Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Reviewing Labor's Internal Reviews 1966-2010: 'Looking Forward, Looking Backwards'

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Reviewing Labor's Internal Reviews 1966-2010: 'Looking Forward, Looking Backwards'

Article excerpt


Since the ALP began considering why it couldn't win federal office in the post-Evatt period, it has held fairly regular internal reviews. Each time it has asked Party and union members to posit reasons for federal (and sometimes state) defeat and solutions for future electoral victories. Arguably however, the holder of the reviews--the senior Party hierarchy or oligarchs who were also senior factional leaders--and the respondents to the reviews-branch and union members--saw the process from two different perspectives. For the oligarchs, Labor reviews are about being seen to reform. For Labor, rank-and-file reviews suggest if likely reform will occur. There is clearly a difference between design and outcome.

This paradox is evident in even a cursory view of submissions. Of the five internal Labor Party reviews held between 1966 and 2010, from the Party elders came the recurring themes of national unity and centralisation, increased democratisation and enlarged participation and more recently, the reduction of union power in policy-making. However, from the branch and union members came strong concerns for the need to dismantle centralised power, particularly among the national factions and national union leaders, to replace less pragmatic bipartisan policies aimed at chasing swing voters with policies that reflect was is imagined within the ALP as social democratic labour traditions, and to increase participation of branch members in policy-making forums.

Internal Labor Party reviews for senior Party and union officials were usually about the perception of change. While there were some exceptions, such as Simon Crean's demand for unions to have the same voting rights at national conferences as Party participants (even though Crean did this to counter the public view that the unions were becoming too powerful within the Party), for the most part, Labor oligarchs engage in reviews as a process of distraction: to posit change, reform, modernisation, democratisation, centralisation or decentralisation (depending on the mood) when in fact few rules are changed in response to the innumerable recommendations.

The process of reviews for branch members was often quite different. It gave them an opportunity to have their voice heard in the large cacophony of the mass party. But as is the case with the five Labor Party reviews examined in this paper, when the reviews function to posit change they do so to supplicate voters and members concerns about policy, power and leadership acting as little more than a distraction. The process is not designed for change but rather to posit the appearance of change. Labor Party internal reviews function as 'smoke and mirrors' for hierarchy inaction on issues that are at a rank-and-file level potentially fatal: factionalism, branch stacking and increasingly rightward trending public and social policy designed to capture aspirational Liberal voters. These issues for many branch members, and an increasing group of former ALP MP's (ironically themselves once oligarchs), unless seriously responded to posit the 'Party is over'

Beginning with the 1966 Wyndham Review and finishing with the 2010 National Review that examined the near disaster of the 2010 federal election which showed the ALP significantly disconnected from voters and members, this paper examines how reviews have been a case of members trying to wrestle the Party away from the pragmatic path of catch-all policies that it has set itself on. It argues pragmatism rather than genuine reform and the search for electoral salvation with bipartisan policies has been the cornerstone to explain the Party's inability to win federal majorities. At each stage, from 1966 to 2010, the same problems emerged: factionalism, branch-stacking, oligarchs, anti-social democratic policies, and an alienated membership base. Only with significant structural change to the Party would a reversal of electoral fortune emerge. …

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