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The regressive progressive: ALP future bound by its past

By Brenton Luxton - posted Friday, 2 March 2012

What we have seen in the last 18 months has been nothing short of a complete farce that exposed the utter failings of representative democracy in Australia. Whilst a large portion of the blame lies at the feet of the Australian Labor Party, they have exposed much deeper problems within Australia's political institutions and practices. Labor's leadership dispute was the tip of the ice-berg, an important catalyst that is strongly linked to the core issues this article will discuss.

What we saw on June 24 2010 was, in the words of senior Labor minister Anthony Albananese, "wrong". We witnessed the removal of a first term Prime Minister, one that had achieved an emphatic victory over a long-term conservative government; a Prime Minister who had recorded record-breaking popularity; a Prime Minister who led a government that successfully navigated Australia's economy through the Global Financial Crisis, all to the astonishment and envy of world leaders.

So why was Kevin Rudd removed? According to Treasurer Wayne Swan, Kevin Rudd was a "deeply flawed man" who treated his colleagues with contempt. According to current Prime Minister and former Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd led a government whose decision-making was "paralysed", a government unable to "get things done". A shocking admission given they had successfully worked with this man for 3 years, won an election and successfully steered Australia through rough economic times, whilst maintaining the support of the people who had put them in power.


Given the lack of credible justification for Kevin Rudd's removal (aside from him being a big meany), it warrants an in depth view beyond the surface. Forces inside the Labor party, largely controlled by a handful of factions, decided they'd rather have someone else as Prime Minister, someone perhaps more yielding to their power. What upset the Australian public so greatly was that they now had a Prime Minister that they did not expect when they went to the polls and chose in 2007. For those that orchestrated the coup, such an issue is inconsequential: caucus chooses the Prime Minister, and the Australian public does not. Whilst this is in fact the case, that is not what Australians believe. I for one grew up with the idea that we lived in a democracy, and in a democracy the people choose who governs the country, therefore the people determining who the Head of Government is does not seem farfetched.

I, and many others, have great difficulty in understanding how a progressive party, one that espouses liberal democratic ideals, so blindly disregards the will of the public. The cost of doing so will be catastrophic for progressive politics. We live in a two party system, if Labor fails to put forth a leader who captivates the minds of the people, they will lose and the conservatives will win.

What Labor has shown in the last 18 months and beyond is that it is divided. I hear all too often of the movements of the "New South Wales right" and the "Victorian left", admissions of a fractured party whose sole reason for staying together is to be a combined force against the conservative coalition party (note: the Liberal party is a mirror image). The problem with this system is that it is impossible to break free from the mould. As factions determine pre-selection and voting directions, individualism is crushed. Australians at the ballot box effectively have two choices, A and B; individual candidates that have been selected for you by factions of the major parties. Leadership is no different, with a choice of A (candidate picked by Labor forces) or B (candidate picked by Liberal forces).

The question that now must be asked is, why in a modern day democracy do we have so little choice? Our limited choices do not determine policy beyond acceptance or rejection at the ballot box; nor do our choices determine who is in control of leading policy (our "representatives" do that for us)[BL2] . Election after election, we repeatedly give the combined power of the people to a bunch of unelected party operatives that are so deeply and historically embedded in our political institutions that they are like gum stuck on the sole. I despair.

As a result of this system, as well as the actions it has enabled, Labor now faces what will likely be a crushing loss at the hands of an opposition led by a seemingly unprincipled man who is willing to say and do just about anything for power. Julia Gillard and Labor have underestimated the damage inflicted on their reputation in the eyes of the most loyal progressive voters. I for one cannot reconcile myself with the current status quo, and would find it difficult to vote for a government (whose actions – not policies) I am principally opposed to, irrespective of the alternative.

Labor's long-term viability will be best attained through deep reflection and reform. It must be a party of the future, not a party trapped by tradition. Labor cannot and will not change if it continues receiving support simply because the opposition is worse, which is why I advocate to all disillusioned progressive voters that they instead vote for minor parties that suit their interests and ideals. As Labor's primary vote continues to decline, the party will learn from its mistakes and seek to cleanse and reform itself. Only then will Labor become a party that can take Australia into the future and empower its citizens to control their own fate. If Labor cannot reform, progressive politics within Labor, as well as voter support, will regress severely. In this event the future for progressive politics will reside primarily in burgeoning minor parties.

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About the Author

Brenton Luxton is a University of Queensland graduate, having completed a Bachelors of International Studies. His study fields were International Relations and Japanese language, with a specific focus on international governance and cosmopolitan ethics.

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