For last year my online commentary focus has been The Conversation. I am relaunching this blog. Today I have a review of former Labor leader Mark Latham’s recent book Not Dead Yet at The Conversation. With seven respondents to Latham’s opening essay it is difficult to cover.
Some additional points. The popular Labor party reform idea of the moment is primaries; this is despite the fact that Australian experiments have mostly seen low turnout and disappointing electoral outcomes for candidates selected in this manner. Latham supports primaries but wants the eligibility of candidates to contest a primary to be determined by a panel comprising ‘party elders’, local branch office-bearers, union and state ALP branch representatives. Prospective candidates will have to demonstrate record of community engagement, public speaking ability, policy making credentials ‘the objective is to…gauge the ability of candidates not only to win their seats their seats, but also to serve as parliamentary frontbenchers’. It’s a model that displays limited trust in Labor voters. Does Latham think that in safe Labor electorates primaries would probably be won by candidates who could mobilize ethnic groups or is he afraid that public sector unions would mobilize their members to vote? Teacher unions do this in the United States although with mixed success. Who would be the Labor MP for Fowler under a primary system? Not someone called Hayes. Latham doesn’t like Anthony Albanese but he is a candidate who does have a community base and his electorate would be one of the very few where Labor actually has a real local presence. A system of primaries would not necessarily led to the sort of Labor candidates that Anglo inner city based commentators (of all ideological stripes) would like to see.
The same point about unintended consequences applies to the popular idea (championed by Andrew Leigh and Nicholas Reece in the book) that Labor MPs should be granted greater autonomy to vote independently of caucus. Leigh evokes the British model of the ‘three-line whip’ where only some votes are defined as ‘three lines’ where unanimity is enforced. The problem with this model is that MPs in Britain do vote against three-line whips: 121 Labour MPs defied one to vote against the Iraq War. My view is that once the iron grip of caucus solidarity was broken it would not be possible to enforce 100% bloc voting ever again. Could Labor enforce a three-line whip on issues such as asylum-seeker policy and the Northern Territory intervention? Labor MPs could also rebel to the right, some might agree with contributor Troy Bramston in this book that Fair Work was too union friendly. The Gillard government was dragged down by the perception of parliamentary chaos that resulted from the need to secure the votes of Independents and Greens, does Labor want to see a portion of backbenchers become quasi-independents? Be careful what you wish for.
I note that Latham says little about the issues of asylum-seekers. His rise to the leadership was a direct result of Labor’s traumas after the 2001 election. Around 2004 a whole range of specters preoccupied the Australian left: Families First, Hillsong, the 2004 reelection of George Bush and the specter of religious war in the suburbs. Since then most of these specters have evaporated but this has made it harder for the left. It was easier to capitulate before an imagined popular conservative wave (David Burchell would be an example of this), than to fall in behind public opinion on the single issues of asylum-seekers.
Overall Latham reminds somewhat of Lindsay Tanner, disenchanted (or never enchanted in Latham’s case) with the old left but reluctant to accommodate themselves entirely to the status quo. Like Tanner, or John Hewson or even Paul Keating Latham is a ‘seeker’. Bob Hawke, John Howard, Bob Carr & Julia Gillard are not.