Why and how political parties are corrupted

Modern Australian political parties are more likely to be corrupted by ideological or religious fanatics and power seekers than by disputes about policy and how to get into government.

One of the ongoing problems with talking about what political parties do or don’t do is that it is easy to overlook problems seated deep in parties’ DNA and the contemporary political culture.

Having recently written about why conservatives were better at framing than progressives, and what the ALP might do about it, the Victorian ALP has promptly shot itself in the foot and demonstrated some bigger lessons about what’s wrong with Australian political parties and politics.

The sacking of one Victorian Minister, followed by two resignations by other Cabinet Ministers and Federal intervention into the Victorian branch makes the good COVID-19 crisis the Premier, Daniel Andrews has been having, look rather soiled.

The situation was caused by a phenomenon which has been apparent in Victorian politics – among both Labor and Liberals – the stacking of branches to help influence pre-selections and representations at party conferences for decades. With the Liberals the problem is more stacking by fundamentalist Christians and some ethnic groups but with Labor it is predominantly focussed on ethnic groups.

With the latest ALP scandal around former Cabinet Minister, Adem Somyurek, it can at least be said that he followed an inclusive policy consistent with his multicultural affairs portfolio by including a wide cross-section of ethnic groups in the stacking operation.

With the resignation of Assistant Treasurer, Robin Scott, the offence was aggravated by revelations that he had directed grants to groups representing the groups he had allegedly stacked branches with.

Since the original post, however, Rob Gerrand has pointed out that the grants were for less than $1 million over four years and that both Liberal and Labor Governments had made grants to the organisations.

Nevertheless, Scott is probably ruing the fact that he was in Dan Andrews’ Cabinet rather than Scott Morrison’s. In the latter case he would probably still be there and need to be prised out with a nuclear explosion.

If any defence can be made of ALP branch stacking in the past it was largely driven by ideological convictions. Bill Hartley and the Socialist Left controlled the Victorian ALP until Federal intervention.

Writing in The Age (3/12/2002) Dr Paul Strangio said: “Undoubtedly, intervention breathed new life into the Victorian ALP. Control was wrested out of the hands of the narrow oligarchy of Left-aligned trade unions that had dominated the party during the 1960s, although it is frequently overlooked that the modern factional system has its origins in intervention. The party also jettisoned many old shibboleths and developed a progressive social democratic agenda, which provided the springboard for the election of the Cain government in 1982.”

The intervention came with a quid pro quo – that there be some intervention in the NSW branch as well – although this left the NSW Right with most of its power and which it translated into national power.

Strangio argues that: “The ideological sanitising of Victorian Labor has undoubtedly contributed to its electoral success, but it also has had other consequences. For instance, it is clearly implicated in the strong challenge Labor encountered in inner-city seats such as Richmond and Melbourne, where some voters defected to the Greens because they perceive Labor as devoid of idealism or boldness.

“The homogenising of ALP state branches may also partly explain the apparent paradox of Labor holding government in all of the states but struggling nationally. Whereas incremental managerialism works effectively enough for state governments whose function is largely confined to presiding over key services such as health and education and competing for investment, it translates less well to the federal sphere. In Canberra the political canvas is much bigger.”

Of course the Bracks Government in the early 2000, with significant input from then Department of Premier and Cabinet head, Terry Moran, produced a series of major policy proposals which would make national government more effective and address problems which, sadly, are still being neglected today.

One of the ironies of the situation is that in the 1960s the ALP factional problems were largely driven by ideology. Personal power was important but partly directed towards achieving policy goals. As they made the party unelectable the latter was irrelevant though.

In contrast, around the same time, the Liberal Party was fairly free from factions around policy but not so free from factional moves around internal power seekers.

Today the situation has largely been reversed with ALP factional battles around power and whatever it takes (a concept pioneered in NSW by people such as Graham Richardson instead of left wing Victorians) rather than policy. In the Liberal Party factional practices are still important but the impact of far right religious fanatics and culture warriors pursuing sectional policy ends is more significant. The debate about gay marriage is an excellent example along with the branch stacking efforts of fundamentalist Christians in Victoria on gay marriage and abortion.

Nationally the conservative parties  subscribe to common or garden neo-liberal policies – the policies which have led to more inequality, stagnant wages and slow economic growth – along with the full range of US-inspired ratbaggery around climate change denial and culture wars along with religious fervour around protecting middle class welfare at all costs.

Other than the Nationals, of course, who (along with the culture wars) are still mainly devoted to rent-seeking – if largely for miners rather than farmers.

The ALP, in contrast, has been more flexible with the Hawke-Keating years introducing neo-liberalism to Australia and the Rudd Government demonstrating the significance of Keynesian approaches.

In the last election the ALP campaigned on a rag bag of policies most of which would have lessened inequality and tempered middle class welfare but without a convincing narrative to unite the policies or a leader who the public felt they could trust.

Meanwhile the public becomes more and more disillusioned and cynical. Political party membership – even with branch stacking – is in decline. Progressive groups coalesce around specific areas of interest without translating their efforts into political effectiveness.

Progressive and reactionary groups coalesce around competing culture war views which have little or nothing to do with core structural national problems.

And the media – mainstream and social – compounds the problem by reporting on tactics or providing echo chambers rather than analysis and robust policy discussion.