The Party Without the People

I met a young chap at a New Year’s Eve party a couple of years ago who confessed to me a rather peculiar ambition. I had known the fellow from my undergraduate days and a mutual friend had brought us together on this particular evening. “What does the future hold?” I asked him as he thumbed away on his Blackberry in a darkened corner. He replied that he aspired to be the next Mark Arbib of the Australian Labor Party. “And who is Mark Arbib?” I asked politely. His answer disappeared into a description of the inner workings of the party’s politburo. Our conversation ended shortly afterwards, and I have not seen him since.

We all know who Mark Arbib is now. It would have taken a rather persistent hermit not to have registered his name during the coup on high office last year. But the truly intriguing thing about the ALP is that there is not just one Mark Arbib. There is Arbib Mark II, III, IV and so on. Bill Shorten is currently in pole position as a dominant factional leader although others like Don Farrell and Bill Ludwig (Bill who, you may ask?) are all upwardly mobile. The young chap I met is still doing his time in Sussex Street but he was recently rewarded with a top position in New South Wales Labor. I say rewarded because it was an appointment; he was not elected.

This congested microcosm of Australian politics might have had little bearing on ordinary voters but for the fact that the ALP is in government. It is one thing for a party to be undemocratic in the way it runs its internal affairs. It is quite another if it affects how our country is governed.

This question was somewhat lost in the way journalists reported the recent review of Labor’s 2010 election campaign. Headed by the grand old wigs of the party—Bob Carr, Steve Bracks and John Faulkner—the review was pitched as a generous self-appraisal of where things went wrong. In truth, the review was tightly stage-managed. There was plenty of talk about what the party might do in the future. There was very little talk about what it has been doing in the past.

By the past I don’t just mean last year’s election. The “faceless men” tag stretches back to 1963 when Menzies borrowed it from the Daily Telegraph journalist Alan Reid. The “thirty-six faceless men” were the members of the ALP federal executive who shuffled Opposition leader Arthur Calwell and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, like pawns over national security. The Menzies government had signed a new security agreement with the United States to station a surveillance centre in Western Australia monitoring the Polaris nuclear-armed submarines. It sent the various strata of the ALP into a tizz. Before that, the question over who owned the voice box of the Australian Labor Party had immense purchase in the birth of the Liberal Party. Early Labor parliamentarians were forced to sign a pledge to the labour movement, something which encouraged their leader Joseph Cook to defect. The affront to independent judgment was so strong that Cook eventually connected with Alfred Deakin to form Australia’s first truly representative, broad-based political party, the Commonwealth Liberal Party.

Some things have changed since Federation. But the Australian Labor Party is still governed by the few rather than the many. What has changed, though, is the statistical sophistry which Labor powerbrokers can apply to the art of power.

Peter Hartcher, a Fairfax journalist, has managed to get his hands on some real gems here. His sources include disgruntled contributors to the 2010 election review whose views were not made public. Particularly intriguing is the alchemy of Labor’s campaign strategy. When you shed enough layers of the artichoke what you discover inside the ALP is an American polling agency called Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Most Australians have never heard of these people but they have a direct influence over the party. In 2007, Mark Arbib retained their services to advise the New South Wales ALP on how it could defeat Peter Debnam in the state election. In 2010, they steered Labor’s campaign under the watchful eye of Arbib and his sidekick, Karl Bitar.

In the interests of transparency, I should say that all political parties have their pollsters and strategy advisers. The difference is how they choose to use them. Mark Textor, the Liberal Party strategist, is known for his phenomenal ability to distil policies into cutting-edge slogans. The electorate might sometimes disagree with the ideas but they know exactly what they mean. In 2010, it was Textor who boiled Tony Abbott’s policies into a catchcry: “We will stop the boats, stop the big new taxes, end the waste and pay back the debt.”

The reason Greenberg Quinlan Rosner is newsworthy is that it approaches politics by the opposite logic. Instead of turning policy into slogans, it turns slogans into policy. “Moving Forward” and “Sustainable Australia” are catchy phrases. I would suggest all Australians want to move forward and sustain the nation. But what those things actually mean in terms of policy is an utter mystery.

According to Hartcher, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner brews it stuff with a special technique. It takes eight swinging voters from marginal electorates and pays them to sit in a room and read a list of slogans. They are then asked to score each phrase out of 5, 10, or 100. When the numbers don’t enlighten, psychologists are placed behind mirror-windows to observe the interrogation. At the end of it all, the client (in this case the ALP) is given advice on where to take their party. 

Journalists sympathetic to the ALP might bemoan what this means for the party. But the bigger story is what this means for Australian democracy. In his sprawling recent history of democracy, The Life and Death of Democracy, the Australian historian John Keane makes the credible point that democracy is a fragile institution. One might assume from the recent events of Egypt that democracy is on the rise. The truth is that in many places it is under severe threat.

Keane charts the passage of democracy from its “direct” form in ancient Greece to modern “representative” democracy. In a direct democracy, scouts scurried around the city tallying up votes and fed the results directly into legislation. In the representative democracies which emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages, members of parliament acted as deputies to bring greater stability to government. Keane’s point is that we currently risk drifting into a third type of democracy, what he calls “monitory” democracy. Monitory democracy is government ruled by unelected interest groups and clandestine activities. Keane writes: 

Watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy. 

I mention John Keane for fear that he illuminates where the ALP has taken our country. It is not just American pollsters who are shaping our lens on issues now. There are any numbers of examples where our democracy is being farmed out to the unelected. The citizens’ assembly on climate change, for example, was an attempt to put policy in the hands of a telephone book raffle. Costing of the National Broadband Network—the nation’s largest infrastructure project—is locked away, privy only to unelected consultants and bureaucrats. And this is not to mention the lack of transparency on health reforms, stimulus funding, and electricity privatisation in New South Wales, to name just a few. 

When the report about Labor’s election campaign was released, an angry national executive, Mark Butler, wrote to the newspapers. “There is no social democratic or labour party in the world that confers less influence on its members than the ALP,” he declared. He is right, but I would suggest he understated the point. When the ALP is in government it affects the rest of us as well. 

Eric Knight is a research associate at the Australian National University and a visiting research associate at the University of Oxford.

Subscribe to Quadrant magazine here…



Leave a Reply