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September 26th 2011 print

John Izzard

Rebooting Labor values

Under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard the ALP’s values have become a complete mystery. Survival, at any cost, appears to be their most urgent interest. But is survival a core value?

In an article in the Weekend Australian (September 24-25), under the banner “Think tank to reboot ALP values”, Imre Salusinszky revealed that Labor heavyweights are about to launch a new institution to help “restore the party’s flagging fortunes”. The new non-profit outfit will be based in Sydney and go under the name of The McKell Institute. 

Curiously, the term “reboot” is computer jargon for “restoration”. It’s what you do after the system crashes. 

Even to the most casual observer, the Labor Party has certainly crashed. It has lost its way. It has trouble defining its values, particularly its core-values; whatever they were. Under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard the party’s values have become a complete mystery. Survival, at any cost, appears to be their most urgent interest. But is survival a core value? 

Originally established as a workers’ party in 1891, the Labor Party later morphed into the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, with union officials dominating the organisation. Today, the party of the workers has become the party of a political class, made up mainly of lawyers and union officials. Finding an actual hands-on ALP worker elected to an Australian parliament today would be a rare find indeed. So the new McKell Institute, if it is really going to "reboot" the party, is going to have to go "values" hunting. 

On the McKell team will be Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes; former ALP deputy premier John Watkins; former NSW union boss Michael Easson and ALP campaign adviser Bruce Hawker. Em! No sign of dirty fingernails or worker’s overalls. There goes one value. 

Apparently, at least according to the Weekend Australian article, The McKell Institute “is intending to play a similar roll in Centre-Left politics to groups such as the Centre of Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs on the Centre-Right.” The CIS and the IPA must be absolutely thrilled and flattered. The Weekend Australian went on to quote Paul Howes: 

One of the problems for progressives [the ALP and socialists] is that the conservatives have well-funded, public and interesting think tanks such as the IPA and the CIS. 

I want progressives to have forums like conservatives do to drive ideas of the future. 

A lot of other organisations out there, on the Left, you wouldn’t identify as social democratic or as progressive moderates in the Labor tradition. 

Crikey Paul, keep your think-tank on the road. “Conservatives driving ideas of the future” — “interesting think tanks such as the IPA and CIS” — have you gone completely nuts! Speaking like this is certainly not a core ALP value — is it? Well, actually, it should be. 

One of the big problems facing the ALP, in their quest to define their core-values, is that they have to stop pretending that values are the same thing as policy. People swapping—shipping 800 illegal immigrants to Malaysia in return for 4,000 refugees — isn’t a “value”, it is a “policy”. Trying to interfere with the freedom of the press — by targeting The Australian — isn’t a value, it’s a policy. Political correctness isn’t a value it is a fad and a half-baked policy. Labor policies are pretty thick on the ground; the big trick is to try to find the values. 

Of course once the ALP stopped representing “the workers” they had a problem with their core- values-base. There is a vast difference between the days of the long shearer’s strike, or the soot-blackened faces of workers pouring out of filthy factories after a 10 or 12 hour day — and the fairly well-paid, well-insured, well-fed and protected employees of today. It is hard to drum up the image of the downtrodden in the age of iPhones, digital wide-screens, Nike shoes and Sara Lee cheese cakes. Today’s plumber, carpenter, electrician or rural worker is more likely to be driving a Holden Caprice than catching a bus to work. In reality, the fading away of class-war has totally buggered Labor — values-wise. 

The old fashioned worker that once represented the ALP base is a thing of the past. Today’s Labor voter is more likely to be an inner-city elite, well educated with a hankering for something to be done about something. They are usually well armed with slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In a word, vocal. 

The choice to ride on the coat-tails of Sir William McKell, for the identity of the new institute, is an interesting, and a smart move. McKell was NSW premier from 1941 to 1947 and Governor-General from 1947 to 1953. He was a boilermaker and in 1917, at the age of 25 he was elected to the NSW seat of Redfern. He held a keen interest in soil conservation and water resources, being a prime mover in the development of the Snowy River Scheme and the creation of the Kosciusko National Park. He owned a 875 acre farm near Goulburn called Frog’s Hole. Although a former Labor premier, Sir William McKell granted Sir Robert Menzies a double-dissolution in 1951, against the wishes of Chifley, and later that year accepted a knighthood, to the angst of the ALP. Sir William’s official secretary was Sir Leighton Gracegirdle. 

A good place for the new McKell Institute to start might be a long paper on “Honesty and Truthfulness” in government. Bruce Hawker, as a director in the new institution, might advise on the pitfalls of political spin, and recommend its demise as a core ALP value. Surely by now he and the ALP realises that the public identify and detest spin. 

Mr John Watkins, the former ALP deputy premier of NSW, head of Alzheimer’s Australia and now a director of the McKell Institute, said the new institute would counter the “negativity” in Centre Left thinking of the past decade. 

The ALP has a real problem in re-establishing exactly what it stands for. By adopting causes of inner-city elites and frustrated academics, the ALP’s value as a party, at the moment, is simply an alternative to the Liberal/National coalition. It is the party you vote for when you become tired or bored with John Howard. There are no values in that! 

What has happened is that, as George Orwell said “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries — but between libertarians and authoritarians.”