seen as a party for a broader and more inclusive national interest it would need union supporters who shared that commitment. “Why”, asked Hawke, “shouldn’t unions support a more competitive economy”?

After all, more productivity at work meant a stronger economy from which a Labor Government could build a fairer and more sustainable nation.

Hawke developed the idea of a social contract between the party and its constituency. In exchange for supporting productivity-enhancing economic reform the Labor constituency would be paid a social wage in education, training and health. It was explicit and it was negotiated.

Thus it was that Hawke was able to complement Gough’s “top down” reformism with his own “bottom-up consensus building”. That such a mixture of ideas and actors would have its own pressures and conflicts was inevitable. Just how far were unions willing to go? Just how much social and political reform was acceptable? Just how much “leadership” was tolerable?

Labor on the defensive

From the 1970s through to the early years of the new century we have seen these conflicts played out and, by and large, managed well, with Labor achieving much at both levels of government. There was give and take on reform. New issues were embraced and challenges rarely avoided. Labor as an organisation involving activists, unionists and politicians was working well.

Bob Hawke after being elected ACTU President in 1969. APA/Uwe Kuessner

The Whitlam-Hawke model was underpinned by a healthy and expansive union movement and an active membership base. There was balance and therefore dialogue between members, unions and leaders. Today the situation is different. With Party membership in decline, unions on the defensive and vested interests in the party restricting the range of options available to take up the battle against opponents of the green left and of the populist right.

The result of this state of affairs is a Labor party that faces “real threats to its survival” as Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner have put it in their 2010 party review. The key reforms they recommend couldn’t be described as radical but they are progressive, in particular the proposals to have a directly elected component of national conference and a tiered system of party primaries to select candidates.

Reform or die?

Such reforms would clearly help and should be supported. However they are best seen as the first step along the road to a genuinely membership-based party with branches based on neighbourhoods, workplaces and shared interests (“democracy with diversity”).

However, where the three party elders have hit the nail on the head is with their clear understanding of the need for Labor to be a campaigning party. How many times in recent years have we seen Labor hesitate when it comes to democratic politics?

It’s one thing to be careful and considered when facing the challenge of social change, but quite another to be reactive and defensive as most of Labor’s senior figures and contemporary apparatchiks tend to be. They were lukewarm about designing a republican model with an elected President, they compromised on same-sex marriage and opposed (some vehemently) a Charter of Rights as has been established in the ACT and Victoria.

Political courage - not a dirty word

Federal Labor took up the cause of co-operative federalism in 2007 and legislated an excellent agreement with the states in 2008, but have failed to see the political and practical importance of John Howard and Tony Abbott’s embrace of centralism. These have all been lost campaigning opportunities for a party too locked into managing interests as an end-in-itself rather than as mean to a greater good.

The fact that unions aren’t so important today shouldn’t lead us to conclude that Labor should look away from the working class for its sustenance. In fact the rights and the needs of workers and their families should take centre-stage. It means that a tax and expenditure mix that promotes fairness really matters. It means recognising the difference between economic reform and privatisation and ensuring that the regulation of finance is not weak and compromised.

Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, along with John Faulkner, conducted a review of the ALP. But will the party have the courage to undertake its recommendations? AAP/Dean Lewins

It means recognising as well that workers and their families want fairness with choice not one or the other. This means thinking about the workplace in terms of rights and responsibilities rather than class struggle and taking up the long-term challenges laid down in the National Health and Hospitals Commission Report (“Medicare Select” and “Denticare”) and Gonski Report (“Schooling Resource Standard”). The class implications of inequality in health and education should be a primary focus for Labor.

It’s always been the case in Labor’s history that support for workplace rights and a meaningful social wage is the platform on which can be built a wider alliance involving middle-class reformers and environmentalists (remember 2007?). However, it’s not going to be easy to convince the electorate that you mean what you say about fairness with choice when the party’s organisation and culture are so out-of-date.

Party reform wouldn’t just be a good thing, it would be good politics.

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