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Dec 7, 2012

Feeney: these days, everyone's a Labor powerbroker

The Australian insists factionalism is alive and well in the Labor Party, but Senator David Feeney argues it's the breaking down of factional power driving the modern party.


In The Australian yesterday, Troy Bramston provided the most recent iteration of a tired old theme: the detrimental impact of factionalism in the ALP.

What made his piece so tantalising is that in 1900 words Bramston was able to cite the facts, but not make the analysis. He was so close, and yet so far, from the real story: factional power in the modern ALP has fragmented, and is greatly diminished from the 1980s.

To all those who say ALP factions are a bad thing I say, good news, because today they’re more irrelevant than ever before.

The “factions” of the contemporary ALP were founded, at least in their modern form, in the 1980s. One could say they were the halcyon days; in the Hawke-Keating years, the “Right” and the “Left” were cohesive, national groups that wielded great influence. A handful of powerful (and capable) cabinet ministers — Graham Richardson, Robert Ray, Gerry Hand, Nick Bolkus, etc — were able to play a critical role in the success of the government, “managing” the election of senators and MPs from the caucus for service in the ministry, and “managing” difficult policy debates in the wider ALP (like privatisation and uranium mining).

In those days the ALP national conference was comprised of 100 delegates and the caucus elected the ministry. Those days are over.

Today the ideological and organisational architecture that enabled that 1980s-style factionalism is gone. It’s time The Australian worked it out.

Bramston is close. Yesterday, he revealed the identity of the ALP’s “factional powerbrokers”. The very length and diversity of that list reveals the extinction of factional power as compared to the 1980s. In Victoria alone, The Oz named Stephen Conroy, Simon Crean, Bill Shorten and I as powerbrokers of the “Victorian Right” — a group that can only claim 12 caucus members and four “powerbrokers”.

It seems powerbrokers are thick on the ground.

Today, the fact is, factions exert less influence than at any time since they were formed. The dynamics of the modern caucus demonstrate this point. In every leadership contest for the last decade or more, no “factional” group has even tried to bind its members to a position, and those nominally belonging to various factional groups are found on opposite sides of every ballot and every policy debate.

And today the ALP national conference has 400 delegates. It is simply impossible for the (ever-growing) array of “powerbrokers” to “control” these delegates in the way imagined by The Oz. When the factional chieftains of yesteryear look at the modern ALP conference, and compare it to their own experience 30 years ago, they remark “it’s like herding cats”.

“The real story of the modern ALP is not the concentration of power in the hands of factions and powerbrokers, but rather the fragmentation of old-style factional power.”

The real story of the modern ALP is not the concentration of power in the hands of factions and powerbrokers, but rather the fragmentation of old-style factional power. The ideological certainties that sustained old-style factional power — such as sharply held views concerning the Cold War, public sector ownership or free-market economics — are long gone.

In the Victorian ALP today there is such a proliferation of party “factions” that there may as well be none.

The collateral effect of the weakening of factional power in the ALP is less certainty; less certainty about the outcome of policy and preselection contests, less certainty about the viewpoint of a parliamentary leader prevailing in party forums.

And, ironically, this lack of certainty is typically greeted by the media with howls of criticism. Leaders are told that such lack of certainty reflects on their authority. Democracy is an often untidy process, and too many commentators require the ALP to be both more democratic and yet less untidy.

The recent Senate preselection in SA is a case in point. There the democratic will of the ALP state conference was denounced by the media, and ultimately overturned by diktat.

John Faulkner’s recent contribution was first class. But The Australian insisted on putting words in his mouth. The good Senator was not calling for the abolition of “factions” — that notion is absurd. Factions are older than the senate of Julius Caesar. Rather, Faulkner was calling for the ALP — especially in NSW — to nurture a political culture that can meet the challenges of modern political discourse, which requires the highest standards of conduct, and which engages the energy and enthusiasm of our membership.

So rather than simply putting the boots on, and kicking Labor once more for its “factions” and “faceless men”, perhaps commentators need to align themselves to a modern reality. Factional power as it once existed a generation ago is already gone.

The myth of over-mighty ALP factions and “powerbrokers” might be perpetuated by the Coalition (always looking to bag Labor), the media (looking for simple, salacious stories) and disappointed aspirants (needing to explain their own lack of support) — but that doesn’t make it true.

And its not factional power, but rather its absence, which confronts contemporary Labor. That’s the real story.


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