Modia Minotaur

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The True Story of Robert Ray and the Fabian Society - `Are Factions Killing Labor?'

Much as I like to see a humble meeting of the Fabian Society not only on the front page of Sydney's major newspaper but leading ABC TV's primetime news, I really have to say something about the appalling - in some cases plain inaccurate - reportage of this event. Looks like it's up to us bloggers to set the records straight.

Firstly, I do not recall the name `Beazley' mentioned or even implied in any meaningful way during the meeting (and certainly not during Robert Ray's speech). There was certainly no direct criticism of him from any of the three speakers (and yes, there were three, not just Ray, as the media would have you believe). Ray's references to leadership were made in regards to the notion of leadership in general - factional, managerial, or organisational, and non-specific. A few names were mentioned, but as illustrative cases, not as individuals to be singled out for a focused spray. It was not a `rant' as some are reporting. In general, Ray was fairly balanced about the impact of factions - even supportive, as a factional heavy himself. His pronouncement was not, as the media suggests, a bolt from the blue, but - as you would expect in a forum entitled `Are Factions Killing Labor' - a rational discussion.

Perhaps worse than the misinterpretation was the plain misreporting As the Sydney Morning Herald's article even concedes (a sentence after making the erroneous claim), Ray did not say he believed Labor were poorer economic managers, only that there was a perception that the Liberal Party are better at it - not necessarily accurate or inaccurate, but extant nonetheless. Don't take my word for it - read the transcript, which is already up on the Fabian Society website.

Such cynical and sloppy reportage makes one wonder if they were scrambling around for material now that Naomi Robson's gotten out of Papua and the Crocodile Hunter has been officially farewelled. Fad diets, cures for back pain, furry animal stories, and faux stoushes within the ALP.

So, what actually did happen?

The first speaker was Victorian ALP candidate Evan Thornley. Actually, Ray and Thornley made an interesting contrast, the one the archetypal hard-bitten humourist, the other the rather too misty eyed idealist, both to a certain extent (Thornley more than Ray) shirking the real issue by focusing on the second part of the question, and assuring us that reports of the ALP's death are greatly exaggerated. This is a diagnosis with which I agree, but the question is not `is the ALP dying?' - it's `how do we best work to ensure it remains alive and thriving?'. This is the essence of the debate over factions. Do they contribute or detract from the vitality of the party? Neither Ray nor Thornley offered any real answers.

Thornley's theory was basically that if you don't like what Head Office does or factional leaders do, do what you like and they'll finally come around to your way of thinking. This is a nice idea, and does occur to a certain extent in some of the more proactive branches, but when it comes down to it, jingoistic optimism is not a way to revive a party. It also ignores the fact that many party organisational types quite openly proclaim their belief that the rank and file should be abolished (or at least silenced) altogether as they stand in the way of a decent political party. Who knows - perhaps the corporatisation of politics will mean Annual Conferences become Annual General Meetings, and other policy meetings restrained by the 100 members rule that currently applies to shareholder organisations (and a principle which is itself under attack). But, like Thornley, I'm getting off the track.

I wish I could concur with Thornley's rather simplistic notions, but I just can't find it in my heart to do so. Party members are not, as he seemed to suggest, customers or consumers. A party is not a client organisation whose product is social change. Attracting X number of people to join a party will not automatically elevate organised politics to the top of the agenda (as second speaker Carmen Lawrence pointed out, nothing will. Australia has never been a country of mass political participation, and nor will it ever be). While I admire the spirit that inspired the inception of GetUp - Thornley's own creation - I do not accept that popping your name at the bottom of a mass mailout constitutes political participation. It may even discourage organised participation by presenting nothing more than a vicarious experience of authenticity - a faux-participation. `I've sent my email to Amanda Vanstone about how lousy immigration detention is, and thus absolved myself of actually going out there and doing something to change the policy'.

Carmen Lawrence, the inaugural Labor president, gave an entirely sensible and insightful speech about the history and function of factions, exploring notions of where their existence does facilitate more inclusive policy participation, and where it disintegrates into mere tribal warfare, fiercer, more divisive and more consuming than any battle with the official enemy. She made the very valuable point - again, completely disregarded by the media - that factionalism is not a function only of the Labor party, but all of its opponents (as the sticky Epping by-election and wider nastiness in the NSW Opposition proved) and, in fact, any group activity. The main point she made - and it gradually became the consensus over the course of the meeting - was that any behaviour that encourages a focus inward on internal party issues, rather than outward on the issues of producing good policies and winning elections - is clearly unsustainable. She defined what may be the essence of the average rank-and-filer's deeper concern, not only about factionalism but party politics in general. In a poll-driven political world, ideological positions have become redundant. Factions no longer stand for ideological stances like `left' or `right', and nor do parties, to the point where the stance a party or leader will take on a certain issue is almost entirely unpredictable, and fueled not by ideology but political expediency.

Lawrence deplored the advent of the corporatisation of political parties - perhaps an inadvertant (but then again, perhaps a deliberate) riposte to Thornley's notions that running a successful political party is no more arduous than running a successful business. In a just world, it would have been Lawrence's speech that made the front pages, and as soon as it is published on the Fabian Society's website (which I very much hope it will be), I'll link it here.

Unlike the mainstream media, I will let the final speaker, Ray, speak for himself, and leave you with one thought. As far as the media is concerned, when the ALP does some soul searching, they're ripping into one another. When the Liberals do ... well, that's the thing, isn't it? They don't. And they're going to be mighty sorry about it once John Howard's gone.


At 2:23 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:14 pm, Blogger beroccaboy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 12:30 am, Blogger beroccaboy said...

I was there too.

The trouble with factions is not limited to the Labor party or politics for that matter.

I do see a problem with factions however and have tried to express them in the Internet hyperlink below.

At 8:44 am, Blogger Splatterbottom said...

a humble meeting of the Fabian Society

Impossible, like a square circle. Hubris is the hallmark of leftists everywhere.

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