When Kevin Rudd was removed as Prime Minister in June 2010 he managed to land one spectacularly damaging blow on his rivals by demonising this elusive, conceptual foe that was the Labor Party factions. John Faulkner is now talking about the need to reform the Labor factional system, which is a good idea but what does it mean? I appreciate that every member of the Labor party makes a point of either joining a faction, or choosing to serve independently of a faction but what power do the factions have over there members? And obviously, factions aren’t sentient, who is it that dictates factional policy and how do they come to have that authority?
Kevin Rudd with a little help from Paul Howes did a marvellous job of painting the factions as shadowy, power hungry figures who choose the Labor party leadership behind a cloak of anonymity. Rudd’s revised history of his own leadership is that when he refused to kowtow to these dodgy figures that they ordered their factional members to all vote against Rudd and, blind sheep that they were, they all did. If this were the case it would truly be disturbing, especially given nobody seems to know quite who these top down controllers are. I’ve heard Anthony Albanese described as the leader of the NSW left on several occasions but he certainly can’t dictate to his factional allies like that. Albenese backed Rudd on both occasions but Tanya Plibersek, Greg Combet, Julie Owens and Laurie Ferguson all quite openly supported Gillard. Likewise Mark Arbib as the supposed leader of the NSW Right was supposed to have been particularly culpable in the Rudd removal yet Chris Bowen, Robert Mcleland and Julia Irwin, all supported Rudd.
Another claim is that factions order there members to vote in blocs within caucus on policy issues. This suggestion is also dubious although it is more difficult to disprove given the rules of caucus solidarity in the Labor party. The most openly conducted policy decision in Labor in recent years has been on same sex marriage. If there was any factional coercion on this matter it was from the socialist left and Ferguson left factions which but for one J Gillard voted almost unanimously in favour of it at both the national conference and on the floor of the House. By contrast the dreaded NSW and Victorian Rights appeared to have little or know control over their members. Mark Arbib happily announced he was in favour of it but that didn’t stop Ed Husic, Tony Burke and Chris Bowen from casting loud nay votes in the house. Likewise Bill Shorten who is supposed to have toppled a Prime Minister couldn’t persuade Stephen Conroy, Maria Vamvakinou and Mike Symon to come with him, although rather nicely of him Simon Crean did.
We also know from the public record something about the voting patterns of cabinet ministers with regard to the Emissions Trading Scheme. From the left, Julia Gillard wanted to scrap it, but Lindsay Tanner and Penny Wong both wanted to keep it. From the right, Wayne Swan and Mark Arbib(why he was consulted we still don’t really know) wanted to scrap it whilst Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith from the right were inclined to keep it. Peter Garrett, independent of a faction, also wanted to keep it. Journalists receive off the record briefings from politicians so it may be the case that they are aware of how parliamentarians voted on specific issues and so are speaking with good authority when they allege that the factions can bind the membership. This is fine but I don’t have that information so I’m forced to go by what’s on the public record and all the indications we have from these are that whilst some MP’s might vote in blocs, the indicators are that they do not vote uniformly along factional lines as Kevin Rudd likes to insinuate.
If John Faulkner and his Labor colleagues want to reform the Labor factional system then I wish them well but if they want to harness any sort of public support for their initiative they need to keep the public informed. This begins with the Labor party being up front and transparent about what the current role of the factions is, who the key players are and what is wrong with the current system. Then and only then can they set out a clear blueprint for reforming the party which anyone will pay any attention too. It’s not that I don’t think Faulkner is right, I just don’t understand why, and this is one area where I’m prepared to project my naivety onto a majority of the population.