Australia's Changing Political Universe

Opportunities for the minor parties from the Liberal Party leadership imbroglio and the necessity of building alternative political agendas outside the mainstream parties: Or, eleven reasons I have joined the Australian Democrats.

The new conservative constellation of the Liberal-National Party says a lot about contemporary Australian politics. Tony Abbot’s win and the buoyant and then ecstatic mood of the News Limited dominated Australian press reflects the status quo of Australian politics.

The two dominant parties are almost completely dominated by corporatist interests. Malcolm Turnbull was quite exceptional. He was a leader’s leader reflecting the views of a majority of Australians and a majority of the Liberal Party members views on climate change and the need to put a price on carbon. The emissions trading floor was not a perfect solution but it was something tangible that was agreed to by a majority of Parliamentarians and through them a majority of Australians. Perhaps Labor as well as Liberals made tactical mistakes but the debate had been going on for a decade and had been pioneered by Prime Minister Howard and his right hand man Peter Shergold. But we all forgot, in the Liberal Party, as in the Labor Party, the majority, nor even science, counts for anything much. The facts are something to be manipulated for short term ends.

For the past 30 years I had been a member of the Labor Party, putting my membership on hold for only a short period in the interests of impartiality while I was Director of the non-partisan Brisbane Institute in the early 2000s. However this year I resigned from the Labor Party for good. It may be an overdue realization but it dawned on me that democratization was structurally impossible within the Labor Party.

In my long career in the Labor Party I was rarely on the winning side of a debate. But that was not a problem so long as the views and policies that I believed in and worked on had a chance of being implemented.

In my decade at the Evatt Foundation, during the Hawke-Keating years, it was always my goal to put forward a winning leftist policy platform for the Labor Party. But I grew up in a family where my father – a Liberal – had always encouraged one’s rights to express an opinion to the contrary. Moreover my academic mentor Professor Paul Hirst always impressed upon me that one’s political adversaries are not always and automatically wrong. Zealotry was a political loser.

Some of my colleagues on the Left didn’t get the Evatt agenda, they were so used to playing second fiddle to the Right, that they mistrusted any attempt to put forward a positive agenda. Despite this we made a great deal of progress and I particularly enjoyed working with two old political stalwarts of the Left: the great Tommy Macdonald and the wise Peter Robson. But in 1996, after Keating Labor was defeated at the polls,  I was very tired and looking for something new. Added to this, then Opposition Leader Kim Beazley did a deal with incoming Prime Minister Howard to take the small amount of funding that had been devoted to the Evatt and Menzies foundations and to incorporate them into the party political coffers – specifically to the Liberal and Labor party secretariats. This was the end of any possibility of independent research and policy development within the broad Labour movement.

It was back to the cold war consensus which the old lefties were more comfortable with – disagreeing with whatever the Right came up with and occupying a more marginal space within the party. The Left’s role was to amend the dominant NSW Right position. Paul Keating summed up the role of the Left in NSW when he said his faction was about “vital interests”, while the Left was about an “ideological purity” that could never be achieved.  The “vital interests” philosophy means that no matter whether the Left represented the majority of party members or not, it could always be over-ruled. Party rules and party democracy was expendable and malleable to “the vital interests” identified by the Right. For example, the 2008 Labor Party conference, in which one of the greatest majority votes in NSW Party history voted against the privatization of the electricity industry, meant nothing to the Right. The party membership was simply misguided, out of touch and not concerned with ‘vital interests’ and therefore ignorable.After the 2008 privatisation debate I realised with a crunch that it would not matter if 100,000 new members joined the NSW party, the same interest group, much like the Chinese communist mandarins, would never relinquish control.

I got a strange feeling of déjà vous watching the machinations of the Liberal Party over the past week. It reminded me of the NSW Right. The dominant Liberal, dare I say it, Catholic Right faction, care nothing for democracy, science or the views of the majority of Australian citizens. Only they understand the “vital interests” of the country. There is no logic at times like this. The rule is there are no rules. The only thing that matters is “vital interests” as understood by the conservative right.Only they have the burning heart of Australian politics.

In my analysis, in both Australia’s main political parties, democracy, the work of policy, the deliberations and cross-deliberations of experts and scientists, the process of debate – do not ultimately matter.

The ugly prospect of the future in Australian politics is a contest between two right wing projections of a sort of facism of vital interests. Party boundaries do not really matter. Tony Abbot and the right wing catholics of NSW have a discussion forum every week.

It is time for people who stand against the conservative consensus to stand up and to present the Australian people with a range of alternatives.

The common sense view is that unless you are part of one of the dominant parties you are irrelevant. But here is the problem of working as a democrat within the Liberal and Labor party – democracy is just another set of rules to be broken in the interests of “vital interests”. The leaders of the left factions within the Labor and Liberal parties soon learn the game. They, like the leaders of the Right factions, realize that talking to ordinary members or ordinary people for that matter, does not matter at all. Serious research also does not matter. In fact, as I learned during my Evatt Foundation years, it is just an indulgence and distraction. When a group of national researchers out-researched his beloved Treasury, Keating reacted by throwing the report at then ACTU President Simon Crean – who had ironically, unknowingly,  and probably unwillingly, funded the report.

Party democracy is something to be manipulated to get your way. Party pre-selection is not something that can be left to ordinary members. The goal is to ensure that the specialized knowledge of how to be elected, how to win public funding for elections, infrastructure, manipulate the media et al – is something precious only to be passed on to family. Party administration is, of course, not to be an impartial practice but simply a means to get your family members into safe seats and to rort the system in order to protect the interests of those who shared the “vital interests” philosophy or those of your immediate factional supporters.
Don Chipp came to many of these conclusions many years ago. At the end of his life John Button also came up with a similar analysis of the Labor Party who he rightly concluded was even less democratic than the Liberal party. The question then becomes what to do. My conclusion was that at least for the last few decades of my life I had to try to work in a minority party in which corporate dominance and conservative “vital interests” were not paramount. The problem with the Greens is that they have their own dominant vital interests and a tendency to the zealotry that has destroyed the fabric of the Labor and Liberal parties. However in their favour, compared to the Liberal and Labor parties the Greens do practice a very strong local, grass roots participatory policy development process, they also have an exemplary record with regard to corporate donations. Notwithstanding the importance of climate change, it seemed to me though that a constellation of the classical liberalism of the Liberal Party and the progressive Left idealism of the Labor Party was needed. It should be a party in which disaffected Liberals and disaffected members of the Labor Party could be comfortable joining. But there should be the possibility of holding a wide ranging set of ideas and viewpoints. The project would be to build an alliance with a new generation of young idealists in which democratic debate was the most important arbiter of policy. This seems to me to be the main game, if Australian politics is to have any hope and if we are to retain the possibility of a diversity of strong ideas and policies capable of being endorsed by a majority of Australian citizens in the future.

The best prospect I could see was the broken down parliamentary party – the Australian Democrats. Conventional wisdom is that minority parties can have only a marginal role in mainstream Australian politics. Conventional wisdom has it that the broken-down Democrats will never recover. Conventional wisdom has it that the only possible way of influencing Australian politics is through the Senate.

I beg to differ. After many years of fighting the so-called right wing think tanks of the world, my view is that ordinary people recognize the superiority of high quality research and policy. Of course having a high degree of sophistication in marketing and working with the dumbed-down Australian media is essential. My analysis of the failure of the Democrats in the past is that the party membership did not understand the need to allow their representatives the creativity and autonomy to engage within the parameters of parliamentary democracy. The major missing ingredient that would bind rank and file membership and their parliamentary representatives together is the quality and clarity of policy and ideas and a richness of debate and discussion.

Quality and clarity, charged by continuous discussion and debate, is an anchor for members and representatives alike.

Ideas and policies then, in my admittedly naïve view, are more important than all the ravings of pragmatic political bureaucrats, crusty columnists and seasoned political analysts and far more important than having a multi-million dollar political machine full of dead beats and hangers on half funded by tax payers.

Ideas and policies begin with an engaging intellectual agenda that can be made real in the debates and criticisms of people of interest, namely ordinary citizens as political participants.

Here are eleven ideas outside the political consensus of the major parties that I think could be the basis for a mainstream political platform of the future and that need to be debated and developed:


A more flexible and democratically accountable Australian constitution
A more powerful local sphere of government
Direct and major public and private investment in Aboriginal people and their social, cultural and economic enterprises
People-based internationally competitive productivity in all aspects of economic and social life
A carbon neutral national economy
Direct and major national investment in the Australian national environment
Social enterprise based social welfare
Dramatic regulatory reform of Australia’s media monopolies
Radical de-bureaucratisation of Australia’s education and knowledge institutions
Demo-geographic re- visioning and development of regional and rural Australia
A major reform of Australian consumer and business regulations


Finally two observations: Malcolm Turnbull missed the opportunity to recruit the Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson into the Liberal Party. Now the closer Pearson ally, Abbot, has the opportunity to recruit Pearson, as the country’s most credible anti-Green campaigner into his senior Leadership ranks. It may well be that the seat that is most suitable for Pearson to enter the parliament is a National Party seat. Abbot’s close relationship with Barnaby Joyce should now allow them to swing something even in time for the next election. So I guess something good might come from this week’s Canberra coagulations. Pearson would make a welcome contribution to the parliament.

The political laugh of 2009 comes from Mark Latham writing in today’s Australian Financial Review. Latham observes that Tony Abbot is “unelectable”! If Mark Latham could make it to become Australian Labor’s alternative Prime Minister then Tony Abbott can certainly be elected Prime Minister. Only the quality of the people and arguments that oppose him will ensure that Tony Abbott does not reach the highest office in the land. It is up to all of us to give the conservatives on both sides of politics a real debate and fight, and that is the task of the Greens, the Democrats, the Independents and the dissidents within the Labor and Liberal parties. Nothing can be taken for granted.