A return to robust internal debate and a party-first mentality would be a good start for a Labor Party in decline.
WHEN veteran New South Wales Labor senator, John Faulkner, warned that his party had no future unless it was prepared to adopt a culture of inclusiveness, it was more than just the idle thoughts of a long-serving MP.
Senator Faulkner has been intimately involved with the Labor Party for more than 30 years, first as a NSW branch assistant secretary, and then in federal parliament, where he has been Labor Senate leader and a senior minister.
Many Labor supporters might be tempted to think he has been spurred on by the Liberal Party’s convincing win in NSW, the state that believes it’s ‘where the action is’.
But it could just as easily be applied to Labor in Western Australia. After a surprise defeat in the 2008 WA election, the party’s local fortunes have been on the slide, as evidenced by subsequent election results and opinion polls.
First there was the loss of the state seat of Fremantle after the early retirement of former health minister and attorney-general, Jim McGinty. It was a rude shock to lose Fremantle, which Labor had considered impregnable.
Then there was last year’s federal election. The Liberals and Nationals won 12 of the state’s 15 federal seats; and Labor holds only four of the 12 Senate positions. In other words, just seven of the state’s 27 federal MPs are from Labor.
And just how broadly representative of Labor’s traditional support base are they? Two of the senators are former union officials, another was state secretary of the party, and the fourth a gay activist.
In the case of the lower house, Defence Minister Stephen Smith (Perth) is a former state ALP secretary and adviser to Paul Keating, Special Minister of State Gary Gray (Brand) is a former national ALP secretary and Woodside executive, and Melissa Parke, in Fremantle, had been based in New York as a United Nations lawyer.
It’s a far cry from the day when Labor senators at one stage included: a former lawyer (John Wheeldon, who became minister for social security in 1975); a farmer (Peter Walsh from Doodlakine, who served as the Hawke government’s finance minister); and a consumer advocate (Ruth Coleman). Also in 1975, former pharmacist Joe Berinson was member for Perth and (briefly) minister for the environment.
Senator Faulkner, who was delivering the Neville Wran Lecture, makes the criticism that ordinary Labor branch members have drifted away because they have no meaningful role.
In no electorate could that be better illustrated than Fremantle. Members have virtually been ignored in the candidate selection process for years. When long-term MP Kim Beazley (senior) retired after Malcolm Fraser called the early 1977 election, Labor’s endorsement was handed to John Dawkins, who had already been earmarked for another – less safe – seat. When Mr Dawkins quit in early 1994, the endorsement was handed to Carmen Lawrence. And when she bowed out in 2007, Ms Parke got the nod from the powerbrokers.
This point in no way questions the quality or effectiveness of the MPs, but none came from Fremantle itself. They were all effectively imposed. So why should officials be surprised when grassroots support in Fremantle dwindles, the Greens win the state seat, and Ms Parke has to emphasise her green credentials – such as over live shipments – to shore up her position?
One former Labor member told ABC Radio that Ms Parke had joined a university branch of the party. But unless you were the son or daughter of a Labor MP, no-one listened to you. And the only correspondence she got was for fundraisers such as quiz nights and dinners.
Senator Faulkner was also critical of the stifling of policy debate within party forums.
That wasn’t a problem at the fortnightly WA state executive meetings in the mid 1970s. There were some sizzling debates involving luminaries such as Mr Berinson – who had been a champion debater – Brian Burke and Kim Beazley junior, although they were invariably on the losing side.
One night, though, was different. That was when Kim Beazley (snr) was facing a censure motion for some disparaging remarks he had made about homosexuals. Then senator Wheeldon – who had not been a natural ideological ally of Mr Beazley’s – had agreed to speak in his defence but had not arrived when the debate started. Filibustering occurred until he showed up. Then he let fly in a vitriolic attack on the initiators of the motion and in defence of his federal colleague who was an MP for 32 years. The meeting agreed to move on to the next item without a vote.
It was the sort of robust debate the party has avoided in recent years. But it was held out in the open, delegates had their say, and a consensus decision was reached.
That was before Labor factions were formalised and members then had to give their allegiance to a faction first, and the party second. So tenuous are these allegiances that there are plenty of members who have been in all the main factions.
So it has become a very narrow gene pool for MPs at the federal level, and indicative of the party’s union-based powerbrokers preserving the safe spots for their own kind.
Former premier Alan Carpenter tried to break the mould at the state level, with only limited success as it turned out. But change is afoot from what was once considered a most unlikely source.
There are now four state Labor MPs with a military background – at one stage considered the preserve of the Liberals. They are: Victoria Park MP Ben Wyatt, who trained at Duntroon; former Navy lawyer Mark McGowan (Rockingham); Paul Papalia (Warnbro) also ex Navy; and Peter Tinley (Army) who replaced Mr Carpenter in Willagee.
Mr McGowan and Mr Wyatt are considered leadership contenders to eventually replace Eric Ripper. And it’s fair to say that both Mr Papalia and Mr Tinley are still learning the ropes in a career that could not be more different from their previous distinguished service on the front line. Plus, academic lawyer Tony Buti won the by-election for Armadale.
Senator Faulkner also addressed Labor’s leadership, noting that when electoral support sags, it is invariably the leader who is blamed, and sometimes dumped.
Whether that is enough to save Mr Ripper’s job, as state Labor lags in the polls, is a moot point. Certainly he has been less restrained in his comments this year, most recently calling on the federal government’s ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia be limited to one month, rather than the six months proposed.
The senator has given his party a stark choice – reform, or continue to wither. WA Labor can show it has taken up the challenge by promoting robust debate on contentious issues, like the mining and export of uranium, and same-sex marriage, at its state conference later this month.
That would be a start.