Labor’s McKell Institute is a worthy idea, but not the only way to effect change.
IT has become increasingly evident that, since the emergence of the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the once-great Australian Labor Party has run out of puff.
That’s why this column has been highlighting this sad state of affairs; hoping to encourage a bright spark or two to do some hard thinking on implementing rejuvenation via real reforms.
Last week I focused upon what’s clearly not the way to go.
I examined Prime Minister Gillard’s move to revive waning Labor by transforming it into a rah-rah-rah razzamatazz GetUp-style entity.
However, even before that column (‘Makeover more than just slicker spin’) got to print, another move surfaced to hopefully revive Labor.
In Sydney on September 26, a group of Labor factional heavyweights launched what’s called in the political realm a ‘think tank’.
Its aim, according to one report, is to “provide the intellectual muscle for a rebirth of social democracy in Australia”.
Clearly they believe that what they regard as Australian social democracy is already a corpse.
The entity for the revival mission has been called The McKell Institute, after William McKell, NSW Labor premier (1941-47), and later governor-general (1947-53).
One of the promoters is high-profile union leader Paul Howes, a key player in Mr Rudd’s dumping as prime minister.
The McKell Institute, he said, was being designed to “assist the labour movement’s [ALP plus affiliated unions] return to being a movement of ideas”.
Now, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with such a move, is creating a McKell Institute necessary?
I’ve only met Mr Howes once.
It was at the first Brian Burke dinner in West Perth’s Perugino’s Restaurant, where Mr Howes and his then boss, now assistant treasurer, Bill Shorten, were guests of honour.
Quite by accident, at the end of that enjoyable and informative evening, Mr Howes and I found ourselves standing together outside Perugino’s, waiting for our lifts to arrive.
So we briefly talked about the inevitable – the ALP.
Among other things, I suggested one way for Labor to be made more appealing and relevant to growing numbers of members was by re-embracing its one-time initiative and referendum plank, adopted in 1900 and which remained on the books until 1963, even though never implemented.
Simply put, this Swiss-style democratic blueprint would have empowered voters to bring on referendums on controversial and divisive issues.
It would thus have meant voters would become integral to the legislative process and Labor (as well as non-Labor, of course) branches would become active and vibrant focal points of greater political and legislative activity.
In other words, true democracy would arise since the demos (the people) would become participants in governance by initiating or even blocking politician-initiated legislation at the ballot box.
I can’t think of a better way of making not just Labor, but also non-Labor parties relevant to the populace. That, incidentally, is why Switzerland, a true democracy, is such a prosperous and politically vibrant nation.
Mr Howes’ response on hearing the term ‘initiative and referendum’ was: “What’s that? Never heard of it.”
After briefly explaining, I said I was currently writing up a research monograph on this subject, and the fact that early Labor had it in its platform for more than 60 years.
I concluded by saying that, when completed I’d get a copy to him, which I did via email.
Anyone wishing to read it Google ‘Poprzeczny + Ballotocracy’, and a pdf, titled, ‘Australia – Democracy or just another Ballotocracy?’ appears.
Among other things I discovered while researching this fascinating question was that Western Australia’s John Scaddan-led Labor government attempted, in 1912, to transform the state into a true democracy, via initiative and referendum.
But, sadly, the conservative-dominated Legislative Council wilfully blocked this truly worthy democratic move.
What was Mr Howes’ response to the email? Nil. Not even an acknowledgement.
I raise this now simply to show that the McKell Institute can provide an abundance of research but it’ll come to nothing if Labor MPs and union leaders ignore that which is truly reformist.
Let’s therefore not get too sanguine about the impact of the McKell Institute.
This point can be made another way.
The most influential British think tank has been the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), founded by Anthony Fisher in 1955.
He’d returned from the war determined Britain should become a liberal, not a bureaucratised socialist state, the path British Labour was taking it down from 1945.
Two of his earliest collaborators were Ralf Harris (later Lord Harris) and Arthur Seldon, who set about, via their researches and writing, to ensure that Britain wasn’t transformed into a pale image of George Orwell’s 1984, which it was rapidly heading for.
“Harris and his research director, Arthur Seldon, were both economists from working class backgrounds who had grown to support the free market,” IEA’s Wikipedia entry reads.
“After being warned by Fisher that their task could take 20 years, they grew old together, beavering away at their small Wesminster office and churning out a stream of pamphlets designed to influence academics, journalists and politicians to the view that the free market is the most efficient and liberal way to organise social affairs, and that government intervention is often wasteful.
“They were widely dismissed until 1964, when Edward Heath championed their policy in his abolition of price controls.”
Then, a decade later, the Margaret Thatcher-led conservatives finally embraced the IEA’s long-promoted privatisation and limited government path.
Since then others have adopted privatisation and other long-promoted IEA ideas.
During the mid-1980s the Hawke-Keating government opted for IEA’s privatisation.
In other words Australian social democracy, Hawke-Keating style, was strengthened by adopting some IEA proposals.
What this suggests is that Mr Howes and his aspiring social democratic reformers should perhaps cast aside the idea of seeking to discover specific socialistic blueprints, and instead turn on their computers and log onto the websites of the countless free enterprise groups worldwide, like the IEA, that are freely accessible.
Washington-DC alone has scores of them, including the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and American Enterprise Institute, to name a few.
Remember, federal MPs have allocated to their staff posts for research officers.
Rather than having these taxpayer-funded individuals sitting around politicking and doing other unproductive party hack work, if Labor MPs directed them to read and study freely available research papers on the web, Labor wouldn’t need a McKell Institute.
All the information that could so easily help make Labor a truly vibrant and reformist party is there to be freely accessed and studied.
However, logging on and reading it is only step one.
Step two is overcoming the fact that most within floundering Labor’s parliamentary wing lack the curiosity to try to understand such findings.
Imagine trying to convince Julia Gillard, Penny Wong, Wayne Swan or Greg Combet that lower taxes and smaller government was preferable to ever-increasing taxes, greater central control, and more bureaucracy.
Is it therefore a coincidence that, during the Rudd-Gillard years, Labor’s membership and popularity have slumped, especially since the Liberals ousted big-taxing Malcolm Turnbull as leader.