On Monday the Australian Labor Party embarked upon a journey of authoritarianism and factionalism that it may well long regret.
Party members were chosen to run for office without rank-and-file participation, interviews, contests or even a meeting.
The federal executive did not meet, they established voting places for the executive, who cast their vote. Twenty-one days ago, nominations were called for, 18 days later they were closed.
Victorian Labor’s preselection process has put it on an authoritarian path.Credit:Dean Osland
Within two days, national executive members voted. The federal secretary did not set out the ideas or aspirations of a single candidate and a sitting candidate did not know who their opposition was until the close of nominations last Friday.
Even the political elite in the old Soviet Russia would have been embarrassed.
Ironically, it was a process that was engineered because the executive took over control of the ALP Victorian Branch to ensure that democracy was restored.
There is, of course, a strong case against branch stacking, but the recruitment of people with just one intent, to support a given candidate, is not new.
Just ask about any politician who has ever stood for office, whether they recruited their friends and supporters. The line is drawn where there are fictional supporters. This is corruption and corruptive.
Former minister Adem Somyurek quit Labor to stand as an independent after facing corruption and branch stacking allegations.
It is not less so than a union which over affiliates its numbers to gain unwarranted power and influence. You can rest assured that the ALP is not about to do an audit on actual union membership.
I joined the ALP in 1964, just a few days after turning 16, and have been a member ever since. With the exception of the ALP’s administrative committee , I have never sought any elected position at state or federal level.
I have always been content to be a rank-and-file member with its responsibilities and benefits. The responsibility is to vote for the Party, to hand out how to vote cards, to letter box and subscribe some financial support for the election. They are not onerous requirements.
The benefits are few but not unimportant. To vote in preselections, if elected to attend conferences as a delegate, to contribute ideas and to attend ALP conferences, even as a visitor.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme was introduced under Labor.
The reasons I have been a member is that I believe that the ALP can contribute to making a different and better society. For my entire life as a member, that illusion has not been shattered. It is true that my belief has been shaken by the party’s tepid response to Tampa, the Rudd/Gillard governments’ failure to appreciate the importance of unions, and the inability to be seen as the great protector of working people and their communities.
Impacted by climate change and the ineptitude of Labor governments in building homes for the poor. My optimism has been shaken but not shattered.
The ALP is still the party of the great Whitlam reforms, and together with the trade unions, the party of Medicare, National Superannuation and pensions, investment in educational opportunities, the highest minimum wages in the world, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
These are the safety nets that ensure that people are not left behind or fall over the edge. I am not against factions.
James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, writing in the Federalist Paper No 10 in 1787 ??? [yes] made out the case for the inevitability of the faction: “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man;….. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; …..“.
People will combine into groups of like mindedness, convenience, geography and for tactical advantage.
Without factions, there is no politics.
As Madison argued, “the cause of factionalism cannot be removed. The question is controlling its effect.”
The impact of factionalism in the ALP is now severe, but not destructive. After all, the ALP powerhouse is in Victoria. However, the lack of membership, the paucity of involvement, and the domination of the MPs’ offices as the recruiting ground, does not augur well for the party over the long term.
These impacts are already being shown in the national vote. The latest federal opinion polls have the ALP primary vote at 32 per cent. It is not that it can win the election only on the preferences of other parties, but that it is now so dependent that it requires a further 18-20 per cent. It is almost an impossible task with such a low primary vote.
When I joined the ALP, it was a party of opposition. It was controlled by one group and had not long before splintered. It was a party that seemed to glow in the purity of opposition.
First, the members started to revolt, led by people like Barney Williams; second, the “participants” led change from a myriad of legal offices; third, the unions, like the Storemen & Packers’ and Electrical Trades’, joined in the call for reform. It was not to destroy the controlling faction, but to put down silly policies and to provide for a more democratic sharing of power.
That sharing of power included the ALP membership. There are two important checks on factionalism. The first is the electorate. When the electorate sees “faceless men and women” of political parties choose the candidates and determine the policy they will be repulsed. The second is the membership of the party.
Without both of these pressures, Bob Hawke would have probably lost preselection to Gerry Hand for the seat of Wills. Simon Crean would have lost Hotham. Jennie George would not have been elected. Barry Jones would never have won a seat, and John Cain would not have been Premier.
The party can remove the influence of its membership, but it cannot escape the scrutiny of the electorate. The sharing of power is important, but not at any price. As Madison observed so long ago, there is a need to “guard against the cabals of the few”.
I am a great believer in Daniel Andrews. He stands on the cusp of being one of the great Labor premiers. Like everyone in the ALP, I am barracking for an Albanese Government, but this process will not be helpful for either of them.
A group of unnamed and invisible persons sat down and divided the winnings. In doing so, they did not give members the opportunity to ask a single question to any candidates.
They tramped upon innocents and guilty alike. They thwarted hope and the right of aspiration and experience or even the right to compete.
They can rectify their mistake by asking the members in each electorate to vote upon their choice.
They can be accessible to the party and its membership.
If they do not, it is a matter of time for the community to understand that the pendulum has swung too far towards control by the cabal. The ALP may well win the next federal election, but if it does not, it will rue the day that it allowed the ALP to be the most undemocratic party in the state of Victoria, where even the Greens and the Liberal/National Parties have not abandoned membership involvement.
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