Lessons from the Political Class

Frank Bongiorno, King’s College London

Rodney Cavalier Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2010 (224 pp). ISBN 9-78052113-832-1 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Lenore Taylor and David Uren Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2010 (288 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-729-0 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

I think people view elections now almost like Coles and Woolworths put out their specials ... There’s no deeper sense of vision or values ... So politicians are getting away with more. The community shrugs and doesn’t prosecute a case that they should be behaving themselves better, and so the cycle goes on (Donovan 2006, p. 38).

A comment by a critic of the 2010 federal election? No, it’s Julia Gillard complaining about the state of Australian politics in 2006. What a difference four years hasn’t made.

Two excellent new books do much to explain why: Rodney Cavalier’s Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party and Lenore Taylor and David Uren’s Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days. Each is about a Labor government in crisis-management. The sub-title of Taylor and Uren’s book might have been more appropriate to Cavalier’s: the NSW Labor Government’s days, in the five years since the retirement of Bob Carr in 2005, must surely be among the darkest in the history of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In a recent article in The Monthly, a Labor operative is quoted to the effect that the voters were ‘beyond sullenness’ (Wendt 2010, p. 38).

The title of Cavalier’s book recalls Warren Denning’s gripping tale of the unravelling of the Scullin Labor Government, Caucus Crisis (1982[1937]). Denning was a press gallery journalist and unlike Cavalier, who was a senior minister in the Wran and Unsworth Governments, he not a politician. But he was a friend of Labor parliamentarians and privy to many of their secrets—as is Cavalier. Paradoxically, Shitstorm—the title comes from a ‘slip’ by Kevin Rudd while speaking on television—is closer in perspective and spirit to Caucus Crisis, which was the story of a party with grand ambitions fated to be overwhelmed by the 1930s depression. Taylor and Uren—the former a Sydney Morning Herald press gallery journalist, the latter The Australian’s economics correspondent—write of a party that came to power in 2007 worried about an over-heating economy but ironically having to respond to a global financial crisis that threatened a return to mass unemployment.

Taylor and Uren see this parallel, and they show that key political actors, such as Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan, saw it too. Rudd Labor, they say, ‘was haunted by a powerful political ghost’ (p. 3)—notably the Scullin Government, overwhelmed by the crisis of 1929–31, adopting conservative and ineffective remedies for dealing with it, splitting apart, and thrown out of office after just one term—the last federal government to suffer this fate. Swan’s holiday reading in early 2008 was a biography of Ted Theodore, Scullin’s treasurer, who in 1931 had advocated a well considered plan for inflating the economy—yet who was prevented from giving effect to it because of the hostility of the Senate and banks, spoiling tactics from factional rival Jack Lang, and a corruption allegation arising from his time as Queensland premier. Rudd later presented treasury head Ken Henry with an inscribed copy of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936).

Cavalier’s account of a government in crisis is heavy
with history.

Cavalier’s account of a government in crisis is even heavier with history. He begins with a long quotation from Vere Gordon Childe’s classic account of How Labour Governs (1964[1923]) on the fraught relations between the parliamentarians and the party machine. And where Taylor and Uren present political leaders attempting to divine patterns and lessons from the past to apply to the present, for Cavalier history exercises a more subtle influence over political actors. They are not always—perhaps not even often—conscious of its sway over them. But in the spirit of Childe’s great study, Cavalier treats the history of the ALP itself as fundamental to understanding its recent crises.

The NSW Labor Party, says Cavalier, was formed by unionists who realised that if it were to succeed as a political force, the party needed to be self-governing. The founders created local branches (then called leagues) that were the fundamental units and dominant factor in the party until 1916. The split over conscription that year was the turning point in the party’s history, a crisis from which Labor has never fully recovered. The unions now came to dominate the party structure. At the end of the Lang era, with its bitter internal party brawling and catastrophes for Labor and the working class, a new model of Labor government emerged.

The idea of a ‘McKell Model’—named for the man who finally succeeded leading the party to becoming the state’s dominant political force in 1941—is not new to historians of the NSW Labor Party. But Cavalier elaborates the concept in a particularly useful way. Managing the Labor Party and governing NSW are interlinked and equally important tasks; right-wing unions will be the dominant force at annual conference, but they should not direct a Labor government; Labor governments must answer to the party machine—and through it, to the unions—but the machine’s leadership works quietly and effectively for compromise over difficult matters; in relations between a Labor government and the party’s extra-parliamentary wing, winner-takes-all is rejected in favour of give-and-take. For Cavalier, the failure of a succession of leaders since Carr needs to be understood, in large part, as the result of their having strayed from the tried and tested McKell model.

Cavalier writes fluently, persuasively and with great insight into Labor Party history and culture. And as subscribers to the legendary ALP Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter (as I have been for many years) know, he is also very prolific. Some of the material and most of the key ideas in this book began their life in the Newsletter. In view of the Labor Party’s recent difficulties in both several states and nationally, it’s timely that they now be made available to a broader audience.

Cavalier has produced a biography of an old but
wayward friend.

In some ways, Cavalier has produced a biography of an old but wayward friend. A child of the unions, the party’s earliest memories are of life in the turbulent Labor Leagues of the 1890s. The crisis of 1916 is pubertal, a life-changing experience marking a loss of innocence but also apparently setting the individual on their life course in the world of grow-ups. But the responsibilities of adulthood initially prove too much. Labor in the Lang era goes off the rails, not quite knowing what it want to do with its life, having the occasional brush with the law, drifting from one job to another and often into unemployment—big dreams but no ability to realise them. 1941 marks the real passage into mature adulthood. Life now has a purpose and through a good many ups and downs, there follow years of fruitful labour, the joys and strains of marriage and parenthood, the satisfactions of good citizenship and career success. The decade in opposition—1965–76—is a mid-life crisis. But it is followed by fruitful years of maturity, the Wran and Carr eras, with all the benefits of a lifetime of experience on which to reflect—interrupted only by a bout in hospital from which the resilient patient quickly recovered (1988–95). Then came physical decline and senility.

The metaphors are mine, not Cavalier’s—and they might be inept. But they make the point that it’s the Labor Party itself which is at the centre of this book; and that it is endowed with something like a personality. For Cavalier, the party’s recent problems, the factional brawling, the serial leaking, the rapidity with which leaders have come and gone, the crisis over electricity privatisation that provides the book’s title with its double entendre—in short, Labor’s ‘self-destruction’—are the products not merely of recent conditions, but of the interaction of these conditions with an organisation that assumed its fundamental personality between 1891 and 1941. This is part of what gives this book its originality and significance. I can think of no one in Australian public life who brings an understanding of political history to the present with as much subtlety and insight as Cavalier.

It is his particular claims about the modern Labor Party that have so far attracted most notice, but they lose their nuances when detached from his historical argument. For example, Cavalier is hardly on his own in criticising union domination of the ALP. His point, however, is the problem these days is that, with the decline of union coverage of the workforce, the ALP’s affiliated unions now represent an infinitesimal proportion of Australian society. They have effectively become instruments by which the professional operatives that dominate them can wield power—as he shows they did over electricity privatisation—and eventually enter parliament themselves. Ordinary members of the Labor Party—tired of a party which ignores them—are leaving it in droves; the branch structure is disintegrating; and the ALP is now run by a salaried political class. They use their positions in union offices or as political staffers as stepping stones to parliament. Never having worked at what Cavalier calls ‘real jobs’ (p. 50), they are remote from most Australians, and lack any long-term commitment to the party. Being a parliamentarian, claims Cavalier, is just a phase in their careers. Values in politics are dead; ideology counts for nothing. Factions are instruments for distributing party spoils because with the triumph of the market and death of the Left, there is little else to argue about.

Factions are instruments for distributing party spoils.

This is a pretty grim picture and, like previous accounts of the decline of internal democracy in parties of the left (broadly defined), can lead to despair or worse. Taken in the abstract, some of Cavalier’s claims about the modern Labor Party will seem familiar to anyone with even a Political Science I grasp of the relevant European theoretical literature. They’ll hear echoes, here and there, of Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ (1915), of Pareto on the ‘circulation’ of ‘elites’ (1935), of Weber on ‘politics as a vocation’ (1968[1919]), of Djilas’s ‘new class’ (1957). And the general pattern of professionalisation in party management and leadership that he identifies—including the decline of rank-and-file membership and participation—are familiar enough both in other developed countries (such as Britain) and among parties of the centre-right as well as of labour or social democracy.

But there’s a more important question to be asked of Cavalier’s critique of the modern Labor Party than its intellectual pedigree: is it right? He’s surely spot on about the decline of union coverage and the collapse of the Labor Party ‘below’, and seems on safe ground when he presents a picture of Labor governments now being pretty well disconnected from what remains of it; in his vivid metaphor, the caucus is ‘a spaceship floating free’ (p. 56). Indeed, Taylor and Uren provide evidence that might be cited in support of Cavalier’s general point about the independence of Labor-in-government from the party ‘below’, although they stress that even the federal caucus itself has largely been neutered in relation to government decision-making. Indeed, they present a vivid picture of the centralisation of power in a few senior ministers, and their advisers and officials. The party room, even most of cabinet, were excluded from decisions involving billions of dollars.

As a means of coping with an immediate crisis, this style of government had its advantages. The first federal fiscal stimulus package—essentially involving $10 billion of cash handouts—could be handled with haste, at a time when haste was needed. But when it came to the larger and more complex package of February 2009 at well over $41 billion, including housing insulation and school buildings, some dreadful mistakes ensued. In general, as Taylor and Uren show, a case can be made that the government spent too much money on projects of dubious worth and has therefore run up unnecessary debts.

Would these errors have occurred if there had been a more consultative and inclusive decision-making process, if there had been a real ‘movement’ to which the politicians were ultimately answerable? We’ll never know. But when the problems arising from the fiscal stimulus package combined with the failure of the Copenhagen talks on climate change, abandonment of the Emissions Trading Scheme and the botched proposal for a new mining tax, Rudd faced a caucus that felt he held it in contempt, angry ministers excluded from key decision-making, and a party machine equipped with polling and focus-group results pointing to defeat. The party rank and file, of course, was long gone. And so were many of the internal checks and balances that had once helped keep grounded even the most exalted being in the labour movement—an ALP prime minister—because in the end, however indirectly, he was the creature of the party membership itself. Rudd had not been replaced by Gillard when Taylor and Uren went to print, but they unwittingly provide a most convincing explanation for why it happened, and incidental support for parts of Cavalier’s case.

Labor of old relied also on a pretty limited gene pool.

Cavalier’s picture of the political class, however, seems less convincing. He relies on producing the impression of a collection of daleks, without names or faces, and about whom it’s possible to believe the worst. Yet when we do encounter some of these operatives and they’re given a name, a face and a life history, they seem rather more human and rounded figures. He calls Morris Iemma ‘a product of the ALP branches and the ALP branch culture’ (p. 66), but he was also, after all, a Graham Richardson staffer. Nathan Rees was also a staffer—as well as an English Literature graduate who loves poetry, reads plays, and can dazzle an ALP audience with a passage from The Great Gatsby. Matt Thistlethwaite, state ALP secretary and now senator-elect, is a surf lifesaver. Cavalier says the political class have no knowledge or respect for Labor history or tradition; yet he would not apply this judgment to one of the significant players in Power Crisis, Luke Foley, ex-union official, ex-party assistant-secretary and current member of the NSW Legislative Council. And, as Barry Donovan couldn’t help pointing out in an earlier interview with him, Cavalier was once himself employed as a staffer. Cavalier countered that he’d also had ‘real’ jobs—a fair response, but can we be sure that many of the nameless, faceless members of the ‘political class’ wouldn’t also seem a bit less alike and a bit more attractive as human beings if they were allowed to tell us about themselves (Donovan 2006, p. 23)? And Cavalier is surely pulling our legs when he tells us that ‘[f]actional operatives are members of the only class which has survived into this century—the political class’ and that they ‘fulfil all of the Marxist definitions of class’ (p. 50). Indeed, his argument elsewhere depends on the assumption that far from being self-contained in this way, they belong to a larger cohort of university-educated professionals for whom politics is simply a stage in a career. In other words, they possess skills that can be applied as readily to other ‘professions’ as to Labor Party politics or running a trade union.

There’s also some nostalgia underpinning Cavalier’s impression of the old ALP. He rightly worries about the limited gene pool on which the modern party is able to draw but in many respects, Labor of old relied on a pretty limited gene pool too. ‘Preselection for Labor seats’, he says, ‘was once a possibility for every member of the ALP ... who had put in the years of spade work as a loyal soldier in the cause’ (p. 50). Spade work and faithful military service, perhaps; but not catering at branch functions, because women were excluded from major roles in the party—as Cavalier himself has recognised elsewhere (Cavalier 1992). And even the most cursory reading of Power Crisis turns up a host of ‘ethnic’ names—Iemma, Arbib, Obeid, Bitar, Tripodi—that suggest another way in which modern Labor is less, rather than more, exclusive than before. None of this should be used to trivialise Cavalier’s point about whole categories of people being shut out of consideration for Labor endorsement in a winnable seat. But it’s worth recalling that even before the fall, Labor had its limitations as a representative body.

Cavalier’s picture of the totally unideological character of modern politics—similar to Gillard’s Coles and Woolworths comparison—is also questionable. ‘For a young person with political ambitions, deciding whether to join the Labor Party or the Liberal Party is often a matter of who made the more convincing offer’ (p. 49). Often? How often? Is it really the ordinary practice for aspiring politicians to canvass their options with both of the major sides of politics and go with whoever makes a better offer? How typical is Brendan Nelson?

Taylor and Uren offer evidence that might be used to test Cavalier’s claims.

Again, on this larger question of the place of values and ideology in politics, Taylor and Uren offer some evidence that might be used to test Cavalier’s claims. The question perhaps comes down to whether, given the same circumstances as those faced by the Rudd Government in 2008–09, a Howard Government would have adopted similar remedies for the financial crisis. It’s of course impossible to prove a counterfactual argument, but Taylor and Uren do suggest that the government was somewhat ahead of the international game in moving towards a fiscal stimulus, that it was sufficiently frightened of mass unemployment to risk over-spending, and that it was remarkably comfortable in the circumstances with a rapid move towards Keynesian remedies. It was not simply a case of the politicians doing what the Treasury experts or international gurus advised, but a more dynamic relationship in which key figures such as Rudd and Swan drew from their conversations with the experts the conclusions to which they were already most attuned.

It’s an arguable case that a Coalition government might not have moved as early as Rudd Labor, nor adopted such a massive stimulus package. Labor had difficulty admitting publicly that a budget deficit was needed but eventually had no choice. Would the Coalition have been willing to send the budget into deficit at all, when it had made so much in 1996 of filling Labor’s $10 billion ‘black hole’? Labor had come to office in 2007 with a very different message, arguing that neoliberalism did not hold the answers to Australia’s future, and that governments needed to play a role in dealing with market failure. To that extent at least, Rudd Labor was intellectually and politically equipped to deal with the challenges it had to face. And in the end, Australia was virtually alone among developed economies in avoiding a recession. How much this outcome owed to government policy, and how much to well-regulated banks and continuing Chinese demand for Australian resources, will be long debated. But Taylor and Uren usefully remind us of the serious danger that the global financial crisis posed to an economy whose lifeblood was a continuing flow of credit.

Both of these well-written and informative books have much to tell us about modern Australian politics. Taylor and Uren’s is a useful corrective to David Marr’s lively Quarterly Essay on Rudd (2010). That was essentially a psychobiographical portrait; yet as Shitstorm shows, the government’s successes and failures were something more than a mere reflection of Rudd’s strengths and weaknesses as a human being.

But of the two books, Cavalier’s is likely to ‘live’ longest. It’s the more intellectually ambitious, and it embodies the reflections of a lifetime in and around Labor politics. As a well-connected insider’s story, the narrative chapters on the unfolding crisis over electricity privatisation would, in themselves, have made this book worth publishing. Intertwined as they are with a powerful argument about the history and character of the Labor Party, Power Crisis is a book of outstanding importance.


Cavalier, R. 1992, ‘The Australian Labor Party at Branch Level: Guildford, Hunters Hill and Panania Branches in the 1950s’, in A Century of Social Change, Labour History Essays Volume Four, Pluto Press/The Australian Labor Party NSW Branch, Leichhardt.

Childe, V.G. 1964 (1923), How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Parkville.

Denning, W. 1982 (1937), Caucus Crisis: The Rise & Fall of the Scullin Government, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney.

Djilas, M. 1957, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, Thames and Hudson, London.

Donovan, B. 2006, Reconnecting Labor, Scribe, Melbourne.

Marr, D. 2010, ‘Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd’, Quarterly Essay, Issue 38.

Michels, R. 1915, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden Paul & Cedar Paul, Jarrold, London.

Pareto, V. 1935, The Mind and Society, vols. 3 and 4, ed. Arthur Livingston, trans. Andrew Bongiorno, Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York.

Weber, M. 1968 (1919), Politics as a Vocation, trans. H.H. Garth and C. Wright Mills, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

Wendt, J. 2010, ‘A Matter of Faith’, The Monthly, November, pp. 38–43.

Frank Bongiorno is Senior Lecturer in Australian History at King’s College London. He and Nick Dyrenfurth are currently completing A Little History of the Australian Labor Party to be published by University of New South Wales Press in conjunction with the Chifley Research Centre in 2011.

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