A remaking of the ALP

Thursday, 3 May 2007 

The last week has been a significant one for the ALP.

Three trends came together over the National Conference and its aftermath that are likely to have long term consequences.

1) the end of the line for the unions: a common journalistic complaint about Rudd’s Conference speech was its length. However, they were missing the gap on the Conference floor he was trying to fill. The excruciatingly detailed review of the ALP’s historical role was to comfort delegates wondering if there still was one. The IR debate is really an identity crisis for a party that had been the political representation of a union movement that is now in terminal decline. The Fair Work Australia proposal may give the unions a body to cling to but represents no reversal of their now marginal role. This should become clearer as business starts its lobbying over the next few weeks.
2) the decline of the factions: as the importance of the unions decline so do the relevance of the factions in the ALP. The declining influence of the union movement’s more militant sections as well as those with closer business links, has left the respective left and right factions as empty shells. Last weekend’s defeat of the left on uranium mining, the last significant policy position it had in the party, has signalled its irrelevance. But it is not only the left. Rudd is from the Right, but with no major union backer, ran on a ticket with a deputy from the left, and once leader announced he would attend no more faction meetings and over-rode them in choosing the front-bench. Rudd is also over-riding the factions at the local level with his systematic drafting of ‘celebrity’ candidates.
3) the internationalisation of the ALP: both the decline of the unions and the factions are the results of long running political trends. What has brought them to the surface is a more recent development in the ALP, its tying into new developments in geopolitics. Barely was conference over and Rudd was looking to switch the debate back to Labor’s best chance of gaining power, the shift in the international political agenda from terrorism to climate change. The job of Ross Garnaut, appointed by Rudd on Monday to assess the economic impact of targeted emission cuts, is essentially to translate the new international agenda into a domestic one. For the first time in 20 years, the ALP has the opportunity to take advantage of international developments. This is what gives the leadership flexibility to act on the redundancy of its internal institutions.

The ALP’s reliance on international factors is nothing new, practically every Federal Labor government has been brought to power by international factors. But in the past it was to implement measures through its relationship with the unions. That relationship means little these days. For the first time, the party, under the leadership of a former foreign affairs bureaucrat, is now almost wholly dependent on its ability to respond to the international agenda.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 3 May 2007.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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