COVER STORY: CANBERRA OBSERVED: 'A dangerous moment for our democracy ...'
News Weekly, November 5, 2005
The Labor Party has deep, intractable problems, according to seasoned Labor figure, NSW Senator John Faulkner.
The optimists inside the federal parliamentary Labor Party believe that a stint on the Treasury benches will fix all the current problems besetting the party.
Factional warring will cease; the spoils of office will be distributed to frustrated MPs and sundry hangers-on; and the exercise of real power will paper over the divisions, rancour and infighting that riddle the party at the moment.
The realists and the thinkers inside the ALP know differently.
NSW Senator John Faulkner became the latest in a number of senior Labor figures to admit the party has deep, intractable problems.
He follows other leading lights, including Julia Gillard and Barry Jones, in seeking to find answers to Labor's fundamental problems and to propose reform ideas and a realistic debate.
In his recent Henry Parkes Oration in Tenterfield, New South Wales, Senator Faulkner, a senior left-wing MP and former Senate leader, argues that the sickness which infects Australian democracy and the Labor Party are intertwined.
The picture Senator Faulkner paints of Australian democracy is bleak.
"Our democracy is drowning in distrust," he said in his speech.
"And at a time when our Australian democracy most needs an honest appraisal, we are instead being told to do nothing.
"On the one hand, a Prime Minister who invented the 'non-core' election promise is using taxpayers' money to fund advertisements telling us things are good and getting better.
"On the other, former Labor leader Mark Latham [is] giving us '10 reasons why the idealistic should forget about organised politics' and telling us things are bad beyond repair."
But Faulkner says that if Labor wants to fix Australian democracy, it must lead by example by reforming itself first.
He puts forward a number of proposals including giving the grassroots members a vote in selecting state party presidents, secretaries and even senators.
It was a significant intervention because Senator Faulkner is immersed in the history of Labor and widely respected, but is also from the philosophical left of the party.
He also played a key role in Mark Latham's failed attempt to become Prime Minister.
Senator Faulkner is as blunt and honest as he can be about former leader Latham, whom he described as producing "glib" solutions to Labor's problems, and of basically concocting a gigantic dummy spit with the publication of his "diaries".
Mr Latham described Labor as unrepairable and urged any idealistic young person to avoid politics altogether.
In contrast, Senator Faulkner admits Labor is in dire straits, but says that talking about quitting is no solution to the problem.
However, the NSW senator conceded that the party has been taken over by machine men and women with no ideology whatsoever other than the desire to attain the reins of power.
"Politics without a social purpose is the empty pursuit of power, brutal and meaningless," he said.
He says factionalism in itself is not an evil, but without any real ideology it can become a deeply destructive force.
"When such groupings are based not on shared beliefs but on shared venality, factionalism goes bad," he said.
"When factional interests are put ahead of the party's interests, the party rots.
"As party membership declines, the influence of factional warriors increases.
"They maximise their influence by excluding those who disagree, not through leadership and persuasion.
"Those who defer to the powerbrokers are rewarded with positions in the party and with employment.
"This is not factionalism. It is feudalism, and it is killing the ALP."
This is brutal stuff and a serious wake-up call to the party.
"Without both an understanding of the practicalities of political change, and the confidence that the citizen can shape the state," Faulkner warned, "Australians will drift further and further into disengagement and resentment. It is a dangerous moment for our democracy."
Senator Faulkner is one of Labor's realists, and it would be most unfortunate if his suggestions went unheeded.
For him not only Labor is at stake, but Australian democracy itself.