Published in The Australian, 8 December 2012.
The main political parties in Australia are in flux. Membership is low and it is harder to recruit and retain members. Branch meetings are boring; members are of an older demographic. In recent Labor Party elections in NSW, for the first time in 50 years many polling booths went unstaffed. In certain country electorates there is barely any Labor Party presence at all.
The NSW Right of the ALP is the grand old faction that kept Gough Whitlam in the party in the 1960s, co-opted Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley, and created Paul Keating. Across 70 years, a string of NSW premiers came from this group or were co-opted into it.
But today it is weak, and this explains a plethora of factors affecting Labor in NSW and nationally. There are remnants of ideas and traditions in people and structures that constitute some sort of lingering heritage. But the point is, the Right needs to reinvent itself. Political movements need to develop, respond to contemporary issues and change. They never stand still. Those that do not innovate, wither.
Part of the ALP’s problem is that the vast changes it inspired 30 years ago with Hawke and Keating were not replicated in changes to its outlook, orientation and structures. For example, the ALP membership ticket still features a pledge that members be committed to “the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation.” This wording, an echo of past debates with Marxists, is kept for cynical reasons. Few believe in it, but it has proved too hard to change. The Left is sentimental and clings to the wording. Perhaps these days it deters moderate people from joining. Can anyone seriously pretend that such a clichéd slogan helps recruitment?
What is needed now is for the NSW Right to display the kind of policy innovation, creativity and political savvy that lies at the heart of its history and success. To establish this point requires understanding the NSW Right faction’s origins, history and traditions, its myths and heroes.
In brief, there were five phases in its development. The first, the creation of a tradition, from 1939 to 1955; survival, from 1955 to the late 1960s; the ‘new Right’ centred on John Ducker, from 1968 to 1988; stability from 1988 to 2008; and collapse in 2008.
In the first period there was an alliance between a new parliamentary leader in NSW, William McKell (parliamentary leader, 1939-47; premier, 1941-47), the unions through the Labor Council, and a relatively weak ALP office. Like all alliances, it was a bargain: the NSW Right was formed to keep the communists out, the unions in and the conservatives down. For a long time it was a formidable formula.
The Right was shy of ideological pretension, solidly anti-communist and wedded to the belief that Labor’s mission was to civilise, not overthrow, capitalism. A coalition in itself, ranging from local activists and unionists to social-democratic intellectuals, it was the first big faction of the ALP to be comfortable with business. For example, when Frank Packer set up Channel 9 in the mid-50s, the Labor Council of NSW was a 5 per cent shareholder (and remained so until the late 70s).
Despite the debacle of the Lang era (Jack Lang, parliamentary leader, 1923-39; premier, 1925-27 and 1930-32), which led to the ALP’s disappearance in many country electorates, in 1941, only two years after the NSW Right was formed, the faction and party took power under an attractive, interesting leader in McKell.
Neville Wran consciously sought to extend what, by the mid-70s, was the forgotten McKell legacy. As governor-general (1947-53), McKell was pilloried by many in the ALP after granting Robert Menzies a double-dissolution election in 1951. Doc Evatt disowned him. One can see that McKell had the kind of enemies and opponents you would want him to have.
The Whitlam dismissal and the idea that almost without exception the governor-general should follow the prime minister’s advice led to a reappraisal of McKell. Barrie Unsworth, Bob Carr and John McCarthy QC were vital to that process of sympathetic reassessment. Wran rehabilitated the McKell style. In government he adopted McKell’s way of organising the Premier’s Department, with the centre striving to prompt and review policy without stultifying initiatives by ministers. Thinking critically about this approach is to recall and support Wran’s and Carr’s view of Labor history, and of the significance of McKell to the NSW Right.
McKell won the leadership of the state ALP in 1939, in what was the party’s darkest hour. The ALP was almost destroyed by Lang; communist cells (what later briefly became the Hughes-Evans Labor Party) were very active, enmities across the factions and personalities ran deep. McKell wanted to unite the party, developing an agenda of reform that would excite the electorate. His 1941 and subsequent election manifestos are models of good ideas translated into a Labor program. That approach to presenting the ALP to the electorate is at least worth recalling.
Second, McKell did research on soil conservation, on what would now be called environmental policy, and encouraged his colleagues to research ideas and present them to the party and the electorate.
There is another important part of the McKell legacy – what sometimes misleadingly has been called the McKell model. I spent a lot of time with McKell before he died in 1985, visiting his office in Double Bay, listening to his recollections. Although he was a young boilermaker, one of the so-called industrialists at the 1917 ALP conference, he was saddened that his mentor and predecessor as MP for Redfern, Jock McGowen, was expelled from the ALP during the conscription split. Hearing his stories about the dictatorial madness of Lang convinced me that Lang was the worst leader the party ever had in NSW. Lang used the union block vote to expel and deselect opponents.
Forged in the late 30s and early 40s, the McKell model, as I saw it, was this: party leader and colleagues develop policy, ALP office protects leader, unions are consulted and respected; there was a keen appreciation that disunity was death. The memory of this seemed to dissipate by the late 2000s in the electricity conflicts of the Morris Iemma period.
McKell’s name and legacy are relevant to reviving traditional Right Labor thinking on the governance of the party.
For Labor to rebuild support in NSW and federally, it needs to better connect with voters and come up with contemporary solutions. As Labor was responsible for most of the best governments in NSW as well as at the federal level, anything that draws on the best of that history and tradition should be emphasised.
Thus McKell, Wran, Hawke and Keating are exemplars.
When in 1955 the ALP split occurred, there were two factors that weighed with the men and (some) women in the party: the strong support of the NSW Catholic hierarchy for the ALP – “stay in and fight” – and the memory of the numerous debilitating splits in the 30s during which Lang and Ben Chifley, who hated each other, ran candidates for different Labor parties to unseat each other.
In late 1955, at St Paul’s Seminary at Kensington, Bishop James Carroll gathered the NSW Movement’s luminaries and announced the Cardinal’s wish that they stay in the Labor Party.
Joe Riordan, who died in Sydney last month, aged 82, exemplified the tradition. He was a devout Catholic who grew up admiring Lang; he joined the ALP Industrial Groups and, at 22, unexpectedly defeated the communist ticket in the Federated Clerks Union in 1952. The Labor split engulfed his union, with several state branches joining the Democratic Labor Party. He was in the political wilderness. With Whitlam’s and Syd Einfeld’s help, he was elected federal MP for Phillip in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in 1972 and became Minister for Housing in 1975. Later he served with distinction as a public servant and industrial arbitrator in NSW. He lived by high principles. Serving the cause was for the greater good. Long, hard hours were put in defending those who needed it.
By the 70s, joining the party meant joining a movement keenly aware of its heritage. It meant being part of a grouping that saved Whitlam when the ALP Left tried to expel him in 1966 for supporting state aid to non-government schools. There was pride in the party’s anti-communist credentials. The faction was on the right side of the Cold War. There was satisfaction that the NSW Right was different, had stayed and eventually had rescued the party. Side by side with pragmatism ran a deep streak of idealism. Supporters felt proud they were reformers, true to Labor values, bit by bit changing the world for the better.
There were grand debates at ALP conferences, held under the lights of the Sydney Town Hall. It was the best political theatre in Australia. The Right always won after smackdown debates with the Left. It was like entertainment wrestling where the contestants go through the appearance of inflicting great harm on each other but then miraculously get up and walk away, ready for the next show, seemingly none the worse for wear.
For example, at the 1984 conference of the NSW ALP, up for debate was the floating of the Australian dollar and banking regulation, including the licensing of foreign banks. Predictably, the Left moved a motion to condemn this. Keating walked to the microphone and mocked them. Keating dared the party to think differently. He castigated those cardigan-wearing, lazy bank managers, stingy with their lending, stifling innovation, in the Killara branch of the Liberal Party, hating our guts. Sure, Chifley would be turning in his grave–appalled that the Left would now be defending “this lot”, he said. It was a masterly, audacious instance of Keating reinterpreting Labor tradition and creatively and persuasively arguing for change.
Hawke and Keating were policy radicals – innovators who saw good policy as good politics. Reform requires three things: clarity of vision, bravery and the right people. The NSW Right, despite reservations in a few quarters, locked in behind the party leaders and Australia changed for the better in the 80s.
Moving forward, however, entertainment wrestling did not take place in 2008. For Iemma the smackdown was permanent. He lost the premiership. His destruction by the unions and party office was a repudiation of the McKell legacy. In 2010, the manner of federal leadership changes also demoralised party members.
Times are different now; new solutions are required for new circumstances, and therefore the NSW Right has to be relevant to forging a new model.
On union reform, policy innovation, membership reform and party stability, it has to make far-reaching decisions. The onus for change rests on the shoulders of NSW ALP secretary Sam Dastyari and Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon.
The constant talk of union rorts, slush funds, greedy officials and lawless behaviour is a public relations disaster for Labor. Yet, overwhelmingly, union officials are decent, low to moderately well-paid people who seek to do the right thing. Ensuring that unions are accountable is a no-brainer. Workplace Minister Bill Shorten is expected to tackle that with the support of the NSW Right, itself bruised by the Health Services Union scandal.
Another weakness of the party is a lack of entrepreneurial curiosity about policy development. This is a fundamental problem. Defensive, insular thinking is the enemy of Labor.
There are a few think tanks, such as the McKell Institute, the Chifley Research Centre and Per Capita, which intelligently try to flag issues and policy relevant to the electorate, rather than obsessively focusing on the ALP’s internal machinations. A test is whether such bodies churn out statist, left-wing type critiques or engage in a creative and dynamic way in policy formulation. To do the latter is to honour all the Labor greats.
For the Labor Right and Labor generally, it is sensible to distinguish Labor’s brand from the Greens, especially in NSW, where the local Greens leadership is redder than the average watermelon. These people are the historic enemy.
The present membership base means the talent pool is shallow – more than before, it consists mainly of staff members and union leaders. The party needs greater depth of membership. Party rules remain a huge barrier and social media may as well not exist.
The problem with ALP membership is that it makes little sense to join. Anyone sensible thinks about dropping out of political structures that are unable to appreciate their input. I suspect that during the past decade more members of the Right than of the Left have drifted away from membership. In national ballots for the presidency of the ALP, the Right is barely scoring 30 per cent of the vote. Ironically, a membership-decides-all approach at present would deliver the ALP to the Left. The Left sees its chance.
Hence the interest in primaries to thwart this possibility and as means of better connecting the ALP to grassroots supporters and rebuilding the party in the community. The party is inexperienced in implementing such a plan. Underdeveloped, too, are the ideal rules for such a process. The City of Sydney ballot this year was an experiment that produced a nice candidate who nevertheless failed to really excite the electorate. Clover Moore won easily. With 12 per cent of the vote, Labor got just one councillor elected.
In February, Dastyari publicly eschewed meddling in leadership changes. This is a welcome return to past form. The revival of the NSW Right requires the finest organisational skills, an understanding of its heritage as innovator, and a sense of idealism. The stakes are high: nothing less than the fate of a great party and the future of Australia.
Paul Kelly from the Australian newspaper rang me to ask if I could write this piece. We were both in doubt about the future of what was once a substantial and mostly positive tradition in the ALP.