Where Have All the Bravehearts Gone?


Last week, the Victorian branch of the ALP mailed out invitations to its members to seek pre-selection for seats at the 26 November State election. But those who apply will find winnable places on the ballot paper scarcer than a Sierra Leonean gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. The ALP factions, under direction from the Premier’s office, have long ago divided the prize-seat spoils amongst themselves.

The Party machine’s invitation was a polite formality. What head office now needs, thank you, is rank-and-file cannon fodder drawn from the same members who are expected to hand out how-to-vote cards and attend fundraising events. No wonder they’re disillusioned.

But in among the union operatives and Party apparatchiks scrambling for pre-selection there are a couple of standouts like *Evan Thornley, the founder of the internet search engine Looksmart, who has, at Steve Bracks’s insistence, been given a safe spot in the Upper House. Thornley is a thinking businessman who’s built a global brand and now wants to make an impact in politics. He has good ideas and energy so what’s he doing settling for a seat in the dusty Legislative Council, a place better suited as a retirement home for superannuated State pollies?

For a start, a place in State Cabinet must look better to Thornley than entering the wilderness of Federal Opposition. He also owes a debt to Bracks for steering him into parliament outside the factional process. Thornley has refused to join a faction because he doesn’t want to give up his freedom to think and act. Which sounds great but if, as expected, he’s shuffled straight into the Cabinet after the election, how will this admirable independence play out against the all-powerful mantra of Cabinet solidarity?

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Still, for all the factional trouble in Victoria, at least Steve Bracks has moved positively to insist on the introduction of Thornley (among others, including his own chief-of-staff, Tim Pallas). All Kim Beazley has done is look on as the Victorian Right culls those MPs who voted for Mark Latham and replaces them with allies.

The pending ascension of Thornley to the Upper House came as British PM Tony Blair diagnosed Labor’s troubles during his whirlwind Australian tour. Essentially, he believes the Party’s talent is spread too thin and that the likes of Beattie, Carr, Rann and Gallop have been wasted at State level. There is some truth in this for a population of 20 million, three levels of government is quite a luxury but surely finding some decent Federal candidates shouldn’t be impossible.

The opportunities are there. It’s just that potential Bravehearts are happier to stay inside the cosy club of privileges.

State government high-fliers, for example, could step outside the small pond of managerialism that Labor has made all its own over the past decade. But they’ve been warned off by the entrenched factional system that, in most cases, landed them at he top of the State pile in the first place.

Has it reached the stage where genuine talent like Thornley is being locked out of Federal Labor at a time when the Party desperately needs fresh blood and new ideas? Instead, we see union operatives jostling for safe Federal seats and the likes of Simon Crean being declared a hero for the supreme achievement of retaining pre-selection in the seat he’s held for a decade!

And what of those ‘stars’ who do make the jump to Canberra via safe seats? Imagine if Victorian ALP President and AWU National President Bill Shorten had nominated for a marginal seat rather than knocking off a sitting member and heavying his way into a western suburbs sinecure?

It’s not Labor seats the ALP needs to win, it’s the swathe of outer suburban seats populated by Howard’s ‘battlers’ that will decide the next election. If Shorten wants to be leader, show it to the people, not just the Party insiders. A star candidate who fights for a marginal seat and wins ground from the Government. Now that would make Labor supporters sit up and take notice.

But securing a safe seat is a time-honoured practice for heavy-hitters. It allows them to fight a broader campaign in the media without the inconvenience of campaigning in their own seats. For example, Bob Hawke took Wills, in blue-collar northern Melbourne as Labor’s working class messiah in 1980. No doubt Bill Shorten likes to see similarities between his career and Hawke’s. But a quarter century on, things are very different. For a start, the calibre of Labor’s frontbench doesn’t bear comparison to the Shadow Cabinet of 1980.

As former NSW Education Minister Rodney Cavalier observed last year:

Out of the embers of 1975, Labor emerged with a critical mass of seriously able men who were there for the long haul Bill Hayden, Lionel Bowen, John Button, Ralph Willis, Peter Morris, Peter Walsh, Mick Young, not to forget a very young, bloodthirsty Paul Keating.

And in 1977 and 1980, they were joined by Brian Howe, John Dawkins, Barry Jones, Gareth Evans, John Brown, Neal Blewett, John Kerin, Michael Duffy, Kim Beazley and Hawke. Asks Cavalier rhetorically: ‘Where is anyone of that quality now?’

This list of very capable blokes highlights Labor’s one great advance since Whitlam: the populating of its parliamentary ranks by capable women: Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and Julia Gillard have demonstrated their strengthts on Labor’s frontbench even in the face of the entrenched federal parliamentary boys club.

Now, as in 1975-1980, regeneration is vital. But what we’re seeing is the replacement of time-servers with factional hacks in an internal bloodbath. As Ryan Heath (‘The Charge of the Beige Brigade’) pointed out last November in New Matilda:

Life experience outside politics should be a precondition for being a parliamentary candidate. The misguided and the megalomaniacal should be sent back to square one. Pounding a political path that includes several or all of the following Young Labor, adviser, MP is not good enough anymore. We can’t have any more of the Beige Brigade.

ALP sceptic Clive Hamilton examines the Labor body politic in the latest Quarterly Essay and comes up with few signs of life. His verdict is that the cannibalisation of the Party by factional chiefs is the symptom, not the cause, of Labor’s troubles. That a wider malaise ‘ideological convergence, individualisation in society, the withdrawal from politics and the withering away of solidarity’ has led to the withering of the Party’s base and the dimming of its purpose. His conclusion:

The party that evolved to represent the interests of trade unionists and their families cannot survive in a world where union membership has shrunk to less than a quarter of the workforce and where those who remain have been depoliticised.

So can Labor return to its roots as a workers’ Party? In the absence of a better strategy, it’s worth a try although the lukewarm reception Kim Beazley received when he toured a Canberra bus depot recently indicated he is going to have to work very hard to prove he is the battler’s friend.

While the remaining po
ints of difference between the major Parties are increasingly narrow, the Government’s new industrial laws represent a golden opportunity to demonstrate Labor still has a compelling reason for life. The heavying last week by Howard and his Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews, of the Cowra Abattoirs shows how sensitive the Prime Minister is to this possibility.

The easy path to parliament is to marshal internal allies and knife a lacklustre sitting member. Just as the easy route to government is to crouch down in opposition, jump on the government’s stuff-ups and wait patiently until the economic cycle spins and it’s your turn again. But are the long-term rewards of a safe seat in opposition worth it?

Meanwhile, across the ideological divide, knifing sitting members makes more sense if you can afford to pay for it yourself as Malcolm Turnbull did in his annexation of Wentworth from Peter King in 2004. While ambitious Alexander Downer protégé Josh Frydenberg can’t bankroll his campaign to remove Petro Georgiou from Kooyong, he’s using plenty of political capital in the fight to claim the party’s talismanic seat.

Frydenberg’s campaign, so far, hasn’t been about ideas, but money. Josh’s people say he should take over the seat because Petro’s not doing enough fundraising a kind of corporate takeover for a Party that Menzies established for ‘the forgotten people.’

The Petro Georgiou stoush reminds us that the Liberals like to maintain their own club of privileges their own system of ‘seats for the boys.’ If Josh Frydenberg is the man of substance his supporters claim, why not go out and win a marginal seat?

Shorten versus Frydenberg now that would be a contest worth voting at.

*Evan Thornley is a founding supporter of New Matilda.

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