What Clyde did

Saturday, 22 March 2008 

Given it was written by a political reporter who has spent so long cheering the ALP, Alan Ramsay’s latest article shows a remarkable naivety of how that party works and, indeed, of politics in general. His warning that Rudd had better watch himself against the factions was ironically prompted by the death of someone who did his fair share of destroying their power.

Factions were the internal way Labor organised itself around the external role the party played in society. It was the difficulties of being the political voice of the union movement and mediating between them and business that was the ultimate basis of factional differences in the party for most of the last century.

For the last three decades of the twentieth century, the unions political role has been in decline and it is reorganising the party to accommodate that fact, in a process politely known as ‘modernising’, that Clyde Cameron came in to his own, deputising the modernising drive of Whitlam. Actions such as the dropping of the White Australia Policy and the intervention on the Victorian left in 1970 were important stepping stones to removing union influence in the party. It was in Cameron’s home state of South Australia where we saw the first such modern Labor government under Dunstan. It was fun to read Ramsay recount the amusing way Cameron organised the execution of Dunstan’s predecessor by getting state council to cheer his ‘selfless’ sacrifice. But Ramsay chronicles Cameron’s achievements without understanding what they meant.

When Keating effectively ended the unions’ role for good, the factions remained in a state of suspended animation, reflecting a party that no longer knew where to go after the end of its historical role. But even during the Howard years, the party was starting to reorganise itself around the decline of the factions’ roles. Ramsay seems to suggest the demotion of the factions started with Rudd’s announcement that he would appoint the ministry last September. But as early as 2005, Gillard was calling for the end of faction influence on the leadership when she withdrew from the post-Latham leadership race.

The role of the Left, the perennial losers of the faction system, in dismantling it has been fascinating to watch in this new government. They have done so by first formally burying their faction’s own historical agenda. While Gillard formalises the marginal role of the unions, Tanner is attacking the left’s spending plans. Faulkner, in his less defined position as Minister of State has the special job of setting up political life in the post-factional world, the clampdown on donations, lobbying and political staffing on which the factions relied. It is the left’s eagerness to attack the factional system that is the basis of their alliance with Rudd and their importance in his ministry. It is a neat echo of the alliance between Cameron from the Left faction and Whitlam from the Right a few decades before.

Ramsay suggests that Rudd’s pronouncements that he is over-stepping the factions is just show and, of course, he had to follow the factions. This view has become fashionable with other journalists as well (including those of Ramsay’s dreaded paper, The Australian) and not only shows an ignorance of what has happened to the ALP, but the art of politics itself.

Firstly, it ignores the actual make-up of the Rudd Ministry which not only gave the Right its worst result in living memory in terms of numbers, but gave the Right traditional plum jobs that are being stripped of meaning (it is striking how little impact Swan’s troubles are having on the government itself, and has anyone seen the Foreign Minister lately?). Not only do the party leader and deputy leader no longer attend faction meetings for the first time in living memory but we also have the first non-faction Minister in Cabinet, Garrett, as well.

But Ramsay also can’t get the significance of Rudd’s leadership. He is not taking on the power of the factions, they lost that years ago. He is reorganising the party and government to finally accommodate that fact. By openly admitting that he will choose the Ministry Rudd is openly saying the obvious, that the factions are dead. In doing so, Rudd strips away the ability of the old power bosses to pretend that they still have influence over the careers of their members. By calling the 2020 Summit, Rudd is taking that open declaration to its logical conclusion, that the entire party is politically bankrupt. Rudd is setting up Australia’s first post-political government (actually Howard’s was but Rudd is openly admitting the fact).

Contrary to what Ramsay imagines, Rudd’s problems will stem not from the revenge of the factions as they rise up and assert their mythical power, but the opposite. The faction system did at least provide an internal framework for organising the party. Its loss may make it harder to prevent the party disintegrating into little cliques. However, more fundamentally, the decline of the factions themselves are a product of the decline of the party’s social base. It is sensitivity to this that gave the furore over carers’ bonus its weight, rather than the supposed power of the Murdoch press, as Ramsay seems to think.

Rudd is ‘flaunting’, as Ramsay puts it, his power and values (and childhood) much for the same reason Latham did, to fill a gap left by a party with no program. It is Gillard’s job to not only end the factional system but to find something to replace the ALP’s lost historical role through her portfolios of education and social inclusion. Calling time on a bankrupt factional system is one thing, but replacing it may be beyond even her capabilities.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 22 March 2008.

Filed under Key posts, Political figures

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