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May 20, 2011

Pollies grumble at writers' fest: 'good govt and ALP are strangers'

Can the ALP survive? And if so, what form will it be in? There was huge interest in this topic at the Sydney Writers' Festival.

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Can the ALP survive? And if so, what form will it be in? There is huge interest in this topic, if the very large crowds who turned out yesterday for two related sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival are any indication.

In the morning, party elder John Faulkner, former NSW Minister Rodney Cavalier and journalist Barry Cassidy featured in a session called ““From Barcaldine to Oblivion?  Was the ALP just a 20th-century phenomenon whose use-by date has come? Can Labor’s political fortunes be revived?”

At the start, moderator Peter Hartcher quoted Faulkner and Cavalier as saying that the 500-strong audience represented a much larger group than either had seen at any ALP branch meeting lately. Although, as Faulkner quipped, “the age is about right”.

The two pollies were a great combination, with Faulkner providing the considered voice of reason, with the famously curmudgeonly Cavalier there to lob bombs. Cavalier has the best Wikipedia entry I have ever read, describing his “abrasive personality, reformist zeal and intolerance of sloppy work”. One left-wing Teachers Federation activist described him as “the rudest, most pugnacious individual to hold office”.

As to the future of the ALP, Cavalier said that in most of Australia, the party was already dead. In the 16 years of the NSW Labor government, 130 branches had folded, and last week the Waterloo branch closed, he said.

Of the people who do join the party, 30% do not renew after one year and 70% do not last longer than five years — and “not one of them has a good word to say about us”, he said. (“Just like the Catholic church,” Hartcher quipped.)

In addition, the party had aged around him, Cavalier said: “When I joined the party in 1968, at the age of 19, I was one of the youngest members of my branch, and now, in 2011, I’m still one of the youngest.”

Even though the NSW ALP had 15,000 on its books, fewer than 1000 would pass the “breath on the mirror” test, and the people left in Parliament were like “spaceships freely roaming the galaxies, with no connection to the people down below”.

Cavalier, from the Left faction of the party, said that the PM’s “truly ghastly” speech to the Sydney Institute, in which she got stuck into dole bludgers, was modelled on Margaret Thatcher: “I made a joke that soon she’d soon be attacking single mothers, and lo and behold, she did! Good government and the ALP have become strangers.”

Faulkner said that many people were questioning the party’s survival. But, “it’s too simplistic and easy to put a lot of the blame at the door of Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard or whomever the leader happens to be”.

“The challenges that the ALP faces are not going to be solved in their entirety at all by changing the leader. I want to see the party grow and prosper … the challenge for the ALP is to re-establish itself as a party of values, ideas and reform. We need to make a culture of inclusion and innovation in the ALP not so much of exclusion and factionalism.”

The party was now facing, for the first time since the Commonwealth was created, “a serious political threat on the left of the party from the Greens”, he said. “The ALP is being squeezed in both ways now.”

But how to deal with it? Cavalier pointed out that no one currently running the ALP was going to be an advocate for reform, quoting Chairman Mao that “no political class would ever give up its power without a struggle”.

He then went on to make a few stinging remarks about the make-up of the ALP senators from Victoria, the least offensive of which was a description of Stephen Conroy as a “factional dalek”.

Part of the problem was that the extremely “narrow catchment of people going into Parliament had eliminated almost everyone who worked for a living”: “This government does not belong to us.”

In the afternoon, AWU national secretary Paul Howes and former pollie Graham Richardson fronted up for a session entitled “Confessions of a Faceless Man” — also the title of the extremely insightful and entertaining campaign diary penned by Howes during the 2010 election. The 30-year-old Howes, one of the men who deposed Kevin Rudd, is not your stereotypical union boss, espousing very progressive views on climate change, immigration and gay marriage.

Richo asked him if Rudd had come unstuck the day he abandoned the ETS. Howes replied that the PM had “lost it” the day he got up in parliament and said that people smugglers were the vilest form of human being on the planet.

“He was the most popular PM in history, and he was saying that those who fear refugees and boat people are right to have those fears,” he said, adding that Moses and Oskar Schindler had both been people smugglers. “He had the opportunity to change the debate about race, population and refugees in a way that would have advantaged the party electorally and advantaged the country.”

Rudd’s refusal to spend any political capital on this issue marked the beginning of his “slow march towards defeat”, Howes said, conceding that the PMs removal was “pretty ugly”: “We knew that we did not do it the right way.”

So when’s Howes running for parliament? He had no serious intention of doing so, he replied to one questioner, adding he intended to run for re-election as AWU national secretary in 2013. Probably, like most would-be reformers, he has worked out that he can be more effective outside the parliament than inside it. But watch this space.

Margot Saville —

Margot Saville

Crikey Sydney reporter

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Pollies grumble at writers’ fest: ‘good govt and ALP are strangers’

  1. Adam

    I’ve said before I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the ALP. Why would anyone vote for them? If you’re a centre-right voter you’ve got the Libs who despite the ALP’s attempts to imitate them will always be more right-wing than the ALP and if you’re a centre-left voter with any sort of progressive streak you’ve got the Greens.

    I think in time the Left of the ALP will break away from the party and either join the Greens or merge with them to form a new entity. We’re already seeing some unions throw their support behind the Greens. There is plenty of scope for the Greens to move away from just being an “environmental party”. Something like the Progressive Party could work.

    As a left-wing person I in good conscience can’t vote for the ALP anymore. This was re-enforced just last week with the Budget where the ALP decided instead of going after middle-class welfare to try and get the budget back into surplus by 2012/13 which is obviously oh so important they instead chose to kick the s__t out of the poor on welfare.

    That is how morally bankrupt the ALP has now become. Teenage mums will be threatened with having their payments suspended which obviously will making feeding their kid(s) that much easier, the disability pension will now be much harder to get with more stringent impairment tables which will also apply to those already on the DSP under the age of 35 (nice little saving that as the dole pays much less than the disability pension) and the long-term unemployed will now have their mutual obligation requirements doubled. All that and we have less than 5% unemployment.

    John Howard would be proud.

    This all comes on top of the ALP now rolling out it’s welfare quarantining across the country to avoid the charge of racism for continuing with it in the NT once they took over from Howard and of course last year suspending the applications of asylum seekers from both Afghanistan & Sri Lanka (in an election year) which now leads to the ‘Malaysian solution’. That odious footage of Julia Gillard & David Bradbury (not the minister for NT border control folks) during the election campaign will never leave my mind along with the so called ‘citizen’s assembly’ response to climate change.

    I will never again vote for a party that effectively now spits in my face as a lefty as it continues to beat up on the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

  2. dennisargall

    The great tragedy, not resolved in this constant comparison and groaning at the awfulness of it all is that now as never before, in talking to ordinary people, there is general condemnation of politicians and the political process. I too am bewildered by the lack of courage, vision, inspiration in the day-to-day political news. There is a huge danger in this situation: the road to fascism is never solely based on economics but the betrayal and rejection of democratic process.

    The late Norman Mailer, at the beginning of the Iraq war, said:
    “Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.”

    … and, I add, it can only be maintained in Australia when we can look up to the parliament and its party leaders.

    There is an evolving tragedy in NSW (to turn your eyes for a moment from the federal farce) where a new government with an unmanageably gross majority is doing grabster things for which is has no mandate – in a situation where there is no evident alternative and little comprehension evident in organisations (including, dammit, The Greens) of how to do the four year haul to be an admired, democratic, faith-in-politics-inspiring, practical, leadership-providing alternative.

    We need to get back to demanding that kind of thing.

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