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.

Peter Fray

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