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A progressive option in the Senate for Labor left

By Klaas Woldring - posted Friday, 9 July 2004

The Progressive Labour Party is a small democratic party of the left which plans to contest a number of Senate seats. It was formed in 1996 largely as a result of the disenchantment with the adoption of economic rationalist public policies by the Australian Labor Party (ALP). It has contested a number of seats since 1997, with encouraging results, but has not gained parliamentary representation thus far. The PLP also has progressive policies for the republic, electoral, political and constitutional reform (

Given the declining capacity of the ALP to present real opposition to much of the public policy agenda of the coalition in the last 15 years, the emergence of a stronger senate can only be regarded as a significant redeeming feature of Australia’s parliamentary system. ALP voters could assist that development by using its their second vote to support an alternative labour party in the Senate. This would have no effect at all on the outcome of the House of Representative election.

While the ALP is now gaining ground electorally and could win government later in 2004, the issues on which the ALP is achieving new support are marginal to economic policy. In the light of this situation the strengthening of progressive forces in the Senate is of increasing importance. Firstly, to ensure that whatever electoral promises the ALP has made to improve education, health and taxation will be implemented. Secondly, to end economic rationalism as the philosophy for public policy. Thirdly, to achieve real constitutional reforms of the parliamentary, electoral and political systems in the longer term. Then, to ensure that Australia protects and promotes its sovereignty, and also to prepare effectively for the republic.


Remarkably, only approximately four per cent of ALP voters vote differently in the senate as compared to their primary vote in the House of Representatives. That is quite surprising because probably around 35 per cent of ALP voters have an orientation which is well to the left of the dominant right wing faction of the ALP. They would have every reason to change their voting behaviour for the Senate. The left wing faction of the ALP has no independent existence. Often left wing ALP parliamentarians have to vote against their own preferences to show “solidarity”. All ALP senators need to adhere to the party platform and frequently vote against their own better judgment. PLP senators would have no such problem. None, whatever. As a completely independent Labour Party, it has its own policy platform.

That is why the PLP was formed.

For those who still think that the ALP “can make a difference” when in government, that would depend on many factors. A progressive senate would help greatly. Latham may make a good prime minister but there are serious systemic constrains which will limit his ability to perform. In addition, in some major policy areas Latham would have to reinvent himself. The PLP does not support his neo-liberalism which is plainly anathema to core labour values. Apart from the ALP’s serious financial dependence on corporate donations we only need to assess what the new leader of the ALP apparently stands for judging from his writings and actions prior to becoming leader of the federal ALP.   Several authors have explored the Latham tide such as Darian Clark (Australian Political Economy) and Peter Botsman (The Enabling State ...) These confirm that, thus far, Latham, like Paul Keating and Tony Blair, has accepted economic rationalist doctrines rather than develop a renewed social democratic policy agenda of the Left. This is not to say all Latham’s new ideas are without merit, to the contrary. For example,in a 2002 ALP discussion paper "Ownership: A New Agenda for Political and Industrial Labor” he foreshadows new ESOP type policies for Australia which are long overdue.  Several initiatives for families, education, health and education show promise but could be further improved by progressive Senators rather than those who have to tow the line.

In Latham's view the spread of neo-liberalism and globablisation reduces the meaning of the nation-state and the capacity of its government to control or even guide the economy. He does not seem to accept that the role of government can be either to facilitate global capital's capturing the nation-state or to actively counter and regulate global finance.  Latham wants to go with the flow, to comply as best as we can.

Economic rationalism has produced growing inequalities in wealth and income, an increase in drugs and crime problems, a decline in public services, massive casualisation of work, rampant consumerism and a real unemployment rate of around 12 per cent. The environment remains under severe threat.  Economic rationalist commercialisation of universities has dumbed down the quality of tertiary education and made it much less accessible to poorer students. Australian's economic and political sovereignty has suffered - with more damage to come from the possible US Free Trade Agreement.

The Progressive Labour Party’s policy is to support government intervention to counter and reverse the trends of the last 20 years, not to comply with them. There is a major role for the Government to manage this large continent state in a way that suits Australians best, not the powerful US corporations and a small minority of local compradors.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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