The Australian Labor Party, the world's oldest political party still in existence, is a contradictory organisation. With its record in government, at the federal and state levels, and in opposition, led by Kevin Rudd, with an ever-diminishing number of policy positions to distinguish it from the ruling Howard Liberal Government, it is all too easy for critics to the left of Labor to dismiss it as no better than the Liberal Party: as indeed the Greens, the Democrats and some parties of the far left have maintained either implicitly or explicitly.
Yet there seems to be no other path out of the political rut in which this country has become stuck since the election ofJohn Howard in 1996, except through the election of Labor.
Labor's dismal record since 1983
Since at least the early 1980's the Labor Party has been dominated by leaders who have acted to represent the same kinds of powerful vested interests that the Labor Party was originally formed to oppose, that is large corporations, financiers, property developers and land speculators.
Every Labor Government that has come to office since 1983, at both the federal and state level has shamelessly, and often corruptly, served those interests to the detriment of its own support base, the country as a whole, and the environment.
Both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating willingly adopted the agenda of the economic neoliberals to “reform” the Australian economy to give more wealth and power back to the Australian elite. This entailed the deregulation of the Australian economy, including the rate of exchange of the Australian dollar and the banking and finance sector, allowing greater access by foreign investors to Australian companies, land and mineral wealth, and an increase in the rate of immigration.
Almost following to the letter John Howard's script presented to the public in the 1986 elections, they sold nine of the 12 public enterprises on John Howard's hit list, including the Commonwealth Bank, QANTAS, and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. They stopped short of privatising Telstra, but they nevertheless deregulated the telecommunications sector, paving the way for the Howard Government's eventual full privatisation of Telstra.
At the state level, Labor governments have been no better. They too have sold off state-owned banks and insurance companies and much publicly owned land and many publicly owned buildings. Most have harmed the environment by promoting population growth and property development and supporting ecologically destructive industries including woodchipping, coal and uranium mining and aluminium smelting.
Why Labor can nevertheless become a vehicle for change
However, the fact remains that the Labor has drawn, and continues to draw, into its ranks, people who have the best motivations and aim to work through the Labor Party to bring about goals similar to what the Labor Party originally stood for. It would be wrong to assume, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable corrupting influences that now exist within Labor that such elements will never again prevail.
This happened in the years of the Whitlam Labor Government and happened, more recently, albeit very briefly and tenuously, when Mark Latham became Labor Party leader.
Mark Latham's Diaries published in 2005, reveal that he had, indeed, joined the Labor Party, entered Parliament and worked his way up the ranks all the way to the Federal Labor Party leadership for the most laudable aims.
To be sure, many of Latham's political ideas, including his embrace of “dry economics” were not good. He held out Tony Blair's Labor Government in the UK, which had left intact nearly all Margaret Thatcher's program of privatisation, emasculation of the trade unions and cutbacks to social spending and which had followed George Bush into the Iraq war, as the model that an Australian Labor Government should follow.
Nevertheless, in spite of this, it is clear that Latham was genuinely offended by the corrupt power of Australia's elites as well as those within the trade union movement and the Labor Party and was resolved to end this.