Party of the people beaten by the people of the party

The Australian Labor Party, throughout almost all of its 120 years, has been a party that values institutions above personalities and the viability of the organisation ahead of the feelings of individuals.

The Australian Labor Party, throughout almost all of its 120 years, has been a party that values institutions above personalities and the viability of the organisation ahead of the feelings of individuals.

THE Australian Labor Party, throughout almost all of its 120 years, has been a party that - in its internal workings - values institutions above personalities and the viability of the organisation ahead of the feelings of individuals. What made the ALP the nation's strongest political party during Australia's crucial early years as a nation was its adherence to a pledge of caucus solidarity.

Because of the party's roots as the political manifestation of the union movement, it has been driven by institutional processes and considerations - the sharing of influence between the factions, the power of the various party executives - rather than personal ones. This was what distinguished the ALP from successive non-Labor parties. The Liberals prized individuals and individualism ahead of the collective.

I started covering the labour movement in 1980 as an industrial reporter. The enmities between various individuals from the left and the right wings of the ALP and the union movement were monumental. The differences often had ideological and philosophical roots, but almost as often they also seemed to be built on tribalism and little else.

In the end, however, the differences were set aside in the interests of the party. Labor's most successful period ensued. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Labor managed to win office in every state and was in government nationally from 1983 to 1996. Today's Labor Party is but a shadow of the Labor Party of that time.

In late 1991, Bob Hawke's prime ministership was in deep trouble. Six months earlier, Hawke had defeated Paul Keating in a party room ballot, but Keating was coming for him again and the ALP was getting smashed in the polls. A group of six senior Labor MPs went to see Hawke and suggested he step down. Hawke told them to get lost, which was highly embarrassing for the delegation, whose members included Kim Beazley, Gareth Evans and Robert Ray. But it was enough to resolve the leadership deadlock soon after, Keating defeated Hawke in a new ballot and Labor won the next election. From that exercise, the ALP won one extra term in office, in which it was able to bed down and build upon the superannuation guarantee, and begin the process of taking the rigidities out of the labour market.

Eight years before that 1991 delegation, John Button had instant success, acting on Hawke's behalf, when he urged Bill Hayden to make way for Hawke, who had been destabilising Hayden's leadership for at least a year. When Button, Ray, Beazley, Gerry Hand and others made these entreaties to their leaders, they knew they were doing one of the most difficult things any politician can do. None of them enjoyed it. Button did not much like Hawke, and the MPs who years later urged Hawke to tap the mat had no appetite for Keating. They were dashing the dreams and hopes of those leaders, both outstanding servants of their party.

But they also knew they were acting deliberately, with the weight of big institutions that constituted the ALP behind them - and that their fealty to the party and the labour movement would always override their loyalties or animosities to any individual player.

It is pretty much impossible to imagine anything like this happening within the Gillard government. The most outstanding aspect of Labor's leadership situation is the deeply personal nature of the contest between Gillard and Rudd. Past leadership battles, such as the Hawke-Keating rivalry, have contained personal elements. That is inevitable when two strong-willed - and dare it be said, egotistical - individuals vie for the most powerful position in the country.

But the Gillard-Rudd face-off is something else again. Without question, Rudd is motivated - at least in part - by a desire to right a personal wrong: what he sees as the betrayal of his deputy, Gillard, and his most senior minister, Wayne Swan, in 2010. At the same time, Gillard gives every appearance of holding on chiefly in order to prove her tenacity, the power of her will and, by implication, the strength of her character. She portrays immovability and defiance as virtues that rank above electoral popularity. One of her key drivers seems to be a burning desire to deny Rudd any sense of vindication.

It is not a dispute about policy. It is about conflicting ambitions and it is about personal animosities. Those animosities extend far beyond the two combatants. The Prime Minister's supporters make a personal argument about the need to thwart Rudd's return to the leadership. What motivates them is their conviction that Rudd is, to put it mildly, not a good person. He is rude. He swears. His work habits are irregular.

We have never seen anything like this before in the affairs of the Labor Party.

The internal institutions that gave the ALP heft in the past have diminished substantially. Unions now represent less than one in five workers. Labor Party membership has suffered a calamitous drop. Factional discipline has waned caucus members increasingly are making decisions on policy and personnel based on personal judgment rather than broader philosophies.

This is demonstrated starkly in the continuing face-off between Gillard and Rudd. Much of it is based on who did what to whom, the nasty thing someone did to someone else. To listen to some caucus members talk about Rudd, you could be excused for thinking that you had stumbled into a table read of a script for Neighbours or Home and Away. Gillard, Swan and a handful of other ministers set the tone in February when they attempted to booby-trap Rudd with their intensely personal attacks - an unprecedented development in Labor Party affairs.

The media refers to people who favour the status quo as Gillard supporters. More correctly, they are Rudd opponents few among them are sticking with Gillard because they see her as a skilful or able prime minister. Their goal is to stop Rudd from getting back in charge.

Clearly, some parts of what's left of the ALP's support base - Newspoll this week put its primary vote at 28 per cent and a new Age/Nielsen poll will be released on Monday - are unhappy about the reporting and media commentary about the Labor leadership. As they did earlier this year, they continue to see it as a media concoction.

If the media ignores it, it will not go away. The fact is that government MPs are resigned to an inevitable loss next year under Gillard. This is not the only thing they talk about but it is one of the only things they talk about. Whether it leads to Rudd's restoration is an open question. Perhaps it won't.

But the question of what will happen to the Labor Party and the legislative achievements of the Gillard government after next year's election, which at this stage looks like ushering in an Abbott government with a massive majority, control of both houses and a determination to wipe out Gillard's program, is something worth contemplating.

In the face of the caucus' abject despair so far out from the election, it's interesting to consider how history will judge this generation of Labor Party MPs, a majority of whom appear inclined to sit pat and essentially do nothing, waiting to be swept into the ashcan of history.

Shaun Carney is an associate editor.

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