A bogus debate about democracy

Monday, 13 June 2011 

While the operation was a success, the patient died.

Doug Cameron on the last bout of ALP reform 6 May 2011

If there is one thing more tedious than two demoralised parties limply flailing each other as we saw last August, it is one party limply flailing itself. It is tedious because despite the pretence of a ‘frank and open’ discussion, it is no such thing. Instead Faulkner’s speech last week was really trying to re-pose an intractable problem for Labor into something more manageable, but in doing so, mystified what the real problem is.

Rudd’s reaction was predictable enough, to take the opportunity presented by Faulkner to again call the faction leaders the cancer of the party. And Howes was absolutely right in his reply. Rudd was hardly for party democracy under his leadership and the 2009 National Conference was the most comatose in living memory (although we wait with bated breath for this year’s). When Rudd counter-posed the party brokers against the rights of the ALP ‘activists’, it was clearly a slip of the tongue – what Australia’s little Napoleon meant to say was ‘himself’.

But despite the implausibility of Rudd standing up for the party rank and file, it didn’t really matter because he did put his finger on the real issue, the emptiness of the faction leaders that has come out since they overthrew him. It is this that is the real problem that the party leadership is circling around but unable to quite spell out, because it goes to the centre of the party’s dilemma for which they have no solution. So to avoid the issue, we have a bogus discussion about party democracy and the needs of the membership to be heard so they can say Lord knows what.

Anyone listening to Faulkner would think there was a golden age for the party membership when they drove party policy but which has since been taken away by the party bosses. But in fact, constitutionally, the party membership has probably never enjoyed such formal influence over the direction of the party as they do now. The reforms of Whitlam, Hayden and Crean were all going one way, to reduce the influence of the traditional power centres of the party, often nominally in favour of the party membership.

This didn’t come from any upsurge in activism from the members themselves, but to realign the party in line with the broader declining political influence of the union bureaucracy. It was that power that Whitlam took on when he began to break down the influence of the ‘faceless men’ on the then Federal Executive who represented the real power base of the party, the union bureaucracy who financed and determined policy and generally pulled all of the strings – and that Abbott, with his much underappreciated sense of humour, also applied to Howes. In reality, of course, as we have seen over the last year, the leader of the AWU has been all face, and no string.

As a result of this attempt to water down union influence, what we have had is a phoney debate about party democracy that is reality upside down. The democratic element of the ALP is not how free and fair its internal rules are for the membership, but how much the party bosses reflect something real in society. It is the fact that the leaders of organised Labor no longer represent anything much that is at the root of Labor’s problem and that party leaders like Faulkner are trying to turn into a virtue of more say for the membership.

It was the contradiction in that historical social role of the union bureacracy that underpinned the factional fights of the past that Faulkner fondly alludes to, and the lack of that role why the public is so intolerant of the pointless internal ructions today. It was the hollowness of what that role has become that was was so exposed when they openly took back their party last year, and that has led to the latest bout of existential crisis. Unfortunately, no amount of playing around with internal party rules to unleash the membership will bring that role back.

Doug Cameron, speaking from the Labor left, and so eager to put his oar in on party reform, has shown that in spades. When Rudd was overthrown he promised that now that the chains were broken, the party’s left would be free to speak out. Yet despite Labor’s turn on asylum seekers down a policy path that sent the Labor left into paroxysms when it had a Howard in front of it, what have we had? So little, that even the Murdoch press struggled to make a furore out of it. So no sign of democracy there either. It just goes to show, that when chains come off a corpse, we should not expect much – other than a little spilling of the guts.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 13 June 2011.

Filed under State of the parties

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21 responses to “A bogus debate about democracy”

  1. Lentern on 13th June 2011 11:40 am

    I suspect a lot of the ALP’s current depression can be traced to the coalition controlled senate in Rudd’s term. I’d say the general trend is that a party membership will get enthused and involved when they’re in opposition and the government is there for the taking, maintain this buoyancy for a while in government before drifting somewhat. When they’re initially cast out they spend a couple of years pondering how diabolical things have become before the government begins to get stale and suddenly, faced with the prospect of winning government, they forget these troubles.

    The Faulkner types may be so depressed now because they feel they were robbed of their utopian first years in government. A locked senate courtesy of the 2004 result made almost every reform long and drawn out while the leadership was the most risk averse in memory. (I’m not just referring to Rudd either, pretty much every senior cabinet minister except Tanner). Now the government seems nearing it’s close; which is not so unusual for a second term government; but feel they never got their time to be setting the agenda. Having to operate under Rudd can’t have helped nor having to go through the bruising process of rolling a first term prime minister but I suspect that only accounts for a part of it.

    No doubt the shelving of the CPRS was a watershed moment in revealing the government to be empty or whatever, that might have been avoided had the balance of power been held by greens or democrats or even Xenophon on his own but there was probably a raft of issues Labor might have been stronger on had they not needed Fielding or Turnbull’s blessing.

    For all Faulkner’s grumbling, the next liberal government will eventually grow stale and under a popular leader they will head into an election with rising party membership, donations etc, win by a comfortable margin and see liberal pundits decrying the party is dead forever. Labor just seemed to have missed their turn in the electoral cycle, and I’d attribute that largely to the senate.

  2. j-boy on 14th June 2011 10:03 am

    the faceless men/women were the party….

  3. Michael on 14th June 2011 12:44 pm

    Lentern, spot on. The senate has proven itself to be a great impediment to democracy over the last four years.

  4. Lentern on 14th June 2011 7:51 pm

    I wouldn’t call the senate undemocratic, just a cause of frustration for the government.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 15th June 2011 6:33 am

    Well it is a little undemocratic given a Tasmanian’s vote is worth 13 times that of someone from New South Wales.

    Labor hasn’t had a majority in the Senate since 1949 and certainly it has been no worse than that faced in 1972-5.

    I think the problem is Labor itself, it is in a deeper crisis than 1975, and only disguised by the fact that the Liberals are led by someone close to unelectable.

  6. Michael on 15th June 2011 10:11 am

    What would have happened if Rudd had got his CPRS through the senate? Given that it is inevitable that there will be a price on carbon, both parties had one as an election promise in 2007. The fact that we still don’t have one points to the failure of the governance system. Had Rudd suceeded with his electoral mandate Labor’s problems may have been contained and swept under the carpet for a couple of years longer instead of being in this hopeless state in it’s second term.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 15th June 2011 2:56 pm

    Hypotheticals are tricky but I think that’s reasonable. But even having delayed the ETS I think Labor would have contained its problems by highlighting the unelectibility of Abbott. What really brought Labor’s problems out was the event of which we are soon about to celebrate its first glorious anniversary.

  8. Lentern on 15th June 2011 5:16 pm

    My understanding was that the senate balance of power in 1974 was held by two independents. I don’t know much about them, but I suspect it was easier to please both of them with one bill than it was to please both Bob Brown and Stephen Fielding.

  9. Michael on 15th June 2011 5:24 pm

    Sure Hypotheticals are tricky, but do you think the coup against Rudd would have been successful without the fall in the polls preciptated by walking away from the ETS, following the senate blocking it? It all comes back to the senate one way or another. Sure Rudd made mistakes and tactical errors, but there doesn’t seem to be anything else that would have created the opportunity to move against him. In fact the move against Rudd already seems to have been much more damaging to the government than the plotters thought so it seems like they would have needed something pretty big to create the pretense.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 15th June 2011 7:47 pm

    Oh they defintely needed Rudd’s polls to weaken before they could move, and the leaks & briefings against him helped, including Cabinet’s decision to delay the ETS.

    But they only had a window as the polls were starting to recover when the contest between Rudd and Abbott was becoming clearer.

    The Senate blocking (i.e. the change in Liberal leadership) helped bring that about, but that in turn was a response to Copenhagen.

    But ultimately this was all about the party reasserting itself. Hasn’t it turned out well!

  11. nick on 16th June 2011 12:33 pm

    yep been an absolute disaster so far, the hatchet job didn’t achieve anything imho

    history now though and still think things can turn and labor can win the next election and salvage something from the wreckage if they get the implementation of the carbon tax right and expose abbotts stupidity

  12. The Piping Shrike on 16th June 2011 4:58 pm

    No it’s not history, I think it is still very much live. This is not about a botched leadership change or Kevin v Julia, this is about the party brokers retaking control of the party and bringing to the surface that Labor’s traditional agenda is over.

    This is why we have the extraordinary soul-searching going on while Labor is in government and for which the party brokers have no solution other than a bogus discussion about party democracy.

    Their only chance, as I wrote at the start of the year, is that Gillard finds a way to wrest back the leadership from them, something of which I am having increasing doubts will happen. If the Libs normalise, or Abbott does (more difficult) then its game over.

  13. Lentern on 16th June 2011 5:47 pm

    At 4:58, a lot of what you seem to be getting at is that Labor’s had to cede a lot of old ideological platforms as a) they’ve won the battle or b)the area is no longer contentious but part of the technocratic consensus. This might mean the end of the sort of legendary struggles and oratory but I don’t see why it means the party is in any way disadvantaged.

    The Tory parties can no longer harp on about communism or race invasions (ok perhaps they do but they’re getting progressively less traction from it as time passes) but even during the wobbly Nelson period there was no real existential crisis.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 16th June 2011 8:05 pm

    Labor was the political representation of the union bureacracy, a role that ended when the social influence of the unions was wound up during the Hawke/Keating years, and Labor the party has been dealing with that fact ever since. The one election they won since then was hiding behind Kevin07, a cover that was blown when they dumped him.

    The Liberals were very much in an ‘existential’ crisis during Rudd’s, leading to them defaulting the next election by turning to Abbott. It’s just that Labor’s collapse has obscured that now and allowing a temporary stabilisation.

  15. nick on 17th June 2011 10:49 am

    I don’t think the labor agenda is over.

    I do agree that the parties struggling but that’s largely due to the party being full of largely very mediocre politicians imho.

    Gillards in control imho, she’s just very mediocre as is much of her front bench.

    Rudd had a bit more going for him, hence the stupidity of it.

    Still the liberal parties and abbott are even more mediocre.

    As we’ve both said this could be labors saving grace.

  16. Paul of Berwick on 17th June 2011 2:51 pm

    We live in an era of mobile capital & labour. An economy where the association between capital and the Liberals & between labour and Labor has broken down.

    And, we live in an era of disintermediation, where the long-term gatekeepers have lost their influnce.

    Thus, traditional political representation is fracturing. Its becoming less homogeneous. So, to generalise, the population can be seen as an increasing number of special interest groups.

    The metaphor is a network. These (non-aligned) special interest groupings can be thought of as nodes in a network (ie, the Australian people). And so, my thesis is that whoever controls the network, controls the nodes on the network.

    Thus, will the successful political leaders be the ones who control/influence the most number of these special-interest groupings?

    Thus, the power-brokers of the political parties have lost their power-base. Its fragmented, it no longer homogeneous, its no longer being “controlled” by these gatekeepers. Its gone for good.

  17. Lentern on 17th June 2011 2:52 pm

    They might have only won the one election but they didn’t spend 11 and a half years completely disconnected from the voting public. Since 1996 they’ve won the 2pp three times, the same as the coalition(albeit 2010 might of well been a tie). They’re no longer just an arm of the union movement, I accept that but my point is that a modern, professional, mainstream political party doesn’t need some ideological hinterland to be viable.

    It’s true Rudd and Latham liked to kick around old factional machines and got good press for it but it wasn’t that which made them viable candidates. In fact, the difference in their results might underscore how insignificant this post-union ideological scramble is. That’s it’s more about conveying a sort of competence and issue awareness from whoever the leadership team may be, centralized in one anti-union Rudd or phalanx of union machine men.

    The problem now isn’t simply that ugly union figures like Howes and Feeney seem to be calling the shots; to the contrary prior to Rudd’s sacking Shorten was one of the most highly regarded faces in the government for his work in disabilities. In the wake of the spill there has been alot of invective related to machine men and unions thrown about but the bad polling isn’t so much related to that as a perceived incompetence. A government lugging a deficit around, which had clumsily back flipped on major issues and who most people thought had bungled some infrastructure projects had just forced it’s leader to resign in tears. That exerts a powerful impression of incompetence which is hard to shake when the fall guy exerts a greater intellect and modern professionalism than those who decided he needed to go.

    Turning to the liberals, they were experiencing what every party experiences when they initially take opposition. It was more haphazard because of a particularly ambitious shadow treasurer, a former deputy leader on the backbench and simply because it was the first time this happened in the era of the 24 hour news cycle. Despite Turnbull’s claim of them nearly becoming a fringe party,they were just going through the ebbs and flows of the political cycle.

    I agree that by going to Abbott and by Labor capitulating that we now have two fundamentally weak candidates unable to capitalize on the others flaws but that’s not indicative of some diabolical lack of party talent. In labor’s case their fundamental problem was that facing a fairly easy election win they nominated a leader who they couldn’t abide in the long term. The coalitions problem is that they elected a non-viable candidate to contest an unwinnable election only for the government to then make some spectacular blunders. Now both are paralysed for the immediate future which must be very depressing for veterans like Faulkner nearing retirement but if Abbott starts losing in the polls or when Gillard loses the next election they be cut loose and able to re-arrange their leadership teams appropriately.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 17th June 2011 4:52 pm

    It’s not a question of ideology. About the only ‘ideological’ position the Australian union movement ever had was the White Australia Policy.

    This is simply to see the unions as a social force that has played itself out. This is not to say that the ALP was merely the arm of the TU bureacracy, but it was the ability of that social base to put an agenda through the ALP that had an appeal to other sections of the electorate (such as support for state spending, liberalising social laws), that was the key to any electoral success the ALP had – until Rudd.

    Certainly I don’t see the problem that ‘ugly union figures like Howes and Feeney’ are calling the shots. Union leaders always called the shots in the ALP, the problem is that when they do now, they don’t represent anything of social relevance.

    Nor do I see it as a problem of talent, Gillard was one of the most talented politicians seen on the federal Labor front bench for a while. But she has been damaged by her association with the dead hand of the party power brokers.

    I don’t think it’s right to see the ALP having continual relevance because of 2PP under Howard. Firstly because Labor’s primary still continued its drift downwards. Secondly, the Liberals are joined to the hip on this since their whole rationale was to oppose the social infuence of the unions. If you look at 2PP now things look pretty normal, when clearly they are not.

  19. Thomas Paine on 19th June 2011 12:54 am

    Gillard’s poor poll performance has to be considered most unusual and pretty much unprecedented, especially for a serving PM and given the high hopes her supporters had of her when raising her into Rudd’s chair.

    The degree and consistency of this unexpected poor poll performance is such that it bears some close examination, and Labor should be commissioning a number of focus groups to find out what the heck is wrong.

    I can have a guess at some of the more obvious reasons for her poor polling. The manner of her asscesion lacking any genuine and obvious rationale simply hurt her credibility with some and lost her a numbers who voted Labor because of Rudd. The their is the loss of support in Qld because she knifed Rudd. And then failing to win the election means that she has never been chosen by the public as PM. I think her biggest problem has been an ongoing issue with her legitimacy in the public’s eye.

    To make matters worse and unexpectedly, her lack of PM and leadership skills was surprising to say the least, and her poor handling of the development and implementation of policy has been amateurish. This has made a bad situation worse and reinforces the legitimacy issue and also adding one of competency.

    The manner in which the power brokers installed Gillard also raises the question of lack of professionalism amongst them and lack of high level strategic thought. The Rudd Gillard issue demostrates that the party’s power brokers are introspective self interested and short term thinkers, looking to satisfy their short term desires in prefernce of proper strategic thinking.

    Rudd was very unlikely to lose that election and I think they all knew this. What they did is take the opportunity to satisfy their own short term desires. The wasted Labor’s resources and failed to use up Rudd and instead threw in Gillard, burning up all Labor’s assets regardless of the long term implications.

    The best idea and strategy for Labor was to get the maximum number of years out of Rudd and then bring in Gillard when staleness had set in. This may have given Labor a number of additional years.

    But the power brokers never bothered to consider the loss of Qld voters, Rudd supporter voters and the removing of a popularly elected PM, or about having a genuine reason to remove Rudd (which they still struggle to find).

    We know from Arbib that Rudd’s removal was always an agenda item, and thus they were always just looking for an opportunity to do so. This came with the mining tax issue, pressure from the mines on the unions on the factions who intended to remove Rudd in anycase. Labor has no professional thinking and strategising – everything is about tomorrow.

    In addition to the above problems Gillard has is the issue of what does she and Labor stand for? They haven’t been able to articulate anything the public can latch onto, it is almost as Gillard is not PM but a departmental CEO. Labor seems to be a party in waiting for a PM and reason for being. Gillard is also closing the gap between Labor and Liberal on a number of fronts including the nature of her rehtoric.

    Both parties are bankrupt but Labor more so under Gillard. Maybe the reason for Rudd’s early and continued popularity is that he isn’t like the rest of them, he is discernably different in behaviour and energy and motivation.

    One is left looking for somebody to vote for and wishing for more options. One could almost hope that Rudd and some of his group break away and creat their own little party and recreate some relevance in the poltical sphere again.

    Coming to the anviversary of Gillard what we can say is the replacement has damaged Labor short term and in the long term. It was the worst possible choice of actions to have taken.

  20. Riccardo on 19th June 2011 2:24 pm

    Aren’t fans of the ALP glad to have them go through a necessary downturn? Therapeutic, like in NSW. The game has to become unattractive enough for the careerists to lose interest, to find alternative power games to play.

    I tend to look past all this and see what is really happening. The Anglo-dominated Australia you all knew is on the way out. Wealth will no longer come through control of local power bases, but through connection to international ones. Some of these don’t even speak English, which will disenfranchise millions of Australians – who will then depend for interlocution on a new class of people who are literate, multicultural and have their capital elsewhere.

    The current political system, parties and parliament are poorly equiped to manage this Australia. They will change, and will have to change the hard way.

  21. Riccardo on 28th June 2011 10:38 am

    FedALP has become truly Shakespearian


    Banquo’s Ghost is now the Foreign Minister, and all the perfumes of Arabia won’t sweeten the hand of Lady Julia Macbeth.

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