Even Shiny New Governments Need Reform


State Liberal leaders met in Melbourne last week to "assert the role of the State and Territory … Parties in reviving the fortunes of the Party", but Federal leader Brendan Nelson wasn’t invited to partake of their collective wisdom.

Never mind, Brendan. Perhaps your own post-mortem meeting next week, or the 12-month "listening tour" you have in mind for your Federal colleagues, will unearth some fresh ideas for the new Opposition. And if not, there’s been plenty of counsel coming from other, sometimes surprising, sources since the Liberals’ ignominious defeat on 24 November last year. Party insiders, members of the commentariat, political analysts such as Mumble’s Peter Brent and even figures closely associated with the triumphant ALP, like Bill Kelty, have all chipped in their two cents’ worth of advice on exactly what the moribund Party must do in order to return it to an electable position within the three years before the next election.

At the same time, nothing can touch incredible Kev and his happy band of brothers and sisters in the "shiny new" Government.

It’s easy to forget that, just a year ago, the prevailing wisdom had the Federal Liberal Party as an unassailable political force, and regarded Howard himself as the best politician of his generation. At that same, not-too-distant time in the past, the ALP was roundly regarded as being riven by cronyism, factional warfare, misplaced careerism and an anachronistic culture that was certain to doom it to eternal Opposition.

As recently as two years ago, in the first Quarterly Essay of 2006, the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton went so far as to postulate that "The Australian Labor Party has served its historical purpose and will wither and die as the progressive force of Australian politics." That’s the Party that’s now holding the reins of every government in the country.

Sure, everyone loves a winner. And Opposition has traditionally been the place in which defeated parties sit to contemplate their navels and work out what went wrong. But this introspection – the willingness to acknowledge ingrained faults and engage in the creative destruction necessary for party renewal – never lasts longer than the next win. In politics, electoral success wipes the slate clean.

Once in power, all parties forget about the problems that were central to their previous woes, somehow convincing themselves that the structural reforms and philosophical re-imaginings that seemed so pressing in Opposition no longer carry such urgency – or perhaps, even, that they have magically come to pass as a kind of natural side effect of success. As Peter Brent notes, "For decades, Opposition parties have moaned about their dreadful organisational structure but done little to address it. Then once they take government they forget the problem even existed."

After a decade of internecine struggle, self-searching and outright warfare, the ALP was returned to an electable position not by any rigorous structural or political reform, but by the election of an appealing new leadership team in Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Given the presidential re-styling of our political system by Howard, this is perhaps inevitable, and certainly unsurprising. But it’s also regrettable, because the hard work of modernising the Labor Party, and consolidating its progressive policy positions into a coherent, long-term narrative for the country’s future, is still needed.

Following the train wreck that was Mark Latham’s leadership, and his bitter and impassioned attack on the Party that nurtured him throughout his adult life after he spat the dummy and retreated to "home dad" status, the ALP became furiously engaged, for a time, in self-recrimination and, more positively, a process of review and renewal. Barry Jones’ edited collection, Coming to the Party, tackled head on Latham’s accusation that the ALP suffered from a "poisonous and opportunistic culture". In a series of essays by Party insiders – including some, such as Julia Gillard, John Faulkner, Lindsay Tanner and Bill Shorten, who are now in real positions of power within the Rudd Government – the book proposed a variety of measures to reform and democratise the ALP, and enable it to win in 2007.

It’s to be hoped that the achievement of this end does not derail the process of reform entirely, because many of the problems identified by Latham and other critics remain entrenched.

The most notorious, and easily exploited by their pro-big business opposition, is the disproportionate influence of the union movement. While the Australian electorate voted the ALP in last year largely because it recognised the importance of collective workplace representation in the face of the draconian WorkChoices legislation, Labor does need to recognise that the role of unions within a highly mobile, highly skilled workforce has changed, and must take measures to ensure its MPs reflect the growing diversity of needs within the Australian electorate. This means that some of the old guard – the union bosses and factional leaders who have held the reins within the ALP for so long, often passing it to family members in a kind of Bhutto-esque attempt to create hereditary peerage within the ALP – will simply have to let go, or have their claws prised from power if the ALP is to remain truly representative of modern Australia.

While Australians are happy to see the likes of Bill Shorten and Greg Combet – both obviously talented men with a clear commitment to public life and the welfare of ordinary people, gain a place in our Parliament – they’re rightly scathing of the kind of "jobs for the boys" mentality that shoehorns union representatives and other factional hacks into safe Labor seats, often at the expense of more talented candidates.

This has caused real and ongoing tension within local branches and undermined the Party’s claim to be truly democratic and representative. In the case of former front-bencher and federal member for Corio, Gavin O’Connor, who was ousted in a pre-selection bout with union heavyweight Richard Marles in 2006, the gulf between the attitudes of Labor insiders and those of the public it purports to represent as to what exactly constitutes entitlement to power in a modern democracy was laid bare.

When O’Connor abandoned the party he had served for a lifetime and stood as an independent on 24 November in the hope, unrealised, that he could retain the seat he had held for Labor for 14 years, he was regarded by ALP insiders as a traitor. The wider Australian public, however, recognised that it was O’Connor that had been betrayed, and gave him 12.7 per cent of the primary vote, resulting in a reduced margin for Marles.

Last year, Rudd and his campaign team expertly exploited the perception among voters that John Howard was "out of touch" – that his old-fashioned thinking was no longer resonating with modern Australia, nor capable of devising solutions for contemporary problems. What the ALP has not openly acknowledged is that much of this old thinking still holds sway within its own ranks – and this was perhaps most starkly demonstrated by the pre-selection of the hapless Nicole Cornes in Boothby.

Cornes, who couldn’t be more different from South Australian success story Penny Wong, is the third wife of South Australian AFL legend Graham Cornes, 22 years her senior, and a newspaper columnist and law graduate with young children. She floundered from day one of the election campaign, and managed only a 2.4 per cent swing against incumbent Andrew Southcott, in defiance of the trend across the State.

On election night, neither a tearful Cornes, nor any of the informed ALP insiders on the many and varied television broadcasts, seemed to have a clue as to why she had failed to cut through as a candidate. Attractive? Check. Celebrity? Check. Young Mother? Check. Obligatory law degree? Check. So what was the problem?

I can answer that for them in two words: trophy wife. Just as it was the women’s vote that made such a debacle of Latham’s candidacy in 2004, it was other women who couldn’t come at Cornes. While the old, faceless men of the Labor Party Machine may have found her incredibly attractive, women such as I and many of my friends, young mothers or not, resent the elevation of a woman solely on the basis of her looks or who she is married to. You’d think, in an election that gave us the eminently qualified, capable and engaging Wong, and brought Australia a "first couple" titled "the Prime Minister and Ms Rein", that the strategists might have twigged to this, but apparently not.

The truth is, the split between old and new Australia that was very arguably responsible for the electorate’s rejection of Howard in favour of Rudd is still dominant within certain quarters of the ALP. There are encouraging signs that Rudd, with such strong, modern women on his front bench as Gillard, Wong, Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and Kate Ellis, won’t have any truck with this breed now he’s in power. But they won’t let go of their influence easily, as evinced by the notorious case of Brian Burke.

However, within the new boundaries of political philosophy in the 21st century, in which economic liberalism has been largely embraced by both sides, these social conservatives would be more at home in the NSW Young Liberals. There’s simply no place for misogynists, homophobics, cultural imperialists or climate change skeptics in a progressive Labor Party.

Finally, while structural reform of the ALP is clearly still needed, it cannot be left to the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party while it’s in government. The FPLP is more than occupied running the country and undoing the damage done by 11 years of Howard’s regressive and divisive reign, which is what the Australian people elected it to do.

But many of the problems identified in an earlier Quarterly Essay, John Button’s excellent "Beyond Belief: What Future For Labor?", remain intractable within the wider ALP, and will surely emerge at some time within the first term of this fresh and effective new Government to undermine its progress and success.

The administrative arm of the ALP can, and must, do all that is necessary to avoid this. It can’t afford to forget the lessons of the last 11 years.

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.