The American Way


It is a heresy to (what’s left of) the true believers of Australian Labor, but Australian politics needs to become more American.

We need more freedom and more choices. You might well ask what choice a notoriously narrow two-party system, such as the Democratic-Republican binary, offers.

The Europeans, of course, boast a panoply of parties. In the Dutch Parliament for example, nine parties are represented. The Christian Democrats and Labour are the single biggest parties, but the Socialists and the economically neo-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy nip at their heels, each with more than 20 MPs. At the election last year even the Animal Rights Party won two seats.

Eight groups dominate the European Parliament, ranging from the Confederal Group of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left on the far-left to the ultra-nationalist, Euro-sceptic Independence, Sovereignty and Tradition Coalition on the far-right. In between are the mainstream Right European Peoples’ Party; the mainstream Left Socialists and the Greens.

But this diversity of parties is a peculiarly European construct, born of electoral systems based on proportional representation. The Anglo tradition is of two major parties, with perhaps a third force holding the balance of power occasionally. Even in New Zealand, where eight Parties are represented in Parliament, it is Labour and the Nationals that hold the overwhelming majority of the 121 seats. The nationalist NZ First has seven members, the Greens six, while the other parties have one, two or three MPs.

So in a country like Australia, with a fairly rigid history of Labor/Nationalist/UAP/Liberal contests, instead of seeking diversity of political parties, why not seek diversity within political parties? In Labor’s case, why not emulate the freedom and diversity of the Democratic Party?

Contrary to much conventional wisdom, the Democratic Party is home to a deep progressive political tradition that began with pro-worker populists, such as William Jennings Bryan, and continued through to Franklin Roosevelt, who was in all but name a Keynesian, pro-union, pro-welfare social democrat.

Roosevelt’s famous New Deal coalition brought together farmers from the plain states, unionised industrial workers from the north, white share croppers from the south, African Americans (at least those who were enfranchised at the time), Jewish intellectuals and immigrants. It was the single most successful political movement in US history, keeping the Democrats in power in both Congress and the Presidency through nine elections. (The Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for one term between 1946 and 1948.)

The coalition, despite its internal rivalries, was held together not merely by the charisma of Roosevelt but by a common enemy — the power of, and the abuse of that power by, big business. These disparate interests rallied around an ideal of a party that rooted for the little guy who could be a farmer from the dustbowl or a porter on the railroad.

The Democrats rediscovered the magic of this coalition in 2006 when they took back both Houses of Congress after 12 years of far-right Republican control.

The Democratic Party, far from being an organisational monolith controlled by a few factional chieftains, is now the quintessential big tent. Howard Dean, the anti-war former Governor of Vermont, upset party elders back in 2005 when he won the rank and file ballot to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean pointed out that, because the Democratic Party was less a rigid party structure and more a brand name, it could accommodate more shades of ideology.

So, at one end of the party you have the pro-business lapdogs of the Democratic Leadership Council, and at the other end you have Ron Dellums, now mayor of Oakland, California, and, during 28 years in the US Congress, a paid-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America. In between, you have every shade of economic populist, such as Montana Senator Jon Tester; progressive Christians, such as Ohio governor and former pastor Ted Strickland; and Jewish gay rights activists, such as Barney Frank.

Labor could also embody such diversity and enrich Australia’s democracy were it to take two vital steps.

The first would be to introduce a modified primary system, in which registered Labor voters could select the party’s candidates for House and Senate seats.

The second, even more profound, change would be to end the binding caucus system which requires every elected Labor official, from local councillor to prime minister, to vote as a bloc. It is an unnecessary discipline that allows the Right to characterise Labor MPs as not responsible to their constituents but beholden to machine bosses. Instead, the party should introduce a canon of perhaps five to 10 core philosophies which every MP must support, but free them to vote with their conscience on every other matter that comes before Parliament.

The canon could include: the right of unions to organise in workplaces; comprehensive national health insurance system and fully-funded public hospitals; progressive income tax; fully-funded public education, from kindergarten to university; an independent, properly funded national public broadcaster; opposition to racial, ethnic and gender discrimination; opposition to torture and the death penalty; and the protection of the natural environment and sustainable growth policies.

In Britain, Labour calls such core policies ‘three-line whip’ issues, and voting against them invites disendorsement by the Party.

But on the dozens, indeed hundreds of other Bills that come before State and Federal Parliaments, Australian Labor MPs should enjoy a freedom of conscience. It would be one way of reviving a seriously ailing polity.

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