Barry Jones

I believe that [Labor voters] can have no respect for a party, certainly not their own party, if in a time of great national crisis, it sees no alternative but to carry out the policy of its opponents.

– John Curtin, House of Representatives, 24 June 1931

This response should be seen not as a rebuttal of John Button’s essay Beyond Belief: What Future for Labor? but as a supplement, with some different emphases and minor points of divergence.

Since 1929, there have been only eight changes in Federal government. Labor has won from opposition in 1929, 1941 (in the parliament, but not at an election), 1972 and 1983; the anti-Labor Coalition (under various names) has regained office in 1931, 1949, 1975 and 1996.Winning from opposition is tough – and rare.

How Important Are Structural Issues?

Following Whitlam’s heavy defeat in 1977, Bill Hayden set up an ALP National Committee of Enquiry (1978), chaired by John Button, with Hawke and Hayden among its members. It was critical about party structures and made sweeping recommendations, essentially to abandon “the Federal Principle” – that the party should operate as a national entity organised on national lines, not just as a coalition of states as it had been in 1902. Few of its recommendations were adopted. Despite this discouraging response, five years later under Bob Hawke, Labor won election with a comfortable majority. The party has shown remarkable resilience in the past, and may well bounce back again.

After the 2001 defeat, Simon Crean set up a National Committee of Review, consisting of Bob Hawke and Neville Wran, with terms of reference remarkably similar to the Button Enquiry of 1978. Both John Button and I made written submissions to the review. Its report was published in August.

While their thirty-eight recommendations are essentially about the ALP’s composition and structure, the Hawke–Wran Report must be read in a broad political context. In their extensive meetings with rank-and-file party members throughout Australia, Hawke and Wran were impressed by a passionate commitment to change. ALP members want “bottom up” processes to replace the current system of “democratic centralism” where head office, factional leaders and, perhaps, spin doctors make all the important decisions about how the party operates, policy directions and choice of candidates.

They emphasise that the party must have a strong commitment to:

— the collective responsibility of society (i.e. not leaving everything to the market)

— unqualified opposition to discrimination of all kinds

— recognition of Aboriginal prior ownership of the continent

— an independent foreign policy

— protection of the natural environment (I would have added, cultural)

— an enlarged population, including more genuine refugees

— the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively

— “a correct and humane policy” for boat people and refugees, and

— overcoming “a perceived lack of policy differentiation from our conservative opponents”.

On party structure, Hawke–Wran attack “the deadening impact of factionalism and the associated phenomenon of branch-stacking” and “the cancerous effect this activity has had on the democratic traditions that have been the strength of our Party”. I agree with Button/Hawke–Wran in their concerns about the impact of factionalism, branch-stacking and its “cancerous effect” on the democratic traditions of the party. Simon Crean has been courageous in pursuing organisation restructure and deserves full support.

Nevertheless, there are some unexamined paradoxes in both documents. I support the much discussed move from 60–40 trades unions share of delegates at ALP Conferences to 50–50 and taking strong action against branch-stacking and factional excesses, but these issues may be of minor importance to Labor voters.

Both Button and Hawke–Wran refer to the case of Clarke v. the South Australian ALP, in which the South Australian Supreme Court made an adverse judgement on “vigorous recruitment”, leading to the displacement of a long serving MP, Ralph Clarke. Clarke then contested his own seat as an Independent. Did disaffected voters rise in righteous indignation to re-elect Clarke? No, they did not. I conclude that filling the policy vacuum, showing leadership and getting away from convergence mode is far more important.

Another paradox is: if the diagnosis of pathology in the ALP’s body politic is correct, why is it only crippling at the federal level? Labor holds office in every state and territory, facing extraordinarily weak opposition. The State Liberal Parliamentary Parties are in disarray in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, and in poor shape in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. This is curious, because Labor’s aspirations are national, despite the creaking federal structure of its organisation.

In the Commonwealth, the Coalition is ascendant and the Labor Opposition is going through a painful process of restructuring. In each state and territory, the ALP Premier or Chief Minister is a popular figure, well ahead of the Opposition Leader, and they are perceived as competent managers/administrators. State government is essentially regarded as being about housekeeping, not the generation of new policy directions.

New policy directions, setting a national vision, is seen as the role of the Commonwealth government – and this is where federal Labor appears at a distinct disadvantage. Polling for our State Parliamentary Parties appears to be significantly higher than for the Federal Parliamentary Party.

Adopting the Hawke–Wran Report will not only be good for the ALP but should make a vital contribution to raising the level of national political debate, restoring a moral and intellectual agenda in elections, reviving a sense of community and the legitimacy of democratic processes.

There are some significant weaknesses – on affirmative action and indigenous representation – and proposals to create special interest branches will need careful monitoring to avoid rorting. Hawke–Wran worry about the policy vacuum but make no reference to Knowledge Nation.

I agree with Hawke–Wran on changing 60–40 union representation at Conferences to 50–50 and agree that trades unions should be encouraged to play active roles in the ALP. I disagree with John Button’s view that the time “for a friendly divorce” might have come, although he is correct to point out that “unions affiliated with the ALP represent less than 15 per cent of the workforce” and contribute only 24 per cent of the ALP’s income.

There are two objections to changing 60–40: the property argument (“It’s our property isn’t it, and why should we give anything up?”) and the nostalgia argument (“Unions founded the show in 1891 and nothing much has changed in Australia since then”).

Labor’s “Small Target” Strategy: The Convergence Problem

The “small target” strategy Labor adopted for the 2001 election was completely misconceived – a suspension of belief which resulted from over-reliance on spin doctors and reports from focus groups. As John Button points out it was an adaptation of John Howard’s successful “relaxed and comfortable” strategy in 1996, with echoes of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin in Vespers (“If I curl up small, nobody will know that I’m there at all”). It was hard to imagine Kim Beazley curling up small.

The 1998 election had been largely fought on the GST – and Labor polled far better than it expected, or deserved. Kim Beazley’s advisors thought the 2001 election would be fought, once more, on the GST, and starting, as we did, on a higher baseline than in 1998 there would be sufficient community aggravation about the tax for Labor to win. The strategy was to avoid confrontation with the government on any issue other than GST. Labor voted for government legislation in the Senate which weakened Medicare and state schools for fear of creating a row and offending “aspirational voters”. This angered many “true believers”.

It proved to be a monumental miscalculation. The GST was a key issue in 1998 and changed many votes – but by 2001 the GST, however unpopular, had been accepted as a fact of life. Labor’s “Rollback” policy, proposing to remove the GST from a few classes of goods, was seen as merely tinkering at the margins. Button calls it “pathetic, feeble, vague, cynical, hypocritical”. It was even worse. Five Labor state premiers lacked enthusiasm for prejudicing their guaranteed income stream from the GST. Australians are pragmatic and, however much they might have grumbled about the GST and the cost and time involved in making quarterly returns, they were never going to switch their votes on a dead issue.

In the 1980s Labor, in office, moved steadily to the right, and the Coalition went even further. This was the time that the politics went out of politics, marked by the death of ideology, the rise and rise of economics as a dominant paradigm, the commercialisation of values, and replacement of community values by the market.

By 2001, both parties assumed that the electorate would make only conservative, self-serving judgements on personal taxation and levels of government spending. Thus, it was felt, appeals to vision and the long term could be disregarded. This was a completely untested hypothesis. One issue that the ALP did not poll on was this: “Since the electorate was prepared to support temporary levies to pay for the guns buy-back scheme and military intervention in East Timor, would voters be prepared to pay higher taxes if they were targeted to particular problems in health, education, employment and the environment?”

In the UK, polls carried out by The Economist found that 70 per cent of taxpayers said they would pay more tax if they believed the community would get value for money – but no polling organisation has asked Australian taxpayers on this issue.

On defence and foreign policy issues, Labor and the Coalition appeared to be dancing the tango – if the Prime Minister moved, Labor followed. It was as if Howard had said to Beazley, “I don’t think that Reconciliation and the Republic should be election issues,” and Kim had said, “Thank you. We agree.”

The high degree of convergence involved in the “small target” strategy had two results – first, it alienated many voters of even vaguely radical persuasion and made the Greens and even the Democrats seem attractive for a first preference vote, second, it put an exaggerated emphasis on the role of the leaders. There was a reduction in the tribal appeal of voting Labor or Liberal – the main question became: “In dangerous times, who is the stronger leader?” Paradoxically, Howard’s apparent lack of personal charisma operated in his favour, with the Liberal sub-text: “You don’t have to like John Howard to know that he is a gutsy, tough little fighter, dogged and persistent. Like him or not, you know where you are with him.” There was a disconnect between “liking” and (grudging) “support”.

In practice, there is a higher degree of convergence on major policies between parliamentary parties than there is between activists in party branches. (This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that parliament is a bear pit.) Labor branch activists tend to be to the left of the ALP’s parliamentary leadership, Liberal activists further to the right, National Party activists further right again, and Democrat branch members much further to the left of their senators.


Kim Beazley was probably the ALP’s most conservative federal leader – certainly since J.H. Scullin. Malcolm Fraser says, “I have only one problem with Kim Beazley. I can’t think of a single issue where he is to the Left of me.”

He was not a “change agent” – and I doubt if he saw himself as such. That made his establishment of the Knowledge Nation Task Force, under my chairmanship, such an anomaly – because if the Task Force proposed major policy commitments, as it did, they either had to be adopted or rejected. Sadly, Kim did both, accepting the report in its entirety, pledging himself to its adoption, only to be persuaded to walk away as soon as it came under attack.

Kim Beazley’s moving concession speech on election night suggested how a moral argument might have been advanced in the campaign. He said, “There are dark angels in our nature but there are good angels as well.” He was probably reaching out for Lincoln’s reference to “the better angels of our nature”. Despite all this, it is possible to propound an optimistic view of the 2001 election. (There were hard-nosed ALP strategists who kept insisting, privately, that Labor would win, until the Thursday before polling day.)

The optimistic view is that, considering the appalling political impact of the asylum seekers crisis, the September 11 terrorist attack in the US and the war in Afghanistan in the weeks leading up to election day, the final result was relatively close, with the ALP gaining 49.5 per cent of the two-party preferred votes after all preferences from minor parties had been distributed. The Coalition won a majority of twelve seats in 1998 in an election fought on the GST; unpopular for Howard, good for Beazley. In 2001 (with the House increased from 148 to 151 members) the Coalition’s majority only increased to thirteen seats (but with the support of several Independents). Kim Beazley was regarded as having won the three set-piece engagements of the 2001 campaign – the debate with John Howard, the Policy Launches and the National Press Club speeches. Labor’s election advertising was generally more effective. From that perspective, Labor’s “small target” strategy of remaining virtually invisible until a few weeks before polling day might be considered to have been surprisingly successful – and, if three voters in every 200 had changed, a winning strategy.

The pessimistic view is that Labor’s primary vote has fallen to its lowest figure (38.2 per cent) since 1934. The 1998 election result provided a false optimism because it was fought on an issue (GST) that suited Labor. There is serious questioning in the ALP about an apparent policy vacuum. The ALP has, for practical purposes, become a party of the centre right. Is there room for a mainstream party of the left in Australia? Many Labor supporters felt alienated from the official line on the refugees, defected to cast primary votes for Greens or Democrats in the House of Representatives, but gave Labor their effective preference votes. But this could change. This raises serious debate about whether the party is essentially the political expression of the trade union movement, or a broad coalition of all citizens who believe that humane, social values are more important than market values. Many traditional Labor voters disliked the “small target” approach and felt that the party had gone missing on many major issues such as education, health, the environment and immigration since Keating’s defeat in 1996.

Wedge Politics

John Howard is a strong and successful practitioner of “wedge politics”, a concept developed in the US by Nixon, Reagan and the senior Bush, in which the major dividing line in society is not between left and right (terms that have become increasingly meaningless since the collapse of the Soviet Union), rich and poor, but between elite opinion and popular opinion, with a deeply anti-intellectual emphasis (= dumbing down).

Howard pushes a strongly elitist economic agenda but a strongly populist social agenda. He is also a “conviction” politician, prepared to push ahead on issues which were, on the face of it, vote losers, such as the GST and selling off Telstra. But he pushes ahead – and wins. On balance, I think he will succeed in selling off Telstra. One of his strongest attributes is when he says, “You mightn’t like what I am doing, but you know where I stand.”

In 2001 he succeeded in destroying the One Nation Party electorally, but adopted much of its agenda and secured much of its vote. Labor seemed to be a passive, but appalled, onlooker.

The hard men in both Labor and the Coalition convinced themselves that winning the election depended on how strongly Howard and Beazley succeeded in projecting a tough line against refugees. John Howard won this contest convincingly, conveying the impression that Australia was at risk from the boat people, demonising the victims, depriving them of access to the protection of our legal system, and dropping in the inflammatory suggestion of a possible link between asylum seekers and terrorists. They were an amorphous, but threatening, mass – without names, faces or individuality.

Beazley protested that he was just as hardline as Howard on refugees and border protection, but many voters were unconvinced. They knew Howard meant it – it was consistent with his uncompromising line on Reconciliation, but they weren’t sure about Beazley. Could he really mean it? I suspect that he was closer to Howard on refugees than many thought, while deploring the inflammatory language and the use of coded appeals to racism.

The whole political process – not just Labor – was locked into two rigidities:

— That every Budget must be in surplus, whatever the circumstances, and if not, then the whole economy is threatened. (Ross Gittins roundly attacked this in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald as “rubbish”. In our own lives, we recognise that major investments – such as a house or car purchase – cannot be met from current account.) The 2002 Federal Budget blew this orthodoxy out of the water.

— That Australia’s security was at risk from invading boat people – and that there was an absolute upper limit for refugees of 12,000 per annum. (Under Malcolm Fraser there was a 100,000 intake after the Vietnam War, and Bob Hawke allowed 20,000 Chinese students to stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.) In reality, the number of “illegals” was about 4,000.

John Howard was masterful in emphasising immediate self-interest, emphasising the familiar, the obvious, the short-term, and discounting or ridiculing complex, long-term issues requiring intellectual input – such as constitutional reform, Reconciliation, the Republic, Knowledge Nation, the environment or appropriate future population levels. “What’s in it for you and your family?” may be a useful tactical approach, but strategically it is bankrupt.

Unfortunately, the word “values” was never used in the campaign. Labor conveyed neither vision or courage – witness the sidelining of Knowledge Nation, and the major issues, such as soil and water, population, and ageing that were central to it.

Filling the Policy Vacuum

Since 1996, the major effects of the Howard government’s policies have been to:

  1. Cripple trades unions and diminish an important countervailing force
  2. Weaken the industrial arbitration system
  3. Widen the gap between rich and poor
  4. Lower minimum wages (but end any caps on high salaries)
  5. Marginalise Australia’s egalitarian ethos
  6. Subsidise private medical insurance and weaken Medicare (“choice”)
  7. Subsidise private schools and impoverish state schools (“choice”)
  8. Reduce the CSIRO’s capacity
  9. Damage the ABC and Radio Australia
  10. Hollow out universities and convert them to trading corporations (emphasising application rather than knowledge)
  11. Adopt a punitive approach to Aboriginals – reject apology and cut back on native title
  12. Disregard environmental challenges (Greenhouse, salination, deforestation)
  13. Repudiate affirmative action and weaken women’s rights
  14. Denigrate multiculturalism
  15. Promote the cult of mediocrity
  16. Punish the unemployed
  17. Derail moves towards a Republic
  18. Punish refugees
  19. Repudiate international criticism (e.g. the UN on human rights)
  20. Turn a blind eye to our history. We are into the politics of denial (“it never happened”), amnesia (“I don’t know anything about it; it was before my time”) and nostalgia (“It was better in the old days”)
  21. Treat drug use as a criminal problem, not a social and medical one
  22. Use the GST to move tax burdens downwards
  23. Strengthen corporate power
  24. Sell off Telstra
  25. Politicise the High Court by selecting overtly “big C” Conservative judges (Mason, Deane, Brennan and Wilson were all appointees of previous Coalition governments, but would not have been Howard’s choices)
  26. Reduce public service expertise and independence, insisting that there are no policy problems in health, education, research, media or the environment, only management problems
  27. Put senior public service staff on contract, thus reducing the collective memory, with re-appointment dependent on telling the government what it wants to hear, instead of providing “frank and fearless” advice
  28. Make ideological decisions that the market always knows best, all values have a dollar equivalent, a privatised service is always better than a state-run one (e.g. health, education, transport, communications, detention centres)
  29. Maintain the conviction that Australia’s economy is essentially based on primary production (i.e. that it remains an “Old” economy)
  30. Downgrade the concept of “the public good”, promoting “the private good” (self-interest).

Reversing the thirty changes set out above must be the core of a coherent Labor policy. Few of them were raised during the 2001 campaign, or in parliament between 1996 and 2001.

Knowledge Nation

John Button wrote:

“Knowledge Nation”, a vision for a better educated society – which properly refined and packaged in terms of its significance might have been a [policy?] centrepiece – was announced and then backed away from, largely because of its easily mocked spaghetti and meatballs diagram. This was all small target stuff, which made it difficult to explain what the Opposition believed.

This summary represents a widely held view that Knowledge Nation, was essentially about schools, universities and TAFE. It was far broader.

The Knowledge Nation Task Force Report was a comprehensive policy framework linking those elements in Australia’s society, economy and environment, especially human and physical resources, which depend on the generation, use and exchange of knowledge. Education was a central part of it – but the thrust of our report emphasised the importance of linkages, and the nature of complex systems.

I chaired an impressive task force of twenty-two professionals, fourteen of them experts from outside the party in a variety of areas – medicine, banking, electronics, teaching, economics, trade and international affairs. Most members had been used by governments on both sides of politics. Peter Doherty, Gus Nossal, Don Lamberton and Peter Karmel were among many outsiders who also made valuable suggestions for the task force. We concluded that much important knowledge is locked up in silos and national linkages tend to be very weak, compounded by the dispersal of population across a huge continent.

The number one priority in Knowledge Nation was a “massive ten-year program to tackle major problems which threatened the nation’s viability, especially in regional and remote areas, such as desertification, soil salinity and acidification, pollution of rivers and erosion, coordinating the efforts of all research organisations, bringing the cities and the bush together”. In part, Knowledge Nation followed up on a major report on land degradation by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), National Investment in Rural Landscapes (May 2000). This estimated the cost of combating salinity and restoring the land at $65 billion and proposed a $37 billion program of government assistance over ten years. Other sources suggested higher figures. The House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Heritage, chaired by Ian Causley, MP, conducted an Inquiry into Catchment Management. Its unanimous report (December 2000) came to similar conclusions as the NFF–ACF and recommended that the government impose an environmental levy to meet the cost of restoring soil and water. We hoped that bipartisan support would be guaranteed on this vital issue.

Not one media outlet reported this, Labor never referred to it again, and we scored an own goal. Reporting on Knowledge Nation was very narrow and selective. Commentators concentrated on their areas of interest or concern to the exclusion of everything else. Some saw the document as Labor’s science policy, research and development policy, still more as its education policy.

When the report was released on 2 July, the government decided on a direct hit strategy. This was in striking contrast to Labor’s general support for the government’s Backing Australia’s Ability program, and the Prime Minister’s speech on 29 January 2001 launching it. The government singled out two elements for attack, and the attack then became the story, not the report’s contents.

First was my notorious “Complexity diagram”, demonstrating dynamic linkages between systems, first mocked as “spaghetti and meatballs” by David Kemp, the Education Minister, and as “Noodle Nation” by Treasurer Peter Costello.

Kemp, as a certified intellectual, knew better; Costello may not have. This ridicule was then taken up enthusiastically by the media, particularly the Australian.

Second was the suggested use of the term “Cadastre” as a provisional, shorthand description for a proposed comprehensive national “Knowledge Bank” to provide a picture of our physical, social and economic condition, indicating strengths and weaknesses in our skills base. This seemed to enrage some commentators.

We were arguing that policies such as health and education and social welfare and environment have a complex and dynamic interaction: touch one, and the others are all affected. They are not wrapped up discretely, like Christmas presents. Young people, familiar with mind maps, understood the diagram; journalists and politicians did not. To many journalists, columnists and cartoonists, the diagram was the beginning and the end of discussion. The basic objection seemed to be: “It’s all too complex”. But Australia faces complex times with complex issues. As H.L. Mencken observed, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is almost always wrong.”

Media failure to examine and analyse Knowledge Nation was a major disgrace. In the print media, no one recognised its interconnectedness, the heavy emphasis on the environment, on the creative arts, on a national population policy, on demographic changes and the significance of the “Third Age”, a national information policy, getting more effective co-ordination in our research institutions, a strategic approach to concentration on research and industry priorities, the emphasis on values, changing the culture, strengthening great national institutions such as the ABC and the CSIRO, getting away from a narrow materialist instrumentalism (digging deeper furrows) in education, and redefining the role of government. Some writers automatically assumed that Knowledge Nation proposed a revival of “big government”, and ignored our careful attempt to limit and redefine its appropriate role. The advice of the party’s spin doctors was simply to ignore the attacks on Knowledge Nation, and let the issue drift for a month or two. It was a serious misjudgment. By 4 July, Knowledge Nation was essentially dead in the water and the Opposition seemed to have taken a vow of silence.

The 2001 election was, I believe, effectively lost after the Aston by-election on 14 July. Knowledge Nation simply disappeared in that mini-campaign, although it could have been used effectively. We failed to secure Green preferences because the ALP negotiator was unaware that Knowledge Nation had an environment component; indeed, that it was central.

To my knowledge, there never was a briefing on Knowledge Nation for head office, shadow cabinet, caucus, state branches or candidates. The report’s first print run was 300 copies. Ultimately 1,000 copies were printed for Australia-wide distribution. However, there was no strategy for getting material out to trades unions, schools, universities, TAFEs or community groups and providing follow-up. While the material was available on the ALP’s website, it scored only 4,369 “hits”, so few voters were familiar with it. Some shadow ministers failed to connect their policy responsibilities with Knowledge Nation. There was no attempt to brief the press gallery effectively to counteract initial skepticism about Knowledge Nation, or to talk, even generally, about potential cost.

The central problem with Labor’s approach to Knowledge Nation strategy is that it was impossible to reconcile the report with the “small target”, no/low spending Budget strategy (with the repeated mantra about no Budget deficits), the general approach of avoiding controversy on policy (e.g. education and health) and fighting essentially on terrains chosen by the government.

Offers of help from Professor Peter Doherty, Dr Tim Flannery, Professor Fiona Stanley, Peter Verwer (CEO of the Property Council of Australia), Leith Boully (grazier and member of the ABC Board) and others were not followed up.

Kim Beazley never talked about the “soil and water” emphasis in Knowledge Nation. Perhaps his advisors took the line that proposing “a massive ten year program” (our words) could only be categorised as major expenditure. If he was then challenged about a spending commitment and said, “But we will only spend, year by year, what the Budget surplus allows,” then the credibility of the “massive program” would have been shot.

There was a re-launch of Knowledge Nation at Berwick (in the marginal seat of La Trobe) at a large meeting addressed by Kim Beazley, Steve Bracks and myself, accompanied by a glossy pamphlet: “What I Stand For”, striking for its vagueness and parsimony, which was to be circulated nationally. In the pamphlet, only two specific spending promises were made: “Allocate $100 million to improve classrooms, libraries and laboratories [in schools]” and “Spend $148 million in its first three years of government to mount a fight against cancer.” KNOWLEDGE NATION, in capitals, appeared on only one page. The impression was given that Knowledge Nation was entirely about education and training. Labor promised “Ending the university and TAFE funding crisis”, but no costings were offered.

The timing of the Berwick re-launch was unfortunate: 11 September.

Understandably, Kim Beazley’s speech was unreported and the pamphlet disappeared from sight. I was amazed that the party used the name “Kim Beazley’s Knowledge Nation” as the centrepiece of Kim’s election policy launch in Hurstville on Wednesday, 31 October (just nine days before the election).

The document Kim Beazley’s Plan for the Knowledge Nation bears little resemblance to the Task Force Report, confining itself to proposing modest increases in education-spending over five years. Oddly, in a table headed “Value of Labor’s Commitment to the Knowledge Nation”, projected expenditure for the Knowledge Bank (a.k.a Cadastre), a central feature of the Task Force Report, was listed as $0 – spread over five years!

Labor must be prepared to tackle complex issues. Knowledge Nation was far less complex than Howard’s GST proposal – an issue that he won on despite its perceived unpopularity. Gough Whitlam’s “Platform” was varied and complex – and had to be explained, over and over again, for five years before Labor won in 1972. This is the only way to get new ideas up on the agenda.

In the 1992 Curtin Lecture in Perth I distinguished between “spectrum issues” and “litmus issues”. Spectrum issues are those which nobody disagrees with. Nobody opposes job creation, better education or better health. The policy divide is on how best to tackle them, and which ranks first, second or third in priority. The issue is always which party or operating method is likely to bring about a better outcome.

The ALP’s 2001 election slogan: “Jobs. Education. Health” was not a vote changer. Litmus issues, which involve “Yes” or “No” responses, are vote changers – as Whitlam proved in 1972 (and even 1969) – recognising the PRC, ending Conscription, abolishing the death penalty etc. “Put State Schools first” or “Raise the Medibank levy” would have been litmus issues. When Kim raised elements of Knowledge Nation in the last nine days before the election they seemed like spectrum (or motherhood?) issues.

60–40? or 3+2?

The great task for Labor is to unite two major groups – traditional blue collar workers and their families, and progressive professionals. It can be done but it will require more heavy lifting on policy matters than was shown at the three last National Conferences. Some of Labor’s most visionary leaders, notably Ben Chifley, came from impeccably blue collar backgrounds – but they wanted to be change agents and he had breadth, depth and courage.

The ALP needs 5 million votes to win a federal election comfortably. The trades unions may be able to pull in 2 million of those votes – and maintaining their commitment to Labor is essential. Is this support dependent on maintaining the 60–40 rule, that trades union delegates are to have 60 per cent of representation at State Conferences? Some trades union leaders say “Yes” – and that is hardly surprising. So do the powerbrokers who currently run state ALP branches. It would be amazing (and unselfish) if they questioned the operation of a system that puts – and maintains – them where they are.

But insufficient attention has been given to the 3,000,000 non trades unionists whose votes we must have to win. Where do they fit in?

Labor needs both. If the ALP holds the 2 million and loses the 3 million then the Coalition wins overwhelmingly. If we hold the 3 million and lose the 2 million then the result would be almost as bad.

The question of the 60–40 relationship between trades union and branch representation at State Conferences may be a second order issue. There is little empirical evidence that it is a major factor deterring voters from supporting Labor. In the context of factional control of the party, where the Left has fragmented and no longer offers an effective countervailing force to the Right, a change from 60–40 to 50–50 (or even a return to 70–30) will not necessarily change how the party operates.

The 60–40 rule has more symbolic significance than substance. It enables trades union officials to feel that they retain ownership of the party and its policies. In reality this is not the case, and has not been for twenty years. At successive recent National Conferences, the ACTU and affiliated unions have had a record of being gracious in defeat. It is hard to point to a single issue where, in the end, the trades unions have won the day against the political leadership. (Defeat of the “fair trade” proposition put by trades unions at the Hobart Conference in 2002 demonstrates this.)

Paradoxically, the tradition of gracious defeat makes the 60–40 rule such an important symbol. Some trades union leaders feel that having lost the substance of control, they can’t afford to give up the symbolism as well.

The more serious question at the core of the 3+2 problem is whether it is possible to build a dynamic and expanding party on a contracting base. If so, how? The historic turning point for trades union membership as a percentage of the total labour force was 1954. That year was the high point. For forty-eight years it has persistently declined. (Which is starting to look like a trend.)

This reflects the changing nature of the work force. Contracting employment sectors remain highly unionised, while expanding employment sectors are barely unionised at all. Society has changed since Labor’s foundation in 1891. Should our party structure reflect existing society, or society as it was?

In November 1999, National Secretary Gary Gray provided a table to the ALP National Executive which indicated that nationally affiliated union members fell from 1,710,000 in 1990 to 1,133,000 in 1999. The numbers have stabilised since then, but the percentage is still falling.

If we assume that 80 per cent of affiliated trades unionists vote for the ALP (probably too high since the ALP primary vote in highly industrialised, and therefore unionised, federal seats nowhere exceeds 70 per cent), this gives a figure of 906,000. Most families involved in trades unions will include partners and children who are members themselves, so calculating a multiplier is difficult. Applying a generous multiplier of 2.2 gives a base of 2 million voters – barely 40 per cent of the votes Labor needs to govern federally.

What model of Australia are we appealing to? Nostalgia has its value, but the ALP cannot simply be a heritage party.

Trades union representation at State and National Conferences is essentially a top down affair – deals are stitched up by the factions that run the unions. It is far from clear how far union delegates reflect the views of rank-and-file workers on non-industrial issues. The SDA (Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association), which claims to speak for a young, largely female, labour force, argues a hardline position on moral issues, including opposition to abortion and stem-cell research. Are these views shared by shop assistants throughout Australia? Have the issues been put to them for debate? I cannot recall any salesperson, male or female, ever urging me to support the moral agenda of the SDA.

Factionalism and “Democratic Centralism”

The party cannot win elections without an alliance between the 2 million trade unionists and those 3 million voters who are sympathetic to change. These 3 million must be encouraged to become involved. The present “top down” power structure depends to a large extent on keeping branch membership low, inactive and ageing, because factionalism is easier to organise and impose on a small membership base. It is a safe generalisation that factional strength has an inverse relationship to the numbers of people involved. It is absolutely decisive with the 200 National Conference delegates. It has no impact, other than varying degrees of distaste, with the 5 million potential Labor voters. Button comments on the apparatchiki who run factions that “as public figures they are about as attractive as Hannibal Lecter”.

Factionalism proved to be a useful instrument for dispute resolution in the Hawke–Keating years and contributed to the stability of caucus during a thirteen-year period. However, in opposition, factions tend to become mere recruiting agencies and have a life of their own. Candidates are pre-selected on the basis of loyalty to the faction, rather than – say – a high level of community involvement.

Any recommendation to limit factional power, or prohibit branch-stacking (“vigorous recruiting”) will be hard to enforce because many existing officials have been beneficiaries of past practice. Some attempt should be made to provide opportunities for branch members to feel that they have an ownership stake in the National Conference.

I recommended a major reform to Hawke–Wran to involve the 3+2. I proposed direct election by party members, including trades unionists who actually held a party ticket, for National President, National Secretary, 151 conference delegates (= one for each federal electorate), and Senate candidates.

Excessive factionalism has led to endorsing weak or compliant federal and state candidates. It is hard to identify any recent recruit to the Senate who has not been either a trade union official, a party office official, a ministerial staffer, a parliamentary staffer, a factional organisor, or has strong family linkages or sub-factional alliances.

Human cloning may be with us already!


Barry Jones was National President of the Australian Labor Party from 1992 to 2000. He is the author of several books including Sleepers Wake! Technology and the Future of Work and the Dictionary of World Biography.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 6, Beyond Belief. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed.


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