After Senator John Faulkner delivered a speech dealing with the future of the Australian Labor Party, there has been plenty of discussion about why the Labor Party has been losing members in the past few years such as in today’s Age.
If we want an answer why this is happened, we only have to look at how the speech was reported by many in the media. What was reported was not the essence of Falkner’s message, but how this may create splits in the Party.
I used to be a member of the ALP from 1983 to 2001. These were the days when we had strong Federal and Victorian State ALP governments (yes the first two terms of the Cain government in Victoria were popular). But even then I could see how the echelons of the party were afraid of a ‘ALP Split Looms’ type of headline. So even though there were conferences where nominally members of the ALP could debate policy, by the time conference was on, any possible contencious motion would have been filtered and eliminated by those whose job was to ensure that the Conference would end up with a happy family snap.
Unfortunately any real passionate debate on the floor of conference would look ‘bad’ in the media. The inevitable comments of ‘how a Party can govern the country/state if they even can’t run themselves’ would be repeated, and of course the reason of the debate would be lost in the reporting of personalities factions etc. We know the story.
This filtering would take a variety of forms. The idea was that rank and file members would join a Policy Committee to formulate policies and motions that would then be brought to conference. Of course they had to go through a conference ‘Agenda Committee’ that would decide which motions were to be debated and which wouldn’t be. While the sound of being on an ‘Agenda Committee’ sounds as exciting as searching for fleas in a dog, it was extremely important for factions (and associated ministers) to have representatives there to ensure that motions that were favourable to a faction or another would go through, and in some cases collude if the motion was seen to controversial.
Often these type of motions wouldn’t even go as far as the Agenda Committee. That is because ministers would ensure that friendly members would be present in policy committees to ensure that unfriendly ‘radical’ motions were either watered down, postponed ad infinitum or even better abandoned. You knew how the wind would blow. The Environment Policy Committee in the late 80’s spend lots of time for a forestry policy and even now I remember a young Peter Batchelor in his job as Socialist Left ministerial gatekeeper absolutely flying off his handle in rage about it in a SL meeting at Trades Hall, calling the policy (to protect native forests) irresponsible, unrealistic and with no concept of the realities of being in government etc.
In the article by Ian Munro, he states that is unusual for Labor is that this dissatisfaction comes while it is in power. Normally there is some disaffection after losing office or after a long period in opposition. I don’t agree. I found that when in opposition, when the Party has lost its government bureaucracy it tends to rely more on members. And because oppositions don’t make decisions that put people off-side there is less disenchantment. Of course when in power the Parliamentary Party quickly forgets the rank and file (and in some way sees it as a bit of a nuisance) and start to rely on the bureaucracy and highly paid advisers that don’t hide their condescension and contempt for the ‘amateur’ rank and file, but these advisers quickly flee the scene if the party loses power as the luster and prestige of power (and a healthy pay cheque) disappear.
The answer? One way forward was actually mentioned in Ian Munro’s article:
A network of policy communities concerned with social issues such as health and law reform typified the party during the 1970s. They were active and they linked Labor to community activists, offering a “community of support” for its ideas.
“They were issues-based groups that offered innovative policy thinking that was able to be picked up when Labor got into office,” .
One of the beneficiaries of that work was former Victorian premier John Cain, who speaks of the “prodigious” policy development that preceded his time in office.
I do remember that time because it was when I joined the ALP. Community groups were invited in developing policies and many of these ideas (such as the ground-breaking Flora and Fauna legislation) were formulated from this process, even if the participants were not ALP members it gave the party considerable energy and purpose. The difference now however is that Labor has abandoned these groups, seeing them as another pressure group instead as their constituency. Consequently we see Julia Gillard glibly talking about the value of work and setting the alarm early, and these ex-allies going to the Greens.