From Labor Member to Liberal Candidate

Structural reform of the ALP misses the point. It’s the policy, stupid.

Henry Ergas has called out the recurrent excuse-making from the ALP. Reinvigorate and re-engage members, many say, and the ALP’s problems will disappear. They’ve been saying it for more than 18 months.

Rodney Cavalier  wrote in September that the Prime Minister’s reform program for the ALP captures only one of the reasons for Labor’s decline.

Cavalier focused on a pattern of connection and patronage that cuts out members and gives all power to union and factional leadership. His is one of many articles over the past two years that have referred perjoratively to a ‘political class’, in Australia, the UK and the US.

Common across this commentary are issues of entering government for government’s sake, of hacks in power with too much to lose, of insider relationships between media, academia and political players, of spin rather than competence in governing.

Although right on the emergence of a quasi-aristocratic and incompetent Labor ruling class, post-Queensland ALP analysts, like Mr Cavalier, are mistaken in the view that member engagement will somehow put the ALP back on track.

It is typical of the rash of ALP navel-gazing that has emerged over the past 12 months in that it focuses on internal structures rather than the substantive content of the Left’s policy and attitudes.

Underlying it is a belief that if only members could hold representatives to account, and have a say in policy, that the ALP would be fine. And few would deny the stranglehold the unions have over the ALP is desperate need of reform.

But the electoral decline of the Left worldwide – despite Denmark’s partial return to leftist government – completely undermines this view. The one thing the Left has in common across the world is policy orientation, not internal structure.

Mr Cavalier, the Carr-Faulkner-Bracks review, and the Prime Minister all ignore the possibility that Labor’s decline might also be a function of their policies, and that this would only be worse if members had a stronger say.

Indeed, as a former Labor member who ran as a Liberal candidate in the NSW election in March 2011, I am an example of a small-l liberal repelled by the impractical ideologies I encountered in the ALP.

As a young man motivated to make positive change, I had been impressed by the strength and reform of the first term of the Hawke-Keating government. I then, embarrassingly to me now, bought broader ALP mythmaking and joined the party.

Over a couple of years two things happened: I gained education and experience, and I came to know and understand the membership’s core beliefs.

What was so disturbing to my young Labor self were the knee-jerk attitudes of a membership that didn’t seem concerned about outcomes in the real world.

Across the membership were emotional commitments to ideas that, contrary to their labels, would hurt the disadvantaged, increase exclusion, and make us all poorer. And with Bob Carr’s leadership came support for a grandiose, posturing do-nothingness that gave shape to the spin-system we all now despise.

When people believe a capitalist economy is evil, despite it providing an unprecedented quality of life for those who live in it, ideology is trumping experience. The same can be said for the idea that profit is immoral, that spending is action, that governments need not be frugal, that our environment is in terminal decline, and that once you hire a single employee you somehow have less moral worth.

These views were all held by a membership clearly a hundred miles from the pragmatic leadership of 1983.

But most disturbing was the membership’s belief that long-standing political institutions are only valuable to the extent they further the Left’s agenda.

Members equated political view with moral worth: that because they presumed their views were morally righteous, those views trumped all dissenting views, and they trumped any institutions that got in the way of implementing them.

Which makes the current Green-Labor attack on media that express dissent no surprise whatsoever.

Very quickly I grew up and left the ALP. And as the disaster of the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally government unfolded, it was clear that it wasn’t just a question of competence, or spin, or an ALP-insider class.

It was equally clear that the ALP had swallowed its own myths, was ignoring the economic and political lessons of the 20th century, and was indulging the emotional resentments of a very small group in society.

The Left lost the great post-war economic debate and hasn’t been able to move on since for the simple reason they know not where to go.

So while Mr Cavalier is right to speak of a Labor political class with a sense of entitlement and all it entails, he does himself and his party no favours by rationalising away the reality of being on the wrong side of policy.