Could Chifley win preselection today?

Author: Tim Gartrell is the National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party

Thanks for the invitation to join this discussion tonight and the chance to tear myself away from the thrills of the national capital.

Tonight I'm being asked to answer the slightly tongue in cheek question - could Ben Chifley possibly successfully contest a Labor preselection today.

Fortunately it's not a preselection I'll ever be involved in but it does prompt discussion on some of the intrigue and internecine politics that shrouds many preselections.

At the outset I want to make one thing very clear. Although as National Secretary I am responsible for running election campaigns, as the National Campaign Director I have very little to do with preselections conducted by the states. Happily, all care and not too much responsibility when it comes to preselections.

The role of the National Secretary is obviously influential but not inherently powerful.

The National Secretary is elected by the National Conference (or appointed by the National Executive) and the factions but stands aside from any factional activity.

That's one of the great things about the job and it's a tradition that should always be adhered to.

I've also learnt, sometimes the hard way, that in my job it's best to stay out of any number of disputes, brawls or turf wars that are playing out in the state and territory branches.

So I'm not here tonight to provide a critique of any one of the different preselection processes across Australia, nor am I going to comment on any local disputes or preselections.

I see tonight as an opportunity to reflect on why the backgrounds and mix of our candidates and MPs is changing and why we need this change and what we stand to gain.

But back to Ben Chifley. It goes without saying that Australian society today is vastly different. In Chifley's day, voter loyalty was very strong. Class distinctions were more entrenched and the band of swinging voters in the middle was smaller.

Today, partisan loyalty is at a record low. Many voters have moved from traditional Labor-voting, working class families to the skilled trades or professions, higher income levels and substantially improved standards of living.

Party loyalty is fickle. Voters are faced with more complex choices and voting trends demonstrate that many voters make different choices at different levels of government.

For example, there's now an established band of seats in outer suburbia that votes solidly Labor at state elections and solidly Liberal federally.

There are booths in Sydney's west where there is a 25 point difference in the Labor vote at the state and federal levels. Australian voters are increasingly discerning. They know only too well where state and federal responsibilities begin and end.

And they have access to 24 hours a day seven days a week information thanks to a news cycle that's condensed and ceaseless.

On the down side, the news they consume is more shallow and cynical. Media organisations are unapologetically driven to deliver healthy profits rather than provoking robust debate around issues of public interest.

Aligned with this is the post-cold war narrowing of the political debate, between and within the parties. No one is arguing for massive intervention in the economy let alone nationalisation of the banks.

And, most importantly and worryingly for membership organisations like the ALP, the level of personal engagement in community organisations like churches, clubs, protest groups and political parties has markedly declined.

While none of this is unique to Australia - these are trends throughout the Western world - it presents great challenges to the Labor Party and all social democratic parties across the globe.

Among these is the necessity to attract and select candidates who can meet the new and varied demands made by a more sophisticated voter.

We're all very familiar with the tired Liberal Party mantra that too many of our MPs have been staffers, unions officials and party officials in their former lives.

As well as being simplistic, such a view ignores one of the greatest changes in our society and one of Labor's greatest achievements - opening up tertiary education to make it easier for working class kids to get an education.

Don Aitkin writing in New Matilda this month states that in 1954, 2 per cent of young people went off to university.

Today it is around 50 per cent, if allowance is made for the fact that some of today's cohort won't actually go to university until they are in their 20s or 30s.

I have already referred to class mobility in the earlier part of this speech and it's very important to tonight's topic.

Indeed a better question for tonight's discussion might have been - would Ben Chifley be a train driver today?

We all know Ben Chifley had a thirst for learning and knowledge that saw him educate himself.

Although it's still hard (and getting harder) for working class kids to get an education I believe a young Ben Chifley would probably have toughed it out, won a place at university (even as a mature aged student) and excelled.

Indeed, Ben Chifley once said that he would have given a million pounds to have the education that Dr Evatt had.

Like many kids from working class backgrounds with a deep interest in and passion for social change and politics he then probably would have looked around for a political role.

So where would a young Ben Chifley look to advance his political ambitions? In all likelihood in a union office or an MPs or party office.

People who espouse the anti-staffer view rarely mention that it's only recently, since the 1980s, that MPs, party offices and even some unions had staff positions at all.

In the early 1970s, MPs had an electorate secretary - one position. It was only Ministers that had more and they had nowhere near as many people as they have today.

And whilst it's true that more staffers are being preselected we shouldn't kid ourselves that this only happens in the Labor Party.

The Liberals and the Democrats, and I expect the Greens, are all selecting young MPs from within their own political ranks.

They are people who've taken advantage of these changed circumstances - the greater number of staff positions and opportunities in employer organisations, law firms and student bodies.

Look at the Libs in Federal Parliament - Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Marise Payne, Tony Smith, Mitch Fifield, Greg Hunt - all former staffers. Petro Georgiou and Andrew Robb - former party officials.

Here in NSW John Brogden - a former staffer in the Greiner government.

Or the Dems. Natasha Stott Despoja a former staffer to Democrat Leaders Coulter and Kernot.

And while were on the subject of what constitutes a good candidate we've had some pretty questionable non-staffers in parliament.

Consider some of the recent great shockers plucked from all walks of life - Pauline Hanson, Bill Heffernan, Mal Colston, and Bob Woods - none of them staffers.

There's also a bit of nostalgia at play; and we should be warned because as they say nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

The flaw in this debate is that it's based on the romantic notion that somewhere there is still a large body of voters who identify exclusively with the self-educated, blue collar, male elite of Chifleys time.

It's not applicable now, and I'd argue its time was passing in Rodney and Johns time.

We often look back on the careers of successful politicians in a rosy light and judge harshly those current MPs who have yet to demonstrate their greatness or their weakness.

The simplistic assertion that someone would not make a significant contribution because they are a staffer or a union official or a lawyer cannot go unchallenged.

Imagine applying it to my fellow panel members. Rodney would be out because he was a researcher and advocate for the Miscellaneous Workers Union before he began his distinguished career in the NSW Parliament.

And under the over-hyped assertion of the conservatives where if you've spent any time working for a union youre automatically a union boss, John Button would have missed out on being one of our most successful Senate leaders.

His murky past includes a stint with the British Trade Union Congress before becoming a labour lawyer.

I'll give you some other good examples of some people Labor is glad got themselves into Parliament:

Peter Beattie would be barred, he was a lawyer, union secretary and party official
Jim Bacon out - a union official

Mike Rann a non-starter - a former senior staffer to a previous Premier.

John Faulkner no good a former party official (in that cushy job as the only Leftie in Sussex St)

Mark Latham a staffer nearly all his working life

Bob Carr no chance, worked for the Labor Council and was the worst of the worst a journo!

Carmel Tebbutt a former Young Labor president, union official and staffer!

I should also note that many jobs on MPs staff or in union research positions have given many women a chance to be at the centre of our male dominated culture, accruing skills and gaining some valuable mentoring.

Despite being maligned as a bunch of ambitious branch stackers, many have played important roles as ministerial advisers in complex and difficult portfolios, developing essential insight into the key problems facing the nation.

For example, Chris Bowen, the newly elected Member for Prospect, was the chief of staff to a NSW Transport Minister.

His understanding of the realities of the much discussed infrastructure bottlenecks will be invaluable. He is a good addition to the Federal caucus.

A good adviser knows how government works; understands the interaction with the bureaucracy and the role of community organisations. As long as they have the necessary skills to be a successful politician they should be encouraged to aspire to higher office.

Ben Chifley would probably have been such a person.

The other great myth that too many MPs have no real life experience or familiarity with struggle is comprehensively debunked with just a little research.

Consider:

Mark Latham, Anthony Albanese, Jenny George and Bernie Ripoll all major contributors to the Labor cause all grew up in housing commission homes in difficult circumstances some with one parent who struggled to give them the education that has allowed them to make a contribution. It would be easy to ridicule their work histories as staffers, party officials or union officials but they have a deep understanding of hardship and its injustices.

Kevin Rudd whose career as a senior public servant and diplomat belies his background his father was accidentally killed and his mother, like thousands of others, was left to rely on the bleak charity of the time to raise a family.

Penny Wong who as a Malaysian migrant bought to Australia at the age of 8 and reared by her mother, endured what she remembers as unending racism in conservative Adelaide.

All these people prominent now in our federal team know a thing or two about life.

As someone who's worked around them for nearly a decade I think we've got a very good frontbench.

It's got a good mix of ages, better gender balance and a range of skills.

From the community standing and intellect of Kim Beazley, the detailed understanding of social policy of Jenny Macklin to the zeal, energy and relentlessness of Wayne Swan, the Federal Labor team is a formidable balance of experience, energy and commitment.

It's a very good team and theyll make an excellent government.

I hope I've successfully deconstructed the myth about staffers becoming white bread politicians. But if I've been vehement about that, there's another group of people that I feel passionately should seek to represent working Australians and that's union members.

The Liberals stereotypical contention that our side of Parliament is stacked with union bosses is Tory ideology running rampant.

Neither does this conservative tirade withstand any sort of close analysis because it deliberately ignores the face and character of modern unionism.

The union movement is still the largest community organisation in Australia - and it's worlds away from the stale centralised outfit of the late 1980s.

Today's union leaders have had to face the realities of declining membership and the complexities involved in operating in a largely deregulated industrial world.

They have direct contact with their members as they bargain agreement after agreement, they have direct experience with the financial pressures faced by working families.

They work in stressful jobs, with poor pay and often no prospect of returning to the industry they come from.

Why should the Labor Party shun the best of this committed lot? Let's not let our opponents rhetoric get to us!

Let's continue our tradition and pick the best of these passionate and articulate people. After all - it's the background of our most successful PM.

CLOSING REMARKS

I'd like to close with a couple of thoughts.

We lost the last election because of a range of factors, mostly because it was a very tough campaign environment for an opposition, there were perceptions of inexperience, our collective failure to inoculate against the interest rates fear campaign, the timing of some policies and the content of others, the firepower of the Liberal Party ad buy and not least the perceived strength of the economy and the level of confidence among swinging voters in their perceptions of a high level of personal wealth (and denial about their level of debt!).

I'll let you into a secret. I didnt see any internal polling that showed we lost because voters thought too many of our MPs had been staffers or union officials!

There's no denying that we've had some tough internal problems to tackle and were doing that.

But it's essential that we face up to the real reasons for the loss and tackle those causes rather than fret petulantly about some sort of perceived imbalance in the make-up of the party.
That's not to say that issues like branch stacking arent critically important. Frankly, branch stacking is a major threat to the health of our party exacerbated by declining membership numbers leaving many branches open to manipulation.

Branch stacking is a cancer which is not only strangling some electorates, but is choking further democratisation and change.

Many excellent reform ideas such as widening the attendance criteria for preselection eligibility to policy forums and issues related branches will never be implemented because of the vulnerability of such forums to stacking.

So yes, I'll concede we have some preselection problems, yes we definitely need to always get a mix of candidates from across the community but I remain convinced that we still attract good people and we still present strong leaders like Latham and Beazley.

Theyre the people we need dedicated, honest, inspirational, hardworking, decent people from a range of backgrounds. Better a team of people with these qualities than a diverse bunch of duds.

And talking of duds, and I'm completely serious and straight faced when I say this, the factions really can make a difference and definitely have an obligation to weed out any existing duds and replacing them with the next generation of leadership - the thinkers, reformers and persuaders.

So in closing, and probably leaving you still scratching your heads about Ben Chifleys chances of pre selection, I want to leave you with this gem, courtesy of one of our greats - Neville Wran.

I was accompanying him to yet another meeting during the tortured, entrail-examining process that constituted the 2002 Hawke/Wran review of the Labor Party. Halfway through yet another interminable meeting he turned to me and uttered the following unforgettable words.

Son, the Labor Party is like the Catholic Church it's so bad there must be something good about it.