Reviewing labor's internal reviews 1966-2010: 'looking forward, looking backwards'.

Author:Coghlan, Jo
Position:Australian Labor Party - Report


Since the ALP began considering why it couldn't win federal office in the post-Evatt period, it has held fairly regular internal reviews. Each time it has asked Party and union members to posit reasons for federal (and sometimes state) defeat and solutions for future electoral victories. Arguably however, the holder of the reviews--the senior Party hierarchy or oligarchs who were also senior factional leaders--and the respondents to the reviews-branch and union members--saw the process from two different perspectives. For the oligarchs, Labor reviews are about being seen to reform. For Labor, rank-and-file reviews suggest if likely reform will occur. There is clearly a difference between design and outcome.

This paradox is evident in even a cursory view of submissions. Of the five internal Labor Party reviews held between 1966 and 2010, from the Party elders came the recurring themes of national unity and centralisation, increased democratisation and enlarged participation and more recently, the reduction of union power in policy-making. However, from the branch and union members came strong concerns for the need to dismantle centralised power, particularly among the national factions and national union leaders, to replace less pragmatic bipartisan policies aimed at chasing swing voters with policies that reflect was is imagined within the ALP as social democratic labour traditions, and to increase participation of branch members in policy-making forums.

Internal Labor Party reviews for senior Party and union officials were usually about the perception of change. While there were some exceptions, such as Simon Crean's demand for unions to have the same voting rights at national conferences as Party participants (even though Crean did this to counter the public view that the unions were becoming too powerful within the Party), for the most part, Labor oligarchs engage in reviews as a process of distraction: to posit change, reform, modernisation, democratisation, centralisation or decentralisation (depending on the mood) when in fact few rules are changed in response to the innumerable recommendations.

The process of reviews for branch members was often quite different. It gave them an opportunity to have their voice heard in the large cacophony of the mass party. But as is the case with the five Labor Party reviews examined in this paper, when the reviews function to posit change they do so to supplicate voters and members concerns about policy, power and leadership acting as little more than a distraction. The process is not designed for change but rather to posit the appearance of change. Labor Party internal reviews function as 'smoke and mirrors' for hierarchy inaction on issues that are at a rank-and-file level potentially fatal: factionalism, branch stacking and increasingly rightward trending public and social policy designed to capture aspirational Liberal voters. These issues for many branch members, and an increasing group of former ALP MP's (ironically themselves once oligarchs), unless seriously responded to posit the 'Party is over'

Beginning with the 1966 Wyndham Review and finishing with the 2010 National Review that examined the near disaster of the 2010 federal election which showed the ALP significantly disconnected from voters and members, this paper examines how reviews have been a case of members trying to wrestle the Party away from the pragmatic path of catch-all policies that it has set itself on. It argues pragmatism rather than genuine reform and the search for electoral salvation with bipartisan policies has been the cornerstone to explain the Party's inability to win federal majorities. At each stage, from 1966 to 2010, the same problems emerged: factionalism, branch-stacking, oligarchs, anti-social democratic policies, and an alienated membership base. Only with significant structural change to the Party would a reversal of electoral fortune emerge. To date, that structural change has not emerged. With large electoral defeats in NSW in 2011 and in Queensland in 2012 and likely federally in 2013, demands from members for reform have cost the Labor Party dearly.

1966 Wyndham Review

The first Labor Party review held in the modern era was written by former British Labour Party (BLP) advisor Cyril Wyndham, who became the ALP's first full time National Secretary. Titled 'Party Re-Organisation: Recommendations of the General Secretary', and known as 'Document Seven' it was presented to the Federal Exectuive of the Labor Party in 1966 making 29 recommendations. According to Labor historian Peter Botsman the significance of the 1966 Wyndham recommendations were that they were the 'first call for real party democracy'. (2) Wyndham was the most senior Labor Party figure to call for genuine direct representation of Party members and the consolidation of a federal structure capable of unifying the dysfunctional state branches. Centralisation was called on to coordinate elections and to shift power to the federal executive from the state branches. Previously, state branches were all powerful, particularly when it came to running election campaigns. There was no national coordinating committee under executive control, leaving each state free to run state-based federal campaigns. Centralisation, argued Wyndham, was necessary to ensure state based oligarchs didn't get total control of the Party. (3)

While it was Wyndham's recommendations, it was Deputy Leader Gough Whitlam who used the issue of wholesale Party reform to challenge Arthur Calwell for the leadership. As leader, said Paul Keating, Whitlam 'put our Party back together again'. (4) His targets were the witless men who, unrepresentative and undemocratic, ran the Party as a fiefdom of power: (5) a view not dissimilar from Wyndham's. In making the Party more democratic, particularly in expanding and democratising the Party's policy-making conferences by including the Labor caucus and branch representatives, Whitlam's aim was to break the existing state oligarchies. While there had been ongoing reform of the Party, in the Whitlam tradition, as John Warhurst notes, there are caveats to this claim. (6) In this instance, while there was some expansion of policy-making participation at a federal level, the Wyndham review functioned as a vehicle for Whitlam to consolidate federal power for the federal leadership and caucus.

Whitlam did use the momentum of the Wyndham review to challenge the hegemony of the state executives, particularly in Victoria and Queensland. It was Wyndham's original document that ultimately led to efforts to have Whitlam expelled from the ALP (a move he only survived by a vote of 7-5). Not dissuaded, Whitlam achieved his aim and the issue of rank-and-file participation at policy-making conferences became secondary to Whitlam's plan to consolidate Party power in Canberra. Few of Wyndham's 29 recommendations were ever adopted, however the impact of the move was widespread and long reaching. It was Labor's 'neglect and failure' to take up Wyndham's call for direct representation that led the ALP for many years to be 'like a canary in a mine shaft'. It was 'the beginning of Labor's long term malaise' and was an indicator of the 'inability' of the Labor party to 'grow and develop'. (7) Wyndham's 1966 recommendations were not only far-sighted but highlighted many of the organisation and electoral issues that faces the modern Labor Party after 1975. (8)

Wyndham began working for the BLP when he was only 14. (9) He rose to special assistant to Morgan Phillips, General Secretary of the BLP from 1944 to 1961. Phillips modernised the BLP long before Tony Blair. (10) In the 1950s, Phillips was arguing for the development of middle-class policies, delivered by the emerging mass media, as the key to Labor's electoral future. Wyndham and Phillips understood that to win government a mass party had to centralise power in the federal branch while balancing this with increasing member participation. It was this belief Wyndham brought to the leadership of the Labor Party in the 1960s.

Wyndham joined the staff of federal Labor leader H.V. Evatt as press secretary in 1958. He found Labor's federal executive lacked power, the State branches were dysfunctional, members were under-represented at policy conferences, and there was no national coordinating body to oversee election campaigns. (11) Leaving Evatt's office in 1961, Wyndham became Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the ALP (untill 1963) before returning to Canberra as the ALP's first full-time paid National Secretary (19631969): a move he later regretted. (12) Wydham's blueprint for ALP reform was shaped by his time under Phillips in the BLP. The electoral context of the 1960s also shaped his recommendations. Wyndham witnessed Evatt's defeat at the 1958 election and Calwell's defeat in 1961. However, it was Wyndham's role in the 'faceless men' controversy of 1963, rather than his role as the Secretary of the dysfunctional Victorian branch, that shaped many of his 1966 recommendations.

Attending the 1963 federal conference at the Kingston Hotel in Canberra, Wyndham implored Labor leaders Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam to join the conference (as rules allowed the leaders to as non-voting delegates). Calwell refused leaving both men standing outside to wait for Party's decision on US bases in Australia. Journalist Alan Reid arranged for them to be photographed and the photo appeared in The Daily Telegraph under the title of Labor's '36 faceless men' with Calwell and Whitlam powerless. (13) This image was contrasted to Bob Menzies ironfisted control of the Liberal Party. (14) While the photograph is sometimes attributed to Labor's defeat in November 1963, Labor lost the election because of poor campaigning (losing ten seats and a swing against them of 2%).

Wyndham's 1966 recommendations aimed to completely re-organise the Labor Party from top to bottom...

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