26/10/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Labor infighting just ain’t cricket

26/10/2004 - 22:00


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A Recurring Australian political ritual after each Federal and State election is what journalists dub as the haemorrhaging or blood letting, even though our politics, thankfully, are too civilised for anything to actually flow.

A Recurring Australian political ritual after each Federal and State election is what journalists dub as the haemorrhaging or blood letting, even though our politics, thankfully, are too civilised for anything to actually flow.

But who’d want to stop the writing fraternity from colourfully describing the post-election scramble for jobs and promotion over defeated and demoted colleagues.

We know what’s meant – recriminations, accusations, bitter and twisted comments, and, among all that, sometimes, even insightful and constructive observations.

In none of these regards did the October 9 Federal election let us down.

First there were the biting remarks of former State Labor minister and now Cowan MHR, Graham Edwards, about Labor factions elevating duds into top party posts.

For that he was promptly criticised by Kimberley MLA Carol Martin, followed by someone pointing out that Mr Edwards had been associated with former Labor premier Brian Burke and his long-time successful faction.

Then came Michael Costello, former Labor leader Kim Beazley’s chief of staff, a senior Canberra bureaucrat under Labor governments and now a national columnist.

He claimed Opposition leader Mark Latham would have to have a good hard look at his performance.

For that he was promptly criticised by outgoing NSW Labor Senate leader John Faulkner, who reminded Mr Costello that he’d benefited handsomely, over many years, from a series of Labor administrations.

Mr Costello, not coincidentally, was even briefly hired by the Gallop Government to head a review of Western Australia’s public sector, meaning he’s even benefited from WA taxpayers.

But was Mr Costello’s advice so off target?

It’s no secret Mr Latham is deeply infatuated with the complex confounding theories of Clinton-era political strategist and guru, Dick Morris.

Rigid adherence to theorising, with emphasis on difficult-to-comprehend terms like ‘triangulation’ may appeal to Mr Latham, but that’s unlikely to impress Labor MPs if he doesn’t promptly show he’s on top of his job.

And that means, first and foremost, putting pressure on the energised Howard-led conservatives (who may soon control the Senate) and quickly appearing as someone who’s likely to be a winner.

Otherwise Labor will be seen, from within, as having returned to the Evatt-Calwell years.

For anyone who has forgotten that era, it extended from 1951 until 1967, after which Labor waited another six years before narrowly winning the 1972 election – the first since 1949.

Transposing distantly derived theories to Australian conditions isn’t something most Labor MPs are likely to warmly embrace.

One witty Labor insider has already dubbed Morris’s ‘triangulation’ notion as “strangulation”, no doubt referring to what voters did to so many Latham candidates.

There were other less biting comments over Labor’s first somber post-election fortnight.

But these relatively quickly succumbed to calls to cease public criticism and to instead wait until the party had met in Canberra when what was still being called “the train wreck” would be discussed.

However, before that eventuated, one Labor identity called October 9 an aircraft crash: “We’re sifting through the wreckage, looking for the black box”.

Colourfully put.

If and when the black box is examined let’s hope the Labor faithful aren’t deceived into believing there’s just one answer, since there may, in fact, be many.

Mr Edwards, Mr Costello, and many others may well be all correct, meaning the party’s problems may be far broader and serious.

All these issues and suggestions will hopefully be considered in detailed and empirical party position papers, situation reports and behind-closed-doors assessments over the coming months.

But with that said let’s not forget that, after its previous election loss, Labor pulled in its two most successful post-war leaders – former NSW premier Neville Wran and ex-prime minister Bob Hawke – to travel the country, interview many in its ranks and write a report.

They were, so to speak, commissioned to analyse Labor’s black box following the 2001 Beazley crash.

State Scene tends to focus primarily on WA, so let’s consider Labor here because nearly all my Labor friends and acquaintances are Perth residents.

What’s become quite obvious over the past decade or so is that the WA Labor Party is desperately short of motivated members, with probably only about 1,000 genuine members left.

Furthermore, most of those 1,000 are aged over 50 years.

Branches are factionally guided and their meetings are dull, boring and tedious, with attendance for those who make it a real effort.

What WA Labor – and this probably applies across the country – should therefore do is take a good close look at how this State, from the late 1950s and 1960s, emerged as a national cricketing power.

That just didn’t happen accidentally or through luck.

It came about because some far-sighted people focused on organising school and grade cricket properly and very quickly thereafter the best at these levels spearheaded WA’s toppling of the great immediate post-war State sides of Victoria and NSW.

Until Labor boosts membership with young and talented people by transforming branch meetings from tedious factional get-togethers into interesting educational affairs where expert guest speakers are heard on a wide range of public and civic issues, there’ll never be improvement further up the party’s totem pole.

Such an approach is likely to attract younger and more learned and civic-minded members who would hold time consuming, wasteful and counterproductive factional maneuverings in the contempt they deserve.

Federal and State elections are akin to Test or four-day cricket matches.

Before a side has any chance of winning either there’s been lots of dedicated lower grade training and practice, with the final selection picking only those who are likely to score lots of runs, take lots of catches, and lots of wickets.

Forget Dick Morris’s ‘triangulation’ theories and look to learning from the way WA emerged to become Australia’s most formidable post-war cricketing State.

If that’s done Labor could today safely contend that it’s presently at about where it stood in 1967.

If not it will be closer to 1951.


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