How Labor lost the plot


The Australian Labor Party is an entity in search of its soul. The signs of disintegration and disaffection are a symptom of something much deeper – the loss of connection between values and stated beliefs, and the policies and programmes to attract support among Australians. In a way, the spirit is out of sync with the body.

And this is for some very simple reasons. In the past, the spirit of the Party was nurtured in the labour movement. It was there that the passions, needs and vision were named. Over the last twenty years, most of them with Labor in power, the ground rules of the economy and politics have changed. As well, the groups representing Labor in the Federal area have changed their experience base and makeup. These changes may have been noticed by some, even many. But nothing has been done about them.

First, the economy. Twenty and thirty years ago, the economy was a matter of dispute “ and what was disputed were ideologies and paradigms. Today it is a ‘science’ about which there is universal agreement. With the end of dispute, the economy has been depoliticised.

Second, politics. Since the economy is no longer a matter of dispute, the unique selling point of the ALP seems to have been lost. The political choice at elections is not about beliefs but about perceived technical expertise.

Politics has changed, but the Federal ALP hasn’t. Parliamentary representation “ and hence policy creation and direction “ is in the hands of an ever narrowing group of people “ Party staffers, trade union officials and lawyers with attitude. Two Federal Conferences ago, eighty seven percent of the members were insiders “ MPs, their staff or trade union officials “ chosen by a small clutch of state-based officials.

There was a golden opportunity to do something about this after the 1996 election defeat. The party’s recruitment and management infrastructure “ especially in NSW “ was known to be in the hands of people with a narrowcast focus “ NSW. Reform of preselection procedures and staff at head office etc. were fudged and Gough Whitlam’s observation almost forty years ago was vindicated. In the 60s, he said, the ALP was not a national party but a federation of state branches pursuing State agendas and missing national targets.

He did something about it, as Barry Cohen has recently observed: in 1969, twenty nine occupational categories were represented in the Federal Caucus and MPs were encouraged to do Uni degrees part-time; today there are five occupational categories in the Federal Caucus.

What is the way ahead? Two things have to happen. Party and preselection reform are obvious and many have called on the leadership to get cracking before the current dinosaur condition of Labor finds its true home in Jurassic Park. New people, new ideas, a real openness to fresh initiatives, etc.

But more fundamental is the spiritual renewal of Labor. Is it the Party of working Australians or simply the outgrowth and expression of the political ambitions of some trade union leaders?

Clearly it must be the former. But if it is to be that, two things are needed: first an experience-based knowledge of what it’s like to be a worker in a post-industrial society, and second, on the basis of this experience and knowledge, a fresh look and a new articulation of the values that made Labor attractive in the industrial era “ solidarity, equity and fairness, the cooperative way that linked people into groups with shared needs, public good and commonly owned essential public infrastructure, and so on.

When was the last time anyone heard an experience-based appeal to values from a Federal Labor politician? Answer: the recent election from Mark Latham about Green Valley. How narrow can you get? I think you see my point.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.