There’s an extraordinary row going on in the ALP at the moment, with right faction leaders attacking the Greens as financially incompetent and politically marginal. The NSW Labor conference this weekend will debate a motion by the State Secretary Sam Dastyari that Labor not automatically preference the Greens in future elections. Given that they do not do that anyway, one may well ask why the motion is needed. The left faction have now had it amended so as to stress common factors and leave it as an option.
The spat with the Greens appears a deliberate tactic of the Labor right, as other factional players have weighed in to contrast the Greens as loony and left unlike the centrist major party player like Labor. Further complicating the issue is a by-election coming up next weekend in the formerly safe Labor inner-city seat of Melbourne. The Liberals are not standing a candidate and the Greens Kathy Oke is expected to defeat Labor’s Jennifer Kanis. Some conspiracy theorists are speculating that this attack on the Greens is aimed at destabilising Julia Gillard, with a potential return to Kevin Rudd as leader, or the long-predicted rise of Bill Shorten.
On top of all that, the ALP is undergoing an internal review. Dastyari will also propose to the NSW conference that members be given a say in electing their Parliamentary leader at State and Federal level. That proposal is likely to be referred to a commission in order to kill it, according to one supporter of the proposal. A “compromise” motion to elect party leaders and secretary is expected to fail. Other proposed changes are to allow branch secretaries to forward memberships to the central office, which may reintroduce branch stacking, and not require candidates to be union members in certain cases.
Part of the breakdown in the ALP’s relation with the Greens comes from the refusal to allow off-shore reception of boat people , passed with the support of independents in the House of Representatives but defeated by Greens in the Senate, leaving the toxic issue with its legacy back to Labor’s defeat in 2001 unresolved. Whatever the background, the best comment in my view comes from the Age’s veteran political editor Michelle Grattan:
While it is undoubtedly necessary for Labor to separate its ”brand” from that of the Greens, this should have been the approach right from the start of the minority government, even at the cost of sometimes making Labor-Green relations testier. Given that it is being done now, however, a more subtle approach was necessary. If you throw insults of ”extremism” and ”loopy” at people after giving voters the impression that they are your friends, you can’t blame the electors if they are cynical.
It’ s not good to see the ALP in its current state – I’ve many friends there and have learnt much from them over the years. Some of the learnings however have been about what not to do. They (and New Labour in the UK) never understood why we preferred MMP here, so electoral coalitions and minority government are foreign ideas to them. They get tangled up in winner-take-all politics and fruitless debates about the difference between class and identity politics, allied to a declining membership and an over-reliance on faction-driven branch-stacking and committee voting.
All I saw over twenty-plus years about the way the factions behave in Australia made me determined that the New Zealand Labour Party would avoid factions like the plague, and we have. Some recent comments indicate that the present debate is more factional phoenix-derived, about what will arise from the ashes of what everyone expects will be a resounding defeat at the next federal election. It’s not a recipe for success in my opinion, as any reliance on reborn factions will strangle efforts to reform the party at birth.
The New Zealand Labour Party’s reform process, which will be signed off by the New Zealand Council this weekend as well, is much more soundly based, and offers much more positive promise than the NSW conference. In contrast with the ALP, the NZLP is building steadily towards electoral success at the next election. Despite the best efforts of those who would promote the union bogey or the zephyr-in-a-teacup from the odd NBC obsessive, Labour here is faction-free and building a mature relationship with the Greens. There’s nothing wrong either with a wake-up call for Labour and the left generally.
One of the most important lessons I learnt in a long time in politics is that when the left splits, it loses. The ALP right seems destined to have to learn that lesson again the hard way, with the Greens this time instead of the DLP-Catholic right in the 1950’s. Fortunately all the signs here point to the fact that the NZLP and the Greens understand it well.