With the wrong instincts and motivations, the warlords are a malevolent influence on Labor. Senator Kim Carr’s approach to industry policy is typical of how the warlords approach public policy, putting sectional interests ahead of national economic needs. In their exercise of authority inside the party, the sub-factional chiefs are anti-egalitarian. Their methods are the antithesis of Labor’s ideals for social fairness, of the plain, earthy val­ues we associate with Chifley’s Light on the Hill.

Take, for instance, a telling passage in Graham Richardson’s mem­oirs, Whatever It Takes. In a moment of candour, looking back on his early years as a right-wing organiser, he wrote of how:

“Meeting the right people in the Labor Party was not part of a brilliant strategy, [rather] I wanted to meet them because everything they did fascinated me … And while most people who attain positions of power may be reluctant to say so in these terms, the prospect of people deferring to me one day — in the way they were deferring to the ‘right people’ I was beginning to meet — was pretty attractive.”

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This is not how policy-oriented people look at politics. They see a public problem and try to apply a public policy solution — on our side, the quest for social justice. But for Richardson and his successors, the party machine offers special rewards, in the form of careerism and social status. Sub-factional powerbrokers do not look at their colleagues as equals, but as underlings who need to defer to them. Thus they practise the politics of intimidation, standing over party members. This has created feudal pecking orders inside the Labor movement, against the grain of how an egalitarian organisation should function.

The rot in Labor’s culture started when Richardson’s view of politics became the prevailing view among the party’s apparatchiks. The sub-factional ethos of status and manipulation is a stain on Labor’s spirit, affecting its work at all levels. Unless it is excised, more scandals like the Health Services Union affair and the corruption of Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdon­ald in New South Wales are inevitable. It is not possible to create a self-serving culture inside the party without these values spilling over into the misuse of union and government resources. If Labor tolerates a self-interested system internally, it should not be surprised that self-interested individuals, operating in the name of the ALP, end up behaving corruptly.

Political insiders often ask how someone like Richardson from the Right faction and Anthony Albanese from the Left can be friends. The answer is obvious: they exercise sub-factional power in complementary ways. Richardson recruited Obeid to the NSW Parliament, while Albanese granted Macdonald an extra term in the Legislative Council, during which the abuse of mining leases occurred. For Labor, no long-term good ever comes from factional wheeling and dealing.

The notion that an inner-city warlord like Albanese is now the true spirit of Labor reveals how badly the party has deteriorated. Instead of testing someone’s quality by asking how well they work the numbers or how assiduously they cultivate the media, Labor needs to return to a basic under­standing of political virtue: is someone right or wrong on major issues? In Albanese’s case, he was wrong on boat-people policy, he has been wrong on economic policy for years, he was wrong in his undermining of Gillard and restoration of Rudd and, most damaging of all, he was wrong to prop up Macdonald. In September’s election cam­paign, he was wrong to associate with Craig Thomson. This is not the sort of person on whom the Labor movement can build a viable future. The party needs an extended period of focusing on right and wrong, instead of the self-serving bra­vado of machine politics.

“The know-how exists to heal the party: to devolve power at all levels, to preselect MPs unbeholden to union bosses, to end the warlords’ control of caucus.”

In their power and reach, the sub-factions effectively own the party. Unless this problem is dealt with, Labor’s future will continue to shrivel. Each of the party’s structural prob­lems — its organisational malaise, its identity crisis, its missed opportunities on economic policy, its leadership instability and its exposure to corruption scandals — comes from the union-sponsored sub-factional network. It is at the epicentre of what’s gone wrong. Just as it’s impossible to run other organisations, public and private sector, with every fourth person trying to control outcomes for everyone else, federal Labor has become anarchical.

The core purpose of organisational reform must be to break the warlords’ franchise. Unfortunately, Rudd’s reform package fails to fully achieve this goal. It is based on an unsatisfactory compromise: taking away 50% of the power of the sub-factions to elect the federal leader, but restoring 100% of their power to pick Labor’s front­bench. After his 2007 election victory, Rudd himself selected the new ministry.

This is why machine men like Albanese and Carr have supported Rudd’s 2013 proposals: in terms of manipulating caucus outcomes, they are 50% in front. One of the prerogatives they truly treasure — claiming frontbench spots for their small band of caucus followers — is back in their hands.

In advocating organisational change, I do not expect Labor to re-emerge as a party of mass membership. Rather, the rationale for reform is to improve the behavioural and incentives system inside the party, neutering the corrosive sub-factional influence. Ultimately, the only solution to problems caused by the concentration of political power is a program of devolution. Rule changes are needed on four fronts:

  • In the election of the parliamentary leader, giving rank-and-file members 100% of the voting franchise;
  • Allowing the leader to select the frontbench, free from sub-factional pressures;
  • Reducing trade union representation at party conferences to match union coverage in the workforce (down from the current 50% franchise to no more than 20%); and
  • Using community preselections to choose Labor’s election candidates, ending the system of sub-factional deal-making.

In opposition, nothing will change unless the party changes its rules and culture. The names and personalities no longer matter. The party has made itself ungovernable, and unless solutions are found, the public will not allow it to govern the nation. If Rudd’s return is to have any lasting benefit, it must be to extend his tentative attempt at reform into a comprehensive program of ALP democratisation.

Perhaps Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government will be hopeless and fall over. But if it’s halfway competent, it will enjoy a long period in power simply because of the dysfunctionality of its opponents. This is what is so frustrating about Labor’s decline. The know-how exists to heal the party: to devolve power at all levels, to preselect MPs unbeholden to union bosses, to end the warlords’ control of caucus. It simply requires reformist leadership and political common sense to make it happen.

*This is an edited extract from the Not Dead Yet (Black Inc) by Mark Latham, a new book on reforming the Labor Party with contributions from Jim Chalmers, Andrew Leigh, Troy Bramston, Louise Tarrant, Guy Rundle and Nicholas Reece

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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