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The Australian Labor Party and the pitfalls of the politics of avoidance

Labor Party reform is vital, but this time around it needs to be more substantial and far-reaching than previously to secure the party’s long-term future. AAP/Daniel Munoz

In the wake of the ALP’s poor result in the recent Western Australia Senate election, The Conversation is publishing a series of articles looking at the party’s brand, organisation and future prospects.

Dealing with an existential crisis is never easy. It requires asking hard questions and a commitment to real change. Each is hard enough but the latter particularly hard. Often we know what needs to be done but keep putting it off to a later day.

This applies to organisations as much as it does to individuals. The current state of the Australian Labor Party is a good case study in this politics of avoidance. Its membership base has all but collapsed, its primary vote is at a historic low and its constitution is corporatist and constraining.

The ALP is, however, still a nationally important organisation with a base in civil society and our political institutions, local, state and federal. This leads many of its leaders and managers – inside and outside parliament – to think that the crisis is part of the normal cycle of politics and good times will return.

The problems the ALP needs to address are twofold. The first are organisational and managerial and the second are ideological and political. The first takes us to its constitution and the second to its platform and policies.

Organisational reform

Constitutional reform needs a principle and that has to be democratic. That means a membership system based on one person, one vote and one value. Any compromises to that principle require clearly demonstrated political benefits.

In such a system, branches could be geographic, industrial or issue-based. That is, of course, a good description of how politics more generally is organised today.

The ALP’s corporatist structure puts too much power in the hands of too few people. Good people and advocates of justice they may be – and many are – but centuries of political science, whether conservative, liberal or republican, can’t be wrong. Power can, and too much power certainly will, corrupt those who hold it.

Labor needs to be not just more democratic but also more professional, in particular in policy development and candidate selection. The party relies too heavily on vested interests when developing policy. It needs to draw more heavily on evidence-based research and be more willing to involve the community using proven methods of citizen engagement, such as citizens’ assemblies and juries.

It will not be enough just to incorporate primaries into the pre-selection process, as important as that is. Potential candidates need to be identified and tested for their personal and political capabilities, just as any serious organisation does.

The current system that virtually excludes all but a few union-based factional leaders and their supporters isn’t bad because the people involved are inherently bad – they aren’t – but because it defies democratic and managerial logic.

Platform reform

The preferred option regarding platform and policies is where Labor is really struggling. Is it a union-based party or is it a social democratic party?

In the past, the numerically strong labour movement negotiated with the party leadership over policy priorities. But in this mix were plenty of ordinary members who could influence the process. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but the balancing that occurred between leaders, unions and members did allow for new ideas to emerge and did push the ALP in the direction of the common good.

Today, the situation is quite different. Social democracy is struggling to find the air it needs to breathe.

Firstly, there is the role of Labor’s union-based right wing, which exercises what can be described as socially and industrially conservative influence on policy. That means party acceptance of a conscience vote not just on issues like abortion and euthanasia but also on stem-cell research and same-sex marriage.

The social democratic element within the ALP is struggling to influence the party’s platform through avenues such as the national conference. AAP/Paul Miller

The convictions of the Christian Democrats in the ALP are honestly held but are clearly at the expense of Labor as a political organisation keen to draw support from the wider community. In some ways, they play the same role as the old left did in the 1960s and act as a veto power on Labor renewal. The result is that plenty of votes that should be Labor’s have gone elsewhere.

There is also the question of economic and industrial policy. A veto power again exists when it comes to microeconomic reform. In the Hawke-Keating years, the labour movement and the government entered into a contract that gave support to economic reform so long as there was a social wage built around health, education and training in return.

However, for some in Labor’s industrial ranks, these policies weren’t anything more than a transfer of power from labour to capital. Today they are reluctant to embrace further reform. They weren’t always wrong in this judgement and the get-rich-quick faction within the business class was given too much licence.

Some Labor-affiliated unions see economic – and environmental – reform as a threat to their organisational position in the labour market. The problem is serious reform is still needed and that demands strategic thinking of the sort we saw in the 1980s.

Lessons from history

In many ways there is a tragic quality to the situation. A significant number of Labor strategists blame the alliances that have been made with the Greens and others as the cause of the problem. In fact, they are the result of Labor’s historically weak primary vote.

The assumption seems to be that if only Labor returned to its industrial base and focused on economics above all else, all would be well again. What this so-called strategy actually means is that the Greens and others are left free to plunder votes that would be available to a genuinely social democratic party interested in social and environmental as well as economic issues.

The truth is that the ALP is like any organisation, be it private, community or public sector. It needs external sustenance, which only comes if it is trusted and if it is relevant. Both elements are missing – or at least are missing to the extent needed for the party to flourish.

Harking back to the glory days of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating might make parliamentarians and party members feel good – just as harking back to John Curtin and Ben Chifley made the party feel good in the 1960s. However, feeling good and doing well are two different things.

In fact, in the 1960s, it took a supreme effort by Gough Whitlam and his fellow reformers to confront this complacency and put the party back on a trajectory of success. Hawke and Keating – and their state equivalents – fed off the assets so created by the reformers; some very effectively, some not so effectively and some not at all.

Harking back to the glory days of Hawke and Keating might make Labor MPs and members feel good, but will it lead to anything? AAP/Paul Miller

The need for reform

All too often it seems Labor is back in the early 1960s again, complacent and self-congratulatory rather than self-aware and hungry. Reform is vital, but this time around it needs to be more substantial and far-reaching.

Unlike in Whitlam’s era, trade unions are really struggling and too reliant on the ALP for sustenance. The links of some unions to Labor aren’t helping them renew, nor are they helping the party.

It’s a post-colonial world in economics as well as politics and culture. That means the “costs of production” can’t be swept under the carpet. Politically, it’s an era of “communicative abundance” and “ideological confusion” rather than a simple battle between left and right.

Add to all of that climate change and the fears and uncertainties it has created and then ask the question: is Labor in a position to offer leadership as it did in the early 20th century (the Great Australian Settlement), the 1940s (the Keynesian welfare state) and again in the late 20th century (national economic reform)?

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