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Issue #1506      22 June 2011


Labor’s “malaise”

The Australian Labor Party is in crisis and its causes are deeper than the latest round of personal feuding and factional infighting. The media is full of reports of a Rudd comeback and backbench unrest over policy debacles like the “Malaysian solution” for the asylum seekers arriving in Australian territorial waters. The panicked atmosphere is not limited to the federal sphere. In South Australia, Premier Rann is under mounting pressure to hand over the reins to education minister Jay Weatherill as the government continues to alienate the community.

Some say the slide is “cyclical”; that the Party will bounce back as it has every time since its foundation in 1891. But this time it’s not the same old ebbing and flowing of party political fortunes. At the very top of the party there is a recognition that something fundamental has occurred and that it may not be possible to reverse the trend. The ALP is haemorrhaging members. This year, 16 percent of Victoria’s 13,000 members did not renew their membership. Former member Jenni King was quoted in a piece in The Age would appear to be typical:

“I worked for the education department for a long time. I worked for the teachers union … it saddens me to see what’s happening to state schools. They are struggling in ways they never had to struggle. That was just the final straw. It was that instant.”

Senator John Faulkner joined former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and former NSW Premier Bob Carr to produce the ALP’s latest review of the state of the party for its National Executive. It was delivered in January and painted a gloomy picture. It contained a number of recommendations to restore some meaning to rank and file membership of the party beyond selling raffle tickets and handing out how-to-votes at polling booths.

Faulkner returned to these themes in his recent Wran Lecture. He pointed out that the ALP is suffering from a wider trend in a society comprised of time poor people. They don’t have the same amount of time to devote to activism. People don’t see their membership of the ALP as an important component of their broader community activism. The ALP is no longer enmeshed in the community as part of a social movement, Faulkner observed. Young people tend to engage on an issue-by-issue basis and stay away from the party.

Nowadays, the senator says, political professionals stage-manage conferences to produce a façade of unity around policy derived from focus groups and sniffing the political wind. According to Faulkner, the ALP no longer leads as it did in the days before the Whitlam government when it took up an initially unpopular position against involvement in the Vietnam War, for example. Debate is stifled. Policy committees on issues like health and education used to be lively and innovative. Now they are ignored and demoralised.

Unfortunately for the ALP, the problems at the core of the current crisis are deeper than the ones listed in the 2010 National Review. Senator Faulkner is not correct to say that policy is set by focus groups or timidly reacting to opinion polls. It may look that way but the reality is worse. Policy is now blatantly set in the think tanks of the capitalist class and corporate boardrooms, adapted and presented in only slightly different forms by the ALP and the Coalition. There is now so little wriggle room that “positive reform” (which Faulkner correctly notes is no longer associated with the ALP) is simply declared unthinkable by the controllers of the global capitalist economy.

A consensus has developed that the ALP is no longer a social democratic party. The Greens have, to some extent, stepped into the role left by the ALP. The real vacuum in Australian politics is the working class ideological alternative – a home for those who want to work for a society based on solidarity and respect for the environment. A strong Communist Party in a strong left and progressive movement used to act as a brake on the rightward drift of the ALP. In the near future, as economic and environmental pressures mount, that role will not be enough. With the decline of the ALP, that function may well be irrelevant. The building of the left and progressive alternative is now a question of survival.

Next article – Australians for Syria call for a peaceful resolution to protests

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