Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief

What future for Labor?

John Button


In Beyond Belief, John Button looks at what has gone wrong with the Labor Party. What has happened to the faith of the True Believers and why is the ALP so bad at recruiting new members? He offers a tough-minded analysis of what went wrong in the last election and asks why the Labor Party has turned its back on its destiny as a party of reform.

One night in April 2002 I attended a local ALP branch meeting. I don’t attend regularly any more. Branch meetings remind me of the weary remark of Prime Minister John Curtin: “I am a veteran of 10,000 conferences.”

Eight people attended the meeting. Two of them were members of parliament, one federal and one state. Because there was no quorum it was decided not to adopt the minutes of the previous meeting. This was a proper decision, strictly in accordance with the rules. Local branches always obey the procedural rules.

The meeting was held in the grey besser-brick office of the state member of parliament. Inside it is well arranged; neat and functional. Filing cabinets line one side of the main room. There’s a rack full of brochures, a copy machine in one corner. Like most offices, the atmosphere is cold rather than cool.

Posters and electoral maps on the walls hint at the condition of the body politic, like charts and illustrations in the waiting room of a medical clinic explaining the onset of arthritis or osteoporosis. Eight small tables with steel legs and laminex tops are arranged side by side to make one big table large enough for a family of eight.

We sat, face to face, across the table. Lindsay Tanner, the federal member, spoke about the last election and then about the problems besetting the ALP. He said the political “trendlines” were bad. The party had a very low membership in outer suburbia: members felt ignored and couldn’t see the value of membership. “We have”, he said, “a good brand name but a bad product.” He sounded like a visiting clinician describing the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome. There were, he warned, no quick fixes, no wonder drugs. It was an honest analysis but depressing.

When the parliamentarians left, a discussion took place among those who remained. An Englishwoman told us about the euphoria in the British Labour Party when the Blair government was elected. People nodded, trying to imagine what it was like. I think she was trying to cheer us up. Another woman said she’d felt depressed before the meeting but now she felt worse. She explained how difficult it was trying to interest her neighbours and work colleagues in supporting the ALP. Two longstanding members said this was probably the last year in which they’d take out a membership ticket. They’d had enough of feeling “irrelevant”. One woman, who’d transferred from Tasmania, said she’d stay on and I believed her.

The meeting took about an hour and a half. We shuffled out onto the footpath like people who’d been to a doctor and received bad news. We’d seen the X-rays. I walked home along streets laid out in the first half of the nineteenth century, past gentrified working-men’s cottages with BMWs parked outside them and past houses where Labor families still live, families who don’t come to meetings any more. I walked on pavements trodden by a Labor prime minister, Jimmy Scullin, and by other Labor MPs whose names are part of the history of the party. I paused on a street corner where in the winter of 1955 people clustered in the cold and listened to a young and idealistic Jim Cairns talk about political ideas and social values.

The branch whose meeting I’d attended has a long history. It used to meet in the town hall and if there weren’t forty or fifty people present it was a bad night. I went to the meeting because the branch president sent an email around reminding members of his football team’s challenge to its supporters: “If you don’t come, why should we?”

Was all that past effort worthwhile? Of course it was. But at the start of the twenty-first century, the ALP enjoys a history of which it is proud but which has limited relevance to the future. There is a legacy of some good governments and some not so good, a rich folklore and some extraordinary achievements. Perhaps the ALP’s greatest past success has been in broadening the agenda of Australian political life, its ability throughout most of its history to push the Conservatives into the role of the parties who resist change.

Australia’s parliamentary system has survived for one century and may, or may not, survive the next in its present form. For a hundred years it has depended on two major parties, Conservative and Labor, in turn providing government and opposition. Sometimes the two-party system seems tired and incestuous, and its achievements are not widely acknowledged. Political stability is one of them. The alternative is a multi-party system, that well-known recipe for instability.

In recent years a growing number of voters have turned to other political parties: One Nation (for the disaffected), the Democrats (advocating “change politics”, something better than the present) and the Greens (who describe themselves as the party of “thinking” voters).Two of these parties are on the progressive side of politics. None of them is capable of forming a government, now or in any foreseeable future. None of them has to decide what, as a government, it would really do.

Voters can sense the fatigue of the two-party system. They yearn for new ideas, fresh visions of what Australia might be. Ultimately they have little choice and they return the party that they believe best represents their interests. That’s why the Coalition is in government in 2002.With its history of being the major party of social change, the ALP can call on strong residual community sentiment. That’s why it gets such a relatively large vote. But sentiment is not going to sustain it: voters want a real choice and Labor no longer offers them one. The ALP is seen as a pale alternative to the Coalition. It is incapable of embracing and speaking for the divergent progressive groups in the community. It has been unable to respond effectively to new aspirations. It no longer represents contemporary Australia. It may not even represent its members any more: its national body has become an offshore island adrift from the rest of the party, inaccessible to its rank and file, a barren and rocky outcrop untouched by new ideas.

When the Labor government of Paul Keating was returned to office in 1993, Keating described the result as a victory for the “True Believers”. What did he mean by that? He meant “the people who in difficult times had kept the faith”, those who always voted Labor, who believed that a Labor government was always better than a Conservative one.

True Believers talk of the wartime governments of John Curtin and the post-war government of Ben Chifley as the high-water mark of Labor’s twentieth century. Both Curtin and Chifley had exceptional ability; both had their roots in the traditional working class and had come to politics through the trade union movement. Both presided over competent governments, although Chifley’s prime ministership ended in 1949 as a result of political misjudgements. The careers of both men were characterised by integrity and humility. Their lives and their examples have nourished the soul of the ALP ever since. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Chifley’s gruff voice incants to the True Believers, “Remember me.”

Insofar as there is discussion of ideas and beliefs in the ALP, it has always turned on the issue of the values of socialism or social democracy and how those values are best implemented in a changing world. These are complex issues that can be made highly technical by dedicated bores, which is why so many Labor people admire Chifley’s simply stated vision, uncluttered by political jargon, of the light on the hill:

I try to think of the labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

There is no reason why these words cannot continue to express the heart and soul of the ALP. But they must do so in a way that is contemporary and relevant, not lost in the mists of Labor retrospect. Perhaps the fundamental question is this: can a political party organised for the early twentieth century, that has grown content with recycled ideas, compete for influence and power in the twenty-first century?

In a party dedicated to change, change from within is sometimes the hardest thing to achieve. But if it is to regain government with a meaningful reform agenda, Labor has no choice. There is understandably much sentiment about “True Believers”. They’re the link with history. But new believers are the key to the future.


This is an extract from John Button's Quarterly Essay, Beyond Belief: What future for Labor?. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


John Button was a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments from 1983 until his retirement in 1993. As industry and commerce minister, he was regarded as the principal architect of modernised Australian industry. Before his death in 2008, Button wrote numerous articles and books, including Flying the KiteOn the Loose and As It Happened. In 2002, his Quarterly Essay, Beyond Belief – What Future for Labor? won the 2003 Alfred Deakin prize at the Victorian premier’s literary awards. The John Button Prize for non-fiction writing about politics and public policy was created in his memory.


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