A challenging time for Labor too.

For more information about the author, see here.
To email Andrew, click here.
To see Andrew’s speaking videos on these topics, click here


Following the 2001 election, the Federal Labor Party had to debate again the role of asylum seekers in its policy platform. As it turned out the issue has outlived the Democrats as a party, Gillard as immigration Shadow Minister and still haunts her Prime Ministership. This article was published in 2002, but is still relevant a decade later, as my Bi-Partisan Liberalism article showed.

A challenging time for Labor too.

Whilst some commentators have written off the Democrats following the divisive personality ‘train wreck’ of recent times, the Democrats’ trouble may also put sharper focus on the deepening divisions in the ALP. 

Labor’s recent turmoil has revolved around the so-called 60/40 rule – the rule that determines the percentage of Union versus rank and file membership at party conferences. Regardless of union representation being 60/40 or 50/50, there is still roughly half the membership of the party that is made up of the ‘rank and file’ for whom ‘collective bargaining’ may not be the leading issue.

When one removes a belief in collective bargaining as an appropriate mechanism in the industrial relations system from a political discussion, a yawning question remains: Why did the other half of the party chose the ALP over the Liberal Party or Democrats as a political voice for them?

If the Democrats existed to ‘keep the bastards honest’ – what is the Labor Party’s claim to those outside the union movement? Could they jump to a reinvigorated and renewed ‘Liberal Democrat’ party?

Ask a non-union ALP member why they joined and the majority of the responses will include a belief in compassion, tolerance, social justice and the like. You may even get a discussion on a belief in Social Democracy or Democratic Socialism.

You may even get members harking back to the ideals of former leaders like Doc Evatt. Of his negotiations in the lead up to creation of the UN Doc Evatt said:

It only amounts to recognising a duty of decency towards helpless people. If the Labour Movement does not stand for that, it does not deserve to exist.

Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ speech is one that inspires ALP members and beseeches them to search out and assist people in need wherever they may be found.

Paul Keating’s ‘True Believers’ speech warned of the dangers of a coalition government – particularly the lack of tolerance he thought a coalition would bring – and a withdrawal from a role of helping others on the international stage.

And now many in the ALP rank and file are questioning their belief in the ALP principally as they feel the ALP failed to measure up to its own standards over the refugee and asylum issues.

Many though have stayed true. They recognised the difficult political position the party was placed in by a canny Howard – yet their steadfastness is temporary awaiting final policy determination from the ALP.

This is one of Julia Gillard’s great tests in reshaping Labor’s Asylum policy.

She must come up with a policy that is true to the ALP’s fundamental core beliefs of compassion, tolerance and equity. One that seeks out to assist people in need     one that falls back on Evatt’s claim that ‘it only amounts to recognising a duty of decency towards helpless people.’

For if Gillard can not do that within the political realities of the time then many members may turn back to Evatt’s other comment: “If the Labour Movement does not stand for that, it does not deserve to exist” – or that it does not deserve their membership.

Enter the Democrats.

The Democrats are now re-examining their reason to exist – indeed they may split with the ‘Gang of Four’ going one way, and Natasha’s people going the other way. This may be the last act of the destruction of the Democrats, or it could reshape them into a major political power, filling the vacuum that now exists in Australia.

There is now a major place for Liberal Party supporters who are social and economic liberals (read progressive) and moderate ALP members for whom social democracy as a concept is more important than a sole focus on collective bargaining.

Both of these groups feel let down by their parties shift to the populist right, but as yet they have nowhere to jump.

What if the Democrats could use the recent disasters to rename and reshape the political framework?

What if they could recover the real beliefs of liberalism – compassion, tolerance, and the tempering of economic progress by recognition of the need to continually narrow the gap between rich and poor.

So to return to Ms Gillard.  If the Asylum seeker policy she eventually releases is not driven primarily by compassion and tolerance then many ALP members could be looking to exit permanently – and a reinvigorated and united Australian Democrats could just provide them with a new more comfortable home.

More discussion like this is in: 


Your view is welcome. Please comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s