Labor’s Future: Two Weekend Forums

by Bob Carr


At the weekend, I spoke to two gatherings for ALP members focused on re-building the party.

On Saturday I flew into Bathurst to speak to a group of about 30 ALP members engaged in a party review. I reminded them of the importance of Bathurst in Labor’s election victory of 1995. I used it as an example of how Labor can win on both bread and butter issues and a nature conservation or ‘green’ agenda. All it takes is nimble party leadership, I said.

“We won Bathurst against the Greiner agenda in 1991. We held it in 1995 because of a flow of preferences from a Green Party candidate based on our commitment to saving the South East forests. Think about that as a confirmation that the right ALP leadership can straddle the divide between green-inclined voters and a traditional base, between a nature conservation agenda and an agenda of economic growth.”

I challenged the group to think about new forms of party organisation.

“We want to get beyond the monthly branch meeting and working in a polling booth on election day. You should produce some new templates for community activism and online communication. You should then report on these templates for the benefit of other people in the party.”

I told them that the review of the ALP’s last election performance carried out by Steve Bracks, John Faulker and me had recommended that local party units like this group should be able to apply for funding from the national party to conduct experiments in communication and organisation.

Bathurst might take the lead.

On Sunday, I addressed a young Centre Unity Faction camp organised by the President of NSW Young Labor, David Latham.

It was the first time I’ve seen Young Labor with a document spelling out strategic direction. It included guidelines for university ALP clubs and for Young Labor associations.

This is a quantum leap beyond the hit or miss amateurism that has distinguished the Labor Party.

I told them that ethos was more important than ideology or structure in interpreting a political party. I defined the ethos of Centre Unity in terms of:

• opposition to the Labor Party being taken over by the Marxist left. This was most important during the 50s and 60s when the Community Party and its supporters in the Labor Party were a significant presence.

• support for Labor as a party of government. Our faction sustained Whitlam as he dragged the Labor Party forward after he assumed the leadership in 1967. We recruited Neville Wran (with help from the NSW Left) to lead the Labor Party back into government in NSW. We’ve never accepted that the ALP was a party of protest and opposition.

• support for the leadership. The Centre Unity faction has sustained Labor Party leaders in opposition and in government.

I said this ethos had been tarnished or compromised in recent years with the ill-considered opposition to the electricity privatisation agendas of two Labor Premiers, me and Morris Iemma. It stumbled into the removal of Morris Iemma, thus retreating from party of its ethos and support for the leader.

I told them that a political career was a craft or a trade. They should think about the six skills that comprise the political craft. Top of the list should be public speaking or communication.

“Somehow our party has lost the dominance in advocacy and debate it once enjoyed. We are no longer the party that gives the best speeches, engages the best speechwriters, displays the best turn of phrase and clinches the arguments.” And, then, wins the brief.

“We’ve got to restore that dominance.”

I told them the role of Centre Unity should be to prevent the ALP degenerating into permanent minority status.

The quality of questions was good, particularly the one that pinned me down on the policy agenda.

I said in response, “You should debate whether the role of Centre Unity is to convert the Labor Party to full embrace of the economic liberalisation that was implemented during the Hawke-Keating years. And which, to be fair, is reflected in serious economic reforms in Wayne Swan’s budgets that have received too little attention. Like reform to the disability pension scheme, moves to build workforce participation and the rolling back of the middle-class welfare that became entrenched under Howard and Costello.”

Bob Carr is the longest continuously serving Premier in New South Wales history.  He served as Leader of the Opposition from 1988 until his election as Premier in March 1995. He was re-elected in 1999 and again in March 2003 securing an historic third four-year term.  He retired from politics in 2005 after over 10 years as Premier.

Thoughtlines with Bob Carr