It was 1963 and I had been a member of the Labor party for just six months. I was however confused. Having joined to save the world, not to remove the trees growing out over Linda Street, the pothole in the road outside the pub and resolve Mr Clough’s suspension, I asked my neighbour what was wrong with the first world war veteran. He looked at me as if I was nuts and snarled, ‘He’s a f***ing grouper!’ ‘Really,’ I responded. ‘Yeah, a dead set grouper!’ he growled. As I had no idea what he was talking about I kept schtum.
Eventually I discovered that a ‘grouper’ was a member of the industrial groups formed to combat the influence of the communists in the trade unions and therefore the ALP.
Communists in the Labor party? They had to be joking, but they weren’t. ‘How can they tell?’ ‘By listening to what they say, how they vote and, if that fails, smell ’em.’ At subsequent meetings I noticed the same people huddled in groups muttering, ‘Commie bastards’ or ‘Bloody groupers’. They never spoke to each other.
Bored with local government issues, I decided to make a speech about those that had motivated me to join the Labor party: Aboriginal suffering, Apartheid and the civil rights battles in the US. When I sat down there was a stony silence followed by a rousing ovation — from half those present. The leader of the clappers whispered in my ear: ‘You’re one of us.’
Moved by this reception I tried it again the next month by speaking with passion about Gough Whitlam’s leadership potential and state aid for Catholic schools. Again I received a rousing ovation, but from the other half.
The stony silence came this time from those who had applauded previously. While the O’Malleys, Hickeys, Healys and Sheridans revealed their Hibernian origins, I gained a better understanding of factionalism and how it worked. Being Jewish I wondered what they thought of me. They decided I was ‘unstable’, but they enjoyed having someone with heretical views. Eventually I found I had more in common with those who were green and I enjoyed their sense of humour.
All of this came flooding back as I listened to John Faulkner’s speech about the need for the Labor party to undergo structural change. Some may wonder why someone who was identified with the Right should find themselves on the same side as the former leader of the hard Left faction. That’s easy. John Faulkner is one of the most decent people I have met in my 50 years in politics, and one of the brightest. One may disagree with him but that doesn’t spoil the friendship. He is also an extraordinarily modest fellow who could have led the Labor party at any time during the past 15 years but didn’t think he was good enough. Really?
Let’s consider the changes to be made if Labor is to survive. Faulkner is right when he says the Labor party has to be returned to the branch members both in policy development and preselections. When I joined, the preselection process was straightforward. To nominate, one had to have been a financial member for at least three years. To vote in a preselection you had to have been a financial member for 12 months and have attended at least three meetings. You also had to be a member of an appropriate union, if there was one. That basically was it, although it did not stop occasional abuse: branch stacking, fraudulent books and later the notorious N40 rule that enabled the unions to pick their favourite sons, daughters, wives, husbands and cronies for blue-ribbon seats. If successful, and they invariably were, they had a job and pension for life providing they did as they were told and weren’t caught fiddling the books. They became a fairly compliant lot.
Relatively small numbers were involved, as I quickly discovered in my preselection in 1968 for the federal seat of Robertson. There were 300 members, 180 eligible to vote, and 121 turned up. I won by four votes.
It is preselections where there are disputes over the methods to use. There are endless combinations and computations, with the US primary system gradually gaining favour. It is far from perfect, but if run by the Electoral Commission it will eliminate much of the rorting and take matters out of the hands of faction leaders.
One essential change is to make monthly meetings and State and Federal electorate councils more interesting. At the moment they are as boring as batshit. It is for state secretaries to provide speakers and modern technology to have members thinking and talking of issues that are causing concern. If properly done they will arrive at meetings well prepared to discuss controversial issues. They could also consider cutting the number of meetings in half and using the internet as the medium to keep members informed and interested.
Labor can improve Caucus by encouraging members to continue to serve or make a comeback. Labor has wasted an enormous amount of talent by getting rid of those who have been through the mill and replacing them with novices. They have gone for youth as if they were pickling a team for the Wallabies. When Labor came to office in 2007 only John Faulkner and Simon Crean had any ministerial experience. Neither Rudd nor Gillard had any, and it showed.
I’m against executive preselections, but they could throw their weight behind the following and most would get up:
Steve Bracks (Vic) 58
Morris Iemma (NSW) 51
Anna Bligh (Qld) 52
Peter Beattie (Qld) 60
Mike Rann (SA) 59
John Brumby (Vic) 60
Carmen Lawrence (WA) 64
John Faulkner (NSW) 58
Paul Keating (NSW) 69
Geoff Gallop (WA) 61
Those of the above who think they are too old should note that last month US Senator Daniel Inouye died. He was 88. Most of those I’ve suggested are 30 years younger. Bob Carr came back at 65. An infusion of talent like this may not win the next election, but it would go close and give Tony Abbott a conniption.
Barry Cohen is an author, columnist and former minister in the Hawke government.