Category Archives: Australian Labor Party

Understanding Labor beyond Sydney and Melbourne

A few years ago, the NSW Socialist Left celebrated its 60th anniversary and got historian Frank Bongiorno contributing a short history of the faction. I re-read the short history a few days ago and it got me thinking about the origins of the Left faction in other states.

While there is often much talk about rumblings within the Left faction, as I have previously written, the reality is that it is a loose coalition of state-based groupings. They are shaped by local factors and histories which mean they often disagree (as shown at the recent ALP National Conference) and even have their own sub-groupings. The state-based nature of the ALP also meant that the various factions did not all form at the same time and are very much creations of certain circumstances and local party cultures, something that is not well understood or analysed.

The NSW Combined Unions and Branches Steering Committee (as the Socialist Left was originally known as) was formed in 1954-55 to fight the Groupers, however, the Victorian Socialist Left was only formed after federal intervention in 1970. Elsewhere around the country, formalised Left factions were formed at later dates. For example, in Queensland, a formalised Socialist Left only established itself in 1978-79 around then Senator George Georges. In Tasmania, party reform in 1976 resulted in dominance by the ‘Broad Left’ from the mid-1970s onwards which became a formal faction in 1983. The ACT Left Caucus was not formed until the early 1980s. In each of these cases, a Left faction was instigated by local circumstances and those local factors meant that they were often ideologically and operationally quite different.

The experience of South Australia and Western Australia is different, in part because factionalism was imported from the other states. Until the 1980s, much of the rest of the party outside the East Coast was not factionalised. Two factors changed this. Firstly, in 1981, ALP National Conference approved the introduction of proportional representation for the remaining state branches. As Clem Lloyd and Wayne Swan pointed out in their 1987 Australian Journal of Political Science article ‘National Factions and the ALP‘:

Because the state machines could no longer control the composition of National Conference and National Executive delegations, a premium was placed on factional representation which transcended state limits.

Prior to then, the Labor Right did not organise beyond the state level and the Left only had a rudimentary national structure at best. Whoever already controlled the branch had complete control and there was limited incentive because it required complete control.

Secondly, it was the formation of proper national factions, instigated ironically by the creation of the National Centre Left in Adelaide on 19 February 1984, that led to factionalisation in states like Western Australia and South Australia. The Centre Left established itself in opposition to the factionalism of Left and Right factions. Lloyd and Swan explained that:

Lacking any prospect for winning power bases in NSW and Victoria, where existing factions honeycombed the ALP structure, the National Centre Left focussed its aspirations on the outer states which were largely unfactionalised.

Reflecting on all this, it becomes clear that whenever Labor’s past is discussed, it only really focuses on either Sydney or Melbourne or the going ons in the Commonwealth Parliament. It overlooks the importance of local factors in shaping distinct party cultures that do have an impact on national decisions. Labor still is a federation of state branches with alliances across state lines. The Labor Party is more than what happens in Sydney, Melbourne and the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. There should be more knowledge and discussion about these local histories such as the origins of local factions and political clashes to understand how and why things are the way they are.

Who are the ALP Left candidates for the National Policy Forum?

Voting is now open for Labor’s National Policy Forum (NPF). Modelled off British Labour’s Policy Forum, the NPF meets regularly to discuss policy, hear from a range of speakers and to help draft Labor’s National Platform in between the triennial National Conference.

The National Policy Forum has twenty rank-and-file representatives who are directly elected. Other voting members include the Federal Parliamentary Party Leader and the National President (who are co-chairs), two Deputy Chairs and a Secretary elected by National Conference, the National and Assistant National Secretaries, the National President of Young Labor, twenty affiliated union representatives and twenty federal MPs.

If you have been a member for at least a year prior to the calling of NPF nominations, you should have received an email today to cast your vote. Unlike the President or party leader elections, it is a digital by default ballot but you can request a postal vote. Voting for the NPF closes on 2 December so there is still some time.

There is often a dearth of information about who is who when these larger direct election ballots occur as not everyone has a large profile. To make things a bit clearer, the following is a list of known ALP Left candidates running for rank-and-file National Policy Forum spots in each state and territory.

 

NSW

Sinead Simpkins

Cameron Murphy

Verity Firth

Nuatali Nelmes

 

ACT

Ella Factor

 

VIC

Onagh Bishop

Mark Kettle

Jamie Gardiner

Damien Kingsbury

Max Costello

Steve Brown

Oliver Squires

 

SA

David Pearson

 

NT

Pat Honan

 

QLD

Nick Thompson

Laura Fraser-Hardy

 

TAS

Adam Clarke

 

WA

Dominic Rose

Tom Palmer

 

If I have made any mistakes or inadvertently left a candidate off this list, please let me know and I will amend the list.

 

UPDATE: The list of elected National Policy Forum members can be found here.

Peter Dutton throws a “dead cat”

This morning I awoke to furore about comments that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made on Sky News last night. He claimed that if Australia’s refugee intake was dramatically increased (as proposed by Labor and the Greens), “illiterate” refugees would come to Australia, take jobs and drive up unemployment.

Social media was ablaze with people attacking Dutton for making such a suggestion, accusing him of racism and rebutting his claims about refugees with facts. Some even suggested it was a gaffe. It was not. It was intentional.

What Dutton did was “throw a dead cat on the table.”  It is a signature election manoeuvre by Lynton Crosby, used to regain control of public debate. Media attention switches as everyone reacts to whatever outrageous and offensive statement is made. Everyone will be talking about what you want them to talk about (in this case, refugees). Julie Bishop’s tacit agreement with Dutton affirms that this is no gaffe, it is an intentional strategy. It is aimed at distracting everyone and keeping the focus on refugees. It is a tactic that is succeeding.

The Tories used the “dead cat” to great effect in the last British election and locally George Christensen and Cory Bernardi are particularly adept at this tactic. People dismiss them as idiots because of the views they espouse publicly but they know exactly what they are doing. Their incendiary statements are about grabbing maximum public attention and trying to force a response on their issues.

Those who oppose the Coalition need to stop taking the bait. The Coalition does not want the election to be focused on education, Medicare or housing affordability which are far more important issues to voters and Labor’s strengths. Instead it wants it to be focused on refugees and national security because they see them as electorate winners. Labor does not win votes talking about either. They either lose votes to the Coalition or the Greens.

It won’t be the last time that the Coalition tries this tactic during this election but progressives need to far get better at responding and shifting the focus away whenever a “dead cat” is thrown.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

A deal on asylum seekers would show the limits of the Greens

Discussion about the relationship between Labor and the Greens has continued into a second week with suggestions in The Australian that the Greens are open to changing their refugee policy to do a deal with Labor. Richard Di Natale responded to these reports saying the Greens won’t compromise on their policy to close offshore detention centres.

Reading between the lines, as Labor’s unlikely to change its policy, it seems to rule out a deal where the Greens alter their policy. My guess is the Greens hoped to win improvements without being locked into supporting Labor’s policies. The model they want is likely to be the one used by ALP-led governments in SA, TAS and the ACT that allowed non-Labor Ministers to “opt-out” of Cabinet solidarity. Given recent rancour between the two parties and Labor’s defensiveness about being outflanked on the left, I doubt Labor would accept such an arrangement.

While most of the focus on the politics of refugee policy tends to be about Labor tearing itself apart, attempting to negotiate improved refugee policies raises some big questions that most Green supporters appear not to have not grappled with. In particular, it highlights limits of what the Greens can achieve on their own and raises questions about what they are willing to trade off. Richard Di Natale has spoken about using a hung parliament to push for changes to refugee policy but he has not outlined what changes and what are acceptable trade-offs.

A genuine question yet to be debated is whether such a deal would be acceptable if Greens can vote against the current asylum seeker policies even though the outcome would be the same and offshore detention and turnbacks remain? It may be aimed at preserving the idea the Greens have not sold out but wouldn’t that just show the Greens are just as hungry for ministerial positions as the other parties? It would make the Greens the inner-city version of the Nationals, raising a fuss every so often to differentiate but getting rolled most of the time.

Personally I don’t support the ALP’s policy and have massive issues with turnbacks and offshore detention centres. The problem is that unless either the ALP or the Liberals change their policy, it doesn’t matter what the Greens’ position is. Unless one shifts, activists will spend the rest of their lives being angry about an issue with no possible resolution.

Support for the Greens may help drag the Overton window to the left on refugees but you can’t just create the space, you need to push the majority of the public in its direction to make the change permanent. Recent Essential polling showed that despite a plurality (39%) thinking conditions at Manus Island were poor, almost half (48%) opposed bringing asylum seekers to Australia even though respondents were told it was ruled to be illegal. Immigration may be less of an issue currently but it is still rated as one of the three most important issues in Australia today. It will not go away as a political issue.

The fact is if the Greens compromise on refugee policy, it will destroy them. They framed refugee policy as a black or white moral issue, far more so than climate change. The complexities of climate change allowed a fudge, there is no such room on refugees. Labor may budge on aspects of its refugee policy but it won’t adopt anything like the Greens’ position unless public opinion changes significantly. The experience of coalition government in Tasmania caused a lot of internal dissatisfaction during its term and even splits afterwards. Refugee policy is just as contentious federally as forestry was at a state level and one can imagine something similar occurring if the Greens compromise.

Luckily for the Greens there is no other viable party that opposes the offshore detention of asylum seekers but there is no guarantee of that into the future if a viable social liberal party emerges. Furthermore, compromising will challenge the belief that the Greens are not like every other party but unless it does so, any improvements are unlikely. It can be brushed over while the Greens’ influence is limited but if they participate in government it is far harder to avoid.

For all the talk of an ALP-Green government by Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt, it seems the Greens doubt it will happen, which is why the conditions of a change in asylum seeker policy they set is most likely unachievable. If any arrangement does occur after the election, it would probably be a supply and confidence arrangement or abstaining on forming government. It will kick the can further down the road but the limitations of their strategy is an issue the Greens will eventually have to grapple with if they are serious about exercising power and ever forming government.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

Preference deals are driven by pure politics

Almost on cue, the perennial election issue of a Liberal-Green preference deal has re-emerged with reports of a deal in Victoria. It is an issue that unfortunately sucks up so much political oxygen that I would rather spend on why the Coalition Government needs to be defeated.

The Greens have denied a deal with the Liberals, saying they will never preference the Liberals ahead of Labor. It is a carefully worded statement that allows for an open ticket in marginal Victorian seats in exchange for Liberal preferences in inner city seats. They could rule out a deal with the Liberals on open tickets but have chosen not to.

The fact is that these preference decisions are driven by pure political self-interest and all three parties are playing hardball.

The politics behind the deal

Each party has a reason for their actions and response whenever this issue of a Liberal-Greens deal emerges. Depending on the outcome, they will either win big or lose significantly.

For the Liberals, they have little chance of winning in the inner city, however, their preferences can sow discord between Labor and the Greens. Liberal preferences will tie up Labor resources in inner city seats plus will make it far more difficult for Labor to form government on its own. In the event of a hung Parliament, it will also be more difficult for Labor if it has to rely on Greens as well as other independents.

For the Greens, Liberal preferences will mean they can win other Lower House seats and make it easier to get balance of power in the Lower House. The long-term aim would be to form a coalition and have Ministers with both Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt talking about future federal Labor-Green governments. The threat of open tickets may also be used as a bargaining chip for Senate preference discussions.

For Labor, the allocation of Liberal preferences to the Greens may result in previously safe inner city seats being lost. The loss of these seats will make it far harder for Labor to form government and divert resources that would otherwise be used in other Labor-Liberal marginal seats. The possibility of a Liberal-Green deal is also an issue which they can use to try to break off some soft progressive voters by portraying the Greens as “Liberals in disguise” for being wiling to deal with conservatives instead of fighting them.

Do preference recommendations matter?

Yes and no.

Less than half of major party voters follow How to Vote cards but enough followed Liberal How To Vote cards that preferenced the Greens in 2010, leading to Adam Bandt’s victory in Melbourne. Green voters are even less likely to follow How to Vote cards.

While Liberal How To Vote cards can be pivotal, the impact of Green How To Vote cards in a compulsory preferential contest are relatively minimal. Antony Green has calculated that based on a Green primary vote of 10%, it makes a 0.3% difference whether preferences are recommended or not.

Labor is wrong to suggest that open tickets will funnel votes to the Liberals. An open ticket by the Greens in this context is not the same as preferencing the Liberals, however, the Greens should hope Labor does not lose those marginal Victorian seats by less than 0.3%. My guess is the Greens probably think that 0.3% in those marginal seats will not make a difference to who forms Government.

How To Votes cards in optional preferential voting on the other hand can have a significant influence. The shift in preferencing at the Queensland election was what brought down the Liberal National Party and open tickets by the Greens where preferential are optional are a big risk for progressives.

Open tickets are small ‘l’ liberal

One of my biggest frustrations has been the misleading talking points on social media that open tickets allow voters to “decide” their own vote. It has been repeated by Greens supporters again and again. The insinuation that a How To Vote card with recommended preferences is the same as the now abolished Group Voting Ticket is absurd. Voters still determine how they preference at the end of the day and can ignore How To Vote cards. In fact, over half do.

There is little difference between a How to Vote card recommending preferences and third party endorsements by unions, environment groups and GetUp! All seek to influence voters to vote in a certain way. Voters don’t exist in a vacuum and competing interests will always seek to influence them. The idea that the individual can rationally make a decision without outside influence is very small ‘l’ liberal and not embedded in reality. It is the logic that sees trade unions as vested interests, is focused on process over outcome and is obsessed about individual choice to the point that it does not believe organisations should spend money on causes without an individual member’s permission.

At the end of the day, all parties are free to preference or not preference whoever they want. What is disappointing is the misleading statements from all sides. It highlights how electorally driven and cynical they can all be. The Greens can be just as bad as Labor or the Liberals and this saga shows all parties are the same in the end once they get a taste of winning office.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

A new year, a new Bill?

The last few weeks have been good for Bill Shorten. He’s been increasingly bold, has set the agenda and gotten favourable public response, putting the Coalition government on the backfoot. The polls have tightened, with two (Newspoll and Essential) recording 50-50 2PP.

Malcolm Turnbull meanwhile has been struggling. While expectations about Shorten have been extremely low, even among the party base, for Turnbull expectations are sky-high — and he is not living up to them. He is constrained by trying to keep the peace in his party room, fending off leaks and backbench revolts. In the last few weeks alone, there have been leaks about the Defence White Paper and conservative uproar about the safe schools program.

Turnbull’s tax reform agenda, which was to be the centrepiece of his re-election campaign, is in shambles. Internal opposition led to the dumping of GST changes, and even modest changes to negative gearing are unlikely to get party room support. Bereft of a tax reform agenda, the government is caught between indecision and reaction.

Even with all this going on, Labor knows that a small-target strategy would not work against Turnbull. The negative gearing announcement made everyone pay attention because Shorten took a position that might be unpopular with some swinging voters in the electorate, challenging assumptions about his aversion to risk. Similarly, calling Senator Cory Bernardi a homophobe and replacing Joe Bullock with Patrick Dodson has caused people to start reassessing Shorten.

Negative gearing has been particularly potent because it is a policy that the party base really likes. Communication expert Anat Shenker-Osorio has argued that progressives should engage their base and persuade swinging voters, rather than cater to them and alienate their opponents. The Coalition’s policies on immigration and refugees did this; negative gearing does it perfectly for Labor.

It’s a sensible strategy. Since the Second World War, Labor has only won from Opposition three times, and in each case did so by having, a positive agenda with clear and distinctive ideas. With doubts growing about Turnbull, it gives Shorten an opportunity to outline clear and distinctive ideas.

The big danger here is that big policy announcements this early open Labor up to attack and give the Coalition time to respond. In addition to its proposed changes to negative gearing Labor has made big commitments on Gonski education reform. If Turnbull can create enough doubt about Labor, he can get re-elected. With the conservative wing of the Coalition making it difficult for Turnbull to outline and focus on a bold policy agenda, resorting to a fear campaign may become his only option.

But Labor needs to be bold and continue strengthening its narrative. A clear lesson from the British election is that a shopping list of appealing policies is not enough. Labor has sought to establish a narrative about the future and science, focusing on jobs of the future by announcing policies on coding, renewables and start-ups. But while this has potential, as evidenced by Turnbull’s attempts to neutralise it with his innovation statement, it has not been convincing, as yet.

People increasingly understand that change is necessary. They are worried about the future, not only out of self-interest but also out of concern for their children’s future and living standards. They want someone to be straightforward about the challenges we face, and have a plan.

Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club this week showed signs that he recognises this underlying public mood and that determining how to ensure a just transition in the face of big structural forces is shaping Labor’s thinking.

Digital disruption, the ageing population and climate change will have profound effects on Australia and the world. Most people understand we need to innovate and adapt, but they also want some security and certainty for themselves. Not everyone will benefit equally from disruption. There are some big risks, and intervention is necessary to ensure opportunities and burdens are fairly shared.

While Turnbull may be ahead as preferred prime minister, the Coalition has yet to demonstrate the principle of fairness — in government, let alone in their future plans. That principle of fairness is deeply held and widely felt across the electorate, as shown by the reaction to the 2014 Budget.

If Shorten can capture this mood, he has a chance of winning. Labor’s narrative needs to be not only that it is the party best equipped to deal with the challenges we face, but is the only party that can ensure any changes will be just and equitable. A plan for the future that is both convincing and seen as fair may end up being the difference between being in government and opposition.

Published in Eureka Street on 18 March 2016

Australia won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders but there will be an anti-system response

It’s become a common shtick to ask why Australian politics seems to be very different from the rest of the Western world. Across the world, there is growing disenchantment with politics and existing institutions. Major parties on the centre-left and centre-right are struggling against insurgent challengers on the Left and Right, both internally and externally. It manifests in a common question that gets asked in progressive circles: Why don’t we have the equivalent of Sanders or Corbyn in Australia?

The short answer is that both are products of a particular context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It does not happen without the broader politicisation that is occurring elsewhere.

Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn products of particular contexts, cultures and history. Corbyn is the product of a hard left tradition in the British Labour Party no longer exists in the ALP. In part, due to the discipline of the ALP and the emergence of a viable challenger on its left flank in the Greens. Sanders is a former Mayor in a small state, someone who has been outside the Democratic Party for all of his political career, arguing on a platform of democratic socialism as a candidate for Democratic nomination. There is no equivalent for the pathway Sanders took in Australia.

Both took advantage of unique conditions: open primaries in two-party dominant systems combined with a rejection of technocratic centre-left politics by a reshaped party base. It was fuelled by radicalisation that has happened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, supported in particular by younger votes.

As Jason Wilson has noted, Australia has an outlier to this seemingly global trend of a strengthening Left. His argument is that the economic circumstances is the key difference. A recent Guardian feature on Generation Y seems to affirm this, a graph based on Luxembourg Income Study Database data showing that disposable income for Generation Y in Australia increased over three decades while elsewhere it was flat or decreased.

graph

While there are issues with the data, it does provide a clear picture. Young people in the rest of the world have gone backwards, not just since the Global Financial Crisis but for over a decade. The angers and frustrations expressed have been built up over a long period of time and are directly linked to falling standards of living.

My view is that the radicalisation that has occurred elsewhere will happen but hasn’t yet. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with politics. Young people are particularly concerned about the future, whether they will have a permanent job or be able to afford housing. That undercurrent was shown by the reaction to Richard Cooke’s essay on the boomer supremacy. Income growth has slowed since 2010, the affordability housing is a problem as are difficulties with finding decent secure permanent jobs amongst young educated people. The future they were sold is not appearing. The crunch has not happened and there has not been a catalyst.

Our electoral system, buttressed by preferential and compulsory voting as well as single member electorates, helps to cover up the extent of disengagement and disenchantment. There are anti-system votes for minor parties and support for politicians that seem to buck it but not a systematic challenge. An economic crisis may be what pushes people over the edge. If we do face a full-blown economic crisis, we may see that undercurrent turn into popular anger against a system that represents the state to the people rather than representing social bases.

If does happen here, however, there is no guarantee that it will come through the Labor Party or even the Greens. The closed nature of our parties makes it difficult for that surge to go through any existing well-established party. Furthermore, both Sanders and Corbyn have also been longstanding figures, there is no equivalent in any existing party that could play a similar role.

A new political formation will not be the immediate response. The emergence of social movements and its transmission into politics takes time. It is not immediate. Podemos, Corbyn, SYRIZA, Sanders, the HDP in Turkey, the New Power Party in Taiwan, none of appeared immediately. Arguably it was a defeat on the streets and realisation that they needed to take state power that compelled them to form political parties. It is similar to the decision made by Australian unions in the 1890s after the Maritime Strike. Their success also took years, not months and only gained considerable strength after they seemed like viable vehicles.

If this politicisation does emerge in Australia, it is unclear that it will benefit the Left. The reaction against establishment politics in many parts of Europe have not benefitted the Left but a reactionary Right, particularly in Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. The anti-establishment mood has not taken a left versus right stance but rather a people versus the elites/oligarchs/cartels.

Could we see something more like Trump here? A populist who denounces the corrupt elite but supports public spending is quite possible as Australia has not been immune to those outbursts of right-wing populism – One Nation and Clive Palmer being two notable recent examples. It is hard to predict because national factors play a huge role in how anti-system energies are channelled and barriers to entry are much higher here than elsewhere. Events and the response of strong personalities will play a big role in what happens.

Whatever does occur, it won’t be the same as North America or Western Europe. There is no guarantee that the established Left or the Right will benefit from anti-system energies. We won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders because our recent experience has been considerably different but like elsewhere a people versus oligarchic elites narrative is likely to dominate.