A More Competitive Labor Party
Per Capita John Cain Lunch, Melbourne
Wednesday, 19 July 2023
John Cain and Labor
John Cain is one of Labor’s great heroes. When in 1982 he led Victorian Labor to power after 27 years in the wilderness, the reforms spanned the field, from education to law reform, the environment to open government. This being Victoria, sport was a part of the reform agenda too. Cain’s government demanded that the Melbourne Cricket Club admit women members, and introduced Sunday VFL games. In the early-1980s, Cain’s unleashing of reform after a generation in opposition was a blend of Whitlam and Hawke, with a dash of succession. John’s father, John Cain senior, had been the previous Victorian Labor Premier: governing until 1955, when the Split destroyed his government.
Yet although his father had been premier, John Cain was not a Labor powerbroker. Along with John Button and Barry Jones, he was factionally independent. He had seen what divisions in the party had done to his father’s government. Like most active Labor Party members, he chose not to be in a faction.
My argument today is simple: the Labor Party needs to provide space for people to remain outside the factional system. Across the country, the power of the factions is at an all-time high. We need to ensure that it is a legitimate choice for everyone – from new members to elected officials – to be non-factional. To join Labor should be enough. We should not be asking that those who want to make an impact within the ALP must join a sub-group within the party. Factions are fine. But not being in a faction should be fine too.
Australia’s Oldest and Greatest Political Party
This speech comes from a place of deep love for Labor. I joined the Labor Party in 1991, at the age of 18, because I wanted to be part of a serious movement for reform. Labor turned 100 that year, yet it was the heyday of the Australian Democrats. Some of my friends were attracted to this new party and their policies. But it struck me that if you wanted to be part of the great movement for progressive change in Australia, you needed to join a party that could form government. As I sometimes tease my friends in the Greens Party: ‘and who is your favourite Green Prime Minister?’.
For 132 years, Labor has been the central driving force behind a more equal Australia. Ours is the party that produced the age pension, Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Ours is the party of Cain and Curtin, Wran and Whitlam. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of policy in Australia is the history of reforming Labor Governments, followed by the fallow years of Coalition inaction. When I look back at the legacies of the Menzies, Howard or Morrison Governments, I am struck less by their reactionary changes than by the profound sense of lassitude. These were governments of sleepwalkers – clumsily bumping around in the dark until a new political day finally dawns.
The Australian Labor Party isn’t just another political party – it is the beating heart of modern Australia. When Labor succeeds, we expand the life chances for invisible Australians. We empower the powerless. Labor plays a unique role in this country: Labor is the generator of ideas and the force of progress. The Liberals and Nationals are uninterested in reform. The Greens are uninterested in governing. Only Labor delivers real change for the nation. I am proud to be a member of the Albanese Government, and could happily wax lyrical for an hour about the achievements of our government over the 424 days that we have been in office.
I’ve spent my entire adult life as a member of the Labor Party, and will die with my Labor membership still valid. In this sense, my life is in two phases: childhood and Labor Party membership. My bookshelves are filled with books about the Labor Party. I have studied its history and know its stories. I have attended hundreds of branch meetings, and I still look forward to Labor events, because I know that it means spending time in the company of unionists, feminists, environmentalists and social justice advocates – people who joined the ALP to shape a better Australia.
It is this devotion to Australia’s oldest and greatest political party that animates me to speak today about something that is almost never mentioned: the role of factions.
The Duopoly Develops
All political movements contain groups of likeminded people. The United States Democratic Party has the Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrat Coalition, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Republican Party is riven between Trumpists, never-Trumpists, and ex-never-Trumpists. British Labour has Blue Labour, Momentum and Progressive Britain. Groupings within the UK Conservatives include Blue Collar Conservatives, the Common Sense Group and the Northern Research Group.
In Australia, the Liberal Party’s groupings have included the Monkey Pod Lunch Conservatives, the Prayer Group, the Modern Liberals and the Ambition Faction. The National Party sometimes splits into the landed gentry versus the angry populists, at other times into social conservatives versus agrarian socialists. The Greens Party is divided into dealmakers versus protestors, with large fissures sometimes opening up between its elected officials and its membership base.
What marks out the Australian Labor Party isn’t the fact of its factions, but the way in which they so thoroughly dominate the party. Factions control the National Executive and allocate positions in the federal ministry. Factions determine the agenda of the National Conference, decide almost all preselections, and even choose who will travel on international parliamentary delegations. I’ve long been interested in the factional system. Back in the 1990s, I was a member of the left faction for about five years, and even published a paper, titled ‘Factions and Fractions’, about the system. Tellingly, two decades after that paper was published, it remains one of the few things publicly written about Labor’s factions. I’m still not sure why political scientists have devoted so little attention to such an important aspect of Australian politics.
Labor’s highly formalised factions have their origins in the 1970s. In their book A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno argued that the early-1970s reorganisation of the Victorian and NSW branches was an essential precondition for nationally organised factions, which solidified in the 1980s. The Hawke-Hayden leadership struggle contributed to dragging many federal caucus members into one of the power blocs. By the mid-1980s, it had been established that the caucus would elect the ministry by proportional representation, and three national factions – Left, Centre Left, and Right – were institutionalised.
Over the coming decades, the number of non-factional caucus members steadily declined. In 1984, there were 10 unaligned members in the federal caucus. In 2003, there were about five. In 2010, there were two. In 2013, there were three. In 2016, there was one. Since 2019, there have been two. Meetings of the federal parliamentary independents can easily take place in a phone box. Since joining the federal parliament in 2010, I have comprised between 33 percent and 100 percent of the non-factional members of the federal caucus.
The other big trend of the past generation is the consolidation of the factions from three to two. In 1984, the Centre Left faction made up one quarter of the federal caucus. But as prominent Centre Left ministers John Dawkins, Bill Hayden, John Button, Michael Duffy, Peter Walsh, Barry Jones, Mick Young, Neal Blewett and Peter Cook retired, the Centre Left faction waned. After the 2007 election, the Centre Left faction essentially ceased to exist.
With the disappearance of the Centre Left, Labor’s factions have become a duopoly. As their power has grown, the factions have become more structured. These are not lunch clubs or informal gatherings. Members are expected to attend factional meetings and vote with the faction. The factions have constitutions, elect factional leaders, take minutes of their meetings, and keep membership lists. As Dennis Glover notes, in other social democratic parties around the world, factions are loose and informal. Within the Labor Party, factions operate as formally as the party itself.
In the federal caucus, it goes without saying that most of my friends are in factions. To a person, they are talented, idealistic and hardworking. It would be unfair to them to engage in a ‘straw man’ discussion of the factional structure. So let me instead take a ‘steel man’ approach, by beginning with the strongest case for the factional system. What is good about factions?
In Defence of Factions
First, Labor currently stands in the strongest electoral position since the early-1900s, when the newly created party of the union movement swept its opponents away in election after election. Today, Labor holds office federally and in every state and territory except Tasmania. Currently, the most senior Coalition leader in government on the mainland is Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner. Labor’s party officials – from national secretary Paul Erickson down – are driven by data and evidence, and constantly experimenting with new ways of maintaining a thoughtful conversation with Australian voters. In an era of disinformation and distraction, Labor has been successful in persuading Australians to support policies backed by science, evidence and institutions. After decades in which populism has surged across the globe, in Australia it is in retreat.
One might argue that factional dominance has played a role in this success. By providing stability to the party, faction leaders would argue, they have helped reduce internal dissent, so that everyone can focus their attention on electoral success. Full factional control, they would contend, provides a measure of certainty to the institution that allows people to get on with doing their jobs. If disunity is death, and factions provide unity, then they would argue that factional dominance should take part of the credit for Labor’s electoral victories.
Second, the Labor caucus is more diverse than ever before. For all their successes, the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating Governments were largely governments of men. No women served in Whitlam’s cabinet, and just one woman served in Hawke’s first cabinet. By contrast, the Albanese cabinet consists of 10 women and 13 men. A majority of the caucus are women. With the election of Mary Doyle in Aston, the Labor Caucus tipped over to 53 percent women. We have numerous members from non-English speaking backgrounds, including Egypt, Sri Lanka, Greece, Italy, Malaysia, India and Afghanistan. Six Labor members are First Nations people, including Cabinet Minister Linda Burney. The share of First Nations people is higher in the Labor party room (6 percent) than it is in the broader community (3 percent).
Again, faction leaders would argue that they deserve some credit for these outcomes. When preselections are considered one-by-one, underrepresented groups can repeatedly miss out. A failure to consider the big picture helps explain why the Coalition parties have just 30 percent women in their party room (about the same share as Labor had in 2001), and only two First Nations representatives. At a national and state level, Labor’s factions have helped meet the party’s affirmative action targets, and been tasked with bringing greater ethnic and racial diversity to the ranks of the party’s elected officials.
The Danger of Total Factionalism
So what is the problem? Should we worry if factions fully control the party? Is it really necessary for the party to provide space to people who choose not to join a faction?
I believe there are four reasons to be concerned about a party that is totally dominated by factions.
First, there is now a shortage of healthy competition between the party’s factions. When I joined the party, I vividly recall the way in which factions channelled ideological disagreements. New South Wales Labor Party conferences in the 1990s featured feisty debates between Graham Richardson and John Faulkner, both then government ministers. Labor’s national conferences featured debates between Doug Cameron and Peter Cook. This verbal jousting wasn’t perfect, and the sharp edge of the speeches probably discomforted some. But they showed the public that it was healthy to have differing views, and that the Labor Party was a sufficiently large tent to contain a spectrum of ideological perspectives. They were a reminder that you didn’t need to agree with every Labor policy to support the Labor Party.
By contrast, today’s factions are less likely to broker ideological debates than to try and find a way of avoiding the debate altogether. When both factions see it as desirable to find a ‘fix’, debate can be viewed as unhealthy. Calling a truce in the battle of ideas is not the Labor way. If we stifle internal debate, we miss the chance to test our policies among ourselves, and to train new generations of thinkers. I think this is what John Button meant when he warned in his Quarterly Essay that excessive factionalism led to party discussions that were about ‘arithmetic, not philosophy’. Those who fear that our opponents will exploit policy differences to paint Labor as a divided party need to remember that robust policy debates can also have an electoral benefit: allowing a broad range of voters to see their views reflected within the Labor Party.
As the Assistant Minister for Competition, I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem is what we would call an increase in market concentration. As I have noted, the collapse of the Centre Left faction and the decline of non-factional parliamentarians has created a situation in which Labor’s factions are now a duopoly. And just as duopolies in the product market hurt consumers through price gouging and profiteering, so too duopoly factions may engage in behaviour that is not in the long-term interests of the party and its membership. When factional competition is less intense, dealmaking can replace debate. If factionalism becomes effectively compulsory, the party may become less dynamic.
Second, Labor’s factions can be profoundly undemocratic. Let me give a few examples.
In some jurisdictions, factions requires their members to use a ‘show and tell’ approach to internal Labor Party elections. In the room where ballot papers are handed out, the faction sets up a second table, a few metres away from the returning officer. When factional members are given their ballot paper, they must walk over to the factional table, and hand their ballot paper to a factional official. That factional official then fills in their ballot paper, and gives it back to the faction member to be deposited into the ballot box. This rule applies to all members of the faction, from new members to ministers. Failure to comply can mean expulsion from the faction.
The irony of show-and-tell is that historically Labor was among the strongest advocates for the secret ballot. The secret ballot – known in other countries as the Australian ballot – was revolutionary because it prevented bosses from demanding that their workers reveal how they had voted. The secret ballot in public elections effectively forbade show-and-tell. As Peter Fitzgerald observes, show-and-tell ‘would be considered an offence under State and Commonwealth laws if undertaken in during State or Federal Elections.’ No Labor Government would tolerate an organisation that set up a table in the corner of the polling station, asking people to volunteer to have their ballot papers filled in for them. We would see it as utterly undemocratic. Yet we tolerate it in our own internal elections.
And then there is the issue of preselections. In 2018, Mark Butler spoke to the Victorian Fabian Society about his concerns that reforms he had championed as party president had been ‘blocked by factional leaders at the national conference and various state conferences’.
Mark argued that one of the fundamental rights of Labor Party membership should be to choose Labor candidates. Yet as he ruefully noted: ‘I’m sorry to say that ours remains a party that gives ordinary members fewer rights than any other Labor or social democratic party I can think of’. Mark pointed in particular to upper house candidates, which he said ‘remain a last bastion of backroom dealing by self-appointed factional warlords’. Labor’s candidates for Senate and Legislative Council should, he argued, be chosen by the membership. Likewise, he said, casual vacancies should not be filled by ‘highly centralised factional processes’.
Mark reserved his fiercest scorn for Victoria, where he described the factional divvy-up of seats – including one that was yet to be created – as ‘backroom buffoonery [that] does not reflect a healthy party organisation’. Just as Labor’s factions are at their best when they encourage ideological debate over important policies, they are at their worst when they serve only as competing executive recruitment agencies. This is what the Hawke-Wran ALP review called ‘the deadening impact of factionalism’. It is what Kevin Rudd once called ‘the skullduggery of factional warfare’.
John Cain, too, was a critic of developments in Victoria. He pointed out that many active branch members wanted nothing to do with factions, and resented their influence in the party. He also pointed out that ‘structured factionalism meant rigidity in decision-making’. In 2009, at the age of 78, Cain again criticised the role of factions in the Victorian ALP, writing that ‘Historically, the people who run political parties, like all who hold power, are always slow to acknowledge their shortcomings. They fight tenaciously to hold the power they have won.’
According to one Victorian Labor activist, of 143 Labor preselections in this state during the past two decades or so, a mere 10 have gone to ordinary member vote. Again, many talented people have entered the Victorian parliament during this period. But I am yet to hear anyone argue that the 10 who were selected by the members are less talented than those who were appointed. Others argue that central control over Victorian preselections has led to a failure to preselect candidates who genuinely represent their communities, especially in relation to cultural and linguistically diverse communities in the outer suburbs.
Underpinning this system is the Victorian ‘Stability Pact’. Initially struck in 2006, the Stability Pact is an agreement between the factions in which every winnable seat, every party leadership position, and every spot on every committee is divided between the Left and the Right, with a no-contest rule on the other's possessions. Like the nineteenth century colonial powers meeting in Berlin to divide up Africa, the Stability Pact effectively takes away the ability of local members to have their say. Nominally, the party rules say that preselections depend equally on local member votes and the central committee. But if the factions vote together, then even a 90 percent local member vote can be overridden by a 95 percent central committee vote.
Allocating electorates to factions is electorally reckless. If the Stability Pact allocates a seat to the Right, but the candidate with the greatest community appeal is unaligned or from the Left, Labor fails to put our top candidate into the field. The danger is that Labor runs less competitive candidates because the best person is in the ‘wrong’ faction. In an era when Greens and independents are on the rise, we risk losing electoral races that we might otherwise have won.
Moreover, the calibre of candidates is not the only test of a system. Those of us who love Australia’s democracy believe that democracy is inherently better, not just instrumentally. When we look around the world at undemocratic nations, we judge them on the fact that they do not give their citizens a say in how their countries are governed. Even a well-managed autocracy is flawed, we think to ourselves. We believe in democracy not because it produces better outcomes, but because it is inherently right to give all citizens a say in how their country is run.
Labor’s democratic decline alienates party members. Ours has always been a mass party, and we have relied on our membership to win elections. If you believe the randomised evidence on political campaigning (and who doesn’t love a good randomised trial?), then the impact of direct mail and television advertising is dwarfed by the impact of personal contact via telephone calls and doorknocking. If you doubt this, just think about your own views. How often have you shifted your views about an important issue because of a letter or an ad, as compared with a conversation? Personal campaigning matters. Labor relies on our membership to win elections. Most Labor members are not in a faction – their only loyalty is to the ALP at large. In return for helping us win elections, it is only fair that Labor’s members should help choose the party’s candidates.
Third, factional dominance creates unnecessary divisions within the Labor Party. When an idealistic and ambitious new member joins the Labor Party, we should harness their passion for egalitarianism and show them a path to contribute. But if we ask them to choose – Left or Right? – then we risk forcing them into an uncomfortable choice. What if you are socially progressive but economically rational? How about if your two favourite Labor politicians come from different factions? If you get the factional choice wrong, can you switch? I have spoken to many new party members who find it disquieting to be asked to pick a team within a team. Often, party members reluctantly join a faction because they cannot see another way of contributing. In some states, members cannot serve on the party’s policy committees unless they are in a faction. In most states, preselection is virtually impossible for people outside the factional system. It’s a case of Left, Right, or Out.
Factionalism can be a particular problem in Young Labor, where the fierceness of the arguments is sometimes out of all proportion to the stakes. In many states and territories, those who do not wish to join a faction quickly find themselves on the margins of the organisation. When too much energy is devoted to internal arguments, it leaves less space for engaging with the wider community. Young Labor is a vital part of the party. But it should also ensure that it remains attractive to people who want to join and just be… Labor.
Factionalism can also be seen in university Labor Clubs. On many campuses, there are two Labor Clubs – one for the Left faction and one for the Right faction. Eerily reminiscent of the Labor Split, these clubs have been formed because university students have decided that they would prefer not to be in the same room as people in a different faction. What signal do they send to a new university student in orientation week? They tell that person that Labor is a party defined by its factions, and that if you are not willing to join a faction, you should not join Labor. These clubs have their own quirky origins, but the fact that they exist on multiple campuses is a reflection of weaknesses in the party at large. The factional duopoly has left no space for non-factional members. If Labor Clubs and Young Labor are entirely factionalised, bright youngsters may instead join another progressive movement – depleting the talent pipeline that is essential for any flourishing political party.
Fourth, factional dominance risks eliminating a tradition with deep roots in the Labor Party: people who simply choose to be part of the party. This is, after all, the majority of our members. As Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ speech so powerfully articulated, most Labor members join ‘not hoping for any advantage from the movement, not hoping for any personal gain, but because you believe in a movement that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people’. These are Keating’s True Believers. They are people like Jo, a retired teacher who joined me on a street stall in the Canberra cold last Saturday, because she wanted to persuade as many people as possible to support a Voice to Parliament.
There are tens of thousands of Labor members who feel uncomfortable with factions, or are uninterested in factions. As the discussion paper initiating the Bracks-Macklin review noted, ‘Many members believed that factionalism did more harm than good and expressed concern in respect of both the secrecy that surrounds factional groups and the power that these groups wield. Members were aware of the stabilising role factions played historically, however, most believed that the current state of factionalism represented a significant problem that needed to be addressed.‘
Most Labor members will never seek a career in parliament or as a party official. They simply want their party to recognise that a non-factional member of the Labor Party is no less worthy than a factional member. These members will never engage in the kind of antics that led to a 60 Minutes exposé and an inquiry by the Victorian anti-corruption commission. They would no more dream of using pre-paid gift cards to subvert branch-stacking rules than they would imagine voting for One Nation. On election day, these members will staff booths from dawn to dusk. They are motivated not by power, but by altruism. They joined Labor to shape a better nation. They should not be treated as second-class citizens within our party.
Preserving a space for non-factional members in the Labor Party should not be a radical idea. For much of our history, Labor has not been a particularly factional party. But if we can no longer welcome unaligned members, it will become increasingly difficult to recruit to Labor. Running a mass membership organisation is hard enough in an age when fewer people are joining community groups. Demanding factional loyalty as a condition of active engagement in the Labor Party is like putting lead in our saddlebags. Why not make clear that ours is a party that will nurture talent regardless of whether or not someone chooses to join a faction?
No social democratic party should ever be sanguine about its future. Between 2009 and 2015, the Greek social democratic party PASOK went from being the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament to the smallest. PASOK lost nine out of ten of its voters.
The collapse of PASOK isn’t just a Greek drama. Pasokification is how commentators describe the collapse of centre-left parties, including the French Socialists, Israeli Labour, the Austrian Social Democrats, the Irish Labour Party, and the Dutch Labour Party. One moment these parties were going strong; the next they were on the verge of collapse. An especially dramatic case was the French socialists, who went from holding the presidency in 2017 to garnering a mere 2 percent of the vote in 2022. In Western Europe, centre left parties in general are in trouble. Since the early-2000s, the average vote of European centre-left parties has dropped from nearly 30 percent to just above 20 percent.
When the electorate decides that a party has passed its use-by date, the collapse can be swift and brutal. That is why the Australian Labor Party must always renew and refresh our structures and institutions.
In 2023, it is worth asking whether a rigid factional duopoly – in which show-and-tell prevails and in which preselections are decided by the few rather than the many – is really in the long-term interests of the party. As a Tasmanian ALP member told the Bracks-Faulkner-Carr review of the party, ‘While we continue to allow the factional carve up of positions and decisions are taken on faction grounds, people will continue to be turned off.’
The success of the teal independents shows the degree to which Australian voters admire independent-minded party candidates. Strong public support for transparency in government and the National Anti-Corruption Commission suggests that the best direction for Labor is in becoming more democratic, not less.
I am not arguing – as Kevin Rudd did in 2020 – for the banning of factions. I am not even arguing – as John Faulkner did in 2014 – for factions to be banned from binding their members. My argument is much more modest. I merely propose that not being in a faction should be as valid a choice as joining a faction.
The silence over factions and the way they operate should be a clue. If a group’s practices and deals start to sound like they’ve been plucked from a John le Carré novel, those people should ask themselves whether their shenanigans befit Australia’s most important political party.
When it comes to elections, Labor has always been at the forefront of democratic innovation. In general elections, the mantra of Labor is that elites should carry no more electoral weight than everyone else. One person, one vote; one vote, one value. Part of being an egalitarian is the belief that ordinary people should be empowered, that democracy works better than autocracy, and that the many are collectively smarter than the few. Those who built the Labor Party were outsiders, not insiders.
This essential egalitarian ethos should inform how we think about our own party. There is nothing wrong with people being in factions. Equally, there should be nothing wrong with being outside the factional system. Remaining unaligned – loyal only to the Labor Party – should remain a viable choice. The result will be a stronger, more competitive, more democratic and more effective Labor Party.