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(Lack of) leadership and the future for the Australian Labor Party

By Gwynn Mac Carrick - posted Thursday, 1 May 2003


The current status of the Federal Labor Party might best be summed up by the phrase "an arse full of splinters from sitting on the fence, and haemorrhaging to the Greens". But no political party is an end in itself. And clearly when a political organisation puts more energy into maintaining the group than pursuing their original goals then it's time to re-evaluate.

Labor seems demobilised by the paralysing assertion that change is impossible. But its forbears were not so content as to acquiesce to fatalism in political action - to the contrary they envisaged a greater society. They believed in the possibility that the world could be different and acted politically to make it so. This is why Labor is becoming increasingly nostalgic.

Beasley is a remnant of Labor's lost past, and calls for his reinstatement are symptomatic of a dearth of individuals within the parliament who posess the quality to inspire either a public fascination or party-room magnetism.

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We remember political leaders who led instinctively and held an outward orientation that promoted the premise that our collective identity and purpose in life is bound up inextricably with the wellbeing of others. Leaders who knew that political virtue is grounded in the inclination to improve the lot of others. Who truly understood the concept that social connectedness is a prevention against the tide of hedonism that pervades popular culture.

Labor with Simon Crean at the helm squandered the opportunity to distinguish itself on the issue of the war in Iraq, unable to mobilise the imagination of human spirit. Tried and found wanting - he must go.

So pathetic was Labor's display of political navigation that the only message it managed to deliver was that human rights are a negotiable concept. And we the disenchanted are left to ponder the thought that perhaps, as Mary Robinson articulated, "it is no longer possible to write poetry after Auschwitz".

But does Labor have a prophet? Is there an heir apparent? Beasley, Rudd, Swan, and Latham are the hot tips. But none possess a Keatingesque je ne sais quoi. Recently, I went to hear Mark Latham speak on the future of the party. He spent some little time developing his idea of promoting citizens as shareholders. Don't give charity to the disadvantaged, give them shares, he suggested. I was immediately reminded of how such a policy was implemented in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, where formerly socially owned factories were privatised and distributed in shares to the workers.

But what did these desperate workers do with something as intangible as a share? Predictably, they sold it - for food on the table and fuel for the stove. They sold their shares to those with the wealth to accumulate luxury items, hence private ownership became concentrated in the hands of a few.

Latham's viewpoint lacks insight into the plight of the poor, in the same way as the sentiment written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau but commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" or "Let them eat cake".

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But he is not alone. Indeed, Latham is typical of current Labor culture. Today when the party speaks of a vision of improvement for human living, it offers consumer comfort. Labor politics has become about the better administration of society as opposed to its transformation. As citizens we are being incrementally managed and ameliorated in a manner that is profoundly corrosive; our identities are more fragmented, looser and therefore more malleable. Secretly we despise a sterile politic devoid of champions.

Any promised new leader will need to understand the evolution of Australian consciousness, and deliver us from the frustration we feel at it having no voice.

Polarity and not popularity is the means by which Labor will reclaim its distinctiveness.

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About the Author

Gwynn MacCarrick is a Human Rights lawyer based in Hobart. She has appeared as Defence counsel before the UN Special Panel for Serious Crimes in East Timor, has worked with the Office of the Prosecutor at the UN Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and in between her domestic criminal practice has taken up various postings with the UN High Commission for Refugees. Gwynn is undertaking a doctorate in international criminal law at the University of Tasmania Law School.

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