Nick Dyrenfurth
Labor’s damaged Right faction must renew

It’s a saying of which Paul Keating is fond: “Where goes NSW, so goes federal Labor.” Of course, the former Labor prime minister wasn’t just talking about the ALP’s NSW branch, but his own right-wing Centre Unity faction. All bias aside, the claim rings true.

In the aftermath of NSW Labor’s loss at the recent state election, I spoke to an upbeat Johno Johnson. The Right’s so-called “Godfather” clings to the belief that the NSW Right remains the party’s “ballast” and insists that the Right’s parliamentary and head office leadership can revive its fortunes. Other Labor figures I spoke to were divided on the role the Right would play in generating a 21st-century agenda. Former premier of Western Australia Geoff Gallop tells me he is sceptical about the potential for organised factions to lead the party’s intellectual renewal. Ben Davis, the thoughtful Australian Workers Union’s Victorian branch secretary, agrees that the Right lacks a coherent story about “what it stands for” and now tends to resist rather than initiate change. A problem identified by many is the mythology surrounding the Hawke–Keating “reform” era, a fetish for which blocks the path to philosophical renewal. Former leader Mark Latham’s promotion of a “Third Way” politics, perhaps the last significant effort to generate an overarching policy narrative, was not immune.

Even its strongest supporters admit the much-feared Labor Right has lost its way in recent decades. The faction of earthy “realism”, as one observer I spoke with calls it, in touch with the humble concerns of mainstream Australia, now veers between extremes – a Keating-style “vanguardism” that scorns public opinion, and a poll-driven fear of doing anything much at all. While many talented men and women fill its parliamentary and head office ranks, there is little sign of the intellectual and organisational renewal required to regain its potency.

From Labor’s beginnings in the 1890s, inchoate factionalism was a perennial feature. NSW Labor rapidly split over the question of whether politicians were autonomous agents or servants of the affiliated unions and branches, and bickered over the party’s “socialists”. A faction of sorts made up of moderates such as Billy Hughes and William Holman and the AWU eventually took control of the party. Bread and butter politics was the priority, they insisted – wages, working hours and safety – rather than millenarian obsessions. “It’s votes that count,” NSW Labor MP W. J. Ferguson warned party supporters in 1897. “Two-thirds of the Sydney workers are not prepared to go to the lengths of Unionism, and Socialism is a step beyond.” What one historian calls the “eternal contest between principle and electoral expediency” defined a left-right division ever since.

Historically, the moderate Right has directed Labor’s governing agenda and defined the party’s tribal culture, even if a formalised faction system failed to immediately materialise. Intra-party conflict was fleeting, issue-based and waged between leading personalities and unions such as the AWU, as per the split over conscription in 1916, the byzantine struggles that bedevilled the NSW branch during the 1920s, or the tripartite schism during the Great Depression. The reformed NSW party that emerged at a 1939 “Unity” Conference enshrined the McKell model, named after the premier of Labor’s wartime state government. The model not only aimed to harmonise relations between the parliamentary and industrial wings – which it did – but was also the making of the “NSW Right” and its perennial opponent, various nomenclatures of the Left. That division hardened with the 1955 Cold War split over Labor’s attitude to communism and the role of the church in party affairs. With the exception of NSW, where the church hierarchy urged their flocks to “stay in and fight”, the party’s anti-communist wing defected. As Frank Bongiorno told The Saturday Paper, it is no coincidence that most factional intrigues occurred in Australia’s most electorally important state – the Right was always a very NSW and Sydney-centric affair. The “brothers” – later “mates” – who firmly controlled the party machine acquired a reputation for political pragmatism and social conservatism. In Queensland, it became a matter of the leviathan AWU versus the rest; elsewhere the Right was less cohesive.

The early 1980s witnessed a hardening of factional divisions, spurred by the shift to proportional representation in party affairs the previous decade. The system properly emerged in 1983 after the formation of a national “anti-faction” Centre-Left faction, which in turn encouraged the unity of state-based Lefts and Rights. Led by Graham Richardson, the National Right had three aims: to get Bob Hawke elected as Labor leader, to position itself to claim a share of the spoils of office, and to ensure that the next government would avoid the schisms of its predecessors. Although the Labor Right has never quite shaken off Richo’s “whatever it takes” mantra, the system worked as intended, managing ideological and personal conflict. The longest-lived Labor administration ensued.

Ironically, the factional system ossified just as rigid ideological divisions were dissolving. The Cold War’s end had profound implications for social democratic parties worldwide and in Australia disoriented the Labor Right more than the Left. The Right’s modus operandi had rested in part on keeping the Left, apologists for communism in their view, away from the levers of power. Yet by 1989, the Left had long ceased to entertain radical policy positions – factional convergence would come at a cost. According to Paul Strangio, historian of Victorian Labor, tension between factions was a source of policy dynamism, and its demise contributed to what he sees as the party’s intellectual inertia.

Significant too was the decline of Catholicism as an animating political force in the lives of Right figures. Michael Cooney, executive director of Labor’s official think tank, the Chifley Research Centre, has his own roots in the party’s Right, but plays no factional role in his current position. “The worst thing that ever happened to the Labor Right was the Second Vatican Council,” Cooney tells me in a free-wheeling discussion. “The collapse of a distinctive Catholic identity in Australian society in the 1970s robbed us of much of our mongrel vigour.”

It’s the kind of statement that makes secular progressives wince, but one that correctly identifies that faith was an important glue – along with unionism and even football club membership – that held Labor activists together. 

In place of an ideologically coherent Right and the Centre-Left’s demise, a balkanised factional system has emerged based less around ideas and more around shifting alliances between unions and leading personalities, often formed in the toxic world of student politics. NSW’s Centre Unity remains intact in name but its activists are a far more heterogeneous coalition. The Victorian Right is a byzantine world of ideological cross-dressing and a section finds itself in quasi-alliance with the Socialist Left. Once unthinkable, Labor leaders increasingly hail from the Left, even if in NSW current leader Luke Foley would appear to come from the Catholic-oriented Right’s central casting. There are whispers that the Right will lose majority control of the ALP national conference scheduled for July for the first time since 1984, potentially creating a headache for the party’s Right-aligned leader, Bill Shorten.

But more than numbers, the Right has suffered from a perception of moral decline. In NSW the Richo creed of “whatever it takes” has seemingly come to mean “whatever we can take”, as witnessed in the behaviour of the disgraced Health Services Union trio of Craig Thomson, Kathy Jackson and Michael Williamson, and Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid, the former parliamentary duo who ruled the infamous NSW Labor Right Terrigals sub-faction. In 2011, in the wake of NSW Labor’s implosion over electricity privatisation and subsequent electoral wipeout, Paul Keating eviscerated the machine-men of the faction he co-founded more than three decades earlier. “I think the problem with Centre Unity in NSW is that it lacks now an ideology … other than the sheer pursuit of power … But power for what?” NSW general secretary Jamie Clements, Sussex Street’s Right supremo, has adopted a zero-tolerance attitude to corruption since his appointment in 2013, but much heavy lifting remains.

History shows that the party is unlikely to renew its purpose without the Right’s imprimatur. Although it acquired a reputation for anti-intellectualism, throughout the 20th century the Right was the driving force behind the party’s central organising principle. Inviolate was labourism, the idea that parliamentary action could, in tandem with strong unionism, civilise capitalism in the interests of workers and their families, through policies such as compulsory arbitration, tariff protection, “White Australia”, and modest welfare initiatives. In the 1980s, the Right buttressed the Hawke–Keating government’s embrace of Labor’s new big idea: a historic rebalancing of state and market forces that emptied out much of the labourist model by virtue of floating the dollar, financial market deregulation, dismantling tariffs, privatising public assets and, in 1993, introducing a form of enterprise bargaining that heralded a major shift away from centralised wage-fixing. This model bequeathed Australia with three decades of economic growth, but fatally weakened the Labor Right’s raison d’être.

Now the party must ask where its big idea will come from. At an intimate Melbourne lunch in late March, Maurice Glasman, a British Labour member of the House of Lords, held court among an audience of party movers and shakers. Here, perhaps, is Labor’s new one big idea – a centrist proposition that both the market and the state have become too powerful and are in need of reform by way of employee representation on company boards (the sort of creative proposal that could have avoided a damaging party split over electricity privatisation), welfare policy that devolves power to local communities, and a renewed focus on vocational labour market entry. A practising Jew, Glasman’s “Blue Labour” panacea offers up an optional side-serve of Catholic social thought. Aspects of his agenda have long interested Left types – ALP national president Jenny McAllister is supportive and unionist Linda White attended the gathering – but significant figures from the Right are also engaged. Johnson spoke glowingly of Glasman’s address on his last visit. After the lunch, “Shoppies” union national secretary Gerard Dwyer told me he was “energised” by Glasman’s propositions. Whether Blue Labour can transform Australian Labor is a moot question, but Cooney senses that change is afoot. “You can see a younger generation of moderate MPs, union leaders and thinkers trying to move on. The party benefits when the best leading younger voices are given a long leash and there are good signs this is happening among Generation X on the Right.”

As Glasman reminded an audience on his most recent trip, Aristotle once defined courage as the middle way between recklessness and cowardice. For Labor’s sake, the party’s Right will need to pluck up a sufficient amount of that cardinal virtue to change its ways.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "Labor’s Right mess".

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Nick Dyrenfurth is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University’s national centre for Australian studies, and has worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter.

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