Federal Politics


Faulkner just a party pooper?

The best practical argument against the reforms Senator John Faulkner is proposing for the ALP is that the party would be almost unrecognisable after them, with many of those who presently pull the strings being deprived of their power. How could the party manage without them?

The best practical argument for the reforms is that a good many of the scallywags, crooks, rorters and urgers who exercise great power in the party, and a good many of the timeservers who exist only to do their will, would be deprived of power. How could the party manage without them?

Fairly badly, is probably the answer to both questions. Labor organisationally is at a low ebb. Australia-wide its paid-up membership is about the same as Canberra's Hellenic Club, and the number of involved and committed members, willing and able to take a part in its governance, is probably only slightly greater. The average age of members is over 50.

Reforms focused on increasing popular participation in the party, involving members in policy formulation and ideas, and restoring to them - and away from paid professionals - the practical control over preselections, elections and party government, may prove an impossibly idealistic idea in a party pretty much drained of enthusiasm and ideals - and energy.

Most of the time the only energy in evidence in the party is a function of ambitions of young men and women of the middle classes injecting themselves into paid jobs in unions, the party, or in ministerial offices, so that they can, in due course, provided they behave themselves to the satisfaction of their seniors, exercise power in their own right.

Any enthusiasm for reform on the part of the existing party organisation is largely contrived. The NSW party secretary, Sam Dastyari, for example, is getting a bit of a name for himself as one who is all in favour of reform, particularly with gimmicks about primaries in carefully selected seats.


One would be unwise to jump on his bandwagon. He followed Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib in further developing the NSW Labor Right model, pioneered by Graham Richardson and co, and his first big political hit, a few years ago, was to engineer a coup on the NSW Labor premier so that Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi could be given their rightful place in cabinet.

Obeid, who is before the Independent Commission Against Corruption, on allegations of corrupt dealings with coal leases, controlled the ruling faction in the NSW Right, and in that sense called all the shots in Labor NSW. Thanks to precaucusing with the capacity to bind members, his control was of what John Faulkner called on Tuesday the Russian doll variety. Here ''a Russian doll of nested caucuses sees a tiny minority of MPs exercising a controlling interest over the majority''.

In the same ICAC spotlight is former mining minister Ian Macdonald, accused of opening land for coalmining against advice, giving inside information about his plans to an array of mates, including Obeid, and, possibly, of arranging the tender in such a way as to favour mates. Macdonald was, at one time, a member of the NSW Left, which, this week, apologised to the people of NSW for ever having him on their strength.

If Dastyari did not see how Obeid and others were rorting the system in their own interest, he is an idiot who should not be guiding the party's fortunes, particularly at this difficult time. If he had any idea of how corrupt the party had become - and 70 per cent of the NSW electorate did - the party should force him out for failing to stand up for the interests of the working people of NSW.

One might think that Labor, particularly in NSW, had fallen to a low ebb, and might be receptive to reforming ideas. Alas, that is often particularly the time when political parties are most resistant.

While a party is triumphant and in charge, everyone wants to get involved. A party in government has jobs and patronage to offer, and not only to ambitious suits on the make, but to trade union officials, friends,

relations and cronies of ministers, research and program grants to friendly faculties, think tanks and trade unions. Decisions - even due process ones - made by ministers can be worth millions, so there are always hundreds hanging around to flatter and influence anyone involved. Many such people join the party, and, of course, contribute handsomely to party fund-raising.

By contrast a party thrown on to the heap by voters has only staunch friends. Greeters and flatterers melt away, as do donations. Members become even more disconsolate, particularly when they know better than most how much the party has richly deserved its defeat. All but the most loyal drift away. Yet the few who remain become more powerful, if over fewer things - and the parties often become more sclerotic, not more open to ideas, when only a hard core remains. Even some of those who intellectually admit a deep need for change can find a million reasons why it should be delayed. There are fears for the party's morale, a belief that the leader, or new leader, needs unity, instead of inquests, brawls, finger-pointing and blame-allocation, and a fear that ''exposing the party's dirty laundry'' can benefit only the other side. If a party is dependent on independents, or a leader on the caucus votes of NSW Right members controlled by the old system, one can always find a pragmatic reason for doing nothing.

Julia Gillard has never manifested any enthusiasm whatever for significant party reform. Indeed she is its enemy. She was ever, personally, a hard player in the factional system. Her ascent to the prime ministership was achieved by dealing with essentially faceless factional leaders, not with the party as a whole. No one knows better than her that her fate is entirely in the hands of the factional chiefs of the Right. The changes made at the last national ALP conference were essentially cosmetic.

Kevin Rudd was ever an outsider to the party organisation and factions - a reason he is now an ex-prime minister. He now pretends a great desire for reform, but he blocked anything other than public relations changes when he was in charge, and, indeed, attempted clumsily to manipulate the system as it was, to impose his people in Labor seats.

Simon Crean and Bill Hayden caused modest reforms, if ones that did not seriously affect the disproportionate power of trade union chieftains on the party organisation. (The objection to that power is not to a loud trade union voice, but to the assumption that the leader of a trade union has the right to speak for and ''vote'' every single member of his union, as though they had met and cast their votes behind a particular proposition.)

Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Kim Beazley were creatures of the faction system, and never had any interest in reform. One has to go back to Gough Whitlam, and the late 1960s, to find a party reorganising itself for its times, and consciously using its membership base to debate and test ideas, and developing a serious apprenticeship system for its leaders of tomorrow. The first Hawke cabinet - perhaps the best ministry person for person Australia has known - were largely shaped and honed by the party reforms of the 1960s.

Faulkner's reforms seek to restore the significance of membership. He thinks his political party - and the others - should meet minimum standards of transparency and accountability, should have rules that are enforceable (for that matter before the courts), and that matters of party organisation, membership and administration and machinery be taken out of the hands of a factional system and put under the control of an appeals tribunal comprised of independent ethical people independent of factions. As he points out, a fundamental part of the way the party has been corrupted by its factional system lies in the way that party bodies empowered to resolve disputes have been elected along factional lines, and, inevitably, rule in line with factional self interest.

Australian political parties these days receive millions of dollars from taxpayers, in line with the voting support they get at state and federal elections. That is one of many reasons why the public has an interest in ensuring that political parties (like trade unions, or corporations or other entities) operate according to law, meet minimum standards of internal democracy, transparency of operations, and accountability to members. It is also a reason for insisting that such bodies must disclose other sources of income, and, perhaps, why there can be prohibitions against particular sizes of, or sources of, donations.

Politicians of whatever stripe have never had much difficulty in explaining why it is necessary that trade unions, or corporations, trusts and other voluntary entities should be transparent and accountable. Some are preparing, now, for similar impositions on other voluntary associations such as the churches - again a quite reasonable proposition given the money such bodies receive from the state. The purpose of such controls is not to determine the objects, beliefs or practices, of any such bodies so much as to require clear lines of control, measures of redress, and so on.

Faulkner would no doubt argue that Labor's problems are so dire that fundamental reform is a matter of survival, not choice. He has been pointing out for years that Labor has ceased to inspire and attract young people, or to project any sense of itself. This is a result of both of the lack of base principle when the party is in power, and an almost conscious rejection of any sort of emotional or moral base on matters such as assistance for those who are badly off. The Greens, in particular, have attracted the energy and idealism of many of those who were once in the engine room of Labor.

Moreover the stench of party corruption hangs over Labor. NSW voters are getting a daily reminder of the wisdom of the decision to hurl the bastards out. A good deal of the mud and slime the opposition is trying to spread on Gillard is intended to remind all of her background in dirty union and party factions. PR won't make that go away.

But if Faulkner is focused on Labor's need to repair its image with voters, it cannot have escaped his mind that reforms imposed by legislation could have serious (and beneficial) impact on the Liberal Party too. It, too, is a party riven by factions and factionalism, and by an attitude on the part of those who have power that it is not to be shared or questioned. There are obvious examples with the struggle between moderates and the right wing in NSW, in the chronic factionalism and endemic disloyalties of South Australia and Western Australia, and with the problems of an over-large majority in the Liberal National Party in Queensland - the latter a new creation which has yet to gel.

That reform would have very powerful - probably invincible enemies - probably makes the point about how urgent the need is.