End of an era: The ALP

Friday, 21 December 2007 

There used to be a time when a political party would not only want to get into government, but would also want Senate control so it could implement its program unhindered by other parties.

Well not anymore it seems. Even leaving aside whether the Labor leadership knew that making a big deal over public service cuts would sabotage its campaign to get the crucial second seat in the ACT, it seems that Senate control was not what they wanted anyway. At least going by the news that the new government has taken the highly unusual step of getting a Senator from another party, the Democrats, to scrutinise public accounts.

This is very significant. Senator Murray’s role will be to ensure the public accounts are not used for political purposes such as advertising or pork-barrelling. He will be taking away one of the most important means by which political interests are exercised, not just those of the government, but of the party groupings within it.

The government leadership is conducting a silent clampdown of political activity in the Labor party. Ministers like Gillard and Tanner are setting about removing the power of factions and reducing the influence of the party over policy and spending priorities. This clampdown is silent because neither the old left nor right-wing of the Labor party have an agenda anymore from which to oppose it.

The federal ALP is now going through what has already happened in most of the state ALP branches over the last two decades. Over that time state politics has become depoliticised and about little more than providing services. The ALP has adjusted accordingly. While in government, the parties in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia have all, in various degrees, gone from being union-based parties to union/business parties – then a crisis (State Bank collapses, WA Inc.) – and ending up as largely technocratic parties more loyal to the state than either unions or business.

In Queensland, the ALP’s late emergence into government produced a fairly technocratic government from outset, with the Mandarin playing his part. While in contrast, the long-standing Labor governments in Tasmania and NSW, the latter which saw one of the earliest successful union/business governments under Wran, are now lagging behind (although an interesting piece by Stephen Loosley suggests that the situation in NSW may be about to change with the coming battles over privatisation).

The depoliticising of state government and the entrenchment of technocratic Labor governments at both state and now federal level is the basis of the new federalism that has been on display this week. Cooperation comes from the interest all of the states have in defusing issues like health, education and indigenous affairs by letting Canberra take responsibility for it. Depoliticising state spending issues is what Rudd means by ‘ending the blame game’. The fact that such political debates now have little substance is what made that slogan so effective in the electorate.

What Canberra has at its disposal to depoliticise any spending issues, was made clear by Rudd within hours of being sworn in, is the international agenda on climate change. The ‘number one moral issue of our time’, along with scares about the international economy, can be used to over-ride any claims on spending made by sections within the federal party and eventually the states.

With barely a name change (‘Australian Labor’ rather than the ALP), Labor has undergone a change to become a very different party from what it was in the last century. There is no clearer sign of how profound is this depoliticising that it is those from the left such as Tanner, Gillard, Wong and Faulkner, who are leading it. No doubt the unions will kick back as they try to regain influence over a party they created but have now lost for good. However, it is likely to be no more effective than this year’s attempt to embarrass Rudd by leaking the voting habits of his brother to the press. They will be trying to stop a transformation that with Rudd’s ascension, is now in its final stages. It makes the new Labor government perfectly in tune with the times both here and internationally and why, less than a month after taking power, it already feels like Howard was a long, long time ago.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 21 December 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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