Green is not always for go

STONE the crows! You have to hand it to the Labor Party for consistency. At least once a generation the party is threatened by external enemies, from the left or right or divided within.

The founding generation blued over who gave MPs their marching orders, the machine or the electorate. The party split over conscription in WWI, economic policy in the Depression and the danger of Communist infiltration in the 1950s. For twenty years from the middle 1970s, the party was forced to fight for the liberal left vote by the Australian Democrats (oh come on, of course you remember them) the Nuclear Disarmament Party. And now the Greens are invading Labor’s territory.

And this time Labor is really worried. As Paul Howes puts it:

There is an increasing tendency for political activists to just talk to themselves. … I don’t want Labor to end up in an inner suburbs political ghetto where we are just manning the barricades against the Green hordes. [i]

It all sounds the same as every other time activists attempted to drag the party away from the centre ground, sometime to the right, but more often to the left. As Ross McMullin reminds us:

… in the ALP the clash between sacred principles and practical politics is as old as the party itself. Every Labor government – even the most hallowed – has been bitterly attacked by ALP supporters during its existence.[ii]

With good reason, there is no natural law of politics that political parties exist forever.

Of course Labor is not alone in being beaten up; the conservatives are equally adept at eviscerating themselves.

It took a good decade from federation for them to get organised enough to unite against Labor. They fell apart in the 1930s and 1940s, when the United Australia Party was anything but. They had another go at ruining their reputation for stability in the 1980s when Joe Bjelke Petersen and his pals decided he could become PM on a platform of nothing much, and while his ideological heir Pauline Hanson drew voters from both sides of the party divide her rhetoric was probably more attractive to rank and file members of the conservative parties than their Labor opposite numbers. Not that there are all that many of either these days.[iii]

And for all the enduring arguments that Labor has always incorporated natural enemies in its ranks, the Coalition still includes free traders and protectionists, just as its antecedents did in 1900.

But for the moment it is Labor’s turn to worry. The conservatives are confident in their brand, so confident that in the lead up to the Victorian election they have abandoned their federal election tactic of preferencing Green in seats they can’t win. As Peter van Onselen explains, Victorian Liberals were deeply frustrated when their party’s preferences delivered the seat of Melbourne to the Greens.[iv] Gerard Henderson reckons, “associating Labor with the Greens gives the Coalition its best hope of increasing its vote over its strong (federal) performance this year.”[v]

But what should really worry Labor is less the rise of the Greens themselves than the old left of Labor being infiltrated by the environmentalists or the Labor left walking out altogether.

This is largely a problem of Labor’s own making. In its glory years of the 1980s and 1990s the reforming right was too successful at keeping control of all the ideas and influence in the party. In the process, the faction broke the first rule of successful machine politics, don’t exclude everybody else from all patronage lest the losers decide there is no reason to stay in and fight. It also broke the second one, that avoiding ideas makes for a quiet life but leads to parties forgetting they exist to do more than win elections.

In combination, these two errors destroy political parties. By failing to stand up on slavery in the 1840s and early 1850s, the Whig Party was decapitated by the new Republicans and disembowelled by the Democrats. By sticking to the old Bevanite beliefs in state spending and union power the British Labour Party lost the best and the brightest in 1981, when the gang of four, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers and David Owen defected to establish the Social Democratic Party. The SDP did not last, but its creation marked the beginning of the end for old Labour.

So what to do?  The job of a political party is to leave room for a diversity of views held by people who are united by a core objective. But Labor has exhausted itself and alienated armies of electors in the past debating detritus, not policy, that no one other than ideologues was interested in. The socialisation objective and the three uranium mines policy in their respective eras made the party look like a demented debating society.

Gough Whitlam spent months, if not years working to remove the old-left apparatchiks who ran the Victorian party machine.[vi] Simon Crean spent political capital to push through reforms reducing union membership of the ALP federal conference by ten per cent, a reform that did not matter to anybody not interested in preselection.[vii]

And, in a stripped down split in 2008, the NSW party sacked a premier over power privatisation, an issue that the electorate would have easily accepted.

So it’s not arguing itself that matters, it’s selecting issues which are the cement of the party.

Howes reckons he knows what they are. While acknowledging Labor should have run harder on the economy in the election this was not, he thinks, the issue that mattered most to voters

The big swings to The Greens and the dissatisfaction felt by much of our base undoubtedly were caused by our unwillingness to provide real leadership and our abandonment of socially progressive policies. We were wrong not to at least have a conscience vote on gay marriage, we were wrong to take no action on climate change and we were wrong not to provide leadership on the issue of refugees – we were wrong to run away from reforms when the going got tough.[viii]

Good issues all, but while Labor lurching to the left on social issues might win back votes from the Greens it will not help the party in the centre of politics, where elections are decided and where the economy matters most.

For the ALP to present itself as a party of reform it needs open up the Henry tax review for debate. Yes, this will upset people in the party and perhaps even drive some of them to the Greens. But it would demonstrate to voters that Labor was up for debating difficult ideas. The 1986 Tax summit saw Treasurer Paul Keating and Prime Minister Bob Hawke on opposite sides of the GST debate but nobody talked of splits and the party went on to win another three elections.

Michael Costa is quoted as saying; “the only reason I actually stayed in the Labor Party was because Keating proved you could be economically rational and still be a member.”[ix]

Ideas unify parties, by providing them with platforms and purpose, especially when they are about economics. Not everybody shares the Greens interests, but everybody is interested in an economy which can pay for healthcare and social security and generate jobs for their children.

To push Labor into going Green may generate a warm inner glow on the left, but that’s about all.


[i] Paul Howes, ALP’s faceless men must learn to tolerate dissent” The Australian, November 12

[ii] Ross McMullin, The light on the hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991 (Melbourne, 1991) 411

[iii] According to Norman Abjorensen  there are probably 13,000 Liberal Party members in Victoria and 8,000 members of the NSW ALP, “The parties democratic deficit”, Inside Story, February 10 2010, @, recovered on November 14

[iv] Peter van Onselen, “The green fix is on in Victoria”, The Australian, November 16

[v] Gerard Henderson, “Coalition generals plan to fight them on the outskirts,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 16

[vi] Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam: A moment in history (Melbourne, 2008), 357-364

[vii] Mike Steketee, Union power without the glory of old”, The Australian October 9

[viii] Paul Howes, Confessions of a faceless man: inside campaign 2010 (Melbourne, 2010) 234

[ix] Simon Benson, Betrayal: the underbelly of Australian Labor (Seaforth, 2010) 126