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A fading light on the hill

31 October 2010 1,452 views No Comment

Challenged by the Greens and riven by infighting, Labor seems to have lost its way. It’s time to examine what went wrong and how it can be fixed.

In a historic result in this year’s federal election, Adam Bandt replaced the retiring Lindsay Tanner, the ALP’s finance minister since 2007, to become the Greens MP for Melbourne.

Echoing key concerns of All That’s Left in his maiden speech, Bandt thanked the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union, which contributed a staggering $325,000 to the Greens’ campaign. Bandt made it clear that the ALP no longer had anything like the unconditional support of the trade union movement and he raised, albeit indirectly, the question of what Labor in Australia should stand for in the second decade of the 21st century.

Nick Dyrenfurth and Tim Soutphommasane’s edited collection features contributions from 10 of the nation’s leading social democrats. In many ways it is a curate’s egg, with two of the three strongest chapters coming from former politicians – Tanner, who writes about “Trust in politics”, and the Labor premier of Western Australia from 2001 to 2006, Geoff Gallop, who provides a spirited defence of federalism. The other illuminating contribution, which explores the realities, dangers and opportunities of what he terms “a red-green coalition”, comes from Dr Dennis Glover – an accomplished speechwriter with many years’ experience on the staff of senior politicians.

The reality of the current federal parliament highlights the fact that the growing support for the Greens, especially in the inner city, doesn’t just threaten seats such as Melbourne but, more importantly, represents what Tanner terms “a serious challenge to the whole essence of the Labor Party”. For decades the ALP has claimed to be “the light on the hill” for a party of “true believers”. But as Professor Stuart Macintyre (who is not a contributor to this collection) cogently pointed out to the ALP’s national conference, “true believers need beliefs”.

As it happens, nearly all 10 chapters of All That’s Left focus on the crucial question of what the labour movement and the Labor Party (and increasingly they are not the same) should now focus on. This especially applies at a time of a minority government led by Julia Gillard, who for years was (as it turns out, falsely) trumpeted as a spokesperson and saviour of the left.

Rodney Cavalier’s Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party is a much more substantial study than All That’s Left. Written by a once-powerful political insider who was NSW Minister for Education in the governments of Neville Wran and Barrie Unsworth, Cavalier’s account of a state Labor Party in crisis is a must-read for all of us who like our political history both scholarly and yet powerfully close to the bone.

In NSW, Labor has in the past five years seen four premiers – Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally. The current Keneally-led government is undoubtedly heading for electoral humiliation when it faces voters in March. While the catalyst for this sorry state of affairs – and for Cavalier’s fascinating book – was the thwarted attempt by Iemma to privatise the electricity industry, the primary cause is the takeover of Labor by a professional political machine run by apparatchiks without connection to the broader community or to the Labor’s core values and traditions.

While factions, and factional reward in terms of preselection for parliament, have always been part of the ALP, Cavalier argues that these days in NSW “factions have hardened into [mere] employment mechanisms”. Moreover, the life experiences of Labor parliamentarians have narrowed as a self-perpetuating “political class” has almost entirely captured the party. The sad reality is that, in NSW in particular, factionally appointed MPs show little but contempt for the working class, for the dwindling number of rank-and-file members and for the local ALP branches, more than 100 of which have folded in NSW in the past decade.

Firmly rooted in a deep sense of Labor, and labour, history from 1891 to the present, Power Crisis emphasises how crucial it was that in 1941 William McKell led NSW Labor back into government after the shambles created by Jack Lang. What Cavalier terms “the McKell model” – which involved a respectful accommodation of parliamentarians, premiers, trade unions and the supposedly “annual” state conferences – delivered a Labor government in NSW in eight elections over 24 years from 1941 to 1965. It was the “same model” that Neville Wran followed during another 12 years of government from 1976 and that Bob Carr applied for his 10 years as premier from 1995.

How different, then, is the situation from 2005 until the present. What Power Crisis makes clear is that the current NSW government is faction-ridden, incompetent and deeply divided. This is an electorally lethal mix. The second half of the book focuses in forensic detail on the rise and fall of Iemma and his successor, Rees.

Cavalier’s fine analysis is a worthy 21st-century successor to V.G. Childe’s magisterial analysis, How Labour Governs, which was first published in 1923. In his equally important critique, Cavalier raises some crucial questions. Perhaps the most significant is this: how can a small cadre of union officials, some of whom have never toiled in any industry, continue to wield such power in the ALP when only 19 per cent of the current workforce are union members and when, in 2010, trade unionists comprise a mere 8 per cent of NSW voters?

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald has published 33 books. Review of Nick Dyrenfurth and Tim Soutphommasane, ALL THAT’S LEFT, New South Books, and Rodney Cavalier, POWER CRISIS,Cambridge University Press.