Australian Labor Party

22 Sep 2004 archivespeech

This speech is following a speech delivered by the Hon. Gail Gago and is regarding the Australian Labor Party.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: I am very pleased to follow that speech delivered by the Hon. Gail Gago and her surprising attack on the Howard government. I am shocked! In fact, the title of my response could be called `beyond belief', which is actually the title of a quarterly essay from 2002 written by John Button. In the introduction by Peter Craven, he states:

Beyond Belief is a portrait of a moribund political party [the Labor Party] that has been in serious need of structural reform for at least a generation, which has lost any sense of its function as a progressive socially democratic party. . .

It's a portrait of a party that has narrowed its own social basis and in the process lost sight of Chifley's still valid idea of the light on the hill. In his quiet way Button is nowhere more devastating than in his account of how the Labor Party has professionalised itself to such an extent that it can actually look like a nepotised clerisy. . .

I refer members opposite to the appropriation speech of my colleague the Hon. David Ridgway for a full list of the professions of members opposite. In a chapter called `Crashing the party', which relates to the battle for the control of the Health Services Union in April 2002, John Button said:

But these disputes represent something important. They are signs of a Labor Party corrupted by petty conflicts, dominated by what unionist Martin Foley calls factional `warlords', and distracted from its historic purpose. This is the new inward-looking, corrosive culture of the ALP.

Of course, factional disputes are hardly unknown to the Labor Party. What is new is the domination of the party by a new class of labour movement professional who rely on factions and unions affiliated to the party for their career advancement. These people come from the ranks of political advisers, trade union policy officers and electoral office staff. Individually they can be thoughtful and decent people.

The Hon. R.D. Lawson: I don't know about that.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: My colleague the Hon. Robert Lawson says, `I don't know about that.' John Button further said:

Collectively they are destroying the diversity and appeal of the ALP and its affiliated unions. The overall effect on the ALP has been profoundly destructive. Federally the party is in retreat.

I see that the Hon. Gail Gago has left the chamber. Perhaps she could not stand it any longer—and these are the words of John Button, one of their own. He continued:

Its primary votes, its membership and the breadth of people it sends to parliament are all shrinking. These things are intimately connected, and they are made possible by a party structure that has barely changed in the past century, that is moribund and out of touch with contemporary society.


The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Oh, go on! He further stated:

A second area of shrinkage is in the occupational backgrounds of members of the Parliamentary Labor Party. In 1978. . . the parliamentary party of 64 members contained 10 former union officials, six of whom had worked in the trade or calling represented by their unions, six from wholesale and retail business and two accountants. It also included three farmers, six lawyers, three academics, four medical practitioners, two policemen, five public servants, five tradesmen and five teachers. There was one engineer, one journalist, one former merchant marine officer and one shearer, the late Mick Young. Five were former members of state parliaments and two former party officials. It was a pretty good social mix. . .

The mix was still there in the first Hawke ministry, which had among its members former farmers, businessmen, academics, lawyers and union officials as well as a former engine driver, a teacher, a retailer, a waterside worker and a shearer.

Yet look at what cloistered profession the Parliamentary Labor Party has become. After Kim Beazley's vigorous campaign in the 1998 election, Labor has returned to parliament with a party of 96 members of vastly changed occupational backgrounds. Although one medical practitioner, one public servant and one engineer remained, no farmers or tradesmen did. There were two academics and two teachers, as well as nine lawyers, but the whole social complexion had changed.

76 of the 96 members had tertiary qualifications; a mere two had trade qualifications. Labor's politicians have nearly all been to factional finishing school but not many have been to the school of hard knocks. The ALP has become truly professional, and, in the process of professionalising itself, has lost much of its capacity to relate to the broader community.