Remaking the ALP – an update

Monday, 30 July 2007 

The ALP National Conference in May showed that Rudd was in the process of transforming the ALP.

Moaning over Rudd’s ‘me-tooism’ shows that the media and the government are starting to get what this means. An interesting take on this was Michelle Grattan’s article in The Saturday Age. The make-over has three components:

Marginalising the unions
How marginalised the unions are in the party was not evident while they were being indulged by the leadership’s twin-track campaign against Workchoices. That campaign collapsed with the Theresa Rein affair, which exposed that Labor’s opposition to individual contracts and AWAs was a sham. Unions had little reaction, which allowed Rudd to scale back the campaign. One reason why Rudd has not ‘done a Blair’ and had a showdown with the unions is that there were few issues to beat them up on. They had their teeth pulled out happily during the Hawke/Keating years. Fortunately, however, the fuss made by the government over the rudeness of union leaders like Mighell and McDonald gave Rudd such an opportunity to parade his toughness on unions. Their expulsion was only for show, of course (McDonald has reportedly since renewed his party dues). However, it was enough to make clear, both in and outside of the ALP, that unions would have negligible influence in any future government.

Factions in decline
As with the decline of the unions, so goes the decline of the factions that they back. A highly significant development in the ALP is the preselection of ‘celebrity’ candidates from outside the party. This has very important implications for the factions as it breaks their primary hold over MPs – the threat of withdrawing backing for preselection. The clearest example of how the appointment of these candidates undermines the factions is Peter Garrett. He may have policies similar to the left faction but he is not in it. A lack of factional backing makes these candidates isolated within the party and highly dependent on the leadership. It was why Rudd has little trouble side-lining Garrett when he needed to move on Tasmanian logging last week. In doing so, he pretty effectively undermined the left’s influence on policy at the same time.

The internationalisation of the ALP
The unions and the factions have been largely hollow shells since the Keating years, however, their existence has at least kept the party in a reasonably stable (if demoralised) state. What has now given Rudd the ability to side-line them are more favourable conditions overseas. For the first time in many years, international political trends are moving the ALP’s way. Not only is the Iraq strategy unravelling but the anti-growth message in the global warming agenda suits Labor. Under the leadership of a former foreign affairs bureaucrat, not backed by any faction or union, the ALP is being internally ‘hollowed out’. But it is now able to take on the government on key questions of national security and the environment without running into problems. It allows the ALP to attack the government on climate change without needing to differentiate on logging. It can go in hard on issues like Iraq, without any pressure to take a position on Haneef.

The Haneef affair shows the government is clearly struggling with this new ALP. The irony is that, on its own, the fiasco is unlikely to create much electoral fall-out. It will probably be accepted by most of the electorate thinking it better to be safe than sorry. But the government’s reaction to Labor’s support is making it worse and will be incomprehensible to most. Kevin Andrews’ attack on Labor for not opposing the government will be clearly viewed as bizarre, but Abbott’s mocking of Gillard’s ‘echo’ on Haneef, replayed by Barrie Cassidy on Insiders yesterday, also looks like playing childish politics on national security. One notable exception, however, was Malcolm Turnbull who refused to defend Andrews’ comments on Sunday. Not surprising that it is another bussed-in celebrity who seems to be best keeping up with the game that is now being played.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 30 July 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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