JOHN KERIN: Reform and the ALP

Jan 15, 2020

Australia’s oldest political Party, the ALP, is becoming ossified in its structure and totally resistant to reform. It also has many other challenges in representing today’s Australia as a progressive party.

Whitlam and Wyndham (a State and National Secretary of the ALP, a reformer at administrative level with policy smarts) and Dunstan in South Australia, showed that a progressive, national government was possible and that it may be possible for an ALP government to be elected.

However, the same, but then more inflexible and conservative, operatives, still within the Party today, destroyed Wyndham, but they couldn’t destroy Gough. Whitlam gave the Party hope and it adopted an ethos of contemporary relevance, equality of opportunity and a policy agenda directed to redressing years of colonial sloth. Whitlam embraced the educated, middle class without forgetting the Party’s historical roots. However, his total programme, in terms of the reform of the Party and its functions, has still not been accomplished. Reform always involves honesty and courage and the taking of hard decisions, harder now when secular stagnation needs to be addressed?

The same conservative elements today resist any attempt to reduce their power in a structure at State Branch level, which has little relevance to the nature of our society in the 21st Century. The NSW Branch is rotten through and through, intellectually and actually, proven corrupt. NSW State Conferences have been farces for decades where the only game is to ‘keep the ‘Left’ out’ (when it barely exists as a faction), and raise nothing controversial that may give the Daily Telegraph a bad headline or enable the ‘shock-jocks’ to rant. Elements of what was Labor’s ‘Left’, are now in the Greens. The rot started in NSW once ‘whatever it takes’ became the guiding philosophy and State Secretaries moved from administration to political control.

I am talking of the role of unions in the 21st century but acknowledging the key reforming roles once performed by Hawke, Kelty and Crean to bring the union and whole labour movement into some more effective relevance. I see no reformers now. Hawke was of the industrial wing of the Party and Labor’s most successful leader due to his popularity, intelligence, understanding of how the economy works and ability to handle the hostile, conventional media, not because he was from the union movement. I am not anti-union and the Accord allowed both wings of the labour movement to act for the public good.

I am also not critical of individuals in elected office that carry the flag and I believe that the Party still has a capacity to develop policy and some very good people of courage-Bowen, Chalmers, Leigh, Wong etc., people who still understand the ‘Bush’ and also people who perform exceptionally well on their feet, many being women, such as Plibersek, Kenneally and Butler. These elected representatives have managed to survive the faction game-factions that still essentially come from the unions, due to the way state branches and conferences are structured.

Although Labor still has able, dedicated people, it is my contention that the gene pool of our representatives for public office is shrinking and in today’s Australian society, this is not good enough. Frankly, it is not representative of Australian society when 18 of Albanese’s front bench of 25 have only had union experience or have only relied on Party employment; not that all union officials have had actual work experience relevant to their union.

Labor is only ‘competitive’ in the national Parliament due to compulsory, preferential voting. However, this is a primary vote which has declined each decade since the 1980s. It is now below 30% in Queensland. Are those that control the organs, structure and activities of the Party, happy to see Labor slide into total irrelevance, happy with a few people elected to the Senate? The non-major party vote gradually increases, characterising an alienated (many of our young?), single issue focused, disinterested and uninvolved, or intellectually exploited electorate.

The ALP did unthinkable damage to itself in the public perception during the Rudd, Gillard, Rudd years and seems unable to respond to the negative, evasive, dangerous Abbott/Morrison Governments (sic) intent on perpetuating inequality in wealth and income and keeping Murdoch media and radio ‘shock-jocks’ on-side, a ‘virtue’ also shared by some pragmatists in the ALP.

During the period of the Hawke Government union membership was relatively high in the private sector and the first preference vote for Labor, percentage-wise, was always in the 40s. Due to the changed nature of the society and the workplace, union membership in the private sector is dropping, now below 10%, as is the active membership of the ALP, although enthusiastic political amateurs are mobilised during election campaigns. The ALP has to realise that it can’t be a political party without an active membership and just run by ‘professionals’.

Unions have amalgamated, but the four major ones in NSW had a membership in 127,056 in 2004 but 70,090 in 2018.The unions must know that the Coalition is bent on their destruction so as to have an industrial situation matching that in the US in terms of having any power to stand up for the pay, conditions and safety of the workforce and to prevent deliberate exploitation by many employers. What is needed is an organisation of wage and salary earners, the dispossessed and the many other people who still vote Labor on intellectual grounds, based on principles of social democracy, reform and progressive government. I don’t wish to see two major parties of capital to arise nor do I see that coalition formation with independents and minor Parties will bring enough cohesion to bear against the current, divided, lazy, incompetent Coalition Government.

Labor needs to fully recognise what kind of society we now live in and realise that there is abundant research and analysis to guide both an appropriate Party structure and policy directions. The impact of technology, globalisation and ‘financialisation’ has been profound, as has been the neo-conservative response to this of supply side, trickle-down economics, when the RBA says that stagnant wages and demand are the problem with our slowing economy.

The Party has two reports before it, one on the state of the NSW Branch and another on the Party’s performance in the May 2019 election. Who will implement the findings? Will it be the same power-brokers? Will both reports be ignored and forgotten about as in the past?

Both the nature and structure of the workplace has dramatically changed under the impact of decades of deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing etc resulting in part-time, contract, gig, UBER and so many forms of employment and computerised overseas retailing. Public debt has been transferred to private debt and we now have the highest ever levels of household debt and a housing sector out of kilter.

Nearly 50% of us are either overseas born or have one parent overseas born. The impact of digitisation and rise of the distorting social media has both enabled us to be more informed and connected and also more individualistic and prejudiced.

It is no longer 1891.

John Kerin-former Cabinet Minister in the Hawke Government.  

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