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Labor’s Future: Two Weekend Forums

October 24, 2011

At the weekend, I spoke to two gatherings for ALP members focused on re-building the party.

On Saturday I flew into Bathurst to speak to a group of about 30 ALP members engaged in a party review. I reminded them of the importance of Bathurst in Labor’s election victory of 1995. I used it as an example of how Labor can win on both bread and butter issues and a nature conservation or ‘green’ agenda. All it takes is nimble party leadership, I said.

“We won Bathurst against the Greiner agenda in 1991. We held it in 1995 because of a flow of preferences from a Green Party candidate based on our commitment to saving the South East forests. Think about that as a confirmation that the right ALP leadership can straddle the divide between green-inclined voters and a traditional base, between a nature conservation agenda and an agenda of economic growth.”

I challenged the group to think about new forms of party organisation.

“We want to get beyond the monthly branch meeting and working in a polling booth on election day. You should produce some new templates for community activism and online communication. You should then report on these templates for the benefit of other people in the party.”

I told them that the review of the ALP’s last election performance carried out by Steve Bracks, John Faulker and me had recommended that local party units like this group should be able to apply for funding from the national party to conduct experiments in communication and organisation.

Bathurst might take the lead.

On Sunday, I addressed a young Centre Unity Faction camp organised by the President of NSW Young Labor, David Latham.

It was the first time I’ve seen Young Labor with a document spelling out strategic direction. It included guidelines for university ALP clubs and for Young Labor associations.

This is a quantum leap beyond the hit or miss amateurism that has distinguished the Labor Party.

I told them that ethos was more important than ideology or structure in interpreting a political party. I defined the ethos of Centre Unity in terms of:

• opposition to the Labor Party being taken over by the Marxist left. This was most important during the 50s and 60s when the Community Party and its supporters in the Labor Party were a significant presence.

• support for Labor as a party of government. Our faction sustained Whitlam as he dragged the Labor Party forward after he assumed the leadership in 1967. We recruited Neville Wran (with help from the NSW Left) to lead the Labor Party back into government in NSW. We’ve never accepted that the ALP was a party of protest and opposition.

• support for the leadership. The Centre Unity faction has sustained Labor Party leaders in opposition and in government.

I said this ethos had been tarnished or compromised in recent years with the ill-considered opposition to the electricity privatisation agendas of two Labor Premiers, me and Morris Iemma. It stumbled into the removal of Morris Iemma, thus retreating from party of its ethos and support for the leader.

I told them that a political career was a craft or a trade. They should think about the six skills that comprise the political craft. Top of the list should be public speaking or communication.

“Somehow our party has lost the dominance in advocacy and debate it once enjoyed. We are no longer the party that gives the best speeches, engages the best speechwriters, displays the best turn of phrase and clinches the arguments.” And, then, wins the brief.

“We’ve got to restore that dominance.”

I told them the role of Centre Unity should be to prevent the ALP degenerating into permanent minority status.

The quality of questions was good, particularly the one that pinned me down on the policy agenda.

I said in response, “You should debate whether the role of Centre Unity is to convert the Labor Party to full embrace of the economic liberalisation that was implemented during the Hawke-Keating years. And which, to be fair, is reflected in serious economic reforms in Wayne Swan’s budgets that have received too little attention. Like reform to the disability pension scheme, moves to build workforce participation and the rolling back of the middle-class welfare that became entrenched under Howard and Costello.”

  1. Mathew permalink
    October 24, 2011 12:26 pm

    I think it’s admirable that you are out flogging the dead horse Bob. But I can’t see too much difference between your review and the ignored Hawke/Wran review.

    In order for the party to change, people in it who yield power have to give it up. To date there is little evidence of this taking place. If the party is committed to change and not just talk, we won’t know until preselection time when I suspect a plethora of “hard working” “committed” community activists (whose recent employers over the past 15 years just happened to be trade unions) and maybe one or two of those young people from your centre unity faction meeting who will do what they are told, will put their names down for preselection in the safe seats, and get the nod from HQ.

    Sorry to say the branches and rank and file were never the problem, it was always the parliamentary party and Head Office that created this horrible, horrible mess. Now, when it is probably too late, people like yourself and Sam are running back to the branches for ideas, ideas that were pretty much ignored for ten years while MP’s and other party/union hacks were too busy entertaining developers and publicans at party fundraisers.

    Every single party member (myself included, but especially those who were in a real position to do something about it) should hang their heads in shame.

    • Michael permalink
      October 24, 2011 3:45 pm

      Yep, too late, let the conservatives rule eternal. No progressive Labor policies and governments for future generations because the present generation is not allowed to reform or fight. Defeatism forever and ever.

      • October 25, 2011 8:43 am

        Not much point in running to the branches for ideas, everyone with ideas in the branches gave up and left a long time ago. The real question is what would attract them back I and I haven’t heard anything very enticing so far. Increasingly the action is outside the traditional party, have you noticed?

      • Mathew Badcock permalink
        October 26, 2011 4:11 am

        Too true Ian. Too many good people gone from branches forever after being treated like shite by the machine.

        Dodgy and contrived N40 ballots (many of them not for high profile value added candidates, and fully endorsed by Carr, Iemma, and the party machine) ignored internal reviews, bullshit suspension/expulsion charges, and no acknowledgement of party correspondence from branches by alpho or cabinet ministers. The “when good people leave, bad people win” argument only goes so far in a volunteer organisation.

        Re Michael’s comment, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. There will be future Labor governments, unfortunately they will not be very progressive unless there is serious revolutionary reform, that should start with a significant reduction in union control over our party. Very unlikely thing to happen though as the unions will have to voluntarily hand this power over to the rank and file, and with high paid cushy union positions rapidly drying up, they will want to have full access to the parliamentary trough to keep their snouts wet. It is no coincidence that there are more ex union hacks in parliament today than yesteryear despite the fact that union membership is a lot closer to all time lows than all time highs.

  2. Alan permalink
    October 25, 2011 1:12 pm

    Bob, it all made sense when the conditions of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s produced the likes of Keating and yourself. Now they produce Keneally,Tripodi,Dastyari,Obeid,Arbib et al. who are so far removed from the ethos that McKell kick started that they have indeed succumbed to the same sort of careerism for the sake of careerism that we once associated with the Victorian Left in the Hartley era! The only difference is that the old Victorian Left deluded themselves into thinking it was about ideology. what the current Centre Unity mob think its about is anyone’s guess.

    Forget David Latham and the professional professionals;where are next generation of leaders and thinkers going to come from to take the party forward? Young Labor? Seriously.

  3. October 26, 2011 1:59 am

    I wish that I had the opportunity to listen to you talk about the Party. Alas I live in SA and so the blog will have to do.

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