Whatever happened to the Labor Party?
A momentous event in our national affairs has all but gone unnoticed. The political party which for over a hundred years was known as the Australian Labor Party has ceased to exist. True, our prime minister and his House of Representatives majority belong to an organisation bearing that name. But this organisation has little in common with the party which bore the name for so long. From the ashes of Labor has arisen the Rudd Ticket, a crucial turn in the professional Left’s final victory over mass labourism.
Those inclined to dismiss this as a piece of hyperbole should pause to consider Kevin Rudd’s transformation of Labor’s internal structures. Today the ALP is an empty shell, a development signposted by a series of actions gutting the party’s lingering mass party traditions:
- On becoming prime minister, Rudd immediately ended the century-old practice of caucus electing the ministry, thereby drawing immense power of patronage into his hands. This decision substantially diluted the power of caucus in Labor’s organisational structure.
- Increasingly, preselections in winnable seats are awarded by the prime minister’s office or a select committee of factional chiefs acting at his behest. This practice finishes off whatever influence local branches had left, again shifting the balance of power away from caucus to the leader. Many new MPs owe their seat to the prime minister rather than their rank and file.
- It’s now common to pre-select candidates who aren’t even party members when they are chosen, as occurs in the case of so-called “celebrity candidates”. Again, these MPs owe their sinecures to the leader rather than their rank and file, or even to the Labor Party itself.
- At the most recent ALP national conference in July-August, the tradition of a prescriptive platform with binding effect on elected representatives was junked in favour of policy chapters couched in general terms, open to wide interpretation. This was perhaps the most destructive blow of all. The power of conference, formerly the party’s supreme policymaking body, has been hollowed out. Also disembowelled were formerly powerful units that derived their authority from conference, such as the federal executive.
What caused the disintegration of Labor’s democratic structures? Was it Rudd the right-wing usurper or was it, rather, an inevitable consequence of contemporary Leftism?
As Michael Thompson argued in Labor Without Class (1999), Labor’s apparatus hitched itself to the social movements of the 1970s and has drifted away from its working class roots ever since. The campaign against Work Choices shouldn’t be mistaken for a reversal of this trend. To some extent the drift was a function of unavoidable social and economic change, but the party’s internal culture drove the process forward, particularly in its stubborn adherence to 1970s Leftism during the Howard years. Rudd just formalised reality, which explains the almost complete lack of resistance to his moves.
By the time of the 2004 federal election, it was obvious that Labor’s internal structure was in crisis. On the one hand, party forums were dominated by union officials representing ever smaller proportions of the private sector workforce, and who were out of step with the new economy unleashed by market-oriented reform. On the other hand, the branches were packed full of progressive middle-class activists whose cultural and economic priorities were remote from the concerns of most Australians. If Labor were ever to return to office and stay there, something had to give.
For Rudd, the resolution of Labor’s crisis meant the dissolution of Labor itself.
The Rudd Ticket isn’t conventionally Left, and many Leftists would cringe at the suggestion that it is. Free of party constraints, however, Rudd’s pragmatic style disguises backroom links to various extra-party groupings laying claim to modern Leftism. Naturally, these are drawn from tertiary-educated circles.
First, there are the political technicians like staffers, pollsters, market researchers, media advisers, policy boffins, lobbyists and public relations flacks. Second, the social and welfare activists, emboldened by global warming and the financial crisis. And third, the progressive academics who dominate policy agendas in fields like environmental science, preventative medicine, human rights, family policy, work-life balance and industrial relations.
Evolving into a finely honed instrument for sifting and reconciling the often competing agendas of these groupings, the Rudd Ticket specialises in packaging them for public consumption. Behind the familiar techniques of spin and media manipulation lies an assumption that, more than ever, social relations are played out in the media universe.
This notion was big in the cultural studies movement of the 1980s and 1990s. For the political technicians, mores and values in today’s media-saturated world, extending to social networking sites and the blogosphere, are more likely to be shaped by the imagery and hijinks of pop culture than traditional sources like nation, family and religion. Hence the Rudd Government’s predilection for celebrities and television chat shows. When opportunities arise to fuse media management with the institutional interests of activists and academics, the dividend is political gold.
This is how a government of the “Left” tries to persuade working people that carbon dioxide is pollution; that an emissions trading scheme is in their interests though it will devastate jobs for minimal environmental gain; that childcare subsidies and short-term maternity leave are a boon when many prefer full-time homemaking; that a regulated industrial relations system protects them while it suppresses unskilled and low-skilled job creation; that they must catch the train and live in flats instead of their dream homes in the suburbs; and that, despite the absence of any evidence, higher taxes will deliver better health and education services.
John Muscat is a lawyer, ALP member and co-editor of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.