The knives are out for the factions and the “factional warlords” of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Factionalism, it is said, is tearing the party apart, finally. Yet it seems to me we are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Factionalism is a symptom of a need within the party for differing perspectives, not necessarily a grab for power.
Every community has groups within it that subscribe to the basic tenets of the wider group yet wish to approach broader issues from their perspective - witness green groups, women’s groups and local protest groups. The correct action is not to weed the groups out or to ban them, but to allow them space to put their perspective, and fold those perspectives into an appropriate governance strategy.
The task for the leadership of the ALP is to gain the perspectives of the factions while gaining their agreement that governance is not their role. How might this be done?
Agreement on subscription to the basic tenets of the ALP is best done as a group process. Maximising participation in the “visioning” process maximises ownership of the outcome.
The necessary process is to gather the factions together in one place, and have them, within their groups, produce a list of basic tenets to which they do subscribe. The moderator of the group process must then work publicly and transparently with the groups to meld these basic tenets into an ALP “vision”: this would form the basic outlook of the party on issues of public importance.
In the second stage of the process, an identification of the particular issues that are important to, and the province of, each of the factional groups is made. Agreement should be reached as to the perspective represented by each group and a general agreement that governance lies with leadership. This could all be achieved in a single-day event, if facilitation is good.
The overall set of tenets for the ALP would surely emphasise support for “the worker”, that is, some role in ensuring the owners of capital adequately recompense the average person for their time, effort and skill in adding to the owner’s reserves of capital. There would surely be a tenet concerned with social progress; a tenet on environmental responsibility; and a focus on gender equality.
Each faction would need to confront its raison d’etre. For some factions, this may be lost in the mists of political time: for others, they may see a new focus on non-political issues - issues of policy, as a good thing. There is little doubt that having factional participants concentrate on issues rather than Machiavellian manoeuvres would be a good thing for the ALP overall.
The model proposed makes the factions a lot more like branches: a place for participants to focus on issues dear to their hearts, and be sure the leadership is listening. The relationship between factions and branches would need to be sorted out. The factions would become “special interest groups” without geographic focus, and there may need to be a better interaction with branches around the country.
Under this model, factions are simply groups within the ALP that have a particular focus. Each of the groups sits happily within the ambit of the ALP, but wishes to emphasise a particular issue or perspective within the wider issues. It seems to me, naively I’m sure, that this is precisely what is desired by a factional participant. The ability to put a focused point-of-view that will be positively regarded by the Party leadership.
The reality is that the factions arose from a difference in viewpoint, and a corresponding view on the optimal political means of getting that viewpoint across: The Centre-Left would surely have sprung out of a formed view of how government should behave to its citizens, as did The Left. These views rest on non-political perspectives; the question of how to best put them over to the populace is a question that is best left, these days, at the overall party level.
Cutting the factions out of an ALP process is a move bound to lead to disaster. It will simply create a number of people and groups denied of a suitable forum to express their views productively.
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