||Issue No. 144||12 July 2002|
The Lotto Economy
Interview: Capital in Crisis
Industrial: No Sweat
Bad Boss: Super Spam
History: Living Treasures
International: Axis of Evil
Solidarity: Pride of Place
Technology: The Art of Cyber-Unionism
Poetry: The Masochism Tango
Satire: Foxtel-Optus Merger 'Anti-Repetitive'
Review: Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Why Modernisation Matters
One of the curious trends in Australian politics at the moment is the flow of commentary against the Federal Labor Party. Sure, after three election losses, this is not the easiest time in our history. But political success never comes from the easy times. It never comes from taking the soft options.
If reform of the Labor Party were easy then it would have been done years ago. In truth, Simon Crean is showing more courage and determination than any Federal Leader since Gough Whitlam in taking on the tough and bruising task of organisational reform. So too, Jenny Macklin is undertaking a genuine policy review, opening the Party to new ideas and new directions.
In both cases, they are laying the foundations for the next Labor Government. This is why modernisation matters. In a world of new technologies, new industries and new allegiances, political parties need to find new ways of broadening their base and reviving their relevance. Modernisation is not an optional extra. It is an electoral necessity.
We are Australia's oldest and greatest political party. But this does not mean we have a guaranteed future. We cannot afford to stand still and ignore the demands of a fast changing world. Indeed, the reason the Labor movement has survived for so long - since the great strikes and struggles of the 1890s - is that we have been a movement of modernisers.
Organisational reform has always been an essential element of Labor's success. Our political dominance in the 1940s was based on John Curtin's efforts to unite the party's factions and splinter groups in the 1930s. Whitlam's success at the 1972 and 74 elections relied on the modernisation of the party's structure in the 1960s. These reforms made us fit to govern. In many respects, they made the election of the Hawke and Keating Governments possible.
In the long cycle of Australian politics, the electorate has never doubted Labor's credentials for compassion and social justice. This is never a problem for parties of the Centre-Left. Rather, the challenge has always been to show that we are tough enough to govern.
Since Federation, our political opponents have had one constant theme: toughness. That we would not stand up to the socialist tiger. That we lacked the discipline to deal with depressions and recessions. That we would not fight the communist threat. And most recently, that Labor lacked the ticker to handle international terrorism and illegal migration.
From Opposition, the best way of proving that we are tough enough to govern the nation is to demonstrate that we are tough enough to reform ourselves. Organisational reform is usually thought of as an internal process. Its main political impact, however, is external. It is one of the basic tests voters use to assess our credentials for government.
Most of the media debate, of course, has focussed on Labor's links with the trade union movement. In practice, however, this is a side issue. The primary purpose of modernisation is to democratise the ALP. That is, to decentralise power within the Party, away from the factions and numbers men and towards the local branches and members.
It is now 35 years since Labor substantially reformed its rules and structure. In that time, the dominant trend within the Party has been the centralisation of power. The factions have become more rigid and powerful. Our conferences have become more stage-managed and predictable.
At the same time, rank-and-file membership has declined, both within the unions and the branches. Control of the Party has moved upwards, concentrated in the hands of the few, not the many. The purpose of modernisation is to flatten the pyramid, to push power downwards and re-enfranchise the rank-and-file.
Instead of Party conferences run by 12 people, I want them run by 12 hundred. I'm happy for 100 percent of conference delegates to be trade unionists, as long as their local branches and assemblies have democratically elected them to that position. The issue is not trade union power per se but rather, the distribution of power within the Party - whether decisions are made by a handful of faction leaders and union secretaries or by the Party's members.
This is why organisational reform is hard. It rubs up against one of the golden rules of politics: people with power never give it up without a fight. In its final form, modernisation is a struggle between political insiders and outsiders, between those who have accumulated power in the past and those who want it for the future.
It is not possible to broaden our base without making ALP membership more attractive. People are not interested in going to political meetings unless they have a direct say in the decision-making process. This is a logical consequence of the Information Age. People want to use their skills and express themselves as often as possible. An information-rich society demands a participation-rich politics.
If the Labor movement is to succeed in this environment, we must attract new people and new thinking. A movement needs to be just that - it needs to move, picking up progressive ideas and influences along the way. It needs to invite participation and creativity, and not close them down when they say something new.
Modernisation is vital to Labor's success. In particular, it allows the electorate to compare the values of a reformed ALP - open, modern and democratic - to the decrepit structure of our Tory opponents.
No one can pretend that the Liberals and Nationals are real political parties. They are, in fact, the last examples of feudalism in Australia, with power concentrated exclusively in the hands of the Prime Minister. The Government party room never votes on policy issues - much like a library without books or a church without prayers.
John Howard picks his policies and makes his Ministry, without reference to any form of party democracy. He's the Feudal Lord of the Liberal Party, the ultimate insider.
This is why the Liberals and Nationals have such a weak culture, why people walk in and out of their show without any sense of political history or conviction. Just look at their next leader, Peter Costello.
He's still in his forties, yet he's been a member of Young Labor, the Monash Social Democratic Association, the HR Nicholls Society, the Parliamentary Liberal Party and now, we are told, he's remaking himself as the LOM, the Leader of the Moderates. He's had more makeovers than Madonna, more image changes than Gary Glitter. What next for Costello? Membership of Falun Gong or the Hari Krishna?
This is why the Tories are so shallow. At a parliamentary level, they represent a loose coalition of elites (like Alexander Downer and John Anderson), Labor rats (like Costello, Brendan Nelson and Helen Coonan) and Jimmy Swaggart-types (such as Ross Cameron and Tony Abbott).
At a branch level, it's a blue-rinse bitch session. Even Abbott has described Liberal Party meetings as "tea-and-scones places" that "no one takes seriously."
These cultural weaknesses have been exposed at a State and Territory level, where the Liberals are out of office everywhere. We know this much: our opponents are weak and shallow. But this is not enough. We also need to make ourselves stronger, to win the culture war in Canberra. This is why modernisation really matters. It is fundamental to the election of a Federal Labor Government.
The Culture War
The US Democrat, Tip O'Neill, famously declared that all politics is local. Increasingly, however, I get the feeling that all politics is cultural. We live in an era of public cynicism about organised politics, a time when many voters have given up on the problem-solving capacity of government. The big picture issues simply wash over people, lost in the public's distrust of politicians.
In this environment of low expectations, the electorate is looking for a sense of shared values - that our leaders feel the same way as we do, that they share our concerns as well as our aspirations. In short, that they share our culture. And what might these values be? I put them under three headings:
Democratic Fairness - that political decisions are made in the national interest, that special interests do not receive special treatment, that the underdog gets a fair go, that governments value public opinion and participation.
Economic Aspiration - that governments reward hard work and thrift, that our children get the very best education, that each of us can leave something better for the next generation.
Social Responsibility - that people are responsible for their own behaviour, that governments demand decency and responsibility across society, that we do things together as a community (once others agree to do the right thing).
These are the values of the Australian working class, values that have always been basic to the cause of Labor. No one joins our Party without learning about these values. No Labor Government has ever been elected without presenting them to the electorate.
These are the values on which we still fight the Tories. Increasingly, the Liberal Government is vulnerable on the question of political culture. It has a remote and undemocratic party structure, removed from the needs and aspirations of working Australians. As Howard showed on his recent trip to the United States, he is more likely to embrace the American political elite than Australia's national interests.
So too, the Government's waste and mismanagement is damaging the Australian economy. Deficit budgeting has led to higher interest rates, hurting homebuyers and small businesses. This is the price of Costello's $5billion gambling habit.
The Government is most vulnerable, however, on the issue of social responsibility. It has a lopsided view of our obligations as citizens - it only applies them to the poor and powerless. The Liberals have exempted the corporate sector from the demands of social responsibility.
Last week, Tony Abbott said that we should excuse the behaviour of bad bosses because they are no worse that bad husbands or bad fathers. This is typical of Abbott's view of society. He has spent a lifetime preaching responsibility to the poor but never practicing it. In a perceptive cartoon in The Australian newspaper, Bill Leak summarised Abbott's mantra as follows: "A bad boss is like a bad husband or a bad father, he should be able to walk away from you any time he likes..."
Indeed, Abbott is always walking away. As a young man he became a Hereditary Disappear. Then he walked away from his responsibilities as a priest. Then he walked away from the DLP and joined the Liberal Party. Now he wants to walk away from Australia's unfair dismissal laws and the responsibility of bad bosses to do the right thing by their staff.
That's Tony Abbott, always attacking the weak and defending the strong. Always giving special treatment to special interests.
When George Pell and Peter Hollingworth, two of the most powerful men in Australia, faced serious allegations of covering up paedophilia in the church, Abbott jumped to their defence. Yet when the poor and powerless in our society struggle to find employment, he calls them job snobs.
This is not the Australian way - slagging the underdog and propping up the tall poppies. At a time when people are looking for a stronger sense of community and connectedness, Abbott spends most of his time trying to destroy Australia's leading community-based organisation, the trade union movement. He wants a dog-eat-dog industrial environment, full of bad bosses and bad practices.
This is not his only double standard. For all his claims about corruption in the building industry, Abbott appears to have no problem with corruption in the legal industry. Especially when it involves his Warringah campaign manager, Ian Harley MacDonald.
Abbott is a regular visitor to the Kirkconnell Prison in western NSW, where MacDonald is serving five-and-a-half years for embezzling $7million from his legal practice (including trust funds held on behalf of elderly clients). The Bad Priest, it seems, is quite fond of bad bosses and bad lawyers.
Labor has no time for any of them. If government is to demand responsibility from the weak, the same demand must also apply to the powerful. Unlike the Liberals, we don't believe in means-testing mutual obligation. Rich people, poor people and everybody in between have a basic responsibility to assist each other and to put something back into the community. This is what we call a good society.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Labor politics has always involved a critique of the private sector. With the end of the Cold War, however, the economic efficiency and productivity of capitalism is beyond dispute. Our critique now needs to focus on the social responsibilities of the corporate sector. We can be pro-market without necessarily being pro-business.
In particular, the globalisation debate has raised new questions about the ethics of the corporate sector. People still live in local communities yet so much of economic activity has gone global. Not surprisingly, people are asking about the obligations of global capital to themselves, their families and their neighbourhoods. They are looking for a bridge from the local to the global, for a connection between communities and corporations.
The ALP needs to build this bridge. We need to demand from the private sector good corporate citizenship. This is a key part of the mutual responsibility agenda. In recent decades, companies have won many more rights, especially the right to trade and invest on a global scale. These rights need to be matched by the exercise of social responsibility.
It is immoral for governments to require unemployed people to meet the requirements of mutual obligation, yet to ask for nothing in return from global companies. If the market system is to work properly it needs to be founded on the responsibilities of the privileged, not just the poor. The reform of capitalism is no longer an economic question. It is an ethical issue - a point confirmed by the outbreak of corporate corruption in the United States.
This is fertile ground for Labor policy making, ensuring that corporations and their executives comply with decent industrial, environmental and social standards. At the last election, for instance, we advocated a social charter for the banking industry. This principle should be applied to other parts of the private sector, such as the petrol industry. There can be no excuse for bad bosses and bad corporate behaviour.
I believe we can be optimistic about the cause of Labor. Our culture is stronger than the Tories and, as we pursue organisational reform, it can only get stronger. The democratisation of the Party will attract progressive people and ideas to our membership. It will give us new energy for the battles ahead.
None of this, of course, requires the abandonment of Labor values - democratic fairness, economic aspiration and social responsibility. Rather, it is the best way of strengthening our beliefs and policies for the next election.
The ALP has always been a big tent party, with plenty of room for people committed to social justice. This approach saw us through the troubled 20th Century. It is just as relevant for the coming century. It's time to modernise.
Speech to the Western Australian Fabian Society Perth, 12 July 2002
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