The darkest side of political life in Australia is not the slanging matches between the major political parties but the gang warfare that is tolerated within them. It does not stop even as a federal election approaches. The gangs are the party factions which continue to be locked in conflict even though it threatens to damage their prospects at the election.
This applies to both sides of major party politics. Events in the two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, demonstrate this quite clearly. While Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, and Anthony Albanese, the Opposition Leader, are steeling themselves for the budget this week and the federal election in May, it is quite remarkable that both are being distracted and embarrassed by their own parties.
This embarrassment has been reported but the bigger picture has not been highlighted enough. These distractions are self-inflicted wounds caused by the business as usual within the parties; the very parties whose members occupy most of the seats within the parliament and produce all the government ministers. The public ought to be outraged.
The NSW branch of the Liberal Party has again been taken over by the federal executive to resolve preselection of candidates for the federal election in nine seats. These seats include marginal and endangered seats, like Eden-Monaro, Greenway, Hughes and Parramatta. A committee of Morrison, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and party president Christine McDiven, will now finalise the preselection using dictatorial powers. As if Morrison and Perrottet did not have more important public duties to perform.
Less than two months out from an election, a large and professional political party has been prevented by internal factional warfare from completing its selection of candidates. The warfare is caused by disputes over the carve up of seats between the left and right factions and sub-factions. One of the major players allegedly causing this disfunction is federal minister Alex Hawke.
This dispute could cost the federal government victory if one or two seats are lost because candidates are not out in the community like their competitors campaigning. That is not a far-fetched scenario. Yet despite that possibility the disputes are yet to be resolved between furiously inflamed factions. Faction members still stir the pot in public.
The Victorian branch of the Labor Party was taken over in 2020 in the wake of revelations of widespread branch stacking by factions. The takeover meant that all candidate preselection, including those for the current federal election, will be undertaken by the federal party rather than brokered by the local factions. This was the background to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the late Senator Kimberley Kitching and the decision by Senator Kim Carr to retire on health grounds. They both risked missing out as the prizes were handed out.
Albanese has been embarrassed by this factional conflict just as the polls indicate a possible Labor victory at the May election. Like Morrison he has more important public duties to perform yet he is left fending off questions by interviewers about internal party affairs. This outbreak of public factional warfare could nullify his current advantage over Morrison and cause Labor to lose, or fail to win, one or two seats. There is nothing far-fetched about this scenario either. The underbelly of the party is unattractive to voters. Self-interest is never a good look.
Factions are like rival street gangs battling over territory and political rewards. These rewards, including parliamentary seats, are considerable. The contest is brutal as the losers are discarded or miss out on advancement. Merit comes second to being a member of the team. Those in opposing factions are regarded as enemies. All this happens while the talent pool is shrinking.
The membership of factions ranges from raw recruits to top leaders. Few are immune from the disease. Careers are built within factions and loyalty is demanded. Aspirants to higher office climb the ranks on the back of factional loyalty. The more the numbers of members diminish, the harder the factional operatives work.
Voters should be concerned about such a culture within our major parties if only because those who emerge from it on both sides must be shaped by it. It is a constant pressure in their daily lives. The internal life of parties, in which political gangsters and bullies are permitted to flourish, cannot be divorced from the contribution of those parties to public life.
Voters should also be concerned if the merit principle comes second to the self-interest of factional leaders and followers. We have a right to expect better.
Not that any voter should be starry-eyed about politics, expecting it to be different from the rest of society. It is naive, for instance, to think that such factions, gang warfare and bullying occur only in the major parties. For a start the internal operations of the smaller parties, the Nationals and the Greens, certainly can be equally toxic. The same is true of the commercial, public service and industrial world, as well as unions, churches, universities, sports and not-for-profit bodies. Many of us have experienced it in our own working lives.
The extent of the toxicity always comes as a shock, nevertheless, when it is revealed. So does the unwillingness of the factions to agree on a temporary internal cease fire when so much is at stake for them and for the country. The factions run the risk of shooting themselves in the foot. The outcome of the election may hang on their misbehaviour.
In budget week, the behind the scenes plotting and conniving will continue unabated on both sides.
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