The ALP suits crammed into the function room of Lygon Street’s legendary La Notte restaurant last Thursday to celebrate the first meeting of the Victorian party’s new think tank ‘Progressive Network’ were restless.
As the complementary white wine, meatballs and pizza were scoffed, former premier John Brumby addressed the agglomeration, held under ‘Chatham House’ rules, to talk productivity and the Asian century.
Echoing this public speech he’d delivered back in May, JB emphasised how progressives should not lose focus on the reforms necessary to keep business competitive in a global economy. But prominent participants including Labor Unity warhorses Luke Donnellan, Anthony Carbines and Bill Shorten spear-carrier Steve Michelson failed to fire discussion when it came to the substantive policy questions the group hopes will differentiate Julia Gillard from Tony Abbott.
“It was apparently about getting a diverse community together to discuss policy,” one attendee said, who requested anonymity to avoid annoying Michelson. “But there wasn’t actually much policy doing the rounds”.
Tellingly, the only notable intervention during Brumby’s question and answer session came from an elderly Melbourne City Councillor who wondered irrelevantly what role local government could play in the aforementioned century.
Still, it’s early days, and the bi-monthly gathering, designed to groom former Young Laborites into notable eminences grise, might end up morphing into something more vital. In the meantime, while the Network claims to be “cross-factional”, it’s already got some established competition from the party’s Left.
Progressive Network is running in parallel with another internal grouping -- Engage -- helmed by state party president Cath Bowtell and insecure work enemy Brian Howe. That forum, which cranked up last year, has heard from leaders like Daniel Andrews and Linsday Tanner but has taken a more learned approach around issues of industry policy in the mode of outfits like Per Capita.
“It is intended to draw researchers, academics, thinkers from outside the labour movement into a progressive policy conversation through a vehicle that’s not constrained by the ALP’s sclerotic internal processes,” explained one participant.
And on the national front, there’s at least been some fledgling attempts to keep the policy ball rolling.
The National Left has recently bolstered its house organ Challenge into an online outlet with story updates appearing at the encouragement of NSW assistant general secretary John Graham. Over on the Right is Voice, which boasted Bob Carr as its relaunched editor but has recently embarked on a rotating cast of guest eds — including Paul Howes — after Carr’s ascension to the Senate.
In some recent articles uploaded to Challenge, former Anna Bligh chief of staff Murray Watt gives his take on how to win back lost tradies, while Osmond Chiu tears strips off the fallacy of social impact bonds. But the most significant intervention came from United Voice supremo Louise Tarrant, who floated plans to re-energise the labour movement by seizing control of the macro-economic agenda.
Tarrant was explicit: “No-one on the Left can be satisfied by the status quo. For a start it never remains the same for long — we all know that change is inevitable — the issue is that progress (in left collectivist terms) is optional. But we are also kidding ourselves if we think the status quo is OK.”
For the first time in awhile the party appeared to be talking about more substantive political economy issues rather than tangential disputes drawn from the realm of identity politics. Tarrant’s intervention marks the reemergence of the possibility of collective interventions in the economy using the power of organised labour.
Three weeks ago in The Australian, ex-NSW Right commentator Troy Bramston offered up his own take on Tarrant, claiming that the party should shirk progressive solutions and instead double down on the business-as-usual that has eviscerated the party base he purports to want to re-engage. Bramston’s prescription was “not to steer leftward and embrace fears and prejudices, but to understand the forces under way in the economy and society and to position the party as the only political force who understands these changes and has a plan to deal with them”.
But that appears to lack any acknowledgement of the turpitude buffeting the idea that the growth function of the economy, driven by entrepreneurialism, is the point from which Labor leaders are forced to start.
There are other flashpoints. On boats, Left convenor Doug Cameron backed Rob Oakeshott’s bill but expressed severe reservations over the Malaysia Solution. Cameron and fellow convenor Graham Perrett have been staunch defenders of Stephen Jones’ gay marriage bill and have queried the PM over Gina Rinehart’s labour-importation plan. On the Greens issue, the NSW Right’s assault is being partly resisted by Cameron and figures like Melissa Parke on policy grounds, despite the headline bluster about their left-wing rivals’ inability to govern.
Over at Voice, the policy discussions have been more muted, with the focus fixed more on interviews with “Labor legends” and great speeches than detailed prescriptions. There has been some ballast around aged care, and a section on “6 policy ideas for Labor” had some thought-provoking lines on “modernising micro-financing”. NSW General Secretary Sam Dastyari told Crikey last week that the cut and thrust of ideas between the party’s two wings was healthy for democracy and should be encouraged.
The recent battle for primary preselection for the Sydney Lord Mayoral race was considered a Dastyari-driven success, but in a somewhat roundabout way given that the candidate faced almost certain defeat at the hands of Clover Moore.
But there is dissent on primaries, with some in the Victorian Left maintaining the process is a smokescreen to prevent more far-reaching reforms denied to them at national conference. On this view, party reform initiatives are only implemented when the Right can effectively game the result -- if the process, like the direct election of the parliamentary leadership or national conference delegates — risks throwing up the “wrong” results, than the reforms are swiftly wound back or abandoned.
(At conference, Voice’s one-to-one interview between Dastyari and the recently-retired Mike Rann was cruelly mocked by some wags who suggested that the article should be retitled “Why I Sacked You”).
And on party reform more broadly, tension still festers over the Bracks-Carr-Faulkner initiatives effectively blocked by the Right. The lack of will to implement the changes is considered a smackdown to the Review’s authors — as elder statesmen the glacial approach demonstrates a distinct lack of respect.
Of course, the Mark Lathams of the world would argue that the ideological lines upon which the factions were forged have melted away to become anaemic patronage channels. The Left, chastened by a nasty decade of preselection defeats at the hands of forces aligned to Graham Richardson, morphed into an impotent, greying talk shop — perhaps the best manifestation that Labor had lost its way. And the Right’s other raison d’être apart from blunting the Left -- Keating-era microeconomic reform coupled with social chop outs on health and education — could well be reaching the end of its natural life as inequality increases and wealth for the bottom levels of society subsides.
But while the soul searching continues, the broader problems underpinning low party membership remain unaddressed. For every new publication and think tank, the voluntarist forces that impel engagement and participation remain sadly lacking in this, the Party’s 122nd year.