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‘New politics’ announces itself in Queensland and beyond

With just eight MPs to back her campaign for government, Queensland ALP leader Annastacia Palaszczuk relied heavily on local community organising and decision-making. AAP/Dan Peled

The “new politics” of 21st-century Australia is much clearer after the extraordinary result in the Queensland election on January 31. Australia’s new politics consists of three elements that they will re-write the textbooks. These elements are:

  • the franchise business model applied to political party processes;

  • the community development model applied to political and policy decisions; and

  • the central role of gender politics, replacing the class and interest-group politics of the past.

Practice is re-inventing theory in Australian politics today. Labor’s electoral success in Queensland, ousting a one-term LNP government with a massive majority won only three years ago, follows the ALP’s ousting of a Coalition government after one term in Victoria. Attention has turned to the travails of the federal Coalition, which is struggling to govern beyond a single term.

Franchise model comes to politics

The lessons are clear to all who follow politics closely. The old model of a centralised presidential-style campaign built around the party leader is finished.

Daniel Andrews on election night: ‘There were some who wanted this election to be about unions and workers and that’s exactly what it was.’ AAP/Joe Castro

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Queensland ALP leader Annastacia Palaszczuk are the least likely leaders. Both acknowledge their inadequacies and express massive gratitude to their local and community supporters.

Andrews emphasised the key role of ambulance personnel and trade unionists in mobilising local people for effective local campaigns. Palaszczuk and her victorious colleagues talk of local contests, communities and issues.

This lesson will be hard to swallow in editorial offices and interest-group boardrooms, but the lesson is clear. The ALP has found a way to win in the 21st century that does not involve top-down party autocrats’ single-handedly running the campaign from head office.

Ironically, when the ink is barely dry on books by commentators like Paul Kelly claiming the ALP brand is tarnished, Labor has won handsomely.

The key is that the ALP has found a new way to conduct party politics. It is a franchise model adopted by new successful (and some failed) companies in business in the last 40 years. The franchisor provides a framework, some branding, finance and logistical support, but the effort and the decisions are made locally by local candidates and local people.

The model does not require a presidential leader or self-appointed factional strongmen. The ALP has worked its way through the factional numbers men and come out the other side with a new form of party politics.

Ironically, it is the very relationship with the union movement, much criticised by Kelly and others, that has helped Labor find the franchise model. It started with the campaign against “WorkChoices”: the ALP and the union movement worked in their own separate spheres but with an agreed process and set of outcomes in mind.

The separate nature of the ALP and the union movement, along with the diminishing power of key unions (AWU, ETU etc) to dictate to parliamentarians at state branch level plus the complexity of the issues, has made franchising a natural and easy model for the ALP. The party has no alternative but to work collaboratively with the union movement.

Having pioneered it against WorkChoices, the ALP has now exported the franchise model to its local electoral divisions in the party structure. This is what we have seen in Victoria and Queensland; the franchise business model applied to political party processes.

Local communities get a say again

The community development model complements the franchising of party politics, because this model calls for grassroots decision-making. The model is one of radical local engagement and empowerment in the messages that are adopted and transmitted, shared ownership of decisions by all those impacted and consultation, consultation, consultation.

In Victoria and Queensland, Labor enlisted the support of local trade unionists to talk and engage with local community members and candidates. They conducted intensive talkfests to test the mood – a “people’s barometer” – before any local position was adopted. No more can campaign headquarters lay down three key messages and impose iron discipline to have these adopted across the party.

Community development does not support the great man theory of political leadership, nor does it privilege the economic or the technocrat expressed as somehow wiser than local people. Political leadership as exercised by John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Campbell Newman and probably Tony Abbott is incompatible with the engagement and empowerment of local communities.

No doubt community development in political and policy decisions reflects the revolution in our personal and social lives brought about by social media. We need “friends” to share our personal and social experiences and we now need grassroots empowerment to make political and policy decisions.

Gender revolution breaks down patriarchy

Julia Gillard’s prime ministership rewrote the rules of gender, politics and power. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The third change is even more substantial than the first two and perfectly compatible with them. This is the unstoppable gendering of our politics in the 21st century. Julia Gillard was the midwife of this change and Palaszczuk is the beneficiary.

Again, the ALP has been the first to grasp this revolution. This is not because they thought it through, but simply because gendering is the underpinning of the franchise model of party politics and the community development model of political and policy decisions. This is because these two models break down patriarchal institutions – parties, public service departments, news media and interest groups - and empower the female half of the population.

The patriarchy knows what is happening but can do nothing about it. Kelly, in his updated introduction to his recent book, Triumph and Demise, calls Julia Gillard’s claims of being discriminated against in politics because she is a woman, “nonsense”.

But in the 21st century, the “nonsense” is the sweeping top-down institutional judgements of the political and interest-group establishment who have not found a way to maintain their own power in institutional form and embrace the empowerment and engagement of people on social media. The world has changed.

The Queensland and Victorian election results have created a new politics that leaves the party hierarchy, the top-down powerbrokers and many old men, especially in the Coalition, confused and disoriented. The ALP is the first political party in Australia to run the new models and the result is sensational electoral success.

A crucial question, however, is this: can the ALP govern, as opposed to campaigning, in a way that is compatible with the new politics?

Other articles in The Conversation’s ongoing series, “New Politics”, can be read here.

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