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Saturday, February 25, 2012

A faction too much friction

Kevin Rudd is perhaps Australia's most unfortunate politician since Gough Whitlam.  However, Whitlam was taken down by people outside of his own party, whereas the unfortunate Mr Rudd suffered the ignominy of betrayal from his own party.

This was a massive fall from grace after Rudd led a resounding Labor victory in 2007 against 12 years of John Howard's Liberal government.  The victory was so comprehensive that Howard himself lost his seat to political newcomer, Maxine McKew; a seat which Howard had held for 33 years!

In 2010, Rudd resigned as Prime Minister after a leadership challenge from Deputy Leader, Julia Gillard.  A challenge which was driven by the so-called "faceless men" of the Labor party, including Bill Shorten, Bill Ludwig, Paul Howes, Mark Arbib and David Feeney.

Rudd's resignation was a matter of jumping before he was pushed and it may have included a deal that he would be given a front-bench position if the ALP won the upcoming election.  Following the 2010 federal election, Rudd was handed the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

On 22 February 2012, after months of intense media speculation and public criticism by ALP members, Rudd resigned as Foreign Affairs Minister.  He stated that he did not have the confidence of the Prime Minister and other senior ministers and that the leadership crisis had descended into soap opera.  He singled out Simon Crean and referred again to Labor's "faceless men".  

Labor's infighting is destroying it. Labor factions are more interested in their own agendas then in ensuring stable leadership and maintaining a united front against the Liberal and National parties. Over the years, the Labor party has suffered crises serious enough to split the party.  In 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes left Labor and formed the Nationalist Party of Australia.  In 1931, Joseph Lyons left Labor over policy issues and formed the United Australia Party.  In 1954, after years of intense public debate over communism, a number of Labor members were expelled and formed the Democratic Labor Party, headed by B.A. Santamaria.  The DLP directed preferences to the Liberal Party, effectively keeping them in power until Whitlam won the election in 1972 for the ALP.

Modern Labor is still a very divided party, with membership aligned to factions and sub-factions.  This factional allegiance is often controlled  and influenced by the powerful union secretaries.  This in itself should not be an issue.  However, these factional allegiances and power-plays seem to be more important to Labor than actually defeating opposition parties.

The betrayal of 2010 resulted from the ALP's right wing faction installing a left wing factional member as leader.  However, there has been speculation that Gillard's membership of the left wing faction was more a matter of convenience to support her political ambitions than a genuine commitment to the left.   The left wing faction supports Rudd over Gillard and Gillard's position has moved more to the right.

Factions are not the sole domain of the Labor Party. Most large parties will have some form of factional differences.  The Liberal Party for instance, have their own factional in-fighting.  Liberal front-bencher, Andrew Robb blamed the Liberal factions for the devastating 2007 federal election loss in an interview with ABC Radio's PM program:

The Labor Party's factions however, seem to spend far more time arguing in public than the Liberal Party's.   This public bickering and infighting is detracting from the ALP's achievements under both Rudd and Gillard, since it won office in 2007.  Additionally, the ALP membership base has been deteriorating and these public brawls amongst members and factions do not portray a harmonious party united by a common, over-arching ideology.  Who would want to join, or remain in, a party in which there is so much mud-slinging and back-stabbing between its own members?

Debate along factional lines is healthy, however, at some point there needs to be negotiation and compromise in order to develop policies and establish a cohesive party position.  This united position must be shown to the public in order to rebuild trust and faith in Labor and to prove that the ALP can both govern itself and the nation.

Regardless of the outcome of the leadership challenge on 27 February 2012, all Labor members must accept it by supporting the leader and working together in harmony if the ALP is to successfully challenge the next election and to be a viable political force in the future.

United we stand, divided we fall.

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