Democracy v. Party ‘democracy’

Monday, 7 May 2012 

Do they look worried?

So far the Australian Labor Party has been resistant to thoroughgoing reform. The problem here isn’t ideology — the ALP has never been an ideological party — it’s power.

Bruce Hawker The Australian 26 April 2012

The shenanigans at the HSU may be in extremis, but they highlight several things that go beyond just one union. It’s worth pointing out that the timing of the “actions” taken by the union leadership, the ACTU and the ALP, is driven less by what is happening at the HSU, which appears to have been going on for years, but more due to factors closer to home; faction fights both within the union and the party and the need by the government to cling on to its position in Parliament.

It also is a reminder that the problems of the union movement might not lie in the fact that we live in a post-industrial era, as Latham thinks, nor because everyone is so well off, as Megalogenis seems to think. It is hard to think of a growing section of the workforce that would be more in need for an effective response to generally lousy conditions – and yet so badly served by the organisation that claims to act on their behalf.

At the root of the schmozzle is the members’ lack of control over this “union”, not only shown by the rorting of members’ funds, but the way the police have been called in to fix it. From this angle, the police solution is highly unsatisfactory. First, because there is likely to be a world of difference between what is acceptable to the police for the leadership’s use of funds within the strict letter of the law, and what would be acceptable to the low-paid members who actually financed them. Secondly, because if the intention is to get the union to be accountable to its members, surely cleaning up the mess in the HSU would have been a very incentivising place to start. Kathy Jackson might talk about giving the union back to its members, but handing over control to a third party seems an odd way of going about it.

But of course Jackson is not talking about members regaining control of the union, but “democratising” it – something that we are starting to see are two very different things.

This difference is coming up in that other talk about ‘democratising’ going on right now, the reform of the ALP. In response to the Cabinet having raised the stakes by threatening a walk-out on a Rudd come-back, Bruce Hawker has responded in kind by upping the ante with a call for wide-scale reform of the Labor party in a piece in The Australian. Hawker’s piece accompanies a growing call for reform from those in and around Labor, but is perhaps more interesting because one, it implicitly makes clear its link to the Rudd challenge and so what is currently the most likely way any reform will actually happen, and two, in doing so becomes more explicit on what this reform is actually about.

Hawker’s argument hinges on the quote above, which is true (although to be correct, ALP positions like the White Australia Policy were fairly ideological, but you sort of get Hawker’s point) – the ALP was a largely a pragmatic response by the union leadership to pursue its interests in the political sphere.

At the core of leadership tussle between Gillard and Rudd is a power struggle over how the party should run now that the unions that built it have lost their social role. This is why, although Rudd was rejected because he was “impossible to work with”, his strongest, almost unanimous, rejection came from a union leadership that wouldn’t especially be dealing with Rudd on a day-to-day basis. Not because of any difference in policy between Gillard and Rudd towards their members (nor all the other issues that those like Howes claim are so important to them, like asylum seekers) but because of the different attitude between Rudd and Gillard to the influence of union bosses in the ALP.

As Hawker says, there is no ideological position, but just one for power’s sake – something Howes confirmed with the utter emptiness of his reasons for keeping Gillard that he gave on the weekend. But Hawker’s point does raise an interesting question: if those power brokers are clinging on for no other reason than power, for what reason do those like Hawker want to take it away?

As with Rudd, Hawker pins his case on electoral viability. Rather optimistically, perhaps, Hawker hopes the success of the French Socialist candidate yesterday might be a trigger for a shake-up in the ALP. Hawker points out how the Socialists revived their fortunes by opening up the choosing of their Presidential candidate to any voter and this ‘democratising’ of the party revived public interest in the party that has carried on to election day.

Let’s leave aside the question of how much Hollande’s success was due to the revival of the Socialists, and how much due to the deep unpopularity of the first President of the Fifth Republic to fail to lead on the first round. Like Kathy Jackson’s ‘democratising’ of the HSU, there is a meaning of democracy that is not how it’s usually understood, at least in Australia for the last 100 years.

The Australian political system has been based on social groups coming together and forming political parties to represent them. This type of democracy, probably best called ‘representative democracy’ runs counter to the type of party democracy Hawker is talking about. Since these parties represent the interests of particular groups, they are naturally closed to those particular groups. The ALP required union membership and the Liberals had a more informal exclusion that, well, let’s just say, roughly equates to the one in society.

By its very openness, Hawker’s party democracy assumes, that this sort of ‘representative democracy’ is dead. If a political party is open to anyone, then it represents no one in particular at all. This is not ‘representative democracy’ where social groups put their desired candidate in Parliament by broadening their appeal to other groups – such as Labor would do with state spending to appeal to some sections of the middle class.

What Hawker proposes is more like ‘X-factor democracy’ where a relatively passive support base chooses the most appealing candidate given to them. In France, where politics is a national sport, viewing figures for candidate debates can indeed outstrip Masterchef, as Hawker notes in a rather unfortunate comparison.

The level of participation in the primaries was remarkable: nearly 2.9 million people voted in them. Furthermore, more than five million people watched the televised debate between the candidates for the Socialist Party’s nomination. The debate even beat the popular French show Master Chef on a rival network, no mean feat in a nation of gourmands.

In Australia, Gary, George and Matt might just be able to hold their own.

It would be important not to counter-pose the two too strongly. In Australian politics, there has always been an element of both social groups putting forward their interests, and then being forced to choose from something else entirely. The great schisms in the ALP, especially over conscription and the Depression, were based on this split between Labor members in Parliament and the social base that sent them there. This party reform just removes the need for a social base altogether.

For the ALP, opening it to anyone presumably includes those who not only have little to do with unions but those who think unions have no real role to play in Australian society at all. Indeed there might even come a day when Labor is run by one. Maybe that’s why there is an air of inevitability to it – didn’t we already have a trial run?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 May 2012.

Filed under State of the parties

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12 responses to “Democracy v. Party ‘democracy’”

  1. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 7th May 2012 5:18 pm

    Very insightful as usual.
    When the epitaph is written on Julia Gillard’s leadership it will be the pokies backdown that really dun her in. What a wonderful opportunity she had to show she stood for something and was a woman of her word. She should have introduced tough legislation (even if it wasn’t going to pass) and fought for it tooth and nail, finally killing off the “Juliar” tag. Nope, instead, the ALP went cap in hand to the clubs and her credibility went even further down the toilet. This government needs to pick big fights with big interest groups (miners, banks, clubs, etc etc) but doesn’t have the nouse or balls to do it.
    Further, the idea often floated that Govt MPs can depose Julia and install someone other than Rudd is risible. That would be the equivalent of giving the electorate a two-fingered salute and declaring that the Government had learnt absolutely nothing. If they won’t have Rudd back they should stick with Julia and go down with the band playing a slow waltz.

  2. F on 7th May 2012 9:53 pm

    The willingness of voters to swing from one party to another seems to align more with Hawker’s analysis, rather than the Shrike analysis which posits cohesive groups. Perhaps we are entering an era in which many fewer people will not be permanently aligned with particular groups. But in that world, those small groups with more power (meaning more money) are likely to be able to bend the system to their own advantage.

    So how can progressive types form a solid enough coalition, with enough people in it, to threaten any powerful interests?

  3. The Piping Shrike on 7th May 2012 11:14 pm

    Just to clarify, I think Hawker is in line with how things are going. The type of representative democracy that led to the formation of the ALP is over and Labor’s social base has gone as I mention here.

    The main point to make is that it should be spelled out that Hawker’s ‘party reform’ to accomodate to this implies a different type of democracy than we have understood it for the last century.

  4. Riccardo on 8th May 2012 7:10 am

    2 trial runs. Latham was Rudd Mark 1, the prototype before the concept was ready.

    The ALP used to sanctify their leaders now they demonise them.

    It was so different last night watching Keating on Mabo giving lip to all comers, defending a principle, admittedly a latter day convert to it. Didnt save his government but gave him a sense of purpose.

    People love the titanic analogy, julias problem is not the iceberg and the hole in the side of the ship, but the engine room which has stopped firing. The rudder which keeps turning. The captain who keeps being replaced. The lifeboats that keep being cast adrift. The band in the lounge that doesnt know what to play.

    Theyll make it to port if they fix those other problems and dont worry so much about the iceberg. But it has bred fatalism among political operatives who have no other fuel to keep them going. No vision. No trust. No sense of righteousness of cause.

  5. dedalus on 8th May 2012 8:25 am

    There is some serious drowning in cliche going on here. As an example, the words “base”,”power”, “vision” and “lie” are almost meaningless in the context of the “spin” that many people are giving to them.

    The “base” might have had some meaning to a generation born during the Menzies era and, as Pipe says, a time when the nexus between the political and union wings of the left was more apparant. Today it’s completely been blurred with all other such “bases” – the whole is now a morass of self-interested minorities speaking through megaphones.

    The silent majority acts as an amorphous jelly to be swayed this way or that by those minorities (aka vested interests) shouting the loudest.

    “Vision” pisses me off. It’s such a cop-out conceptually. As if every incremental policy advancement had to embody a “vision”. (And let’s add “narrative” to that absurd terminological bullshit, while we’re at it.) And “lie” – well, who would even suspect anymore that lying about a future event is a contradiction of every known dictionary definition, not to mention an absurd contradiction to common sense.

    As for “power”, please don’t pretend that all sides of politics aren’t obsessed with getting it and holding it. That is the one point of consensus between the left and right.

  6. Riccardo on 11th May 2012 2:25 pm

    Since when was there ever a union base of the left?

    I’ve been a leftie all my life and can never once remember joining a union willingly.

    My first boss was a card carrying NSW ALP member, and said if I joined a union they would regard it as a sign of failure in our relationship.

    I was forced to join a union in a closed shop for a part time job at uni. I wrote and told them to fcuk off the day I quite the job. They wanted to keep collecting dues even though I left and didn’t keep working in the industry.

    And to make it worse, their newsletter espoused political views I disagreed with vehemently, on issues like tobacco, women’s rights and forests to name 3.

    I find it bizarre that people associate a movement or a party having an organised labour function and calling that ‘Left’.

    I bet the AMA ringleaders would find it odd too, as would the police associations in each state.

  7. dedalus on 11th May 2012 2:53 pm

    Riccardo, I sort of sympathise with your view regarding compulsory membership of anything, and certainly agree that union policy positions are anything but perfect by definition. To say the obvious, we live in an imperfect world.

    In reality, though, voluntary membership hardly works quite as well as the mandated one. Just look at the biggest union of all – the taxpayers’ union. If membership was voluntary, who would sign up? You’re right, noone. The country would stop running and we could all retreat to our mortgaged mcmansions and grow vegetables.

  8. An Indestructible Union (Part 5) | Godfrey's Blog of Claims on 13th May 2012 11:31 am

    […] more immediately and then tidy up the details later. The ever challenging Piping Shrike has written an insightful post in the last few days picking up on a ‘democratising’ debate going on within the Labor […]

  9. Riccardo on 17th May 2012 2:26 pm


    I’m not so much complaining about the closed shop, but how the closed shop organisation represented a class of people different from myself.

    And how the ALP drew on this network of closed shop organisations for its sustenance.

    I struggle to see how that organisation can be described as ‘Left’ when it was filled with sexist, racist and frankly reactionary males.

    This is not the ‘Left’ I know – not progressive, not inclusive, not egalitarian, none of the above.

    Maybe it is a limitation of the term ‘Left’ rather than a limitation of the Labor Movement. Maybe the Labor movement was never intended to be ‘Left’ in the way modern people would read.

    It was always a Catholic Party – there to correct a sectarian imbalance in Australian political power, rather than to progress society in general.

    It is one thing to ensure the Brothers and the Nuns have enough money to provide hospitals and schools to the working poor; it is another thing altogether to genuinely change society based on respect for humans.

  10. dedalus on 18th May 2012 2:49 pm

    You’re right – unions were, probably still are, filled with the reprobate types you mention. They’re a cross section of the humans we are.

    Same with all groups. But we should judge groups by their outcomes for the common, and that’s why I’d class unions as broadly progressive, and forgive them for the sins of their members.

    Anyway, ‘left’ is an antiquated term. It only serves to differentiate from that other vagary, ‘right’. Sort of a general signpost for the direction we wish to take.

  11. DM on 20th May 2012 1:21 pm

    I think Riccardo has said it pretty much all in his last two posts. I’ve been a ALP member since my first year as an undergraduate student and my experience has been similar to that of Riccardo. Inside the Labor Right there is a big number of people who view the party precisely as a sectarian, catholic, force in Australian politics and who disagree with many things that most people would think of as progressive. I know many people from the Labor Right and I know from personal conversations I had with them that their raison d’etre in politics is to “contain the radical element in Australian politics” rather than to pursue any higher ideals of how society should be etc. Anyone faimilar with Aussie political history will know that every federal Labor government has been always led by the right wing of the ALP, regradless of what faction the PM of the day came from.

  12. dedalus on 23rd May 2012 5:52 pm

    Left. Right. Labels.

    Judge by their works only. We’re talking in relative terms, surely, and if the ‘right’ is more progressive than the ‘left’, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

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