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Labor’s Ethos and the “Powerbrokers”

November 9, 2011

Launching Troy Bramston’s Looking for the Light on the Hill last night, I took the opportunity to dismiss a few myths. Like the myth that the Labor Party had suddenly been taken over by a political class. As Troy points out in his book, this criticism first started being heard as soon as the Labor Party was established in 1891. As Troy says, “It is a complaint as old as Labor itself” (page 16).

The book is solid. It is stuffed full of quotes, references and stray facts that distil over 100 years of party history. It will stimulate readers to pursue some of these tendrils and track other books and build their knowledge of party history. More importantly it presents an agenda for party reform.

I like his alternative party objective. It represents an opportunity to finally junk the so-called ‘socialist’ objective. The very fact Stalin killed millions in the Ukraine in the name of socialism is reason enough for Labor to drop the term. The very fact that Mao killed 70 million Chinese in the name of socialism is reason enough for us to never use the word again. But as Troy reminds us in these pages, the Labor Party itself was never serious about this objective. Stupidly, the organisation allowed the objective to be draped around its neck, to be placed at a disadvantage, to be forced to spend disproportionate time and energy denying it would ever implement its objective.

Troy recommends the party leader be elected in a different way, with rank and file members participating. I am troubled by this concept. Yes, it would give a boost to party membership. Or might. But the party leader leads a parliamentary party, a team in a parliament; a team in a parliament that will provide a government. He or she should not be under pressure to say things just to get the support of rank and file branch members. The leader’s job is to appeal to the middle ground of the electorate, not the activist party membership.

Troy deals with party ethos. And this is as important as ideology or rules and structure. Correctly he says it is time for the party to distance itself from ‘power-brokers’ and their meetings in Chinese restaurants, plotting against leaders. I would go further. If anyone in the party allows themselves to be described as a power-broker or is seen to revel in it when baptised by the media as a power-broker they should be taken out into Martin Place and ritually executed. These types did enough damage to the party in the lead up to the last state elections and in the lead up to the last federal elections. The most important change in party ethos is to see “power-broking” (whatever it is) relegated and people who want to be described as power-brokers banned from ever giving another self-congratulatory interview.

Troy’s recommendations for party reform are specific enough to be an agenda for discussion at any party meeting.

  1. scott permalink
    November 10, 2011 9:08 am

    In Canada, all the political parties are elected by party memberships. This has two effects.

    1. Leadership campaigns take forever. The quickest I’ve seen done is six months!
    2. The leader might be on the nose with their parliamentary colleagues. In the province of British Columbia, the BC Liberals (a coalition of Canadian Liberals and Conservatives) had a leadership race which resulted in the election of Christy Clark, who had the support of precisely one of her MP’s.

    There is no technical reason why the leaders for political parties shouldn’t be elected by the members. In Canada, every party does it, and it is seen as the normal and correct thing to do. But in the Australian political culture, it would be a disturbing and un-natural thing. I think the speed of the change of leadership that the Australian practice brings is a distinct advantage to Canadian practice, and moves to change should be resisted.

  2. Big Bazza permalink
    November 19, 2011 2:25 pm


    My view is that a group of party custodians elected by the membership should present an organizational structure that has party positions classified as E for elected and A for appointed.

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