A crooked farce

Good old Kim Beazley has now been Leader of the Opposition again for six months. He gave a great speech after the Budget, even if he, and his advisers, made a complete mess of their tactics in opposing the Government’s tax cuts. The Government has been bumbling and stumbling around, and the Opposition has had much the success that one might expect of taking advantage of it, except on immigration matters, where neither the Leader nor the Spokesman had any credibility at all. Over the winter season of party conferences, Kim has been receiving rousing applause. Nothing surprising about that. These things are choreographed—actually in the script. And anyway, he was among friends. Not necessarily among that 37 per cent or so of the Australian population with a predisposition to vote Labor, or that roughly 50 per cent who might at any time prefer Labor to the alternative, but among the ever shrinking number of people who are actually members of the Labor Party. Probably about half of the names in the party books are people who have let their membership (and their payments) lapse, people whose names have been purchased (particularly from ethnic communities) and whose subscriptions are paid by corrupt power brokers, and people who have never existed, or who now reside in graveyards.

The fraud and mismanagement of membership roles is no accident; nor is the dramatic decline in the number of members. The smaller the membership, the greater the opportunities for manipulation of numbers. A high proportion of the senior officers of the party organisation are active participants in the complete corruption of the principles of democratic control of the party. What many do, routinely, would put them in jail were they dealing with a company with shareholders, or were the machinations within political parties subject to inquiries by the fraud squad.

Just as significantly, Kim Beazley (who can afford, thanks to his backers, to be at a distance from the basest frauds) has long been a favoured son of just such manipulators, and his power base in parliament is entirely dependent on the system continuing as it does. Whenever anyone makes an allegation of fraud or corruption, you can expect that Kim Beazley will be piously hoping that it is not true, and scolding the whistleblowers for not taking up their complaints inside the secretive (and totally corrupt) internal party processes. There is no better illustration of the fact that he lacks the moral and physical fibre to be worthy of being prime minister than his refusal to face the crooked farce that is his own party.

For some, the fact that the greater proportion of those who have let their memberships lapse are people who did so in disgust and anger at his craven surrender to principle on refugee policy may ease the burden of the party’s shrinking membership and national appeal. After all, some say smugly, the loss of primary votes to groups such as the Greens, with some appeal to idealism, is not such a worry; their preferences come back to Labor anyway. The ‘real’ direction the party must take must be away from this squeamishness about principle and core values, and towards the hip pockets and the aspirations of suburban families, they say. In believing this, they completely ignore the fact that the party no longer sends any sort of positive messages to its primary constituencies, and by itself is not regenerating with the energy and ideas, let alone the ideals, of young people or people who see politics as leading to some sort of light on the hill.

In place of a membership base feeding, and debating ideas, the Labor machine is increasingly substituting focus groups and advertising agencies to tell it what people really think and what clever, but generally meaningless, slogans might appeal. The party’s left, which used to generate most of the ideas, is now the most reactionary—and in some states, the most corrupt—section of the party; the right, which once tempered the more silly ideas with pragmatism and a better understanding of how things worked, has become little more than a Tammany Hall sharing out, to its most loyal (but personally unelectable) followers the spoils of office at state government levels. Pity about the federal party, but if the price of the plush chairs from state government patronage is its failure, it seems, to them, a price worth paying.

That there is corruption aplenty in other political parties, or that some other parties themselves have membership bases so small that they too are extremely susceptible to manipulation, is neither here nor there. The corruption in Labor is in a class of its own, and, particularly given Labor’s Caucus system, is the more easily able to infect the party at every level. The Liberal Party organisation, to take another example of a party whose processes are corrupted, simply cannot control the activities of members or force policy on the party in the way Labor’s organisation and shenanigans can. With Labor, the fear is that the cancer which is killing its membership, and the machinations which are strangling its processes, must inevitably affect and infect everything the party does. Why should we expect that a party leader, too weak and complaisant to interfere with knavishness in his party, will prevent it in the exercise of power in office?

Some might think these purely party matters. In fact, it ought to concern everyone, given that the party, despite its best current endeavours, is the alternative party of government. Particularly while Beazley is there, it will not slide into government because of the Government’s shortcomings.     

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times.


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