The End of Factions


Labor MPs Simon Crean and Julia Gillard are complaining about factional activity in the Victorian ALP.

The factions should be abolished, they say.

In any organisation of humans with a membership of thousands, there are going to be informal sub-groups coalescing around ideas or individuals. It happens in churches, football clubs, motoring organisations, public companies, and (Shock! Horror!) even in political parties.

I should disclose my membership of Centre Unity, the ALP’s Right faction in NSW. I joined a long time ago because the Young Labor Left then supported a whole raft of hard-Left policies including nationalisation, worker control of industry, the abolition of the State of Israel, and the equation of the Soviet Union with the USA.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

That’s all changed, of course. If I joined Young Labor now would I make the same decision? Would I even join Young Labor?

I digress the point is, there is nothing wrong with factions in themselves. Gillard and Crean are being disingenuous what they are really complaining about is the behaviour of one faction, the one that opposes them, Labor Unity, the ALP’s Victorian Right faction.

Unfortunately the analysis in the mainstream media last week was ignorant of even a basic history of the Victorian ALP, so New Matilda will have to do it for them.

For most of the 50 years after the famous ALP ‘split’ of 1955, the Left (now called the Socialist Left or SL) controlled the ALP’s Victorian Branch sometimes alone, sometimes with the support of the ‘Independents’ faction. That all changed shortly after the last Federal election in 2004 when, after an SL split, Labor Unity became the new dominant faction.

This change was always going to have a large impact on Federal pre-selections for the 2007 elections because, for decades, SL had maintained a collegiate pre-selection system in Victoria. Under this system, Labor politicians were pre-selected not by a rank-and-file process but by an electoral college under which the central Party contributed at least 50 per cent of the pre-selectors (in the early days more than 50 per cent) with the local members in a particular seat contributing the rest.

The result? The Left, being numerically dominant centrally, contributed more pre-selectors to the ‘college’ than their Labor Unity opponents. The risk in this system was that once central control was lost, the Right would then have the Left’s disproportionate influence on pre-selections, compared with the result of a purely rank-and-file system.

In late 2004, SL lost control. Labor Unity took its opportunity last week and moved against the weaker SL candidates. In addition, they opposed one of their own, Simon Crean. Why? Crean fell out with the faction over his cultivation of Left support in the dying days of his leadership, and further split with them over his support of Mark Latham. Crean now seems a proxy for the Left surprising, because 15 to 20 years ago he was strongly opposed to them.

From my perspective, Gillard and Crean were entitled to fight for their respective positions in the pre-selections Gillard for her SL colleagues, Crean for himself.

But by publicly attacking Kim Beazley, Labor’s Leader, for just doing the same, they went way too far.

Crean seemed very aggrieved by Beazley’s lack of support for him, but ironically he didn’t need it he won his pre-selection with ease. Having done so, he should have allowed the vote to speak for itself. He has damaged himself and his Party by his triumphalism. Gillard went public for an additional reason to try to advance her own leadership ambitions. That’s okay, but not at the expense of the wider Party.

Alright, I concede I am hardly unbiased.

However, look at the views of some of the ALP Left outside Victoria.

In NSW, the Left is split into two sub-groups: the so-called ‘soft’ Left (people like Senator John Faulkner and Laurie Ferguson) who form the larger grouping; and the ‘hard’ Left, led by Anthony Albanese and Senator George Campbell.

Significantly, of the few NSW Left wingers who have commented publicly, the most prominent were Albanese and Campbell who, respectively, were supportive of Beazley and critical of Left colleague Julia Gillard. Only Laurie Ferguson has supported her.

In January last year, many ALP members and supporters (including me) were shocked at the number of Federal Labor MPs from all sides who went public when Mark Latham pulled the plug. It seemed so undisciplined.

I had the same feeling last week.

Only a disciplined Parliamentary Party can possibly hope to win a Federal election. Some of those MPs just don’t seem to get it. The ALP is a fragile, and I think, precious organisation possibly the most essential body of men and women in the country, if you take politics seriously.

There is no alternative there is only the Labor Party and if it is to change, it must all occur from within.

Abolish the factions? No, let’s just require the participants to accept responsibility for their recent actions.

Perhaps then, Julia and Simon will not complain about the factions except at faction meetings.

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.