July 27th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

TRADE: Sugar industry study backs failed policies, not new solutions

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: SA Govt to ignore Drug Summit call for harm minimisation?

ICC: a clarification (letter)

It's a cruel world ... (letter)

Welfare equity? (letter)

Islam and Australia (letter)

COMMENT: After Cheryl Kernot - character is important in public life

ASIA: Hong Kong: deflation and Big Brother

BIOETHICS: It's fact - life begins at fertilisation

COMMENT: Liability insurance and the abortion industry

COMMENT: How to uphold Australian 'culture' - plagiarise

BOOKS: 'ALIVE: The True Story of the Andes Survivors', by Piers Paul Read

COVER STORY: Why the Kashmir conflict won't go nuclear

EDITORIAL: The maternity leave morass

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Telstra sale splits minor parties - but will it be enough?

Government should act to secure super savings

MEDICAL SCIENCE: Nerve cells used in spinal cord regeneration trial

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Empty vessels at the old corral / Short-termism

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Empty vessels at the old corral / Short-termism

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, July 27, 2002
Empty vessels at the old corral

After six years in opposition in Canberra, and with few signs that they can expect to do any better next time around, the ALP are finally beginning work which should have started from the day after the numbers went up in 1996. Their tardiness in tackling this task, and the heavy weather which they are already striking in getting at the "truth", are symptoms of the crisis which has befallen Labor.

In this new mood of "Why don't women like men like me; Why don't women like me?" as George Formby sang, John Button is at last able to say some of the things which have obviously been gestating over quite some time, I would guess. For the situation is more serious than George Formby said.

Men, and the young, in large numbers, don't dig Labor anymore. I tremble to think what would happen to the current ALP if compulsory voting were to be abolished. Probably the same as has happened in those unions where compulsory membership has disappeared. Fewer and fewer unionists. Or, come to that, were student union fees to become optional. Empty offices overpopulated by windbags; destined to remain fixated in a state of permanent adolescence.

While talking of values, goals and policies, John Button, in his Quarterly Essay, "Beyond Belief: What Future for Labor", primarily addresses the machine and the machine men. And, the species of representation (or misrepresentation) which have flowed from these men in the machine.

He tells us that by 1988, 76 of the 96 members of Caucus had tertiary qualifications; only two trade qualifications.

As he writes: "Labor politicians have nearly all been to factional finishing schools but not many have been in the school of hard knocks" - but then neither had our more recent teachers or academics.

Of these 96 Caucus members, 53 came from jobs in party or union offices, describing themselves variously as "administrators", "officials" and "electoral officers". There were also ten former members of State Parliaments and another nine called "political consultants, advisers and lobbyists".

In other words, three-quarters of that Labor Parliamentary Caucus of 1988 were apparatchiki or apparatchiki manque, enough to make some Eastern European communist regimes wide-eyed with envy.

Unions have been evolving along similar lines. The union official usually escaped from the coal-face working environment of his relevant industry quite early on, to "work for the union". The initial dream? A car and an office - then a secretary. Ultimately a seat in Parliament. Desk generals and base wallahs in deed and mentality.

Hence the felt need for extremist, super macho talk to cover their sedentary, cosseted, upwardly thrusting bourgeois existence. And union staffers become more like MP and Ministerial staffers everyday.

Button appears to think that these New Class politicians and union bosses are losing it for Labor. They appeal to fewer and fewer rank-and-file Australians, and have made the Party politically-schizophrenic; radical and egalitarian in word and theory; elitist and self-aggrandising in practice.

Before tackling what to do about this sclerotic apparatchiki culture at the top, Button thinks a short, sharp chop for unions is in order - now.

An amiable divorce should be effected - ASAP. Changing from 60:40 to 50:50 simply fiddles with the matter. The Party should run its own show; the unions, theirs. They actually may get on better that way.

And what use are the unions now? Less than 25 per cent of the workforce are in unions and few of the new unions are affiliating with the Party. Fewer and fewer unions take much notice of Labor Governments or their MPs. That is, unless politicians act or speak up against them. Then the offenders are class traitors - and those unions entrenched in the Party under the 60:40 rule combine to overthrow the outspoken Labor leader or politician, e.g. Victoria's John Brumby; and block change.


Unions demand many things from the Party: industrial laws favouring them (often grotesquely so); tribunals to be packed with their sympathisers; padding the public payroll, if public service unions are involved in that particular industry; jumping on the police if their dare to interdict behaviour that would land others in jail or on a charge; twisting the laws, deforming the social and economic agenda in ways that make the Party unpopular - or despised for its perceived weakness or corruption.

Unions are not in a beauty contest, so don't care what the public - including other workers - think. But the Labor Party are in a contest, so suffer.

Button points out that nearly as many unionists vote for non-Labor parties as do for Labor - so the unions can't even deliver the vote. In the past they delivered much needed organisational muscle, but the volunteers are no longer there. What resources that can be mobilised by unions are used for wildcat strikes, fringe political causes, and very little else. They do provide what we'd consider big money: extorted from often unwilling members, but corporate donors and a variety of slush funds are far more important to Labor.; the Battlers' Party.

What connection would any of this have with Labor principles or goals? First, find the principles. I'm afraid I couldn't discover much in John Button's monograph which constitutes any kind of theoretical breakthrough or backbone for a contemporary party. Chifley's "simply stated vision, uncluttered by political jargon" on the Light on the Hill is evoked once more as "the heart and soul of the ALP".

"Not," as Old Ben said, "as putting an extra sixpence in someone's pocket, or making someone Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement, bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people.

"We have a great objective - the Light on the Hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here, but anywhere that we may give a helping hand."

Popular sentiments

I've quoted this at length to show how admirable these sentiments are; but also how utterly general they are, such that any well-meaning, populist movement can adopt them, and has.

There is little here that a Teddy Roosevelt, an early Mussolini, a Pauline, would wish to reject. The arguments would only start around about how far one should be concerned with bettering the whole of mankind; or rather, concentrating upon one's own people.

Having accepted virtually the whole of the globalisation/economic rationalist arguments - including free trade and privatisation - and having tacitly accepted the legitimacy of the triumph of the strongest actors in our own economic life, and in the ongoing lives of other societies, Labor finds itself confined to a shrinking, crowded piece of ideological territory which just about everyone to the left of Henry Ford is also trying to occupy.

This can make for stirring argument, but lobbyists and pressure groups seem the best agents for this kind of resources auction, i.e., who gets what, when and how?

John Button gives an account of attending his local ALP branch meeting in April 2002. There were eight present, two of them members of Parliament. Without a quorum, the minutes of the previous meeting could not be accepted. John remembers this branch. Once, if there weren't 40 or 50 people there, it was a bad night.

Exiting South Australian Senator Chris Schacht pointed out recently that Labor's national membership - 50,000 at best - is about the same as the membership of the Adelaide Football Club.

And yet, our left journos - especially those at the ABC - have long waxed joyful about how attendances at churches have declined as has active participation in religious affairs. But nothing, surely, as compared to the collapse in party and union memberships, and the simultaneous shrinkage in the numbers of involved supporters.

The ALP Left and the Greens and the Democrats are now talking to themselves - but insist that we listen. Anyone want to buy a media share?

The really pernicious influence upon the tactics, the strategy and the readiness to admit new ideas and new political actors on the part of the power-mongers, who now run Labor, comes out in various ways.

They see politics as a career, not as a vocation, so gaining tenure and seeking money, more money, and status, is their raison d'etre - they will struggle for primacy within the movement just as fiercely as they will against the supposed opponents outside. But gaining and holding power within the organisation is the necessary condition of their being politically employed at all.

Electoral success is the bonus awarded only in good trading years. So the politics of factions and factionalism follow inevitably.


In the contest for parliamentary power, any moves to pause and take stock, to change course, can reduce the chances of winning next time - and that is the most important goal. Indeed, the only goal. The future extends no further than the next election.

Hence the philistinism, the opportunism, the hostility to new or independent-minded people, which so strikes newcomers when the first venture into this closed, foetid little world.

We make the same criticism of corporate managers with their eyes fixed entirely on the bottom line and the next AGM. But the newcomers and critics are told by the incumbents that they are utopians, they don't understand politics; while the incumbents are realists, who do.

But how realistic is it to finish with party branches without a quorum, a national party with fewer members than a football club; a party which has had to adopt its opponent's policies in order to stay in circulation?

How realistic has it been to abandon the contest of ideas and fall back upon smears and scandals, beat-ups and endless arguments ad hominem. Arguments which inevitably descend into McCarthyism, character assassination or worse.

So is this what the Light on the Hill was about?

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