(See part 1 of this article here)
Some people seem to imagine that if factions did not exist debates in the Labor Party would be more open and democratic. If not for factions, the issues could be worked through debates on the Conference floor and then voted upon democratically. Maybe the policy supported by the best arguments might even win the contest of ideas. The media might respect the differences of opinion and report on how impressive the Labor Party was in civilly debating and resolving complex policy issues. The Parliamentary Party would be more accountable to the rank and file membership and would set about faithfully implementing all of the Party’s collective decisions.
It is a nice idea. It just bears little resemblance to how policy is made and implemented in the ALP or anywhere for that matter.
There is a commonly re-occurring tension within the ALP (and most parties) to keep the parliamentary leadership accountable to the membership. As a generality, the rank and file of the ALP are to the left of the electorate, which is how it should be. They want the Party to lead public opinion to more progressive positions. The parliamentary party usually sees itself as more practical- more focussed on winning elections, and therefore more prepared to compromise on policy in order to win enough votes. Also how it should be. Or, maybe even if that is not how it should be, its how it is.
Just in July, there were press reports about the Labor Environmental Action Network (LEAN), an activist faction of the Labor party, trying to ensure that the parliamentary leadership adheres to what LEAN claims to be the Party platform by opposing the Morrison Government’s decision to hand control of environmental assessments to the states.
Under the Party rules, the way that policy tension between the Party and the Parliamentary leadership is mediated is that the Party approves the platform and accompanying resolutions at state and national conferences, while the Parliamentary leadership and (to a lesser extent) the Parliamentary caucus is responsible for the policy.
But what is the difference between platform and resolutions on the one hand, and policy on the other? This is not a straightforward issue. It is inherently messy. There is a grey area.
The platform is supposed to be a more general document. It might outline a general measure. But not the detail. Not the “how” or “when” of implementation. And not how a measure will be funded.
The proposed platform will be negotiated with the responsible minister or shadow minister. Under rule 14 (d) of the National Rules, the platform is binding on the Parliamentary Party. Resolutions are not regarded as binding. The policy developed by the Parliamentary leadership is the document that is taken to the election. It is more specific and is usually costed. It often will not reproduce every element of the platform. And it may well contain measures not even mentioned in the platform. But, at the very least, the policy should not directly contradict the platform.
The factions and/or mover of amendments negotiate over the contents of the platform. If they reach an agreement a minister or shadow minister may have to compromise his or her preferred position. In this way, the factions hold the Parliamentary Party (minister/shadow minister) accountable to the Party, or at least to the factions. If somehow factions ceased to exist in the ALP, if neither unions nor the rank and file were organized into voting blocks, the un-coordinated rabble would be largely incapable of exerting a significant influence on the Parliamentary leadership.
Ruptions do occur within voting blocks. For example, at the 2015 National Conference the CFMEU, which is aligned to the National Left, voted against a motion supported by most of the Left against the turn back of boats carrying refugees.
Factions also provide another important function- one that assists the parliamentary leadership. Once an agreement is reached, the factions will usually also ensure that members of the faction, who may not have wanted to agree to compromise on a particular policy, will “tow the Party line”, at least for the time being. Or even if they don’t, and amendments and debates are further pursued, the factional agreement will deliver the compromise outcome irrespective of the arguments put forward in the debate.
Ministers/Shadow ministers often do not want a debate around contentious topics at Conference. The reason is usually simple- media sensitivity. Here is an example.
At one national conference, at a time when I was a member of the then National Policy Committee, I had moved an amendment to the national platform for Labor to commit to submitting to international law and the relevant international tribunal in relation to our border dispute with East Timor on the oil and gas reserves in the Timor sea.
Kevin Rudd, the shadow Foreign Minister at the time, was against the amendment. When I asked him why his response was simply that it was contrary to Australia’s national interest. Ultimately, he convinced the East Timorese representatives, who were present at the conference, that it was better for the amendment I proposed not to proceed to a debate on the Conference floor. So, I agreed to withdraw it. It was further agreed that Kevin would move the Foreign affairs chapter and I would second it and that I would be the only speaker from the Left in the debate on the chapter. Also, perhaps reminiscent of a famous ‘Fawlty Towers’ episode, it was agreed that I would not mention the phrase “International Court of Justice”.
But during the debate, another member of the Left, who obviously had not received the message that I was to be the only speaker from the Left got up and spoke. He said nothing about East Timor. He just spoke in criticism of the US alliance and in favor of a more independent foreign policy.
Kevin Rudd approached me and Maria Vamvakinou MP who was co-ordinating the chapter for the Left. “Your faction agreed Peter would be the only speaker from the Left. And now this!” Maria was speechless. I piped up “It must be an accident. He is not talking about East Timor. No harm is done.”
Tellingly, Kevin then replied, “You just don’t know what the media will report”.
“Do you want me to grab him?” I asked.
“Humpf,” grunted Kevin and walked away. Then he turned back again to give us a second serve. “I cannot tell you how livid I am!” The circumstances were such that he could not yell at us. This frustration seemed to result in his voice going up several octaves on the word “livid”.
But let’s not single out Kevin. To his credit, his office was one of the most active in actively engaging with the National Policy Committee around the development of the draft platform.
Kevin Rudd has recently called for the factions to be abolished. But there is one thing that all the ex Labor leaders who subsequently point out the negative aspects of factions have in common. They have all used them for their benefit at some point in time. This is not a criticism. They have no choice. But that is my point. They would have a choice to ignore an unorganized rank and file.
As an aside, years later the amendment I wanted on East Timor was adopted as policy by Labor during Tanya Plibersek’s period as Shadow Foreign Minister.
What about the allegation that the factions have been totally hollowed out ideologically and now just operate as pre-selection machines?
The origins of the increased institutionalization of factions in the ALP goes back to the 1950s and the Cold War and the debates over what was known as “unity tickets”.
A unity ticket was a ticket in which a member of the ALP stood in a union election with a member of another political party, usually the Communist Party. The ALP passed a rule against unity tickets with expulsion being the penalty for any ALP member breaching the rule. But it was not clear whether the rule only caught people whose tickets advertised their party affiliation. There was a stricter interpretation of the rule in NSW than there was in Victoria. Unity tickets only occurred in a relatively small number of unions. But some were important unions.
ALP members who ran for office in these unions respected Communist Party members who they ran for office with because they were strong and competent unionists. Industrially, they had more in common with this folk than they did with the Catholic industrial groups of B.A. Santamaria. According to the late Meatworkers Union leader and former Communist Party member Wally Curren, the nucleus of the unions that would eventually form the Socialist Left faction coalesced in opposition to the prohibition on unity tickets.
Obviously the ideological differences between left and right factions in the ALP must have hollowed out since the height of the Cold War. And they have doubtless further hollowed out with changes in society. The political faultlines have shifted across the entire political spectrum. The rise of identity politics, the environmental crisis, and globalization have resulted in a broader array of different policy permeations.
One might be at once in favor of same-sex marriage, a women’s right to choose and Republicanism while supporting labour market de-regulation and minimal intervention by Government in the economy. Or you might oppose all of the first three measures while supporting unions and government spending to create jobs. You might be an economic globalist or economic nationalist. You might be pro-coal or want to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible. And the list goes on. So with the increased complexity of ideological faultlines, it would be surprising if factions displayed the same ideological policy rigor as during the Cold War.
But in my view, at least at the level of rank and file ALP members, there are still ideological differences between the factions. There are exceptions. But, in general, people in the left will be more skeptical towards the benefits of the US alliance, less socially conservative, less trusting of market forces and therefore more likely to support government intervention in the economy, more likely want to phase out coal more quickly, and more critical of Hawke government decisions such as privatization of the Commonwealth bank.
It does remain the case however that membership of a particular faction depends, at least in part, on where you are at a particular point in time and who brought you into the Party. My father Clyde was a key leader of the Labor Unity Group at a time when there was Federal Intervention against the Victorian branch then led by Bill Hartly and George Crawford.
I was surprised when, years later, he told me that if he had joined the Party in the 80 or 90’s he would probably have joined the Left. But he also said that people from the Left had a tendency to become more conservative when appointed to the ministry. According to Clyde, Left parliamentary leaders, had helped deliver the Left vote on privatization to Hawke and Keating in return for representation on key cabinet committees such as the Government’s Expenditure Review Committee.
Currently, there may be a move by Labor’s federal leadership to replace the current comprehensive platform of over 250 or so pages with a 30-page document of more general principles. The leader Anthony Albanese has told the caucus the platform is too long. There are conflicting reports on whether he said the platform should be “gutted” or “reduced”.
Conciseness has its benefits. And there may be an argument that the current platform is too long and detailed and strays too far into areas of policy. Albo is apparently not happy with the seventy or so references within the platform to LGBTI issues. He wants the platform to simply refer to ending discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender. This seems reasonable enough. On the other hand, reducing the platform to a 30-page document of motherhood statements (if that were the intention) has the potential to weaken the accountability of the Federal Parliamentary Shadow Cabinet to the Party.
If this is to be prevented there is probably only one power block within the Party powerful enough and mean enough to do so. And that is the factions. Then again- they might even facilitate it.