Given that Labor obviously has to do something more than wait for the housing bubble to burst, one simple (but not easy!) organisational step would be to abolish factions. That is, membership of any organised factional grouping ought to be treated like membership of a rival political party, as grounds for automatic expulsion. Of course, it would be impossible to prevent informal or secret factions from operating, as they do in all parties. But, to my knowledge, the only major political party anywhere in the world with a faction system comparable to Labor’s is the notoriously corrupt Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, and even here PM Koizumi is largely independent of the factions.

There was a time (from the 1950s split to sometime in the 1980s) when the factional groupings corresponded to ideological divisions. But that has long since ceased to be true. It’s probably true that the average member of the Left faction is a little more likely to favor a ‘progressive’ line on social issues than the average member of the Right and Centre, but that’s about the strength of it. Each of the major factions is subdivided into smaller groups, often little more than extended families, with their retainers and servants.

Nowadays, the factions exist because they exist. No-one is willing to bell the cat. However, this is the kind of thing Latham could take on, and perhaps even win. It would certainly be more in his line than Simon Crean’s lame achievement of changing the union voting ratio from 60 to 50 per cent[1].

fn1. While I’m dreaming, I’d like an end to the formal link between the unions and the ALP. And a pony.

11 thoughts on “Factions

  1. Why stop there? Surely the same thing applies to formal political parties themselves, within any democratic formal structure?

    The thing to do is to stop rewarding any middleman group, eliminate any formal recognition of parties and rewarding them with funds, constitutional significane, etc., so that the people are not distanced from what is claimed to be done on their behalf. Or, if these things must be, at least reward the factions for splitting off and becoming distinct parties in their own right so that the people do get some input and the groups do have to sell themselves on the basis of their own justifications and not any mere infighting skil, power for the sake of power.

    The whole bloody system is corrupt, in the sense that all the players sincerely do think they are being constructive by working the system and perpetuating the problems they mitigate.

  2. The LIBs are now agents of the Wealthfare State: the party of the metropolitan property owning bourgeois. Hewsons attempt to get everyone to be an equity owning share holder capitalist was a bit of a flop. Howard has been better at exploiting the Great Australian Dream for political gain.
    The ALP needs to reform its representation of it economic interest class base, just as the LIBs have done. Lathams attempt at hooking up the Wired Workers was a bit of a flop. Australians are more interested in brick ‘n mortar than clicks ‘n mortar.
    The ALP needs to become the agent of the Workfare State. The ALP class base used to be the organised working class. It should aim to be the party representing the disorganised working class. The majority of employees are in part-time, casual or contractual employment. Those that are in full-time permanent jobs appear to be dissatisfied with the balance b/w work and home.
    The ALP’s problems with economic policy are cyclical, rather than structural, in nature. They have had bad luck with the timing of the boom-bust cycle. Also, there are lingering doubts about some the economic competencies, esp when they cosy up to the GREENS.
    The LIBs economic luck will even out, they will run into a recession and a housing bubble will sag or burst. Time will heal the wounds that Keating inflicted on mortgage holders.
    The ALP faces more serious structural problem on so-called “values” issues:
    identity: cultural moralism
    security: political nationalism
    I argue that the AUS public have a pragmatic realist appreciation of various, balkanising and terrorising, threats. The masses are therefore, at the moment, more sympathetic to the conservative-populist Right approach to security and identity.
    The progressive-elitist Left, by contrast, appear to think the majority are wrong-headed, ill-willed or irrelevant. This appears to be the reason for the secular decline in the progressive-elitist Left representation in the SEN and with major parties.
    These issues are populist and therefore the province of Federal government. It is therefore not surprising that the LN/P are doing better at the Federal level, where these issues are more salient.
    The ALP may need to contrive a “Sister Souljah” moment in order to distance itself from its “special interests” cultural base. And it may need to perform the same trick to distance itself from its “orgaised interest” economic base.

  3. While I think anyone who engages in an ounce of independent thought would like to see an end to factions in the ALP, they do serve some purposes (for example, keeping the party manageable). Even small groups like the Democrats who think themselves above factions have formed ‘groupings’. That they weren’t formalised may have been part of the problem. Speaking as a union member, I have no gripe with an end to the formal link between them and the party. Perhaps it was never really in their interest to be affiliated in the first place.

  4. I venture to suggest that, if the Iraqi rebels/nationalists/insurgents/terrorists murder Margaret Hassan, the spillover of political debate will have a direct effect on Labor’s credibility. That is, all those who accepted election to the shadow executive can expect to have maximum pressure put on them. The appropriate response to seeing Hassan’s head being waved about will be to vomit. Let’s watch how they do.
    Maybe one of the faction bosses will offer to swap places with Hassan.

  5. I once heard Carr say with a straight face (as far as I could tell, since he was on the radio) that factions are good because they increase the probability that a given member will get into the ministry. I didn’t know which would be more depressing: if he a rationalising the irrational, or if he actually believed it.

  6. JF, Carr’s position would make sense if he thought factions encouraged ministerial inflation, i.e. more and more of them. It wouldn’t make sense if he thought all that was a good thing.

  7. Factions are a product of the Australian electoral system. With a preferential system ‘smaller’ parties tend to be wiped out leaving to big blocks.

    These blocks tend to attract people from a general political direction but with different views about how that political direction should be acted upon.

    So in the right wing block you have believers in total economic rationalism and free market and those who believe in protections and subsidies.

    In the left you have those who believe in free markets and assisting lower economic people to participatein it and those who see the market as something that should be contolled.

    In Europe, under a proportional representation systems these groupings are likely to be represented by separate parties, which may operate in coalitions to form a government.

    Factions per se are not bad, if they limit themselves as a vehicle to encourage policy debate and put forward a particular view.

    They are bad however, when they decide on who will be elected on the front bench, or who will represent a seat.

    Ordinary Rank and File members were until recently unable, in Victoria, to be elected to a policy committe , unless they were on a factional ticket.

    This can be very discouraging.

  8. Jack,

    You’re off-topic.


    I think Guido’s noted a very important point: any large political party in a two-party system will tend to have a wide cross-section of views. The ALP’s factional system is just a formal segmentation of these views. I disagree with your view that the factional system doesn’t delineate ideological views. I suggest that the lack of apparent differences reflects the predominance of accepted, “orthodox” views in issues like the economy, defence etc. The differences are now more subtle than they used to be. You are, however, right in saying that there appears to be more bloody-minded tribalism taking place.

    However, you can’t abolish factions for the simple reason that the ALP, like the Liberal Party, has to remain a big tent that accommodates a wide spread of views, even contradictory ones.

    The real problem with the ALP isn’t that it has factions, but that those factions don’t seem to correspond to the population at large. As you’ve noted previously, the ALP parliamentary group is full of careerists who have had to climb a very greasy pole dominated by unions, in an era when most Australians have little time for unions. I would argue that the ALP-unions symbiosis makes it more than usually open to patronage systems and corruption. It’s also a barrier to left-of-centre Australians who may have something to contribute, but feel alienated by the guild mentality of the party. Your footnote highlights the very difficult choice the ALP will have to make sooner than you appear to think. Good luck with the pony.

  9. As a member of no less than four different political parties in my adult life (including the ALP and the Greens) I am satisfied that attempting to formally proscribe factions would create more problems than it solve. The vacuum created by proscription of the factions would not only be filled by “informal or secret factions”, but by warlords and undeclared patronage networks which would be all the more insidious due to the difficulty of being able to identify and name them. Feminists have long recognised the importance of being able to “name” power in order to understand and challenge it.

    Further, if the experience of the communist left is any guide, the formal proscription of factions would be prone to abuse by dominant individuals and cliques to suppress dissent.

    The real problem is: (a) that the factions are now politically content-free, a problem which is closely related to the one Lindsay Tanner has identified of Labor’s inability to decide where it stands on a range of contemporary political fault-lines; and (b) that the unduly collegiate and non-participatory ALP structure gives them disproportionate control of internal processes of election, appointment and preselection.

  10. I am watching with interest the ALP’s review of its stance on Iraq. Nothing substantial has changed since the election, so if the ALP changes its policy, it vindicates Paul Norton’s statement about the ALP factions being “content-free”. A policy change would represent nothing more than an attempt to become more politically attractive. I remember being told once as a boy that political parties had principles. How long ago that seems.

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