Power without principle

There are few who would question that power has a commanding allure. Those with an interest in human behaviour will readily attest the transformative impacts power has on those who seek it and those who attain it. These observations are frequently fascinating but rarely edifying.

Perhaps it is the innate frailty of humanity that makes power such an apparently desirable attribute. Whatever, power is the defining element of our body politic and, as such, influences every aspect of our lives. It is worthy, then, to examine the influence power has had on one of the fundamental institutions of our way of life over the past century: the Australian Labor Party.

The Labor Party grew out of the much less-faceted Australian society of the late 19th century. It would be disingenuous to suggest issues in those days were essentially black and white but contrasted with the multi-megapixel reality of our contemporary way of life, there were far fewer choices to be factored into decision-making. In this environment, it was common for categorisation to be simple, basic and blunt. Long before we discovered upper and lower strands of even a middle class, we made do with rich and poor and bosses and workers.

It was from this milieu that Labor arose as a party for the workers. Make no mistake, it was bold and innovative for its time; quite revolutionary, in fact. Pertinently, the Australian Labor Party was a needed initiative. It served a real and vital purpose to help those who felt oppressed withstand the superior power of those cloaked with authority. An ethos of service to those less able to look after themselves was the heart and soul of Labor and the labour movement that it nurtured. It was the purity of this ethos that earned Labor pervasive community support across Australia and recognition in comparable societies around the globe.

Labor harvested this endorsement and wielded it with sometimes brutal pragmatism to look after its own. This was a reflection of the industrial relations framework of the time which can best be summed-up as might is right. The exponents of capitalism were not faint-hearted in exploiting their advantage and it may well be said that they reaped as they had sown.

In tandem with the prevailing military mindsets of the early 20th century, these opposing sides settled in for the political version of trench warfare. Each held established positions which they defended with almost religious fervour while making occasional forays into the other’s territory. It was when issues like conscription arose that the complexity which characterises contemporary politics wrought convulsive change.

Churches had for centuries wielded overt political power in closed political systems and they had no compunction in a new era of open, participative democracy to continue to exert their influence. The pulpit was used shamelessly to both exhort and denounce as parishioners’ political preferences were confronted by religious strictures. The churches professed to help save the souls of their brethren by telling them how to vote. And to think kings thought they had a divine right!

The seeds of factionalism within Labor germinated in this era and they took root in very fertile soil. As populations and complexity grew, there was now room for an emerging middle class in Australian society as well as a nascent centre, to demarcate right and left wings in the main political entities. This was also the baseline of an existential identity challenge for Labor which came to the fore during the emergence of the Whitlam administration in 1972.

While some died-in-the-wool conservatives feared ruination, much of the Australian electorate breathed deeply of the fresh new air that Whitlam gusted through the corridors of power. At least initially. They were heady times and while the pace of change was bewildering given the comparative torpor of the Menzies era there was an unmistakeable air of excitement that attracted the attention of many young potential Labor acolytes.

Sadly, like a party at which someone has spiked the punch with hallucinogens, Whitlam’s crew exhibited ever more bizarre behaviour at seemingly every turn. Older Australians were initially mystified then became fearful of the consequences. Dedicated Labor voters kept hoping for some form of salvation, unwilling to accept that their period in office might be such a fleeting moment in time compared to the seemingly interminable domination by the conservatives. Younger Australians, though, had not been steeped in the subtleties of economic management and were still more than willing to enjoy the rebelliousness that characterised Labor. Inflation for them was a novelty and did not yet entail the pain of sharply rising mortgage payments.

And then along came Fraser. The Easter Island statue was just the rock to reassure nervous nellies that experimentation was not a legitimate role for government. With a brutality unmatched since Hitler’s blitzkrieg he began unwinding the bulk of the Whitlam’s program.

A major consequence of the drama of these times was the blurring of perceptual lines defining Labor’s support base. The staunch blue collar bulwark was now awash with young, often non-unionised white collar workers. Interestingly, while the blue collar cohort wanted to overthrow authority on the basis of past repression, the white collar cohort wanted to overthrow authority because of the adrenaline rush. They didn’t much care about anything else other than hedonistic gratification. Entirely disparate but they coexisted under Labor’s umbrella because their objectives happened to coincide. It would be later that fissures would emerge.

Astute Liberals watched this and realised it was time to start adopting at least some of the implied characteristics of their brand name. Interestingly, they wanted to cultivate the same reconciled dichotomy as Labor by melding new young things to their traditional conservative base. Their target audience, though, was much more circumspect than Labor’s and generally dressed much more conservatively, albeit with a penchant for flashy collars and ties.

All of this was evolving amid the maelstrom that was the blossoming of the baby boomers. Global society was being rent asunder as never before by a tsunami of students (primarily) who were frankly full of piss and wind, fuelling unrealistic expectations. But they were determined not to be denied. Politics, suddenly, was confronted by full-scale selfishness. Forget ideology: political parties were having their rearward focus on defining causes and philosophies wrenched into a futuristic smorgasbord of idealistic expectations.

The equation changed from I will support you because of what you stand for to I will support you if you deliver me what I want. Consumerist society bludgeoned politics onto a new trajectory. Resting on the laurels of the past was no longer acceptable.

It is remarkable that the term conviction politics emerged later because the period of the 70s and 80s really sounded the death knell of true conviction politics: the end of an era in which political parties espoused comparatively few but very clearly defined stances on a narrow array of topics. It was the beginning of when Labor began to lose its way.

Not that all the changes about to be wrought on the ALP were unfortunate. In fact, the reform agenda implemented by Hawke and Keating was essential for national prosperity. It showed the electorate that Labor had a capacity for sound economic management that had been shredded in the Whitlam experiment. Most importantly, it restored Labor’s internal confidence that it could reasonably aspire to be the natural party of government.

This was an era in which unionism reached its pinnacle of influence on Australian society. A new breed of trade union leaders emerged from the Whitlam years, determined to secure their objectives in their own way if their political soul brother, the ALP, could not master the parliamentary environment. The man for the times was Bob Hawke whose larrikinism softened perceptions of the broad belligerence of the union movement. Hawke’s overweening confidence reassured waverers that he could win out when it mattered. The trust he engendered delivered him the prime ministership. It was a unique blend of professional and personal qualities that enabled him to help check some of the excesses he had unleashed while wearing his figurative Jackie Howe singlet.

Having Hawke at the helm of the ALP encouraged many other trade unionists into the party. With Labor now able to win elections again,  the unionists recognised a new pathway to power, privilege and perks. Unfortunately, they brought with them their take-no-prisoners workplace attitudes and set about cementing their influence in party structures. Labor was to be consumed from within by the very object of its affections.

It was John Howard who reminded the Liberal Party that diversity was a positive attribute for the party, likening it to a broad church. Labor appealed to just as diverse a demographic but over time found itself arthritically crippled by a hardening of its arteries: conference and caucus. The unions straitjacketed conference while the factions did the same for caucus. Rank and file members continually had their noses rubbed in the dirt and eventually realised their influence was negligible. Careerism superseded the branch structure as the means to secure power and the result is that one of the most potent symbols of traditional Labor has been effectively discarded.

It is worthy of note that the proliferation of think tanks has created an alternative source of policy concepts for both Labor and the Liberals and Nationals. It is reflective of the burgeoning complexity of society that policy proposals have now largely superseded the proposal, debate and adoption of handwritten motions arising from the floor of a party branch meeting. A new class of policy wonks has emerged to help society govern itself well. It is a worthy and valuable trend. Yet it should be accompanied by an awareness that it comes at the cost of the loss of traditions, membership participation and core values.

The demise of the rank and file in Labor is singularly significant because it symbolises the demise of democracy within the Labor party. What Labor is left with is democracy by proxy whereby the select few – key union officials and faction leaders – get to impose their will by stifling the vox populi through rigid discipline that brooks no opposition. Debates on major issues are stage-managed in set-piece scenarios in which both actors and audience know the script by heart.

The execution of the rank and file has robbed Labor of its heart and soul. What remains is a pale shadow of a once-vibrant entity that valued its traditions above all. There is no longer a continuum of what Labor stands for and its once-proud standard flaps idly in any breeze that gusts along.

The subjugation of the articles of faith that gave birth to the ALP happened slowly but the cumulative impact is being felt powerfully in recent times. One of the first core planks of Labor beliefs to be jettisoned was the socialist redistribution of wealth. Oh, it still makes many a Labor heart beat true to think of taking from the rich to give to the poor. However, now that living standards have improved so substantially over the past few generations, most people have accumulated sufficient wealth that they feel threatened by the notion of redistribution.

One of the remarkable quirks of Labor’s partial demise is that it shares the same problem with many parties of the Centre-Left as evidenced in Britain, New Zealand and parts of Europe. All have enjoyed wide de facto branding as parties of reform.  Why, then, do they now fare so poorly in revitalising their own structures and credos? As with the fall of communism, these may be portents of surpassing significance.

In the Australian context, Labor has lost so much. Reality forced it to repudiate a foundational core belief: socialism. The decline of unionism has stifled its once pre-eminent cause of advocacy. The exile of the rank and file has robbed it of its conscience. Careerism has purged its true believers. But the most devastating blow has been spin doctoring which has stolen its values.

Spin doctoring, per se, is not a dreadful or diabolical activity. Of itself, it is largely as harmless as public relations which can be described as a formalised process of selling the positive. No, it is the associated activities and mindsets that have led to spin doctoring typecasting the ALP. What initially seemed like clever politics has now come to symbolise Labor’s loss of credibility.

As the party was forced to confront the aftermath of the damaging Latham experiment and, to its hardiest supporters, the seemingly slow death of the Howard era, apparatchiks searched for new voters and new issues to restore its relevance. They relished the apparent renaissance of the Blair years in Britain and copied some of Labour’s political tradecraft that so effectively sidelined the Conservatives.

Back here, Labor’s machine men assiduously cultivated the craft of focus groups. They tracked emerging issues to learn what pushed voters’ buttons. They danced a deadly duet with the Devil as he fed their addiction to this powerful means of winning votes. Overlooked in their lust for success was the reality that there is always a price to pay.

To be sure this flirtation with popular psychology was not unique to Labor. Many are the parties and peripheral organisations who pursue power and are willing to pay the price to get their hands dirty in this way. What Labor appears to have failed to adequately recognise was the gradual loss of its traditional support base as it cultivated voting intentions in demographics never before regarded as productive territory for the party. Blindly, they ignored the impact of an incoming tide of single issue voters focused on their own selfish expectations and how they might be accommodated by a populist, idealistic mainstream political movement. In much the same way that a chorus of canines cemented Pavlov’s reputation, Labor’s strategists won plaudits for their ability to identify issues, demographics and hot buttons. So enamoured were they of these wondrous new saplings, though, they ignored the root rot that was devastating the forest behind them. Every trendy new issue sat uneasily with the stalwart traditionalists. Gay marriage might well be an issue whose time has come but it will not win plaudits from traditional blue collar workers whose innate conservatism has been inculcated by decades of religious conditioning.

As its relevance to traditional audiences waned, Labor’s spin doctors put ever more effort into attracting new voters to the fold. It worked a treat with Kevin07 as a manufactured new-style hero emerged as a totem for those whose identity derives substantially from social media. Yes, it won an election in fine style. But when the real Kevin dropped the great moral issue of our time like a hot cake after his Copenhagen towelling, many of Labor’s new acolytes felt cheated. When Labor kept spinning that Kevin Rudd was really a nice person, many new adherents were mystified, if not appalled, by the torrent of invective that eventually erupted during the course of his recent challenge to Julia Gillard.

If you endorse a sociopath to lead your party just because he can win an election, what does it say about your values? Cabinet Ministers, apparatchiks and staffers are still running from this question, unwilling to recognise that it is a crux issue that must be resolved if the Labor brand is to be revitalised. Just as pertinent is Julia Gillard’s apparent belief that because she has secured the leadership as a childless, godless woman, customary political orthodoxies do not apply to her. Good luck with that one at next year’s federal election, Prime Minister.

With a 120-year pedigree of quite substantial success, it seems fanciful to imagine the complete demise of the Labor brand. Yet the number of those within Labor who simply will not see the writing on the wall betrays a collective foolhardiness that is incomprehensible.

If brand Labor is to be salvaged it must project a coherent set of values. It cannot be all things to all people. It most assuredly cannot win respect without trust. And it cannot earn trust without voters admiring its values. The task is not to chase complexity. If Labor can succinctly state a set of core principles which guide its ambition to play a leadership role in this nation, it will enjoy a renaissance. Otherwise, it will be smashed as comprehensively as the Berlin wall signified the demise of communism.