josh rosner

LABOR’S LOST SOUL

In Australian Politics on August 17, 2011 at 1:00 am

I spent the winter break away from lecturing working on a couple of academic journal articles (one on Australian media representations of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel – also presented at a conference in New Zealand – and the other on the challenges of writing post-Wall Berlin memoir) but the consequence was complete silence on my blog. I hope to rectify that now.

I’ve recently had long conversations with a few (5, in fact) former Labor staffers who worked during the Rudd/Gillard years and each has expressed deep disappointment in Labor’s performance since winning government in 2007. It shouldn’t really amaze me, but it does. I was a vocal critic of Rudd and I continue to be a vocal critic of his usurper, who is, lamentably, an even worse prime minister. One former staffer told me Gillard had lost her mojo. I suggested she never had it to begin with.

But these conversations with former staffers has led me to think a lot about the reasons I not only left the employ of the Labor Party, but resigned my membership, as well.

Following are some disparate thoughts on Labor’s abuse of the legacy of one of its greats – John Button – and how and why I came to severe my links with the Australian Labor Party.

* * * *

Nearly ten years have passed since the late John Button published his Quarterly Essay – Beyond Belief. What Future for Labor? – in which he postulated on the many failings of the Labor Party before and after its devastating 2001 election defeat. A decade later, Labor is clumsily navigating minority government and a disillusioned electorate is nearing baking point.

Button’s essay was a passionate call-to-arms directed towards a new generation of political activists; the so-called ‘New Believers’. John Button eschewed Labor’s sentimental mythologies – an attitude many more in the Labor Party could do well to emulate – but he was nonetheless energetically passionate about creating a party that the electorate could trust and its membership could believe in.

Button’s essay was as much a handbook for reform as it was a mea culpa to an electorate it had failed. A decade ago it took someone of John Button’s stature to remind us that the ALP was the historical party of progressive reform. He warned it faced a perilous future if it ignored that mandate.

I joined the Labor Party because I was fed up with the socially regressive policies of John Howard and his party of nation-wreckers. I gave everything I had to Labor. I was my sub-branch secretary and later its president. I worked as a media adviser and speechwriter to various Labor luminaries, wannabes and no-hopers. I worked as hard as anyone to try and get Labor elected at the 2004 election – the last I worked on before I left Labor.

But then something happened to Labor that left me with no other choice than to resign my party membership: Kevin07 came to help. Except he didn’t help. He made things worse. Admittedly, Labor’s troubles began much earlier than Rudd’s arrival on the scene, but for me he was the straw that well-and-truly broke the camel’s back. After all, the signs that the progressive party – the party of economic reform – was slowly morphing into Australia’s alternate conservative party really began after Labor lost the 1996 election.

Paul Keating once said of Kevin Rudd that he was “Labor, but not tribal Labor.” Not that I wish in any way to be compared to Rudd, but I could relate. Like him, I was “in the ALP, but not of it.” I was not closely associated with Labor institutions and I shunned links to factions and trade unions. Some mint argue that was my – and Rudd’s – downfall.

The Labor Party loves to remind anyone in ear-shot that it was Hawke and Keating – two Labor giants – who modernised the Australian economy by tackling reforms like reducing tariffs, floating the dollar, privatising the banking sector, selling government assets and introducing compulsory superannuation, to name a few – and no valid argument can be mounted in opposition. Labor spent the 12 years of Howard’s rule desperate to return to government. When it finally took control of the treasury coffers, it squandered the opportunity. Labor no longer knew how to lead and it hasn’t learnt how to on the job.

The hopes and dreams of so many Australians, whether Labor Party members or average taxpayers concerned about the future, were dashed the moment it became obvious Labor had no reform agenda to speak of. The Rudd and Gillard Governments’ legacy will be one of two major new taxes – one on carbon emissions, the other on the mining industry – and a re-regulation of the labour market. It will also be remembered for its incredible waste of taxpayer money on ridiculous schemes like a Julia Gillard Memorial Hall for every school and the monumental debacle that was home insulation.

Broadcaster Phillip Adams very publicly resigned his Labor Party membership in June 2010. Defending his decision in The Australian, Adams wrote: “For over a month my membership renewal has been languishing on my desk. Paying to remain in the NSW branch seemed problematic. The assassination of Rudd makes a final decision all too easy. After 50 years of membership, through thick and thin – mainly thin – I’m resigning.” My own final straw moment with Labor began much earlier than Adams. On election night 2007 I cried tears of joy. I was uncomfortable with Rudd as prime minister, but more uncomfortable with John Howard for another 3 years. Six months into his term I resigned my membership in protest at Rudd’s social conservatism and his threat to over-turn, just like his predecessor, legislation introduced by the democratically elected ACT government. But ultimately, Phillip Adams and I chose to walk away from a party that was no longer aligned with our own views and aspirations.

I emailed my resignation letter to a number of sitting MPs and Senators, as well as the Branch Secretary. The party, predictably, responded with a pro forma letter. One Senator replied to my email suggesting my characterisation of the party was false. Nobody urged me to reconsider leaving.

In 2001 John Button wrote: “Labor’s soul-searching is destined to take time. One former federal minister, Duncan Kerr, said the party had lost its soul altogether.” A decade on, what has changed? Labor has won government, but it remains without a soul. Labor has failed to heed Button’s message, preferring instead to piss all over his legacy.

I hope one day I can return to the Labor Party. I really do. But that won’t happen until Labor has successfully come out the other side of an aggressive program of re-building and reforming. To begin with:

~ Remove the N40 rule which allows the executive to by-pass the rank-and-file membership during preselections;

~ Give the membership a voice in all aspects of the party;

~ The separation of party and unions, removing the requirement to be a union member in order to join the party;

~ Quash the influence of intellectually terrorists, such as Paul Howes, whose job is to run a union, not to remove sitting prime ministers.

I won’t hold my breath. But when Labor loses the next election – and it will – and Tony Abbott is prime minister, it won’t be because the country wanted to return the Coalition to government. It will be because Labor failed – failed its membership and failed the electorate.

The last work should go to John Button. It still rings true, a decade after he wrote it: “It was Labor’s year of grave misjudgments, of failure to project any alternative vision which could capture the imagination of voters, a year in which the morale among the rank-and-file progressively declined.”

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  1. Josh There are now 3 dark ages of laborism …1916 to 1941, 1959 to 83 and 1990s onwards (exact date to be deternined but could be as early as 1991) and counting … S

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