Coming to the Party raises some difficult questions for Labor

Tristan Ewins calls for a democratisation of ALP factions

Where to Next for Labor? Coming to the Party, Barry Jones (ed), Melbourne University Press, 2006, $24.95

In a timely contribution to debate surrounding the future of the Australian Labor Party, Where to next for Labor? Coming to the Party, edited by former federal minister and ALP president Barry Jones, is a welcome collection of views on what strategies are necessary to revitalise the ALP and, ultimately, win government. Issues considered range from the impact of factionalism to the decline of Labor’s traditional blue-collar working-class constituency, as well as the necessary work of building mass movements and reviving structures for rank-and-file participation and influence in the ALP.

Barry Jones’s chapter, as well as Julia Gillard’s contribution, are positively scathing of the factional system they see at the root of many of Labor’s ills. Gillard even goes so far as to question the very relevance of categories of Left and Right. As Jones argues: “Major factions have become recruiting and executive placement agencies, having lost any ideological basis … Rank and file members are disappearing, and those who remain have become marginalised.”

In a similar vein, Gillard says: “The factional structures of Left and Right are now ossified and devoid of meaning … The factional labels do not mean very much any more, which can hardly be of a surprise in a world in which the meaning of the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are the subject of global debate.”

This anti-factional angle continues in one form or the other throughout much of the book, and is worthy of substantial critique. I will devote some time to this matter now: afterwards moving on to consider the broader arguments made in Coming to the Party.

Rank-and-file alienation in a faction-dominated party is nothing new. Former NSW minister Rodney Cavalier identifies union bloc votes as being one source of the factional system’s ongoing reproduction. The concentration of political power into the hands of a few in the ALP; the politics of power and patronage, which stifles independent voices; all this intensifies feelings of disempowerment and disillusionment among grassroots activists. It can be argued, however, that those of a similar political persuasion will likely coalesce formally in one way or another regardless of this and there must surely be some sense that factionalism in one form or another is inevitable. What is more, while it can be argued that Labor’s parliamentary ranks should be more broadly representative and the road from union officialdom to parliament ought not be so well-trod, union affiliation remains an important anchor for the ALP in the organised working class.

Gillard’s attempt to distance herself from the language of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ can be viewed in a number of ways. Firstly, there is an argument sustained by those such as former Australian communist David McKnight about the relevance of an essentially linear spectrum of Left versus Right in a world where post-materialist politics, and attempts by some (such as McKnight) to synthesise socialist, liberal and conservative perspectives into a new philosophy, are throwing past comfortable assumptions into question. [See a review on this site of McKnight's book, Beyond Right and Left.] Against this, it can be argued that the Left’s egalitarianism remains a strong point of distinction between socialist, social-democratic and traditional conservative and neoliberal thought; and that the Left’s identity, as such, is worth preserving as against attempts to create an essentially ‘new’ movement. Some might think, rather, that Gillard is attempting to have it both ways: to broaden her appeal as a potential leadership contender by distancing herself from her roots in the Left, while at the same time holding on to her support base in the national Left faction.

One issue not raised in the book is the democratisation of factions themselves. Yet this could well be part of the answer to the ‘faction question’. This would have to include efforts to build mass membership of those groups, empowerment of those groups’ activists through democratic channels and the fostering, within those groups, of a culture of grassroots political, practical and theoretical exchange, including grassroots policy development. This needs to be as open a process as possible and, for the Left in particular, socialist politics and principles need to be taken out of the closet.

At present socialism represents something parliamentarians and prospective politicians dare not advocate openly for fear of ‘embarrassing’ the Party, or complicating political ambitions. Given the lack of official Party channels to argue the case for socialism, Left activists need to co-ordinate their efforts in creating and exploiting their own channels, working together to claim a space for socialist ideas in the broader public sphere. To rediscover its ideological roots, the Left needs to bolster the courage to actually talk about socialism and principles of economic democracy and redistribution, including the role of various forms of social ownership.

For the Right, meanwhile, there is a desperate need to build some kind of ideological anchor. In this process we ought not exclude the notion that traditional social democrats and advocates of gradual reform might therein find a place and work to relativise the internal political spectrum of the ALP; striving towards a scenario where their ideas can again comprise the ‘relative centre’ of political thought within the Party.

Finally, if there was direct election of National Conference candidates; if all candidates were expected to run on a platform; and were said platforms distributed to rank and file branch members as a matter of course – the result would be a far more credible culture of accountability and rank-and-file participation. As part of this process, however, the factions must rediscover their ideological roots so that the choices between candidates of the Left, Centre-Left and Right are cast in clear relief.

Coming to the Party is a book of far greater breadth and depth than a mere consideration of the question of factions. Jones, for one, is also scathing of what he views as the death of politics within the ALP. As he argues: “Labor’s new brand of apparatchiki … see the ALP as a private company engaged in asset swaps, or sporting contests, and are determined to cut the ideology (that is, the politics) out of politics.”

Jones notes how Howard embraces seemingly unpopular issues (eg: Telstra sale, the Iraq War), and manages to win regardless of this. By contrast with Labor, Howard is seen as having “a strategic vision, overturning the Whitlam legacy”. By contrast with a politics of ‘convergence’ whereby the differences between the major political players are minimised, and whereby the philosophy of ‘TINA’ (ie: ‘there is no alternative’) leads to a culture of “opportunism and spin”, Jones encourages Labor to embrace ‘Litnus issues’. Examples of ‘Litnus issues’, here, might include raising the Medicare Levy or pulling troops out of Iraq.

Jones’s distaste for ‘convergence’ politics is mirrored, here, by Carmen Lawrence, who bemoans the lack of ideology in Party channels, with “ideologically motivated members” being considered a “nuisance” and a “distraction”. By contrast with “sanitised” and “stage managed” Party conferences, it is clear that Lawrence would like to restore some ‘heart and soul’ to an ALP which has too easily capitulated in the face of the tidal wave of neoliberal globalisation. Here, Joshua Funder’s suggestion of a non-binding policy conference could comprise one possible means of reinjecting some ideological passion and commitment into what has become a sterile internal Party culture.

If anything, this process of capitulation is exacerbated by the efforts of some to outflank the Coalition on the Right with regards to the issue of tax. Julia Gillard’s criticism of what she calls John Howard’s “big government”: noting an increase in Commonwealth Government taxation as a proportion of GDP from 23.1 per cent to 25.7 per cent, seems incongruous for one on the progressive side of the political spectrum. Pressure for tax cuts from Labor, however, has been building for some time now and the popular posturing embraced by Labor’s parliamentary spokespeople on this issue appears both irresponsible and opportunist. What remains unspoken in this line of reasoning is the fact that the imposition of the GST has also seen a parallel reduction in state taxation. Along with the commitment of AWU secretary Bill Shorten to “[lower] everyone’s rates [of taxation]”, this raises a number of questions about how Labor could possibly afford to expand Medicare into dental care, cut hospital waiting lists, preserve and expand the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and manage the health and care costs associated with an ageing population over the long term were it to heed the advice of some of its most prominent spokespeople. Similarly, a federal Labor government would find it impossible to provide additional funding to the states for public education infrastructure and more teachers, reduce the HECS burden on tertiary students and eliminate full-fee-paying courses were it to pursue the agenda of tax cuts suggested by Shorten, and hinted at by Gillard. To be fair, Shorten does commit to an agenda of ‘nation-building and infrastructure development’: but a regime of ‘flat taxation’, embraced in earlier statements by Shorten would inevitably prove grossly inequitable. And ambitions of infrastructure development would certainly be thwarted in the instance of a government determined to reduce overall tax levels.

John Langmore’s more traditional social-democratic response to the challenges facing Labor makes a refreshing change to the implicit support for ‘smaller’ government given by Shorten and Gillard. Referring to research undertaken as part of the Australian National University's Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Langmore notes that most Australians would prefer higher public spending on education and health instead of further tax cuts. As he argues: “It is therefore an amateurish electoral misjudgment to claim that tax cuts are the highest political priority.” Langmore is uncompromising in his critique of the Howard conservative government. His condemnation of the conservatives’ assaults upon the independence of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), following government threats to withdraw charitable status for those groups who speak out on social issues and policy, is stinging. Furthermore, he is resolute in his conclusion that the embrace of neoliberal economic policy settings by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments led to widespread disillusionment, causing greater inequality in the distribution of income, often in breach of the Party platform. Langmore also has the courage and vision to suggest the rejection of an inequitable private health insurance rebate: or at the very least the imposition of a means test.

If anything, Langmore could have even gone further in his espousal of radical tax reform: perhaps along the lines of that advocated in a prior publication of his (with economist, John Quiggin) Work for All. Already, Australia maintains a regime of corporate taxation that is lower than that enjoyed by business in the United States: an ‘infrastructure levy’ upon business, then, surely ought not be ruled out of the equation. Further goals of reform could include the provision of ‘tax credits’ for those on low incomes and those moving from welfare to work: paid for by the restructuring of the overall income tax system, and complemented by the full indexing of the bottom two income tax thresholds. Finally, the strengthening of a progressively-scaled Medicare Levy, and the introduction on an Education Levy could provide for desperately needed infrastructure and services in the fields of health and education.

Lindsay Tanner and Evan Thornley also make valuable contributions to the debate. Tanner emphasises the need to renew and re-establish Labor’s ‘brand’ in the face of a transformed constituency, where the ‘tribal’ loyalty of a diminished blue-collar working class cannot be taken for granted and where new electoral fault-lines reflect differing education levels as much as class. If anything, the shift of many lower income voters to the conservative camp is indicative of the strength of populist ‘wedge’ politics that play on insecurities, prejudices and fears, while at the same time suggesting the need for Labor to reconnect with its working class roots. While Tanner insists that the ALP needs to retain its commitment to delivering health, educational opportunity and job security, he rejects the ‘Old Labor’ approach to delivering these outcomes. Unfortunately, though, he does not elaborate on what he means by this. In implicitly rejecting what many dismiss as the ‘Old Labor’ approach to policy, Tanner fails to convince that the traditional social-democratic aims of a robust social wage, welfare state and tax-transfer system, combined with a democratic mixed economy, are now either outmoded or obsolete. Perhaps this is not even Tanner’s intention: but as the meaning of ‘Old Labor’ is not made clear, we are left to guess what the author’s intention is in this regard.

Thornley, on the other hand, provides a searching criticism of the conservative strategy of framing the very language of debate and public discourse: stigmatising the issue of class and claiming the mantle of “family values”. Rather than family-friendly labour market policies, here, “family values” are constructed as being ‘anti-abortion, anti-gay’. Progressives, meanwhile, are dismissed as a “latte sipping elite”. As Thornley maintains, the aim of all this is simply “to convince working people to vote against their own economic interests”. Thornley writes: “They vote against gay marriage, but what do they actually get? Tax cuts for the rich!”

In particular Thornley argues that open and rigorous policy debate is a positive rather than a burden. “John Howard has figured out that having the fundamentalist churches or even his own back bench running down his Right flank publicly on policy simply allows him to move to the Right while looking reasonable.”

Thornley sees a need for the broader party, as opposed to the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP), to take the lead on policy. He continues: "By separating the roles of the FPLP from the non-parliamentary movement, we can be similarly effective in moving the agenda without negative electoral consequences.”

Apart from reinvigorating the non-parliamentary ALP, Thornley also sees a central role for progressive think-tanks and mass movements such as Getup in mobilising support and taking the lead on any number of issues. The internet, as ‘Getup’ has demonstrated, provides particularly fertile ground for mobilisation. Thornley notes that the conservatives overwhelmingly outstrip the broad Left in the funding of think-tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). It can only be hoped that the broad Left will heed this call to arms.

This is not an exhaustive examination of the perspectives put forward in this title. To consider the full range of positions espoused within its pages is more than we can achieve here. While some have criticized Coming to the Party for leaning to the Left, and not including sufficient representation from the Party’s Right, it could also be argued that this collection of perspectives could well have done with the inclusion of more radical perspectives: including the case for ‘root and branch’ tax reform, the pursuit of economic democracy and a bold expansion of Australia’s threadbare welfare system. Furthermore, while no one questions the unpopularity of Howard’s determination of privatise Medibank Private and Telstra, it seems no one in the ALP is willing to countenance any instance of re-socialisation. Even for Labor’s Left, it appears, the neoliberal road of privatisation is considered as being a ‘one way street’. This assumption, also, needs to be challenged. Overall, though, Coming to the Party is a valuable contribution to a much-needed debate on the future of the ALP. For those wanting to keep up-to-date with the positions and perspectives of some of Labor’s most prominent thinkers and policy-makers, this title is well-recommended.

Tristan Ewins, October 2006

Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, grassroots Labor activist and member of the Socialist Left grouping of the Victorian ALP


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