Party Reform and the Importance of Hope

SJ_no_tie__outdoors__head_only.jpg- Essay to the Southern Highlands Newsletter 200th Edition

Rodney Cavalier is the force of nature who ensures the publication of this journal to its wide readership. A gifted writer, who weaves together fact, story and image, to engage and entertain the reader from the first sentence to the last. Drawing on a deep knowledge of Australian politics, Labour history and cricket he produces this eclectic journal which is unfortunately unique. Rodney is also one of the Party’s more powerful speakers. His orations are fired with stories of 45 years in Labor’s trenches and, it must be said, a passion for the performance. His writings and orations have much to offer – except hope. It need not be so.

In the 199th edition of this journal we read that the Federal Labor Government has just lost office. We were told it was the worst in our history. There was no achievement to celebrate. Not school education reform, not the national broadband network, not re-civilising the laws of our workplace, not national shipping reform, or equal pay for community workers, not the apology to a stolen generation, the apology for forced adoption or the establishment of a Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse. The introduction of paid maternity leave and our record investment in higher education, skills and infrastructure received no mention. While Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote that Labor had done “a fantastic job of saving your country”  from the global financial crisis, the Newsletter’s editor dismissed actions like insuring our banks to stave off a credit crisis, and targeting stimulus spending towards retail and then infrastructure as unworthy. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (funded in part by an increase in the Medicare Levy) received but a sneering reference. 

A fool may claim the conception and implementation of these reforms was faultless. I don’t. The now you see it now you don’t response to climate change is a splendid example. Here, the greatest moral challenge of all time was confronted by the talented opportunism of an energetic opponent in Tony Abbott and his merry band of denialists. Its urgency was demoted and the PM deposed. The newly installed PM gave the very idea of a carbon tax the Gethsemane treatment in the heat of the 2010 election then needlessly re-embraced its nomenclature months later at a press conference in the shadow of the hung parliament. The political management of a sound policy was a debacle. The only thing that could confound us further would be to dump our conviction that this serious environmental problem requires a feasible economic solution.

We must learn from these and other mistakes. But to deny every reform the status that it deserves as a contribution to Labor’s national legacy is as foolish as it is ahistorical.

Political movements draw strength, inspiration and identity from their past. The dreams and achievements of one generation are the lodestar for those that follow. For over 100 years Labor’s contribution to Australia has been to build a prosperous but fairer nation: by providing employees with rights at work, the creation of a social safety net, by providing access to health care and education and by building the economic infrastructure that the private sector could not or would not build itself.

Labor legislated against discrimination, gave land rights to the first Australians and acted to protect our environment. These were new and powerful ideas producing hard won reforms, the result of tough political battles. Often the first battleground was within the Party itself. 

Once Labor adopted a position on these issues it gave the idea an opportunity to enter the political mainstream. Only a major political party can achieve this. The reason is simple: government in Australia is the battle between the major parties for the middle ground.

This middle ground is not fixed – it moves with the political tides. It is this willingness to take on the debates, shifting the common sense of the nation, which differentiates Labor from the Greens. It is the willingness to try but fail, then try and try again that separates Labor from Rodney’s “Brand Labor.”

When Labor adopted the idea of a National Disability Insurance Scheme we argued the case and succeeded in convincing not only the nation but our political opponents that this must happen. 

Other examples abound  – Medicare, native title, industrial awards – even paid parental leave – which Tony Abbott once famously said would occur over his dead body – is now firmly in the mainstream.

The same can be said of our economic reforms – opening up our financial markets, reforming trade and tariffs, establishing occupational superannuation, capital gains tax and share market reforms like franking dividends.

Labor argued the case to bring these ideas into the mainstream. Once the middle ground has been established, the reforms endure and the bitter political battles that preceded them fade from memory. Labor’s enduring contribution to Australia's social and economic fabric has been to shift the marker of the middle ground through landmark reforms which define a nation.

Tradition and Reform

Labor was born of the aspiration of working people – our name reflects that. Our Party needs to recognise that the way we work has changed. In increasing numbers, we are now working in small businesses, or running them. Our reforms to higher education have ensured that professionals have emerged from households where hitherto no one had attended a university.

These are the fruits of Labor success. They are also our challenge.

Labor has to extend its gaze to this new world of work and apply our traditional values of equality and fairness to the needs and aspirations of this world. We have much to offer. For a party formed on the idea of the dignity of work it should be common sense that a small business is not just a means of making a living and generating wealth– it is also an expression of aspiration and creativity by the individuals involved.

For a party dedicated to the idea of that individuals who bargain collectively can overcome the imbalance of power between labour and capital – it should be common sense that the same imbalance exists between the small and large businesses today. It is also folly to assume that those who work in business are unyielding in their support of the Coalition. There are many successful entrepreneurs who firmly believe in generating social wealth, yet who are appalled by the intellectual paucity of Australia’s political debate. They believe in marriage equality, in Australia as a republic, and in the fair treatment of asylum seekers. They also believe in climate change, public spending on education and the use of sensible market based solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

They do not believe that their success rests on the exploitation of those beneath them. They believe in equality and fairness. Their politics embrace the future, not the past.  We should embrace them. 

Now begins the task of reaching out to the next generation who can be Labor members and Labor voter.

Our Local Branches

People join movements for all sorts of reason. They stay in them because they align with their values and they provide a meaningful way of advancing that cause. If local Branches are to remain the main way members interact with the party (and this is by no means a given) then they have to renew themselves. We don’t have to wait for permission or directive to do this.

Members should be our strength. With thousands of years of collective experience – in policy development in community campaigning and invaluable local knowledge that cannot be replicated in focus groups and opinion polls. We have within our ranks some of the best writers and orators,  people with expertise in health, science, education and business and in the media (old and new). Their capacity is rarely harnessed.  This must change.

The Party must also become a training ground for the political arts of debate, analysis, courage and order under fire, and organisation. It is true that political training happens organically by being involved and participating, but it can also be supported by organised and structured workshops and courses. These are not new ideas.

Extending Democracy

By the time this journal is published Labor members around the country will have voted in a ballot to determine the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Party. The election has energised members and supporters. It will generate support for more internal democracy. This cannot be resisted. The capacity for members to have a direct say through a ballot is important and should be extended to all State and National Executive positions. It should also extend to the determination of our Senate and MLC candidates. The arguments against this democratic reform are empty.

The Role of Unions

There have been many contributors to this journal who have questioned the role of unions in internal decision making of the party. I am an unapologetic defender of the special role that unions play in our society. There is no other organisation in civil society that has the reach, resources, capacity and inclination to challenge tyranny in the way that Australian unions can. They are not without fault, but we are a more civilised country because of them.

I stand by the special relationship between Labor and the union movement. It has changed since the founding of our party. It will continue to change. Two things must happen immediately. We must explore ways to encourage direct membership of unionised workers in our party. Second, union members should have a say about whether their membership of their union should count for the purpose of their unions affiliating to our party. This ensures that union members are engaged with the Party – not passive or involuntary numbers. Some unions provide their members with this opt-in power already.  In my view it will either happen by us or to us.

The importance of hope

Labor was founded on the belief that together we could harness the power of Government to make the nation a better place. Hope is the faithful companion of this belief.  Without hope that change is possible and without hope that Labor would be the force that brings about that change - we have nothing. 

Here lies the focus of my criticism of the Cavalier dialogue. It is not that he focuses on an uncomfortable truth. More of that I say. It is not that it is prone to exaggerations and denial. This comes with the territory. It is because whatever faith he retains in the possibility of redemption – whatever belief he has in the capacity of Labor to change, to be better than it is –  is well hidden. 

A rigorous Labor analysis of the short-comings of the Rudd and Gillard Governments is critical. It should be clinical and instructive. It should provide guidance to the next generation of Labor members and permit the rebuilding of the party and movement.  If Labor is to secure its future it must engage with these ideas. We must do it in a way that fosters hope that change is possible and the party is worth sticking with. 

From time to time it is worth considering how we appear to the new recruit who stumbles upon a Branch meeting and comes inside for a listen.  How do we ensure that they turn up to the next meeting?


This is the 200th edition of the Newsletter. I congratulate the Branch and the Editor. A lively journal, where ideas can be debated and developments discussed, is very valuable. I wish only the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter was not unique. How wonderful it would be if every ALP branch had such a publication. I look forward to celebrating with you all at the dinner in November.