THE last sitting day before the winter recess was a charged time in Parliament House. The day before, the House of Representatives had passed Rob Oakeshott’s attempt at a compromise bill on asylum seekers by a bare majority, and many MPs had revealed deep personal conflicts during their contributions to the debate. While I was in the building the arguments were being ritually repeated in the Senate, despite the lack of any prospect of success. At one point during the day, as I was sitting in the small cafe frequented by those who work in the building, a group of five MPs – three independents, one Liberal, one Labor – came down for coffee and an attempt to resurrect a final compromise.
Their bid failed, but seeing the five of them together – politely deferring over who would pay for coffee while juggling with mobile phones and iPads – was a reminder that not all decisions are made by the leadership and passed down the line to unthinking supporters. Journalists and political scientists pay too little attention to the ways in which backbench MPs and senators can affect party policies and outcomes, and how they have the potential to do more.
In fact, one of the worst aspects of politics at the moment is that the relentless concentration on leaders means that we know remarkably little about backbenchers. A few MPs become recognisable figures, usually for some superficial characteristic – Wyatt Roy for his youth; John Alexander for his tennis career; Craig Thomson because of fraud allegations. But the great bulk of the 150 members of the House of Representatives, along with most of the seventy-six senators, are generally seen as ground troops to be deployed in the battles between their leaders, and when we see them speaking in our occasional glimpses of parliament it’s generally to two or three other members in an otherwise empty chamber.
I spent that last day of the autumn session talking to several lower-house Labor backbenchers and watching the activity in the chambers and in the corridors. I sought out a small group of members young enough, and in safe enough seats, to be future leaders of the party, whether or not it retains office next year. I sought out members who would counteract the simple picture that all Labor members are without life experience or careers outside the party and union movement.
For all the emphasis on party machines and the front bench, it is to the newer and younger members of parliament that we should look for a sense of potential political futures. Ultimately, the direction of any political party depends on its parliamentarians, and we know far too little about their backgrounds, ideas, values and priorities. Yet it is here that party differences become clearest. A few politicians might seem as if they could be at home on either side of the floor, but this is usually because they are out of step with the prevailing mood in their party.
To look down on the House of Representatives from the galleries is to recognise that the two major parties represent different trends in Australian society. Of course there are Liberals with working-class backgrounds and empathy for the dispossessed; I think of Warren Entsch, the Liberal whip, who is a genuinely decent man with great empathy for both Indigenous and gay Australians but who doesn’t seek to apply that approach to broader social forces. Many Liberals are a bit like Ronald Reagan: decent human beings whose policies can accentuate the divisions and inequalities that they deplore when they encounter the individuals who experience them.
I am not saying that Labor MPs are somehow better human beings, or less driven by political calculus than their opponents, though few of them can match Sophie Mirabella or Eric Abetz for the sheer unattractiveness of their political personae. But even those who are driven by short-term ambition and parochial concerns share a belief that Labor exists to build a better society. That simple message too often gets lost in the daily spin and the scripted messages from the PM’s office.
Politics is tribal, and some of our current politicians, such as the Ferguson brothers, come from longstanding Labor families. Most politicians inherit their political allegiances, even if they become active in ways unavailable to their parents. Many now move in what seem like uninterrupted journeys from university Labor clubs to working for unions or parliamentarians to preselection, never joining a workforce that is not in some way linked to the party.
But this is already to oversimplify: someone like Laura Smyth, who holds the marginal outer-suburban seat of La Trobe in Melbourne, came up through the National Union of Students, but has also worked as a corporate lawyer and in a nursing home. (She will be known to TV news viewers as one of the two women who sit strategically behind the prime minister in the House.) Stephen Jones, from the south coast of New South Wales, worked as a youth advocate before being employed by the Community and Public Sector Union.
THE three members I spent time with were all well under fifty and from different sections of the party and different backgrounds. (I believe two of the three were Rudd supporters in the last ballot, but our conversations carefully skirted current leadership controversies.) Melissa Parke, who replaced Carmen Lawrence in the seat of Fremantle, and Andrew Leigh, who replaced Bob McMullan in the ACT seat of Fraser, represent areas with a strong Green vote – almost 20 per cent in both cases. Ed Husic, who represents the outer-suburban Sydney seat of Chifley, won an absolute majority on first preferences in 2010, with a Green vote of around 8 per cent. On some issues both Leigh and Parke are far closer to the Greens than one might expect.
Even international lawyer Melissa Parke comes from a Labor background. Unusually, given that they were orchard farmers in Donnybrook in southwest Western Australia, her family supported Labor and had an interest in the environment and social justice, especially for Aboriginal people. “My great uncle George Parke stood for the Labor Party in the early 1920s in Busselton and only lost (according to family lore, don’t know how accurate it is!) because of gerry-mandering that saw the sleeper-cutters excluded from the electorate,” she told me. “I still recall my parents’ deep shock at the time of the Whitlam dismissal. As a young lawyer I came to appreciate for myself the magnitude of the legal and social reforms achieved under the Whitlam government.”
Parke had a distinguished career in international law, working for the United Nations for ten years in Kosovo, Lebanon and Gaza before returning to Australia. Andrew Leigh, after working in law and policy, became one of the youngest professors of economics at the Australian National University, and is the author of several books including Disconnected, an exploration of Australia’s fraying social cohesion. Superficially Husic seems far more in the predictable Labor mould; he grew up in Blacktown, was one of the first students at the University of Western Sydney, and spent most of his working life in the union movement. But Husic is of Bosnian origin and the first MP to be sworn in on a Koran. During his first attempt to enter parliament there was a whispering campaign against him because of his religious background.
Labor, says Andrew Leigh, is the party of markets and multiculturalism. Leigh is, of course, an economist, so he qualifies this with an acceptance of the need to mitigate the impact of markets, and recognises the central role of government as regulator. Rather as Wayne Swan has tried to bring inequality back into Labor discourse, Leigh has spoken about the widening income gaps in Australia and obstacles to social mobility; but many other Labor MPs are too easily scared by the bogus rhetoric of “class envy” that is used to respond to any attempt to seriously discuss growing gaps in wealth and income.
The Rudd–Gillard government has not only been a good economic manager, it has also sought to slow rising inequality by cutting back on the perks our taxation system provides to those with wealth. Markets often fail to help the worst-off, and Labor’s disappointing record of support for the unemployed and single parents suggests that the emphasis on “working families” is blinding the party to these shortcomings. The current nostalgia for the Hawke–Keating days too often forgets the role of Brian Howe, who held a series of social policy portfolios during that period and played a major role in ensuring that market reforms were mitigated by assistance to the worst-off.
Push them, and most Labor members will call themselves social democrats, though this is not a term they are likely to volunteer. But the emphasis on diversity, and a keen interest in building stronger links to Asia, is strong. I mentioned Leigh’s comment to Husic, who spoke enthusiastically about the extraordinary ethnic mix in his electorate, including significant Indigenous, Filipino and Pacific groups. He described Tongan parents in his electorate clubbing together to help with their kids’ homework.
The asylum seeker debate weighed heavily on everyone that day: Husic showed me photos he had taken when he was part of a delegation investigating the drownings off Christmas Island last year; Leigh came close to tears in speaking of a refugee family known to both of us.
Emotion can come easily to politicians, but what is interesting are the passions that come through when the discussion turns to issues that aren’t under intense political scrutiny on a particular day. Melissa Parke spoke of her concern about gene patents and animal welfare, for instance – she was one of the leaders in the revulsion against the live-cattle trade – and Ed Husic spoke of the problems of young unemployed and under-educated people in ways that echoed the prime minister’s passion for education.
A FEW weeks ago, a visiting Harvard sociologist, originally from Australia, commented that if any other Western government could match the achieve-ments of the Rudd–Gillard government it would be unbeatable in the opinion polls. Why is there such antipathy to this government, he asked, and we talked about the predictable factors: the continuing leadership battles, the intense negativity of the opposition, the rise of the Greens, the twenty-four-hour news cycle.
We have been here before: there was a period after the collapse of the Whitlam government when people spoke of the demise of Labor, and there was a corresponding moment during the Hawke years when similar questions were asked about the Liberals. “Why does he bother?” the Bulletin asked of the opposition leader at that time, John Howard, and that’s a question many would now put to Julia Gillard.
But in neither case was a governing party seen as dying or, as a recent article in the Drum put it, in “condition terminal.” Are we experiencing a long-term shift in party allegiance that will see Labor inexorably decline, or another swing in public opinion that will, like previous swings, eventually favour Labor again?
Recently the Glebe branch of the Labor Party, John Faulkner’s local branch, collapsed for lack of members. Glebe is part of the state seat of Balmain – once Labor heartland, now held by the Greens – and the birthplace of NSW Labor. Like Adam Bandt’s federal seat of Melbourne, it is the sort of inner-city, gentrified electorate where Labor faces real challenges from the Greens (although Melbourne also has a very significant stock of public housing). But Labor is also losing its other original base, the outback seats centred on mining towns like Mt Isa, Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie, all of which are now held federally by conservatives.
The new Labor heartland is in the poorer working-class suburbs, where traditional industrial workers are declining and new “aspirational” voters, often self-employed tradesmen and small-businesswomen, are an important element. Such seats often overlap significantly with non-Anglo immigrant groups, which means that class and ethnicity intersect in more complex ways than the older picture of a class-based voting divide suggests. While Labor’s base remains the union movement, unions now cover less than 20 per cent of the workforce, an extraordinary drop over the past two decades.
In the world of expanding suburbia, different sorts of employment, and increasing reliance on the internet, the old model of mass parties, with parliamentarians subject to the direction of their members, is increasingly outmoded. Like the churches and unions, political parties provide a sense of belonging to fewer and fewer people. This doesn’t mean parties are finished, but it does mean that they will need to develop quite new organisational structures.
For many of us who grew up as gut Labor voters the ties seem increasingly fragile. I recall the anxiety I felt going into the Tampa election of 2001, when Kim Beazley’s apparent capitulation on asylum seekers seemed to make the Greens the only moral alternative. Later, other natural Labor voters drifted towards the Liberals, disgusted by what they saw as control by backroom number-crunchers. The lingering dislike of Julia Gillard is due in large part to the perception that she was put in power by the machine men, rather than having received, like Keating (or indeed Abbott), a genuine caucus endorsement.
With Labor trailing badly in the polls, the undertakers are circling the corpse, usually with the refrain that the party no longer stands for anything. “The vast majority of the population either do not know what the ALP stands for or no longer believe that the party will deliver on the principles for which they once believed it stood,” the former NSW premier Kristina Keneally said after Labor’s massive loss in the state election. But the problem may well be that Labor is too timid to assert the principles that Keating invoked in speaking of “the true believers.”
As a result of all these factors, internal debate within the Labor Party is fierce. But two things are striking: the concentration on internal party structures and the sheer maleness of the conversation. The “wise men” appointed to consider the future of Labor after the last elections were precisely that – men. And with the exception of Kristina Keneally, virtually all the public discussion about Labor’s future has been among men. Thus, Nick Dyrenfurth and Tim Soutphommasane’s book All That’s Left, published by New South in 2010, has ten contributors, only one of whom (Larissa Behrendt on Indigenous issues) is a woman. And in his book Looking for the Light on the Hill (Scribe, 2011), Troy Bramston thanks Labor figures “from all sections of the party,” twenty-one in all, of whom two are women.
There is something here that the French might term a décalage: Labor today is not only led by a woman, but some of its most impressive ministers – Nicola Roxon, Penny Wong, Jenny Macklin, Tanya Plibersek – are women. Yet the eager young Turks who would remake the party continue to write as if the party were a frat house.
Bramston, like the wise men, worries a lot about party organisation, which is not so much a concern for Dyrenfurth and Soutphommasane. None of them questions the extent to which party discipline might itself be a major problem for Labor, and whether the rise of minor parties and independents might not suggest that the best candidates are dissuaded from entering politics by the rules of party loyalty.
At the moment this discipline is, ironically, more likely to be an impediment for Liberals, despite their claim to stand for freedom of conscience against the iron rules of Labor majoritarianism. The ultimate irony is that it is the Liberals, not Labor, who have imposed party discipline on the same-sex marriage issue, even though they have historically upheld freedom of conscience. On the question of asylum seekers all sides felt able to express doubts and ambivalence, even if in the end no members were prepared to cross the floor.
There are something like 35,000 members of the Labor Party across the country, most of whom are largely inactive except perhaps when they’re handing out how-to-vote cards on election day. Rather than changing party rules to give them greater power and rethinking the role of the trade unions within the party, the best chance of renewing Labor lies with its parliamentarians, who have both the authority and the connection with their constituents to take the lead. The one real change that might restore genuine interest in party membership would be to adopt the British practice of the membership’s electing its parliamentary leader, a proposal now being discussed in the NSW branch.
I LEFT Parliament House feeling that Labor needs to make far better use of its MPs, who appear to be managed from head office as if they were recalcitrant teenagers. We need more leadership from individual members when they feel passionate about issues, rather than seeing them nodding in slow motion as a background to prime ministerial statements.
The real problem with Labor is one of timidity: there seems to be reluctance to talk about the genuine improvements this government has achieved. But it is no longer sufficient to assert that Labor stands for greater equality or social justice; in practice few people will disagree with those goals, but they have less traction than the constant emphasis on individual achievement and instant gratification. When Tony Abbott speaks of “great big new taxes” he is playing to a growing belief that government is wasteful and does little for us. Labor needs to recreate an understanding that governments exist to provide essential services that not even the rich can provide for themselves.
Major cultural shifts, pushed by the media and a certain Americanisation of our political discourse, have reduced political debate to the question of what’s in it for me. Labor once knew that the answer was a national story of common purpose from which we all benefit. Today it finds itself wedged between the Greens, who project a far clearer moral purpose, and the Liberals, who promise a fairyland of lower taxes without any cuts in services. The response requires a convincing narrative about how Labor can lead the nation in ways that recognise both individual aspirations and national cohesion. This demands more than a constant emphasis on growth, and also a recognition that national development is more than economic figures.
None of the parliamentarians I spoke to had very convincing explanations about why Labor’s vote has dropped so precipitously, nor did we have time to fully explore solutions. Following the failure to win any compromise on asylum seekers, some within the Labor machine have turned on the Greens, and are demanding Labor deny them preferences. The rhetoric of the NSW state secretary, Sam Dastyari, suggests – misleadingly – that Christine Milne, not Tony Abbott, is the real threat to Labor’s re-election.
Labor certainly needs to counter views as distorted as the Australian’s reference to “its partners in minority government.” (Do their editors actually know what a “minority government” is?) But it is hard to believe that intemperate attacks on people who are sympathetic to many Green positions, a significant number of whom are its own supporters, will regain many votes. If more power and independence for individual MPs would take away the power of the hacks and haters who run the party machinery, then this would help restore some credibility to Labor. •
Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.