Federal Labor’s leadership ballot, which will involve rank-and-file members for the first time, has the capacity to make or break the party – including in Western Australia.
The two contenders, Bill Shorten from the Victorian right of the party, and Anthony Albanese from the New South Wales left, are now moving into uncharted waters. But at least they are providing a public contest, and giving ordinary members the chance to be involved.
Apart from the Rudd-Gillard rivalry Labor, unlike the Liberals, has shied away from public contests for key positions in recent years. This trend has coincided with the rise of factionalism.
There had always been some factionalism. The NSW branch, for example, has been the traditional home of the ‘right’, in contrast to the WA branch, which has been linked with the ‘left’.
But with the rise of the factions in the 1980s came the decline of publicly fought contests for key posts and endorsements. These have been ‘managed’ by the factional chieftains behind closed doors. The absence of
public rancour gave the process a veneer of respectability.
However the same members voted with their feet. With no useful role apart from fund raising and handing out how-to-vote cards, they drifted away.
That didn’t worry the factional chiefs, at first. With fewer party members to placate, their job became easier. Until now, that is.
Let’s look at WA. In the recent federal poll, Labor’s 15 candidates in the House of Representatives seats scored 29.1 per cent of the first preference vote, compared to 47.1 per cent for the Liberals, and 9.6 per cent for the Greens. In 1996, when the Keating government was resoundingly voted out, Labor’s support in WA was 37.3 per cent, compared with 46.2 per cent for the Liberals and 8.7 per cent for the Greens.
So Labor’s support in two losing elections has dropped by eight points. And it was even worse in the Senate. Labor polled just 27.1 per cent to win only one of the six vacancies on offer, its poorest result in memory. This compares with the half-Senate election in 1984 to decide seven vacancies because of an expanding house, when Labor won three spots.
Labor’s recent Senate ticket was one of its weakest, being led by Joe Bullock from the right wing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association. In second spot was Senator Louise Pratt, initially a lobbyist for the gay and lesbian movement.
That’s hardly a representative team from a so-called broad-based party. Sure, unions are entitled to have representation, but with Senator Pratt’s defeat, all three remaining WA Labor senators will be ex-union officials – the others being Sue Lines (United Voice) and Glenn Sterle (Transport Workers’ Union), and Mr Bullock (who will be replacing his predecessor at the SDA, Senator Mark Bishop).
When I started reporting on the machinations of the WA Labor Party for The West Australian in 1970, robust debates – including between the secretary, FE (Joe) Chamberlain and Kim Beazley senior – were a feature of executive meetings. Mr Chamberlain invariably won the debates on the numbers, although Mr Beazley often had the logic.
Mr Chamberlain had plenty of critics. But he did oversee diversity on Senate tickets. That allowed the election of senators in the 1970s such as Peter Walsh (a farmer), John Wheeldon (lawyer) and Ruth Coleman (consumer advocate).
The last real Labor head-to-head contest I witnessed was at the party’s national conference in Adelaide in 1979, between then leader Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke, who was ACTU president. Mr Hayden carried the day in a rousing debate but it was a pyrrhic victory, with Mr Hawke snatching the party leadership early in 1983.
With the decline of branch activity, unions have moved to fill the vacuum. Unfortunately that coincided with union amalgamations, and the emergence of fewer union leaders with bigger support bases. A declining union membership means they tend to be seen as dinosaurs, although the leaders hang on to their union links and influence.
Of the two leaders in the federal ballot, Mr Shorten is a product of the modern day union movement. Private school educated and a university graduate, he was national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union. But he is a far cry from other former AWU members who had prominent political careers such as Mick Young and Clyde Cameron, who were initially shearers.
Mr Albanese is also private school educated and a university graduate, who started his working life as a bank officer. He was later assistant secretary of Labor’s NSW branch.
With the membership decline, Labor’s links with its traditional base in the suburbs has been seriously eroded.
Rank and file involvement in the leadership ballot might pose a threat to the factional powerbrokers. And there is a risk internal divisions could flare up. But if genuine grassroots enthusiasm is rekindled, it will have served its purpose.