The perils of Rudd's mega-brand Labor

Once upon a time the Australian electorate was offered strong flavours and real choices. But Kevin Rudd is threatening to strip Labor of its character.

Australia is at a dangerous point – a moment in which deep divisions within the Labor Party are being dismissed as meaningless, and in which the superficiality of Prime Minister Rudd's rushed policy reviews are treated as meaningful.

Besides the reshaping of boat-arrivals policy, a rethink on carbon pricing and a new round of negotiations to get the Gonski reforms over the line, Rudd has announced moves to reform the corruption-riddled NSW branch of the ALP.

And he is being urged by a victim of 'NSW disease', former premier Nathan Rees – who was deposed by the NSW party's right-faction powerbrokers – to break the unions' influence on the party once and for all by reducing union representation at Labor conferences from 50 to 20 per cent.

For union haters, this is manna from heaven. The 'faceless men', the cabal of right-faction figures that ran the NSW party with powerbroker Eddie Obeid – recently resulting in Obeid and fellow former minister Ian MacDonald's expulsion from the party – will get what they deserve.

The problem is they are already getting what they deserve. Besides Labor having been booted out of government, the Independent Commission Against Corruption is exposing the party's failings and heads are rolling. The newly formed IKAC – the Independent Kevin Against Corruption – might achieve something altogether different, and with alarming consequences.

Because at the same time as Rudd has written to the NSW branch to demand a five-point reform plan, he has copied the same letter to all other state branches. Nothing short of a full overhaul of the Labor Party is planned.

The reform list reportedly includes:

– New powers to expel corrupt party members;

– A ban on property developers being pre-selected as Labor candidates;

– The creation of an independent tribunal to resolve party disputes;

– The right for party members to appeal internal party decisions in the courts;

– And the creation of a Labor 'ombudsman' to handle party member complaints.

Combine these two pushes – one to neuter the unions, and the other to make the party a microcosm of Australian democracy itself – and it's easy to forget that voters do have an alternative to the Labor Party.

It's the Coalition.

That's right, the Liberal and National parties, and the minor parties whose preferences flow to that side of politics.

If the two reform pushes succeed, voters will be left with diminished choice about what style of government runs the country. In place of real conviction politics we will have two mega-brands – the Liberal and Labor parties – with very little difference in the alternating governments they form.

On one level it could be argued that such a situation is a triumph of democracy. The "sensible centre", as Tony Abbott began calling it last year, is getting just what it wants – moderate fiscal and economic conservatism, moderate social conservatism and sensible white papers written on every conceivable policy area ... all sensibly ignored by middle-of-the-road parties with an obsession for opinion polling and not an inch of backbone between them.

Yes, that's democratic. But will it deliver prosperity and justice for Australians? And where is the scope for protecting the delicate flower of democracy when powerful lobby groups gradually tighten their grip on successive poll-obsessed governments?

Looking back over the decades, conviction politics has worked. Australian democracy has flourished and brought the best reforms through a process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

Be it Menzies, Whitlam, Hawke or Howard, our greatest leaders have offered the Australian voter strong flavours, real choices and, somehow, the people have made good choices that have made Australia one of the most desired places in the world to live.

There is a real risk that Kevin Rudd's reforming zeal will make Labor nothing more than a market-driven corporation, that 'agonises' over important issues such as same-sex marriage only until opinion polls become irresistible and the moral reasoning of vote-winning trumps all other considerations.

(For the record, I support full equality for same-sex couples – not because of opinion polls, but because many heterosexual couples do such a good job proving that same-sex couples could hardly do worse.)

The Rees line, that unions only represent 18 per cent of workers and therefore should get something like 18 per cent of the votes at Labor conference time, is nonsensical. The Labor Party was set up by the unions and, for better or worse, is their key democratic vehicle. Taking them out of the party in this way is like removing Christians from Fred Nile's Christian Democratic Party.

And the more the ALP shifts to the "sensible centre", purloins conservative policies and decries any link to the Labor movement upon which it was founded, the more the Coalition experiments with the same. As Michael Gawenda pointed out last week (Rudd rose up on the death of difference, June 28) the two parties are drawing ever closer together on economic policy: the NDIS, NBN and even carbon pricing (and Tony Abbott's expensive paid-parental-leave scheme outflanks Labor to the left).

Why have two parties at all? China does quite well with one. Is that where the second coming of Rudd is leading us?

Whereas 'old Labor' could be kicked out of power for getting things wrong, and unions would lose members, money and power for getting things wrong, Rudd's visions for Labor as an all-encompassing brand that morphs to be whatever the populous wants actually offers less democratic choice, not more.

Disclaimer: The author has not belonged to a union since 2007. Prior to that he was at various time an ordinary member of three unions – the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance; the National Tertiary Education Union and the UK's National Union of Journalists.

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