Stone the crows! Machine politics! We need a Hadron Collider, and we have a spinning jenny.

The implications of the 2010 election mean whatever the commentators want them to mean. For lefties who loathe the way the major parties have not embraced a social justice and environmental agenda the result showed Labor needs to move to the green extreme:

Social justice remains an imperative. The aspiration of a fairer, more sustainable society is what draws people to the progressive cause. A growing number of scholars agree more equal societies enjoy higher levels of happiness and social cohesion. … The fight is now on for Labor’s soul. It will get ugly. It may even get bloody. But the true believers must stay on to fight.[i]

For conventional critics the election was a triumph of politics over policy and with luck will lead to a renaissance in arguments about ideas:

After an election campaign in which both major parties ran largely negative campaigns, with bits and pieces of policy rather than any coherent vision, it could even mean politics went back to being a contest of ideas, rather than a battle of multimillion-dollar budgets for scary attack advertisements by men with deep voices.[ii]

And just about everybody blames Labor’s machine men for the party’s present crisis. [iii]

As Jennifer Hewett put it, “there’s no holding back on Labor vituperation, honed by years of frustration with the influence of the NSW right Labor machine.”[iv] Of course, if the Liberals had not made a case for forming a government on such a modest swing there would also be stories of dissension and division in their ranks.[v]

It is all true as far as it goes, which in explaining the culture of our political parties that created the conditions for an indecisive election is not very far.

The reason the political system malfunctioned so badly that we do not have a majority government is less to do with political platforms or campaigning style – it is because the cultures of our national political parties are not fit for purpose. This is hardly a surprise, given that their governance systems determining their contests were designed in eighteenth century Britain and perfected in the nineteenth century US. [vi]

Close to 100 years ago, British historian Sir Lewis Namier explained how a parliamentary system could work in a political culture where there was a broad consensus over the shape of society and where individual ambition, rather than commitment to abstract ideas shaped allegiance.

In his detailed studies of the webs of competing connections in the eighteenth century House of Commons, Namier demonstrated how the political system created by Sir Horace Walpole was adapted and extended by his successors so that the way to maintain a majority was to buy backbench support through rewards in the present and promises of office to come for loyal followers.

And public money was the power source. Governments paid off supporters with concessions and pensions, jobs and land grants.

What the Brits created at a national level, in a system where the electorate was small and generally voted according to long standing allegiance rather than on issues, the Americans improved a century later at a municipal level.

The great city machines, such as the Tammany Hall operation in New York as the best known example, built power bases based on public sector jobs. Just as the eighteenth century British political class saw office as a source of personal profit in the nineteenth century US ambitious men who could command blocs of votes, especially in immigrant communities, parlay their popularity into office for themselves and reward their supporters.[vii]

Sound familiar? Australian political parties are obviously not corrupt; they do not exist to reward their leaders by rorting Treasury or securing support by using public sector appointments as a source of currency. But, in the way politics now offers staffers career paths, it has created a professional class whose interests rely on winning elections, with jobs in ministers’ officers and increasingly in the public service, that being in power provides.

Labor has perfected this at the state level, especially in NSW, where long serving governments have allowed an elite of party players to rise through the political ranks to publicly funded positions as parliamentary staffers and senior public service officials. The state’s legislative council, where members are elected on a state wide party ticket and vacancies are filled by the machine provides places for union leaders and party loyalists. And in the 16 years of Labor rule there are instances of politically well qualified people moving into senior government jobs.

The result is a culture where internal party politics and state wide elections are about creating the opportunity to win posts and control patronage as well as governing the state. There is nothing new in this, nor in the conflict between, and within, the competing elites, it creates. It is, as Robert Michels put it, the inevitable outcome of “the iron law of oligarchy”.

“In a party, it is far from obvious that the interests of the masses which have combined to form the party will coincide with the interests of the bureaucracy in which the party becomes personified,” he wrote in 1915.[viii]

We saw an excellent example of this when electricity privatisation became a battle between premier Morris Iemma and the Labor machine for control of the party, when the elected government was forbidden from acting in what it saw as the interests of the electorate to protect the jobs of a few thousand public sector power workers.[ix]

There is nothing new nor especially awful in any of this. Nor does it do much damage, (probity and efficient use of the taxpayers’ money aside) while it occurs at administrative levels of government, which provide services without raising the bulk of taxes or making economic policy.

In NSW and Queensland, Labor machines have chugged along efficiently (at least reasonably so) for generations at a time until they have atrophied into incompetence and the patronage system got out of hand. In South and Western Australia conservative premiers have built long lasting regimes based on personal power bases.

But the stakes are much higher at a national level, where hard decisions cannot be ducked or made in the interests of factional players and where individuals who are appointed because they are owed or because they have clambered over their opponents on the greasy pole of internal party politics are often just not up to the intellectual challenge of government.

Anybody who has ever watched a successful state minister fail in Canberra understands while the game is not necessarily tougher it is much more intellectually demanding.

A political culture designed to win elections as a precursor to handing out jobs is simply not suited to the task of governing the country. What makes for electoral success at a state level – offending as few interest groups as possible – is a disaster on the national stage, where good policy is good politics.

Neither side won a mandate at the election because they failed to present a convincing set of policies, and thus make a political case for electing them. The voters understood that the national interest cannot be reduced to the politics of patronage and the pork barrel.

It is why the Greens and Independents are and will remain a policy irrelevance – the only politicians that matter are those with the numbers, intellectual fire power and strength of character to work out what suits the national interest and stake their careers on selling it.

But the two major parties, especially in the last few years with Labor, have transferred a state system of jobs for loyalists to a national level and it does not work.

We have a political culture created for Westminster in the eighteenth century and New York in the nineteenth and it cannot cope with the policy needs of Australia in the twenty-first . Our politics is based on an eighteenth century spinning machine when we need a super fast source of infinite intellectual energy.

I Tim Soutphommasane, “The true believers must now rally to save Labor’s languishing soul,’’ The Australian, August 25

Ii Lenore Taylor, At last, every one might get a say, Sydney Morning Herald, August 23,

[iii] Deborah Snow, “Calls for Bitar’s head after ‘inept’ campaign, Sydney Morning Herald, August 23

[iv] Jennifer Hewett, Rage against the machine,” The Australian, August 25.

[v] Even though the conservatives came closer to winning than anybody expected they are still sniping at each other. Independent MP, and potential prime minister picker Tony Windsor, says that “under any definition” Barnaby Joyce is a fool and in NSW Liberals are calling Nationals names, ABC Radio, 23 August, @, recovered on August 25, Philip Coorey and Dylan Welch, “Now coalition regions its own civil war,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 25

[vi] Namier’s best known book on the way the machinery of politics was fuelled less by a conflict between united parties divided by ideas contesting for power  than constant and shifting struggles for control and allocation of patronage is The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (London, 1929)

[vii] Australia saw the same sort of machines lasting long into the 20th century. For one excellent description of how an inner city political system operated see P N Grabovsky, “Machine Politics, Corruption and the Richmond City Council” (in) Grabovsky, Wayward Governance; illegality and its control in the public sector (Canberra, 1989)

[viii] Robert Michelet, Political Parties (Kitchener, Ontario, 2001) 232

[ix] Simon Benson’s Betrayal: The underbelly of Australian Labor (Seaforth, 2010) and Rodney Cavalier’s forthcoming Power Crisis: the self-destruction of a state Labor Party outline the biggest internal Labor blue since the split