Friday, August 19, 2011

The Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter

Since attending the launch of Rodney Cavalier's wonderful book Power Crisis I have been a subscriber to the very worthy Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter that he edits.

The rules of subscription prohibit any quotation or attribution of content. I think, however, I would be allowed to note that the August 2011 issue gives a wonderful account of the tribal ritual of the ALP, the "annual" NSW State conference.

The fact that the ritual has changed over the years from a fiery forum in which policy and direction were debated and decided to a manufactured exercise largely staged to reflect a consensus and progress does not make it any the less ritual. As a cultural icon nothing could express more the state of the ALP in NSW than conference.

Due in no small part to my on again/off again relationship with the ALP I only ever attended two State conferences, both in the last decade. In my earlier incarnation I reached the position of President of Bennelong FEC and Secretary of (the then Eastwood) SEC without ever formally aligning myself with a faction. Quite simply I found the Right repugnant and too much of the Left impractical.

Reports have appeared elsewhere of the attack mounted by Cavalier at conference on Country Labor. It is a very good example of the symbolic clap-trap in the party, and of the paucity of content that evolves from the view of politics as marketing.

(Note: This is unfair to marketing. In one version of marketing all you do is survey the wants and needs of consumers and then reflect these back to them. A more strategic view is that you delve further into the interests of people to identify wants and needs they don't even express because they don't know how to. Changing the colour of your logo is the first kind. Inventing the iPod and iTunes is the latter. There is nothing particularly wrong with type 2 marketing as politics).

People outside the ALP still think in terms of the factions of "Left" and "Right" as representing some kind of ideological distinction, rather than merely separate strands of patronage. Even more interesting are the divisions within the left itself - as well detailed by Andrew Leigh. A related issue that bubbles through elsewhere is the extent to which the ALP left represents a genuine "socialist" path.

Whatever the basis and structure, the reality is that the two factions combined exercise almost the entire vote. There is one small group - OurALP - trying to change that.

Which brings us again to the question of "reforming" the ALP. This is a topic which - notwithstanding the Watkins/Chisholm and Bracks/Faulkner/Carr reports - still invites disagreement within the party. Primarily because every person who hears the word "change" decides it is a word that describes everyone else in the party - but not them.

So you have some who say it is about leadership (e.g. Paul Howes whose only knowledge of it is how to claim credit for the knifing of a leader that you didn't play a role in), while others talk about the need for policy initiatives to engage the electorate. But at core a failing organisation structure which provides no reason for membership, and the prospect of advancement only for how well you can play the patronage game, cannot deliver these outcomes.

An example of how strange the discussion is is the call by Watkins/Chisholm for better quality candidates but also for less central control. The ten old retired members and three neophytes that constitute the average branch are not going to be able to deliver on that ambition now.

And as I've previously noted the ALP has vigorously embraced all the modern ideas of online tools, different ways of engagement, etc. But at core all of that remains pointless when the major power controls of the party are still in the hands of organisations that represent a decreasing minority of Australia's workers.

For years it has been an ambition of the conservatives to "defund" the ALP by breaking its union ties. They seem to have stopped - because they now realize that union control of the ALP is what keeps it back.

Another theme in all party reviews has been the idea of connecting with other groups. This ignores the sorry history of the party and the influence of external bodies of both right and left seeking to gain control. But it is also a key distinction between the "soft left" and "hard left." The latter are great believers in forming associations with other groups of the left, whereas the soft left believe it is the ALP to which loyalty lies. This distinction can ultimately be applied to the relationship of the ALP to unions.

The Andrew Leigh article cited above attributes to Rodney Cavalier the statement I am in the Left because I’m in the Labor Party. Others in this room are in the Labor Party because they’re in the Left.

That neatly describes the position the party needs to get to. people are in the Labor Party because it is what they represent, not as a vehicle to represent the views they have formed elsewhere.

The ALP has a future - that future requires the recognition that everyone in the party has to change, not just everyone else.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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