The ALP: What to Expect, How to Relate

Author: Senator John Faulker is President of the NSW Fabian Society

What should we expect from the Australian Labor Party?

No more and no less than we expect from ourselves.  The Party isn't a living creature, even though that's often how the shorthand of political rhetoric and media headlines make it seem.  The Party is us – men and women who believe in industrial rights and economic liberty as the foundations of freedom.  As we differ from each other on questions of strategy and priority, so Labor strains to contain our diversity.  As we are by turns passionate and disillusioned, the light on the hill flames or flickers.  Our strengths and virtues are Labor's; our flaws are Labor's too.   

So if you expect the Australian Labor Party to be untarnished, you may be horribly disillusioned when you discover it is, instead, unvarnished.  If you think that a political party is only worthwhile if it is free of the petty disagreements and power struggles that characterise most workplaces and organisations, then no political party will meet your standards.

The pride I take in being part of the Labor Party is not because it is a party of paragons.  It is because it is a party of ordinary, flawed Australians who nonetheless fight side-by-side for a better life for working Australians and their families.

And if your expectations are realistic, then rather than be disappointed by our ordinariness, you might understand that our achievements over the last hundred years despite our lack of superhuman virtues are indeed extraordinary.  

I am not counselling you to avoid ideals or idealism.  For all of us in Labor, commitment to the great goals of dignity and security for working men and women is the ideal by which we set our compass. 

So I urge you to be idealistic in what you strive for.  And be idealistic in the hopes you hold for the Australian Labor Party.  

But be realistic in what you can achieve.

We all need high hopes but realistic expectations. Our expectations need to take into account the limits of the political process itself – a process of reform that can be frustratingly slow.  It is easy to look at the sometimes glacial pace of change and assume that something must have gone wrong somewhere!  And for many, that assumption is that the Labor Party just isn't trying hard enough.  That we've made too many compromises or stood by too few principles.  

I have had to make a lot of judgement calls in my career as a Labor politician.  No doubt, some were wrong. Politics is the way our society settles its differences of opinions and works out a solution.  Our founders believed that ideally, we'd all try to see each other's viewpoints and find mutually acceptable solutions.  Today, in an adversarial Parliament and a two-party system, the process of bargaining is too often about how little you can get away with surrendering, and how much you can get in return.  I'm sure there have been times I gave more than I should – or conversely, refused to compromise when compromise was in the interests of working Australians. 

Politics is the art of the possible and it's practiced by men and women who have to make complex decisions, often with very little time.  We do our best to come as close to our idealistic goals as possible. Sometimes that's not very close.

Sometimes we make mistakes.

That does not mean that Labor sells out, or is unworthy of trust. 

By trust, I do not mean blind faith.  I am not telling you to trust in Labor as George Pell would have you trust in the Pope!

Trust is a realistic reliance on the goodwill and dedication of the people around you.  Trust enables us to work together for common goals and to stand on common ground. I am not infallible, and nor are my caucus colleagues or my fellow Labor party members.  But I have tried to be trustworthy. 

Labor does not always do all it can to foster that kind of trust.  More internal democracy and more transparency would help.  

So would recognition of the need to negotiate the diversity within the Labor Party and reconcile different expectations and priorities.  Labor has always had two main constituencies: union members, and community activists. 

It suits some to ignore one half of Labor's history.  It was suiting them to do so back in the 1890s, when (as the records of the Glebe Branch of the ALP show) disputed branch ballots were already giving rise to accusations that Labor activists were just bourgeoisie blow-ins.1 When students and academics from Sydney University moved into the Glebe area and started joining local branches in the 1930s, the stage was set for seventy years of complaints about these Johnny-come-latelies. And when Labor women called in 1993 for Labor to commit to 50 percent representation for women by the year 2000, they were told it couldn't be done in such a short time – seventy-nine years after Kate Dwyer first pointed out that those who did half the work and made up half the community should get half the opportunities!  

You see, just as Labor's strengths go back to the 1890s, so do Labor's quarrels. For more than a hundred years, some Party members have been trying to exclude others, to hold on to their own positions and power.  For more than a hundred years, they've been telling us what the ‘real’ Labor Party should look like, what the ‘real’ Labor Party should be: humble, purely proletarian, solely concerned with the survival of the local worker’s club and extra housing for the poor.  Often, the very men telling us this are themselves university-educated and partial to the occasional latte! 

They argue that Labor's salvation is to get 'back to our roots'.  By that they mean we should purge all those who see the dignity and security of working Australians depending on equality for all before the law and the protection of the natural environment as well as industrial rights and economic liberty.  

That is – and I'll be charitable – to be ignorant of Labor's history.  The latte set, the chattering classes – these are just the latest epithets for the party members and branch activists who have been one of the party's two great supports throughout our history.  Most have been union activists and branch activists at the same time, and have devoted their lives and their passion to the labour movement.  

The labour movement is made up of those who want dignity and fairness in work for all.  We have always understood that civil society and individual liberty can only exist in a nation that affords its citizens the means to live with dignity and security.  Likewise, we have always understood that dignity and security depend also on civil liberties and human rights. 

It often seems that trying to pursue the whole of this complex program we reduce our progress to a crawl.  But I am sure that if we exclude one half of it, we will go nowhere at all.  

And if we exclude half our history and half our strength in mistaken acquiescence to the demand we get back to the pure union party we never had, we will go nowhere fast. 

Labor has seen many examples of the destruction wrought by those unable to accept the complexity and diversity of the Party. The departure of the Groupers and the formation of the DLP; Billy Hughes and the pro-Conscription forces; then Lyons and the Langites. In each of those cases, the splitters believed their cause to be greater than Labor’s cause, their interests to transcend the Party’s broader interests.  

The Labor theory of democracy finds its expression in internal structures – like Conference and Caucus – that enable collective decision-making and depend on solidarity.  Fanatics never find the ALP amenable to their personal agendas.

And those who, like the founders of the DLP, cannot accept solidarity and diversity, damage Labor cause but do greater damage to the interests of their constituency.  

So expect complexity in the Australian Labor Party.  Expect fallibility, expect humanity.  But demand passion.  Demand dedication to the goal of dignity and security for working Australians and their families. Accept that there will be differences of opinion on the best strategies and the key priorities.  Demand that the holders of those opinions put Labor's interests before their egos. 

We should expect no more and no less than we expect from ourselves.