Friday, 18 February 2011

Review? More like Needless Vomit

Political parties are strange beasts. Parties who profess to be democratic aren’t really and are run by a powerful oligarchy of highly trained political operatives. These operatives are part of this exclusive club because they have spent their entire lives trying to work out how to progress further up the political food chain. How do I know this? I am one of them.

I always find it tremendously ironic when such parties undertake a comprehensive review. It is a massive cognitive illusion designed to give party members the impression that they actually participate in a party’s decision making processes. Further proof of these truisms came today when the ALP released their report into the 2010 election campaign, which will go down in history as probably one of the more useless documents in Australian politics.

Don’t believe me? Well, there’s the fact that Labor's elder statesmen Hawke and Wran compiled an almost identical report in 2002, when Simon Crean’s leadership was sicker than eating ones own snot. Cosmetic changes were made to how the ALP’s Federal Conference was run, supposedly the Federal Party’s supreme decision making body. Truth be known, more than 95% of the party’s members don’t attend the conference, so what did the reforms mean to them? Fuck all. The rest of the report talked about greater engagement with the membership, encouraging more young people to become involved in the party and ensuring policy making became more transparent. Did it happen? Of course not.

The same year the Hawke Wran Report (HW) was released, Former Hawke Government Minister John Button commented on the malaise of Modern Labor in his essay Beyond Belief:

The ALP is seen as a pale alternative to the Coalition. It is incapable of embracing and speaking for the divergent progressive groups in the community. It has been unable to respond effectively to new aspirations. It no longer represents contemporary Australia. It may not even represent its members any more: its national body has become an offshore island adrift from the rest of the party, inaccessible to its rank and file, a barren and rocky outcrop untouched by new ideas

It’s worth remembering that the ALP has always done best in federal elections when it has set the political agenda, when it has involved its members as agents of change and enthused a wider section of the community with a sense of excitement and vision. A small target strategy does none of these things. It is contrary to ALP sentiment and tradition, demoralizing to the membership and boring for the electorate. And if it fails, it fails devastatingly.

Aside from the twelve month period of Kevin Rudd as Opposition Leader throughout 2007 in the fight against WorkChoices, ALP members have not been ‘agents of change’ in the intervening period.  Why the hell not?

Well the Bracks/Carr/Faulkner (BCF) review into the 2010 election sure doesn’t tell you the answer. Funnily enough it almost has the same aims as the HW report. In fact it is almost a blatant copy and paste job.

BCF Objectives
1. Growing our Party membership
2. Deepening our connection with the community
3. Opening up our Party to greater participation

HW Objectives

1. Review vision and purpose
2. Greater participation
3. Improved engagement

Note the difference? Well neither do I.

The BCF report gives members the opportunity to whinge about their local beefs. 'Party offices don’t pay attention to us, Ministers don’t give us enough respect, we perform tasks without sufficient thank yous and support'. These are all valid, but minor concerns. There’s a reason two thirds of the report is sealed. The problems are not issues of participation and democracy, the problems highlighted will never be fixed no matter how often they are addressed. The real problems begin and end at the top, with the strategists and high level members of the Rudd and Gillard Governments.

As Crikey reported today the bits of the report we don’t get to see will be far more interesting:

In an overview of the campaign’s aftermath, the review also attacks the PM’s inner circle, claiming the team, led at the time by former chief of staff Amanda Lampe, were incapable of running the office properly and were obsessed with spin over substance. It goes on to say that without significant personnel excavations the support cast would “be her downfall”. Lampe quit last month and will soon be replaced by the more policy-orientated Ben Hubbard from Victoria.

A further recommendation reportedly says Labor should dump the practice of shunting backbenchers “lines of the day”, concentrating instead on “themes of the day” which MPs can expand and extemporise upon Lindsay Tanner-style in a manner befitting a living and breathing public figure, rather than a robot or dalek.
The first two sections of the report covering the 2010 election and Kevin Rudd’s period in power from 2007 onwards are strictly for internal consumption and only the third section on party reform is expected to be released publicly.

These sections need to be released. I can fully understand the political reasons for not wanting to do so, but any political operative with half a brain can see what I did. The ALP fucked up a slam dunk election campaign.

I started my thesis a fully fledged disciple of the ALP, I now am disillusioned, as they have unintentionally bent over backwards to prove my academic arguments. Look at chief strategist Karl Bitar’s summation of his campaign performance at the National Press Club:

Our strategy in the campaign was to make the election a clear contest between Prime Minister Gillard’s positive plan to move Australia forward and Tony Abbott who would take Australia backwards.

It was to be a choice between Prime Minister Gillard who was smart, experienced and had a positive plan to strengthen our economy and invest in better health and education services. And Tony Abbott who was erratic, had no idea about economics and would take Australia backwards to the worst of WorkChoices and service cuts.

Despite any criticism of the narrative and message, we knew it was effective and that it would actually move voters our way during the campaign.

The strength of our narrative was demonstrated in our research track in the first few days of the campaign when our vote picked up significantly and voters were already starting to define the campaign on our terrain.

So it was a promising start….promising enough to conclude that had the campaign had the normal ‘leak free discipline of a Labor campaign’, our majority would have been protected.… the campaign however was not to provide this opportunity.

So we had a solid and strong frame about moving Australia forward. A good canvas that needed a solid 35 day paint job……… this of course became impossible because of leaks and Latham.

No sorry Karl, your decisions fucked up the campaign. The decision to call an early election before Julia had time to get her name on the Prime Ministerial Office door was yours. The decision to undermine our leader and announce that the ‘Real Julia’ had arrived halfway during the campaign, allowing voters to think the PM was just pretending beforehand was yours and hers. And crucially the decision not to articulate a big picture vision for a Labor Government and where they wanted the country to head in the next 3 years was yours too.

With strategists such as Bitar in denial and with such a poor leader in Gillard does the BCF review make a difference? Not one iota. Lets look at some recommendations:

Recommendation 8: That the Party grant an amnesty to former members who have left the Party over the past five years, but who are willing to rejoin. That the amnesty include the restoration of full membership rights; but that this amnesty not be extended to any former member who has brought discredit on the Party or its representatives
(Otherwise known as ‘We’re DESPERATE for members, PLEASE come join, we promise we’ll be nice.)

Recommendation 10: That branch correspondence to parliamentary representatives and state and territory branches should be responded to promptly to ensure branch members are aware their contribution has been considered. That Party units be permitted to have correspondence not responded to within three months brought to the attention of National Executive members by automatic inclusion in the agenda papers of National Executive.

(Well duh! This should be a basic right of a party membership.)

The above two recommendations underscore what a real waste of time this review really is. In eight years the BCF report will just be recycling fodder just like the HW report before it. The final word on the ALP’s current problems should go to its most maligned figure, Mark Latham in his recent column in The Monthly. He’s got the problems spot on.

The bigger truth is that Labor has lost its way. History only gives the party credit when it champions big political causes. Does anyone, for instance, remember the Curtin and Chifley governments for clever electoral strategies and media manipulation? Such a notion is absurd, denying the struggle for postwar reconstruction and bank nationalisation. The same can be said of the Whitlam and Hawke–Keating governments, the former with regard to social policy achievements and the latter with its liberalisation of the Australian economy.

Ultimately, parties to the left of centre only achieve political legitimacy through nation changing reform programs. This is their raison d_être, the only logical way by which the electorate can relate to them. This approach does not always garner majority support, of course – often it induces lengthy periods in opposition – but at least, through the championing of causes, it gives voters a chance to acknowledge that the party itself has a purpose. That it might be something more than an opportunistic grab for power.
Pity no one listens to him anymore.

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