Déjà vu all over again. In the dim, dark ages before I even arrived in Canberra, I was writing stories about the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party – its bullying exclusion, its factional resistance to change, its impotent failure to rise from opposition to offer its disillusioned supporters even a sniff of electoral victory at either a state or federal level.
Finally, Gough Whitlam crashed through, with the aid of a few stalwarts including, crucially, the late convert Clyde Cameron, and secured a bare majority from the party’s federal executive for reform. The dysfunctional branch was declared bogus, and a new Victorian ALP put in place to represent something like the mainstream.
It lasted long enough to wipe out the breakaway Democratic Labor Party and bring Labor into government at both levels, and the hope was that the lessons would be learned – but of course, politics, Labor and the factions being what they are, the habits of a lifetime could not be broken..
New warlords replaced the old, and as Anthony Albanese admitted ruefully last week, they were not primarily interested in power to the people, or even to the party – they were only about power for themselves. And so, fifty years later, we are looking at more federal intervention, more disruption, more resentment and bitterness as Victoria braces for yet another reset. Here we go again.
It would not be so destructive if the cabbage patch state could be contained, but this was impossible then and is even more impossible now – the speed and range of infection matches that of COVID-19 without the ability of closing borders. The virus has escaped, the infection has spread across the nation. In a matter of hours, more allegations were levelled at Labor in New South Wales.
In Canberra, the unlovely right wing faction boss Anthony Byrne has been sprung for what Anthony Albanese tactfully describes as ”inappropriate” tweets – bilious diatribes against his colleagues, implicating him in the sordid business in a way which will ensure the feds cannot escape the turmoil.
But a least one lesson has been learned. Back in the 1970s, Labor agonised for well over a year before moving on the Vics, making sure every i was dotted and every t was crossed to make the exercise foolproof, un-challengeable under the party’s rules. Last week Albanese and the state premier Daniel Andrews did not muck around – within two days the federal executive was mobilised and sentence delivered, administrators were in place, an inquiry was underway and the membership frozen until after both state and federal elections.
But although there was action aplenty, it is dubious that it will lead to a genuine reform of the culture. Branch stacking will certainly be stalled, and some of the dead and the dummies removed from the current membership list, but as we have seen in the past, the practice is ingrained, if not enshrined, in the political system.
There is a good reason that it has never been made illegal; enforcing compliance would be completely impractical. Technically branch stacking is against the party rules. but few if any take the prohibition seriously.
And it is not just matter for Labor — it is just that the Liberals tend to be more genteel about it. When Malcolm Turnbull spent a fortune, literally, of his own money to secure pre-selection for the wealthy enclave of Wentworth, some of his colleagues murmured disapproval, but most were torn between admiration and envy over what they described as the mother of all branch stacks. And although Turnbull took the trophy, he was only the richest in a big field of competitors.
And the hypocrisy is even more stark as the nation’s chief law officer, Attorney-General Christian Porter, continues to fudge and delay even a Clayton’s version of a federal anti-corruption commission. The equivalent state bodies on both sides of the Murray were in action almost immediately The notion that a similar type of investigation is somehow unnecessary makes nonsense of the government’s entirely justified demand that Byrne explain himself to the national parliament.
Branch stacking is bipartisan, a sport enjoyed by all factions in all parties in all administrations. Scott Morrison’s pretence that they are unique to Labor is as silly as his overblown insistence that his party is not implicated in such shenanigans because the Libs don’t really have factions. But right now they are working well and will continue to do so at least for next fortnight, because the timing could hardly be worse for the opposition, with the Eden-Monaro by-election poised to deliver a verdict on Albanese’s leadership.
The result is not actually all that important; the government is not at risk, and despite the best efforts of the propagandists of the Murdoch press, nor is Albanese’s position But however it goes, Eden-Monaro will be blown up into a vital indicator of both his future and that of the party as a whole. This was always going to be the case, but with Victoria imploding and the fall out scattering across the country, the test – and the distraction – will be magnified into an existential crisis of leadership, at a time when he is trying to regain traction.
And in the meantime, politics as usual has reverted to the old normal – insults, bickering, triviality, all the fault lines that exasperate and infuriate an electorate that may just for a moment have imagined that a new way was possible. And it will be like that all the way to the next election, and the one after that, and the next, and on and on …
On the morning of polling day
The voter arose from his coffin
And ran to the nearest booth—
He planned to vote early and often.
By the evening of polling day
The voter was chastened and surly.
He hadn’t a clue who had won
But he’d sure voted often and early.