Another take on Labor's woes

Here is my take on Labor's woes, as ignored by Op-ed editors from The Age, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald:

A glance at the Labor caucus reveals a depressing site. Amongst its ranks are a chorus of those in the 'political class', whose professional lives have been spent mostly or entirely within the Labor party or the labour movement. Whilst their political opponents might boast of lawyers, entrepreneurs and a variety of other white collar professionals, the same cannot be said of the Labor Party. According to a Parliamentary Library research note (no. 24 2005-2006), 34% of Labor parliamentarians had as their previous occupation ‘party and union administrators and officials', whilst just 7% worked in the law and 11% as business managers. Amongst the coalition, only 2% were in this first category.

We have long passed the point in Labor history when representing the party in parliament was a reward for achievements in the outside world. Instead it is merely a logical continuation of work within the labour bureaucracy.

The starting point for this "career", from want of a better word, are our university campuses. On campuses across the country, young, talented left-leaning students are sucked into the world of political machinations. For some this means playing the game of student politics, whilst for others it involves a plumb appointment as a staff member of a state or federal member of parliament. The idea of seeking to achieve things outside of the Labor machine is frowned upon.

Plenty has been said about the total lack of perspective held by many inside student politics. To its participants, student politics is a life or death struggle for power where every possible advantage is sought over one's opponent. To those watching from the outside, though, it's a remarkably silly battle of little consequence. Regardless of which perception is closer to the truth, the bearpit of student politics is considered a training ground for the real thing.

It's doubtful, though, that it's teaching the skills that are worth learning. Rarely does student politics involve serious policy discussion or a nuanced understanding of different points of view. Rarely does it involve the art of persuasion. Rarely does it involve the tricky business of reasoning and rational argument. Instead, it's a bombastic power struggle. Participants are encouraged to count numbers and stack their way to success whilst intimidation and deception are commonplace. Student politics involves the worst elements of the real thing, and that's just why it's such an unfortunate training ground, but one that lives on nonetheless.

It's also worth remembering that in student politics, the battle is rarely between Liberal and Labor. More often, it is between different factions of the Labor Party, who operate completely independently and consider each other to be their arch political enemies. The animousity between the left faction (Australian Labor Students and National Organisation of Labor
Students) and the right faction (Student Unity) is the stuff of legends. In must be quite jarring for these junior pollies to leave university and find themselves shoulder to shoulder with fellow Labor members that they previously despised. There's little wonder, then, that the factional divide lives on.

All this is not to say, of course, that Liberal-minded students aren't engaged in the same shenanigans. To some extent they are, although the lack of a political gravy train of student political and union jobs prevents Liberal students from venturing further down this path. (Perhaps, ironically, the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism will help the Labor Party by reducing the number of cosy political positions within the student union movement.) There's also a clear realisation amongst aspiring young liberals that their path to Parliament House must invariably go via another profession. This realisation is part of the reason why the Liberals have managed to avoid the same malaise the Labor Party currently finds itself in.

There's no suggestion that factional warfare in the Labor Party is the result of factionalism in junior politics. The problem, though, is that the shallow gene pool of participants in junior politics seem to be the major source of future parliamentarians in the Labor Party. This depressing situation will continue so long as the caucus is filled with career politicians who spend their younger days wallowing in the pettiness of student politics and then make no attempt to learn skills or establish their credentials elsewhere. This trend is not unstoppable. The preselection of entrepreneur (and, incidentally, former student politician) Evan Thornley to a state Labor seat in Victoria and the preselection of lawyer Mark Dreyfus in the federal seat of Isaacs are steps in the right direction. What is necessary is that these preselections be the rule rather than the exception, in order to send a message out to aspiring young hacks and hackettes that they must broaden their skill base if they are to be successful in politics.

If Labor is to make a serious attempt at entering government, it will need to work hard to change the composition of its party room. Rewarding talent ahead of loyal service would be a good start. These hackneyed Labor groupies are surely not the basis of the next Labor Government.

Ari Sharp is a Commerce/Arts student at the University of Melbourne.


boy_fromOz said…
so is student unionism the reality TV of politics?
Anonymous said…
Nice article, Ari. Though I'm not surprised it wasn't run. By way of constructive criticism, I think it went too quickly from the opening thesis of how many Labor folk have been staffers, straight almost the whole article on student politics.

Each are valid stories in their own right, but I think separate, notwithstanding their obvious connection. (Did that sound weird?)

Perhaps save the dissertation on student pollies for the campus journal - the big papers aren't interested. And take the opening stanza of this piece and concentrate more on the culture of staffer > parliament. The talent over loyalty angle is good. :)
Anonymous said…
Ari, I was reading Gerard Henderson's 'A Howard Victory?' written in the last months of Keating, and its conclusions were opposite to yours.

Despite's GH's pedigree, he was envious of much of Labor's organisation.

These include a strong party head office, a career structure for hopefuls (eg unions & possibly NGOs), recruiting student politics, an ability to parachute 'star candidates' into safe seats, etc etc.

He was particularly praiseworthy of Labor's nurturing of a 'professional political class', the lack of which he saw as a reason why Hewson's Liberals failed.

Interestingly, what Henderson praised in Labor seems to be a large part of what you see as their problems today.

Lack of talent seems to be an issue with unpopular oppositions, with the federal Liberals of the 80s suffering at least as badly as ALP now. But it seems to vanish once power has been attained.


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