10/03/2011 - 00:00

Labor’s past points to a brave new world

10/03/2011 - 00:00


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Eric Ripper may not know it, but he has an opportunity to make a profound, long-lasting impact on the national political scene.

JUST because the recently released ALP National Review Report – compiled by former Labor premiers Bob Carr from NSW and Victoria’s Steve Bracks, plus party elder Senator John Faulkner – received scant media attention doesn’t make it unimportant.

The trio was required to fathom why Labor performed so poorly at last year’s election.

Firstly, some findings.

The major unsurprising one was that Labor continues to “haemorrhage members”, meaning ever fewer are joining the party and proportionately fewer people vote for it as a first preference.

The point here is that this problem isn’t exclusively Labor’s, since the Liberals are experiencing the same.

So much of what Messrs Carr, Bracks and Faulkner found applies to both sides of politics.

Labor’s national membership fell from just below 50,000 in 2002 to around 38,000 now.

Branch numbers slipped over the same period from 1,140 to 1,020.

I suspect matters are far worse because, as with the Liberal Party, many branches exist because MPs stack them with friends, relatives and ideological single issue fanatics to help ensure their own pre-selection.

In other words, the primary motivation for their existence is ‘careerism’ and the big parliamentary pension at the end of MPs’ careers.

Also highlighted was the fact that union-affiliated membership slumped from around 1.2 million to just more than 1 million.

In other words, the three crucial indicators continue to decline.

The report claimed that, at the last national conference, members felt “alienated” from decision-making.

State Scene takes this as given since that’s been a feature of both majors for decades.

And lastly, it found that: “A ‘corporatising’ of the party, whereby the top echelons exercise great authority, is causing a ‘sickness’ at branch level.”

This, of course, is true.

The average Australian understandably has no inclination to do or suggest anything to the party because it’s so tightly controlled by generally university trained, factionally loyal individuals who, in all likelihood, joined because they saw it as a stepping stone into parliament.

What of recommendations?

Apart from some about budgets and members’ amenities, the most interesting was the following: “Introduce a US-style primaries system for pre-selection in open and non-Labor held seats, with a guaranteed 20 per cent share of the vote for union members, 60 per cent for Labor members and 20 per cent for non-member supporters.”

No doubt there’s much more thought needed in relation to this out-of-left-field proposal, with the first obvious question being: why exclude Labor-held seats from such primaries?

Why primaries only in non-Labor seats?

Let’s, however, leave such purely politically motivated fine-tuning aside and consider this proposal more closely within a historical context, one Messrs Carr, Bracks and Faulkner undoubtedly know nothing about.

What today’s Labor power brokers don’t realise is that their party was once enormously indebted to American politics and democratic traditions that failed to be applied here a century ago.

Most erroneously assume the ALP has always been a down-under clone of the markedly less democratic British Labour Party.

But that’s not entirely correct.

What’s true is that Australian unionism is based primarily on British-style unionism and straight after World War I’s conscription imbroglios, Labor became a down-under British-style socialist party.

But this ignores the crucial 1890s and the decade or so before 1914, when important changes took place in the US that deeply influenced many early Australian Laborites.

Over those 20 or so years – during which time the Australian Labour (then spelled English-style with the ‘u’) Party was created in 1900 – an important influence on many of its founders were ideas from America’s ‘progressive movement’, which emerged during the 1890s and had a profound impact upon governance of the US, especially at state level.

Significantly, the spelling change to the American-style ‘Labor’ came in 1912, right in the middle of America’s ‘progressive era’.

Now, what I write below isn’t taught in Australian history and politics university courses.

Some time ago I had an article published in the National Observer journal on the impact of America’s progressives upon early Labor.

Its editor, Monash University’s Philip Ayers, biographer of Malcolm Fraser, Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958), and Sydney’s Cardinal Patrick Moran (1830-1911), wrote an introduction stating that: “Poprzeczny has explored, for the first time in this kind of detail, the history of these [progressivist] attempts, and related them to similar, far more successful attempts in the US, which had a major influence here [in Australia].”

Among other things, America’s progressives completely revamped as well as democratised governance across the US, most especially at state level by adopting the secret ballot, which they rightly called ‘the Australian ballot’ since Australia’s colonies began adopting it from the 1850s.

They also adopted direct election of senators, the president, and, yes, the ‘primary system’ for candidate selection; so, people power.

Ask yourself, is it coincidental that the precursor of Victoria’s Labor Party, in 1891, was called the Progressive Political League of Victoria?

And in 2011 we have Messrs Carr and Bracks and Senator Faulkner looking to those days – when the ALP was created – saying that’s in part what Labor now needs. What a coincidence.

Pity Labor hadn’t followed that path 100 years ago, but better late than never.

More significant, however, was the progressives’ promotion of the practice called ‘initiative and referendum’, which constitutionally enshrined power to the people to have the final say on what will or won’t become the law, something they’d copied from Switzerland, the world’s only true democracy.

This is done by ensuring voters can call referendums via presentation of petitions to state parliaments; so the entire electorate decides the fate of bills already adopted by politicians.

Is it thus a coincidence that the ALP included an initiative and referendum plank in its 1900 platform, which remained there until 1963, even if never acted upon?

By about 1920 half of America’s states had adopted initiative and referendum, which makes any jurisdiction a true democracy since the people – the ‘demos’ – decide what will or won’t be the law of the land by referendum, not simply a tiny group of politicians.

Australia and its states aren’t democracies since only politicians (irrespective of which party they’re from) decide what becomes the law.

Australia and its states are thus best described as ballotocracies, since Australians, at ballots, elect politicians who acquire monopoly control over what becomes law.

Only the Swiss and those Americans in the states with initiative and referendum, that the progressives implemented, live in true democracies.

And a feature of true democracies is that citizens become more politically active, adept, and knowledgeable about legislation, unlike in Australia where even most politicians don’t understand what’s being legislated.

Parties and their branches are far less relevant in ballotocracies since referendums on controversial issues cannot be called by voters.

Since Australia isn’t a true democracy, people invariably fall away from centrally controlled and distantly guided politics and legislation.

Come on Eric Ripper, if you’re really serious about making Labor’s WA branches relevant, go beyond Messrs Carr, Bracks and Faulkner, who so tentatively recommended looking back to America’s progressive era, and move to implement that era’s democratic initiative and referendum practices.

You’ve got nothing to lose.

You may even save Labor from an early grave, where it’s presently headed.

And, in the process, you’d transform WA into a true democracy.



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