JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Labor Party needs to rediscover its reason for being

Date

Nick Dyrenfurth

The party's core purpose has been forgotten amid its bloodless faith in centralised government and markets.

With the Abbott government experiencing severe wobbles in its first year in office, and polls showing that it would be comprehensively defeated if an election were held now, comes the obvious temptation for the other side of politics to play a low-risk, small-target strategy. That would be a serious mistake.

Nothing that has happened since last September’s election defeat obscures the fact that the Australian Labor Party is at a tipping point in its 123-year history. Given the results of state and federal elections since 2011, Labor arguably risks becoming a boutique party that can barely muster a primary vote with a three in front of it. The next 2½ years are shaping up as the most important since Gough Whitlam became opposition leader in 1967. The party must conduct a searching analysis of its organisation, policies, personnel, and critically reflect on its history, whether its most recent past or formative phase.

Which brings us to the party’s official reason for being, a point of contention over the past week, eliciting contributions from Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen. In 1921, Labor adopted a socialist objective which aimed for "the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange". The outcome of a compromise and watered down over the years, the objective was a historic act of folly. Tellingly, it has been observed more in its breach.

The move cut against the grain of early Labor politics in three respects. First, prior to World War One, Labor ideology, call it socialism if you like, was always more a set of values, or an ethical vision, than a doctrinaire blueprint for government. Second, it was a popular ideology: Labor was the first party of its kind to form government in the world. Third, by elevating the principle of state ownership above all else, Labor arguably lost the ability to talk in simple human terms about its mission.

The socialist objective must now be tossed into the ashtray of history. It is simply irrelevant to the lives of modern Australians. In 1921 let alone 2014, Labor’s objective should not explain what the state ought to own, or what restrictions are to be placed on markets, but explain why the party was put on this earth: to ensure that all Australians are able to live long, fulfilling lives rich in meaning, living in a good society. This is Labor’s true "social"-ist objective.

Re-engaging with that simple, core purpose means doing some hard thinking about where Labor has been and is heading. As I argued on these pages last December, it means coming to terms with Labor’s "1983 and all that" moment, whereby the Hawke and Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and `90s have become some kind of Platonic ideal. This school of Labor history is a repressive force in two ways – one, the party in government struggles to live up to those herculean standards and, second, an overweening deference to that era blocks the path to philosophical and policy renewal. In any case, the mobile-phone-free, internet-free 1983 is no longer an entirely useful guide to our world. Simplistically reviving that legacy is like asking Australians to ditch their GPS navigators and return to physical street directories. But pulling out the political Melway is not going to cut it.

Labor also needs to be mature enough to speak openly about the negative aspects of that era. In the context of a debate about the party’s objective, Labor’s governing philosophy is particularly worth examining. Beginning with the ascent of Whitlam in the late-1960s, hastening under Hawke-Keating, and reaching its apotheosis during the Rudd-Gillard era, Labor has come to place too much faith in the ability of centralised government and markets to solve all of society’s problems, embracing a bloodless form of statist liberalism at odds with its core purpose.

The way forward requires a little historical imagination. Labor tradition has always been concerned with what the party wanted to conserve and protect rather than merely change. This much was suggested by the famous report of the NSW Labor Defence Committee issued in 1890. Only by forming a Labor Party, it announced, "can we begin to restore to the people the land of which they have been plundered, to absorb the monopolies which society at large has helped to create, and to ensure to every man, by the opportunity of fairly remunerated labour, a share in those things that make life worth living".

If you excuse the gendered language, it’s worth pausing over the last ten words. That’s Labor’s enduring mission. It’s not as famous as Ben Chifley’s iconic "Light on the Hill" phrase, coined in 1949, although it should be. It is also an excellent starting place for revising Labor’s objective, and a reminder that Labor has never been a straightforwardly "progressive" party, at least by the current meaning of the term. Standing against the commodification of people and place, and preserving time-honoured institutions and traditions, is both progressive and conservative, and an inherently Labor ideal.

The growing need for Labor to embrace its inner conservative seems timely given the radical prescriptions of the recently released Commission of Audit. This is to say nothing of the growing philosophical influence upon the Liberal Party of big "C" conservativism and libertarianism, ideas antithetical to the Australian way. Above all, Labor’s prospects rest with its ability to talk meaningfully about "those things that make life worth living". A good place to start that conversation with Australians is by revising its plainly archaic objective.

Nick Dyrenfurth is the author of several books on Australian politics and history, and recently worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter. This is an edited version of his address to the NSW Fabian Society’s debate "What is Labor’s Objective"’ with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen and ALP national president Jenny McAllister held on Tuesday evening.

108 comments so far

  • Well said. Unless Labor re-invents itself we are stuck with the wreckers in the LNP

    Commenter
    Ronald
    Location
    Bondi Junction
    Date and time
    May 08, 2014, 6:52AM
    • + 1 Ronald + 1. No. 1. They need to differentiate from the Greens. 2. They need to represent the majority. 3. They need to look back at the Hawke-Keating years, to how far they have fell.

      Commenter
      Kingstondude
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 8:16AM
    • Actually, they just have to promise to clean up the mess that the Liberals are leaving.

      Look at what the Liberals are doing to the NBN, for example. It's an outrageous waste of money for an inferior system that costs the same as the Labor NBN, will be obsolete by the time it is installed and will need a significant upgrade costing probably another $30 billion dollars. It puts the country back 20 years, and for what? So they can get Rupert's vote?

      Commenter
      Tone
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 9:06AM
    • Agreed. If the ALP can't find a narrative in the face of the blatant neo-liberalist madness of the LNP, they may as well give up.

      Shorten needs to give up on his tricky soundbites (if I hear 'broken promises and twisted priorities' one more time....) and actually start to communicate. Stop running such a reactionary media strategy and get on the front foot - call pressers to explain what the LNP are doing and how Labor would do it differently (the LNP in opposition proved that you don't need actual policies, just statements of intent). And use the whole shadow cabinet (except Joel Fitzgibbon, who should really be in the Liberal party) - Tony Burke and Tanya Plibesek are two of the best communicators they have.

      Sadly, Bill was one of their best before he got the leadership and became a walking (unconvincing) soundbite. He should tell his media manager to take a couple of weeks off and try speaking in his own words again.

      Commenter
      in the land of the little kings
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 9:27AM
    • In these columns I have often predicted the phase-out of the ALP to 3rd party status and they are too blind to see why, therefore too blind to fix it. Had I not been with the Palmer United Party, I know ways to resurrect the ALP very fast, but that would have required big changes and the changes to be accepted by all. However, it is best I not give those secrets away. I used to be an ALP member, before leaving I wrote to every minister saying why they are about to die out, and it all happened, and I even have an elected ALP state Govt cousin. The ALP state and federally are tarred with the exact same faults, the right fixes will mend both, but they have nobody smart enough to realise the true problems.

      Commenter
      Brian Woods
      Location
      Glenroy
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 10:58AM
    • @ Tone,

      there is only one problem with your argument of the LNP's (woefully inadequate) version of the NBN as opposed to Labor's. Labor's NBN was never going to be rolled out country-wide. Even well before the election, people I know in my electorate were asking when they would be able to connect to Labor's NBN, and were being not "not in the foreseeable future".

      This is where one of Labor's bigger problems lie - they can think up the schemes that will benefit the country, but their ability to action those schemes in a timely and apt fashion almost always falls flat and is as pathetic as Abbott's defence of his precious paid maternity leave.

      Commenter
      blu
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 12:00PM
    • I think right wing commentators would love the ALP to die out. But the reality is that Labor still have compassion and are still providing a more progressive, egalitarian and equitable agenda. They only need to wait until people wise up to the fact that the Liberals provide for the mega-rich and only breadcrumbs for the rest, and Labor will bounce back.

      Commenter
      Jennifer
      Location
      Carlton
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 12:29PM
    • Very well put. Australians don't realise how good they have it and it is about to be wrecked. A genuine dialogue about what type of society we want to be - rather than this tiresome nit-picking about NBN etc is the place to start. Once you have the big picture sorted all the nitty gritty policy decisions become much easier. If we want a society "where life is worth living" then Labor would not object to such things as the small levy on the wealthy, they should embrace it. And proposing the break up of the banking oligopoly and various duopolies sucking the life out of our economy. It's not that hard - get some vision! The major problem for Labor right now: Shorten.

      Commenter
      luke r
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 4:29PM
    • Yeah, I hear all this yada yada blah blah. After just 7 months, Abbott's women vote is 39%, down 12%

      Gillard left a very strong legacy. Her focus on health, education, the NBN, NDIS, regulation of rorting finance industry, on an on it goes - and you call that "non-Labor"

      Whatever hems smoking, I won't have any. Shorten has an unenviable task, of somehow coaxing people back without using the vicious vitriol of Abbott. He has been quiet, not because he's ineffectual, but because the best policy against Abbott, is to let the viciousness run. So far, Abbott has been all talk - he's been stopped in the Senate, but Abbott as yet to get any traction with anything - except ludicrous thought farts like knighthoods, extra taxes, broken promises and ultra-vicious business cronies breathing Feudal Australia, like the dragons and round table fantasy of Abbott.

      Abbott is doing more damage to himself. The memory of Labor is fading. People are remembering the good bits, actually wondering why they tossed Gillard out - especially the women voters. Right now, the entire nation is wondering whether the "budget emergency" actually exists, because Abbott is throwing money into rubbish audits, crappy commissions, and pointless "Road to Nowhere".

      Look, if Abbott was surging ahead, gaining popularity, innovating, reforming, etc etc, then I'd agree - Labor isn't effective. But Abbott is doing none of those things. He's plummeting, freefall, screaming down toward oblivion.

      There will be a New Age of Australian politics once Abbott is gone. The vicious, gutter brawling lies of Abbott, his unChristian behavior, especially as he heads out the door, will leave a dark stain that no-one will feel proud of.

      Go, Abbott, go. In the most humiliating way possible, thanks.

      Commenter
      Axis
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 5:19PM
    • Labor should be having a field day with the current theatre that is being played out. I simply cannot understand why we do not see more firece reaction from them as the Coaltion dishes out its endless list of painful proposed cut backs. The public deserve better. They deserve an agressive opposition to represent the greater anger among the community and the pain such policy will inflict. Much of what the government is doing is immoral and (with regard to Asylum Seekers for example) borderline criminal. Where is the protest? Shorten is not the man Labor needs at this critical point in time. He simply has no bite. Tanya Plibesek would do a far better job of bringing Tony Abbott into account. We are witnessing so much missed opportunity.

      Commenter
      Milo
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 08, 2014, 5:38PM

More comments

Make a comment

You are logged in as [Logout]

All information entered below may be published.

Error: Please enter your screen name.

Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

Error: Please enter your comment.

Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

Post to

You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

Thank you

Your comment has been submitted for approval.

Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

Featured advertisers