The Party’s Not Yet Begun


Following on from my recent ruminations on politics, love and participation, I wanted to explore further some questions about how we could revitalise our public discourse and culture and political participation in Australia. Central to my previous argument was my agreement with Todd Gitlin’s proposition that revival of interest in the US democratic process was a boon for politics, if not immediately for the big D Democrats. I argued that this citizen participation, and the everydayness of political concern and care for the polity, was more difficult to incite in Australia:

Part of the problem in harnessing political desire in Australia is that our democracy is fundamentally elitist, but not in the sense that we often hear about. Our institutions are not open to participation, our parties are no longer mass parties, and the level of disconnect between the parties and the broader society is striking – particularly in the case of the Labor Party. In effect, we live in a democracy characterised by Schumpeterian elitism, where we are offered a choice of two teams drawn from an overlapping societal elite every three years, and politics shuts down for most people in the interim, and not just at Christmas time.

American politics was until recently characterised (and probably still is for the most part, despite the encouraging trends Gitlin points to) by the “disconnect”. Joan Didion, one of my favourite writers, sums this up well in her 2001 book Political Fictions:

“Anything that brings the process closer to the people is all to the good,” George Bush had declared in his 1987 biography, ‘Looking Forward’, accepting as given this relatively recent notion that the people and the process need not automatically be on convergent tracks.

TYING TOGETHER THE THREADS: Nic White at 5nd State has very usefully linked to all the various related posts on politics from Don, John Quiggin, Robert Merkel, Andrew Norton and myself in what I agree has become an interesting if a tad sprawling discussion.

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialised that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisors, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.

Didion is not too far from Max Weber here. Weber distinguished between those who live for politics and those who live off politics. What worried him was that the dynamics of a complex society, the need for politics to be “managed” and the emergence of a self-perpetuating elite of political professionals would strip politics of what animated it and gave it life: an “ethics of conviction”.

In my previous post, I also quoted Gitlin as follows:

A party is something that’s in being, that people feel occupies a part of their ordinary life, not just a special occasion for emergencies but part of the work of life. This is the hope. There are going to be some awful times in the next few years, and some of them will be useable by an intelligent opposition.

I think one thing that can be argued, though it’s not to my purpose to do it here, is that the Liberal Party under John Howard has succeeded most impressively both in creating a political narrative that appeals to large numbers of Australians, and to tapping into real community linkages and networks in its selection of candidates at Federal level, particularly in marginal seats. This is as large part of the Liberal story of success in Western Sydney as McMansions and aspirational classes.

But the Liberal Party has never really had to be a mass party. Its evolution as a party came late – the machine originally only being a vote-harnessing mechanism subservient to the parliamentary party. The creation of the Liberal Party as such – and its less resilient predecessors such as the UAP – (rather than the more fluid parliamentary groupings of the late nineteenth century such as “Ministerialists” and “Oppositionists” or “Protectionists” and “Free-Traders) was really a response to the Labour movement’s harnessing of a mass base in the major social movement of the early 20th century, the trade unions.

So, because I think all of us have a concern in the revitalisation of opposition and a genuine struggle of ideas in Australian politics, I want to offer some thoughts on the renovation of the Labor Party in this post.

I was motivated partly by the question asked in response to my previous post by Robert Merkel at The View from Benambra:

So what’s the correct response, and does it have anything to do with the laudable ideas (such as the consistent articulation of a clear philosophical standpoint and the reestablishment of a broader membership base) advanced in the discussion? I’m not sure.

Debate after the 2001 election tended to centre around the need for a reform of the Labor Party’s internal structure – a diminution of union weight in the party conferences, a directly elected and rotating presidency being the two reforms which emerged. The political context for this was as much the need for Crean to distance himself from his union links and emulate Tony Blair by taking on his own party as any real concern to re-invigorate the Labor Party’s structures.

Debate after the 2004 election – in reaction to the previous post-election period – has tended to dismiss these structural concerns. This is a pity, because what is needed is not just symbolism or a greater efficiency in the party machine, but also a reweaving of the links between the Labor Party and the community in which it should be embedded. Achievement of this goal would itself go along way towards fostering a climate favourable to electoral success.

A number of ideas with merit have been suggested in the past – party primaries by Wayne Swan and issues based branches by Lindsay Tanner. As anyone who’s ever been a member of the Labor Party knows, branch meetings tend to be boring as hell, and unless one is a member of a faction, powerless as well. Many party policy committees don’t operate at all. Branch stacking is a perennial blight, and linkages with local government often involve corruption and capture by local elites or businesses rather than fostering a genuine outreach to the local community. Branch members are often looked on as amateurs in contrast to the professionals of the machine, the unions, and the army of staffers and policy advisors. Candidates often emerge from a long apprenticeship in student and Young Labor politics and a period of service to the party, during which time they are jostling for position and trying to stitch up the numbers for preselection. Factional negotiations often assume that a faction “owns” a particular seat, and that the election of a non-aligned candidate is an anomaly. Nor has the practice of parachuting in star candidates always proved a panacea.

I’m not suggesting there are any easy answers to this problem. But it does need to be recognised for what it is – a huge problem not just for the electability of the Labor Party but for the health of Australian democracy as a whole.

I should also add that my view is that most who work in politics, whatever party they’re associated with, are largely hardworking and dedicated people many of whom make significant personal sacrifices for the public good. The problem is not a problem of particular individuals, but a broader societal and structural problem.

A number of internal reforms might help:

* issues-based branches, virtual branches, workplace branches, or the recognition of issues-based interest groups and their incorporation into party decision-making

* some form of citizen participation in preselections, perhaps by emulating the US primary system in modified form

* a recasting of the policy formulation process

* expanding direct elections and referenda – perhaps along the lines of the Democrats’ practice

* fora that provide the opportunity both for more thoughtful and longer term strategising, and for regular feedback from the party membership

But what is more important is a genuine outreach to the community. This should include fostering participation initiatives and wide consultation in policy formulation and in government and administration. It should entail a serious process of research and articulation of a social democratic agenda in the public sphere. It should also involve casting a wider net for candidates.

There’s been an argument in academic political theory since the 1970s that the party is dead. Gitlin is right to see the US Democratic Party as something that can be reinvigorated. Although many on the Left are suspicious of electoral and party politics, I would contend that we’ve not yet determined whether creaking vehicles like the Australian Labor Party are capable of reinvigoration.

A successful party that inspires and whose narrative can capture the imagination of citizens needs interlocking and rich links with the community. It also needs passion and the courage of its convictions, to say with John F. Kennedy:

If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people ¢â¬â their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties ¢â¬â someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.

According to democratic theory, parties play a mediating role between the public and the political sytem, and an aggregating role in reconciling private interests with the public good. This does not mean though that parties should merely reflect public opinion. They also have to lead and shape opinion in a sort of passionate dialectic, but this is only done through constructing a story based on a vision of where a nation is going, has come from, and could go to. John Howard’s Liberals are very good at this. The Labor Party has been very bad at it recently.

As writers like the British sociologist David Held have made clear, modern democratic theory has always been suspicious of participatory politics, particularly in its Westminster incarnation. By contrast, the civic republican tradition, originating in Rome and reinvented in the thought and practice of medieval Italian city states, and articulated masterfully by James Madison in the US, has placed a higher weight on the view that the road to the good life runs down a path of citizen responsibility and participation. This tradition still endures in the United States. It’s never been very strong in Australia. It needs to be strengthened, or we need to think seriously about the viability of alternative approaches to the reinvigoration of civic and political participation.

What is perhaps most important, though, is that Labor politics be informed again by an ethics of conviction, and attract members and supporters who live for politics rather than off politics.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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2022 years ago

Didn’t you quote in your last post that liberals see politics as a means and conservatives as an end?

Following that logic should not the ALP be performing better?

Then again you do indicate they are out of touch – well maybe.

On the reforms, I agree with the ones I can comprehend.

All political parties should use what we probably now call the traditional “democratic process” as the Australian Democrats do.

I will take issue with the Parties representing public opinion. Parties represent what they think public opinion should be. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation rise showed us that. PHON reflected the public’s view because it was made of the people.

And as we all know One Nation was vilified and Labor and Liberal adapted their policies to the One Nation agenda effectively politicising the views of everyday people.

Mark, you are largely discussing liberals and conservatives or the ALP and the Liberal Party, Republicans and Democrats etc. Any mention of Independents in your thesis/research and their effectiveness or their behaviour? Any mention at all?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Vee, I should clarify that when I was talking about liberals in the last post I meant liberal in the philosophical sense not Liberal party people (there’s actually not much overlap these days!). There is an argument, as Don noted, that the understanding of politics as a means has brought the US right much success compared to their liberal opponents:

I’m with you on parties following public opinion. I think you’re right about the PHON thing. That was a prime case where the mainstream parties had a duty to lead and reshape public opinion, and dismally failed (Labor included).

No – I don’t discuss the effectiveness of independents. I have some thoughts on that but I guess they’re not strictly on-topic for my thesis or this post. Might try to articulate them in a post when I get a chance at some point though…

2022 years ago

“Vee, I should clarify that when I was talking about liberals in the last post I meant liberal in the philosophical sense not Liberal party people (there’s actually not much overlap these days!)”

That’s what I meant too!

Also clearly I need to double check that post.

2022 years ago

I suspect both major parties are now organised as parties of power that just do not function well in opposition. The Liberals were dreadful (on policy, on recruiting new members, on adopting new ideas) when Labor was in power and Labor has done no better since Howard’s election.

Back in the 80s when Howard briefly (and disgracefully) tried to launch Asian immigration as an issue I found myself in a fairly senior bureaucrat’s office (he’s now an extremely senior bureaucrat) and he was talking furiously about Howard undoing years of work on race relations. Whose work he did not say but clearly the bureaucracy has its own projects that it persuades both parties to adopt in government.

The type case is economic rationalism which was always more a bureaucratic than a parliamentary project. Arguably both major parties’ slavish adherence to economic rationalism is what drives the alienation of their traditional supporters. Maybe it’s just too hard to justify dry economics to your supporters without the persuasive power of the bureaucratic elite behind you.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

That’s very interesting, Alan. I think you’re right about Labor being a party of power that can’t cope with its lack. I think that was implicit in what I said but I should have drawn it out more. Possibly the last time Labor presented a positive face in opposition was in Whitlam’s leadership prior to 72, though perhaps you could argue a case for Hayden/Hawke.

2022 years ago

That was a prime case where the mainstream parties had a duty to lead and reshape public opinion, and dismally failed (Labor included).

I thought the duty of politicians in a democracy was to listen to the people and do as they asked, not to tell them what to think.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Actually yobbo that is not what happens at all.

The parties put up policies and people vote on which party’s policies they want implemented.

Your view would be a refrendum a day. Peter Cook stared in a movie based on this premise.

2022 years ago

“I thought the duty of politicians in a democracy was to listen to the people and do as they asked, not to tell them what to think.”

I agree will yobbo.
Certainly in the original democracy this was the case. Every 9 days the Athenians would gather to debate and vote about the working of their city and empire. A white pebble in the pot was a ‘yes’ and a black one a ‘no’.
This is democracy.
However within a relatively short time the Athenian leaders were doing anything to get in power ie pandering to the public, and this was effectively mob rule.

What we have today is simply not that first democracy. What we have is the mob rule that it degenerated into with the added bonus of industry backing and other pressure groups. There is no such thing as equality in voting now and this is why so many people are hankering for more direct participation and wanting stuff like referenda – to try and escape their electoral powerlessness.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Admittedly my Weber is a bit rusty, but wasn’t he more favourably disposed to the ‘ethic of responsibility’ than the ‘ethic of conviction’? In any case, I think it is the former ethic that best characterises successful Labor governments, and the latter ethic that characterises those that ended in failure – as the various stories in the last few days about the Khemlani debacle remind us.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, Weber shifted his ideas on politics late in his life – largely in response to what he saw as the disastrous straits the Kaiser and the High Command had led Germany into by 1917, and later in response to the Revolution and the process of Weimar constitution making in which he took a prominent part.

Good source for all this is the Cambridge collection of his political writings (including stuff he wrote for the press in this period).

He became convinced that parliamentary democracy led to irresponsibility (a reasonable conclusion based on both the Kaiserreich and Weimar experience) and that a strong Executive President was needed whose election would in effect be a referendal mandate.

As to Khemlani, I’d underline the word ‘ethic’ in this context.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

I like this passage from Weber’s Politics as a Vocation:

“To be sure, mere passion, however genuinely felt, is not enough. It does not make a politician, unless passion as devotion to a ’cause’ also makes responsibility to this cause the guiding star of action. And for this, a sense of proportion is needed. This is the decisive psychological quality of the politician: his ability to let realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness. Hence his distance to things and men. ‘Lack of distance’ per se is one of the deadly sins of every politician. It is one of those qualities the breeding of which will condemn the progeny of our intellectuals to political incapacity. For the problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul? Politics is made with the head, not with other parts of the body or soul. And yet devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone. However, that firm taming of the soul, which distinguishes the passionate politician and differentiates him from the ‘sterilely excited’ and mere political dilettante, is possible only through habituation to detachment in every sense of the word. The ‘strength’ of a political ‘personality’ means, in the first place, the possession of these qualities of passion, responsibility, and proportion.”

I think modern Labor generally has these qualities, but the broad left does not – it has passion, but not responsibility or proportion. People who want Labor to win should not want these people in their party.

As I do not want Labor to win, I encourage the left to join. Here’s the link:

2022 years ago

primaries haven’t been a panacea in the US – more of a mixed blessing. but in theory they’re much better than a preselection by a very small group (not to mention branch stacking). probably the best thing would be to really expand the alp’s branch membership – thus “hooking up” (to coin a term) with the community. but isn’t it a bit of a chicken and egg thing – without passion and conviction from the party leadership, what leftie (even a balanced and responsible one like moi) is going to feel impelled to take up Andrew’s invitation to join the alp?

Andrew Bartlett
2022 years ago

As with everything, no single line of argument fully reflects reality. However, I don’t think any single party can really provide much better engagement with Parliamentary democracy. There are a number of reasons for this, but I suspect a couple of big ones are (a) Australia’s absurdly rigid party discipline and (b) hopelessly narrow, shallow and personality focused media coverage.

The party can have the best processes in the world and I definitely agree that all parties should adopt changes that make the role of a general member more meaningful. However, our political system engages with the public in a way that is totally top-down and driven by message discipline rather than meaningful debate. In as much as there is any interest in engaging with the public at all, it is with the public as ‘consumers’, not participants or contributors. There will never be much real engagement between the political process and the wider public until this changes.

People need to be able to engage with politics through issues as they arise or develop, often over many years. Parties do not provide a good way of doing this, as the role of the member is to reinforce the party line (or even just support the deification of the Leader) on every issue. Genuine diversity of opinion (as opposed to minor variations on a theme) usually acts against this.

The Liberal Party is successful at a federal level, not because the party engages the public or its members in general have a bigger say. It is successful because John Howard has been (very) successful. If the party itself connected with the public, rather than John Howard, the party would not be so moribund in virtually every state Parliament. The reverse situation applies with Labor. I think this is why, as Alan said, neither major party functions well in opposition.

I would previously have said one of the best hopes for opening up engagement with the Parliamentary political process (at federal level at least) lies through the Senate, but I think that path will bear less fruit in the next 3 years at least (although it shouldn’t be given up on completely).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’d agree with those two points, Andrew. Particularly with (b) – the abysmal standard of media coverage of politics is a real worry. (b) reinforces (a) in that any departure from the party line leads to negatively framed stories about indiscipline etc.

I’m interested in how you think one could still engage the parliamentary process through the Senate.

Andrew Bartlett
2022 years ago

Mark, how the Senate could better engage the public is a whole topic in itself, (and I tend to go off topic when I comment on blogs, which gets me in trouble.)
I think the topic is one which deserves more exploration though, because Parliament (and esp the Senate) could provide far more value for those in the community who are interested in engaging with the political process (other than by joining a political party, with all that that entails). AFter all, it does cost a huge amout of money and an enormous amount of information and legislation passes through it in one way or another.
Whilst the Senate has done OK in this area, it is limited in part by this (and the previous) Government’s lack of interest (or contempt) for what it does, so you don’t get full potential out of a lot of good stuff that happens (e.g. in and through Senate Committees). Also, the media’s lack of interest in 99.9% of what happens in the Senate (which helps reinforce the Govt’s attitude) also diminishes the full potential. A good insult from Peter Costello in House of Reps Question Time will inevitably draw far more media commentary than Senate debate and amendments on laws that have a major effect on the lives of half the community.
How the Senate operates and is percieved after July is still a bit of an unknown. But I still think some Senate Committee Inquiries will provide an opportunity for positive community engagement. Also, the Senate (and to a lesser extent the House of Reps) does provide a vehicle for issues that are otherwise being ignored to be raised or persued through speeches, questions, etc (as long as people can find MPs to help). Smaller parties and Independents are usually best for this, but some major party backbenchers also look to engage with the community in this way (which may be why they are backbenchers:-). This can have quite an impact, esp in the longer-term, even if the media and Govt pay no attention.

2022 years ago

I guess, Andrew, part of the problem with the sort of thing you advocate (though I certainly applaud it) is that inevitably it’s individuals or groups trying to influence the political process rather than the sort of collective action you get through a party – ie people united by a concern with the whole gamut of issues and with a particular orientation towards policy and politics.

Andrew Bartlett
2022 years ago

Yes, it’s true you need people with shared concerns working together, and I don’t advocate a Parliament of independents as any sort of ideal. But I also believe the Parliamentary political process can be made to work far better for the large number of people who don’t want to be part of a party, who maybe are only interested in one or two issues, or who don’t fit neatly enugh into the ideological boxes which the various parties are perceived to fit into.
Parties are also necessary and desirable, although they can be significantly improved (where I think is where this thread started). But I think the excessive rigidity of party ‘discipline’ in Australia is part of the reason why broader Parliamentary politics falls well short of its potential, as well as media who in the main report politics as just another form of entertainment/soap opera, with policies (and the public) only being relevant when they can be used as plot devices in the script.

2022 years ago

I have been worried by the intense focus on the party leaders – it has increased dramatically over the last few years.
You could have been mistaken for thinking that the recent federal election only concerned two politicians in a clash of the titan’s style of thing.
The recurring idea was that if a leader can’t run his own party then how can he run the country. No-one seemed to care how that running of your party was done – certainly a trend to a more dictatoral way is obvious.
Just look at how often Howard made announcements that would have previously been made by the relevant minister. Latham would respond and the comparison about who was the better leader would be made.
It too frequently devolved into a mindless “Strong Leadership” contest. The media, as Andrew posted, feeds it and the Leaders play to those rules.

The party that most lost out from this obsession with leaders and “strong leadership” was of course the Democrats.
I agree with Andrew totally: if a party is united it doesn’t matter who the leader is.
(We certainly heard from the Democrat Spokesperson for X, Y and Z far more than the relevant shadow/ministers)
However, the unengaged public aren’t going to take up the idea of a party leader being mostly unneccessary. They will merely point out that since the Democrats have had 50 leaders in 6 years they are incapable of… well, pretty much anything. Of course this is only a perception and perceptions don’t need a basis in reality eg Strong Leadership.
But it’s the perception that counts.
Since the perception is that the parties are so insular and clique-y as to exclude the public this surely must fuel the focus on the leaders.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew wrote:

“A good insult from Peter Costello in House of Reps Question Time will inevitably draw far more media commentary.”

As someone who (tragically) has watched question time on and off since it was first televised, I deny the possibility that Costello has ever come up with a good insult. Since PJK left the House, the insults have been second rate. What is Costello but a boring right-wing barrister, bred from student politics, asleep at the wheel while the economy enjoys a bubble after all the productivity gains of the Labor years have worked their way through the system, and someone whose “parliamentary mastery” is a pale imitation of the great PJK.

Yeah I know my PJK admiration/obsession sometimes gets the better of me, but isn’t Costello a lesser copy?

2022 years ago

The Precautionary Principle

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