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Rudd's party-less democracy?

In her regular spot on Late Night Live with Philip Adams, the Australian Financial Review's political journalist Laura Tingle observed that for most of his speech to the ALP national conference, Kevin Rudd appeared to be talking over the heads of the assembled party faithful. Rudd's words, Tingle observed, were aimed at the TV cameras rather than the conference delegates.

In itself, this may mean nothing. More than most parliamentary politics, conferences are stage-managed affairs, more akin to elaborate theatrical productions conducted by a troupe of amateur players than authentic political arenas where genuine debate takes place. The leaders' speeches in particular are not for the delegates, but for media and the general electorate.

Alternatively, the image of Rudd speaking over the heads of his party colleagues, directly to the public--or as direct as the stage-managed media event allows--may be a sign of the style of leadership that Rudd will pursue should he win office. In particular, it may prefigure Rudd's commitment to 'partyless democracy', a style of leadership pioneered by Tony Blair's New Labour.

The outline and rationale behind 'partyless democracy' were neatly drawn by Peter Mair in a 2001 issue of the New Left Review. Mair was concerned to understand an apparent paradox that seemed to sit at the heart of New Labour. While the party seemed happy to encourage institutional pluralism, seen, for example, in the establishment of regional assemblies in Wales and Scotland, it combined this with rigid party discipline.

Mair argued that the paradox only held so far as it was assumed that Tony Blair along with other of New Labour's self-described modernisers, and the rest of the Labour Party, were of one mind. If, in contrast, New Labour's modernisers were taken to be standing in opposition to, or even contemptuous of the Labour Party, then the apparent paradox disappeared. Institutional pluralism and party discipline worked together as a neatly executed pincer movement to, as far as possible, neutralise the party, enabling the leadership to slip loose of the party's wishes and govern by populist appeals to 'the people'.

'On one side', wrote Mair, 'decision-making is dispersed and power shared; on the other, the party is gagged, and policies are judged by the standards of good governance rather than partisan purpose ... The point is to take "politics" out of government'.

New Labour's decision to drop the word 'party' from its official title, Mair suggests, was thus more than a cosmetic change. It signalled the recasting of New Labour, removing the British Labour party from the political equation.

The party wasn't the only casualty. With it went politics. Or, more accurately, politics proper was to be replaced by administration. From an administrators point of view, politics is what happens when administration breaks down or is poorly implemented. Policy differences are not about irreconcilable clashes of values and ideas. They are technical problems the resolution of which is to be carried out by intellectually trained policy experts, who rationally and objectively arrive at some technical fix, unmoved by what are regarded as more base passions of politics proper.

As Mair notes, this vision of politics retained a role for the citizen, although it was notably an anaemic one, distantly removed from the demands of full-blooded democracy. The role of the citizen is to give or withhold assent for some particular measure set out by these experts.

The catch cry for this model of democracy is 'good governance'. Though no bad thing in itself, in the hands of the administrators, good governance has the quality of a fetish, shutting out other considerations. As Mair notes, 'The model of good governance places the power of decision in the hands of the "good governors" themselves. Party democracy, despite the disregard in which it is presently held, asked more of the citizen'.

In some respects, much of this will strike Australians as familiar. Politics as administration has been in the ascendancy for at least the past three decades.

Partly this is a function of the retarded development of the party system in Australia. As compared to the United Kingdom, where backbenchers have been known to keep the government accountable as part of standard operating procedure, the power of the party whips in Australia has been such that backbench revolts are a novelty.

The economic rationalism pursued by the Hawke and Keating had a similar effect in the rise of politics as administration. Throughout the 1980s, both the Hawke and Keating governments made a concerted effort to exorcise the ghosts of the Whitlam Government, with its poor record in administration. If the ALP was to be taken seriously as a party of government, so the thinking went, Labor needed to develop its credentials as a competent administrator. Economic rationalism--a heady mixture of mangerialism fused with market disciplines--was a means of quantifying and managing government operations.

Politics decamped to other spheres than the economy--most notably culture, seen for example in Keating's attempts to re-imagine Australian national and cultural identity. This strategy foundered on the mistaken assumption that economy and culture were entirely different things, when in fact they are intimately entwined. The economic transformations of the 1980s had made the kind of cultural re-imagination that Paul Keating championed in the early 1990s impossible. Reconciliation, native title, multiculturalism were foreign concepts to a generation of Australians whose expectations from the political process had been lowered to low interest rates and tax cuts, and whose employment condition had been made ever more insecure such that these were the only things any thinking person would focus on.

The situation in which we find ourselves today is, in many ways, different but the same. WorkChoices has pushed the economy back into the centre of political life to an unprecedented degree, pushing the culture wars, temporarily at least, to the margins of political life. Having invested so much for so long in attacks on schoolteachers, historians, and the ABC, Howard and the Liberals now seem curiously out of step with the concerns of middle Australia. There are fears that the electorate has become deaf to the dog whistles playing tunes about flagpoles in schoolyards, drugs in football and the activities of historians.

Whether this amounts to the return of politics proper is another matter. There are early signs that Rudd is no less a stranger to partyless democracy than Blair. Rudd's path to the leadership has been premised on circumventing the party. His pitch for the leadership was built on weekly appearances on breakfast television, sparring with Joe Hockey on Channel Seven's Sunrise program. Without Sunrise, the busy travel itinerary that comes with the post of shadow foreign affairs minister would have frustrated Rudd's leadership ambitions. In short, breakfast television gave Rudd a place at the breakfast tables of a large slab of middle Australia.

No doubt the platform of Sunrise was even more important for Rudd who, some insiders claim, is regarded as in the Labor Party, but not of it. Again, there are parallels between Rudd and Blair. One New Labour insider is said to have likened Blair's relationship to the Labour Party to that of a dog to a lamppost. While Rudd's relationship with the Party is undoubtedly on better terms than this, like Blair, he seems cut from a different cloth than the usual Labor leader. In his appearances on Sunrise, for example, Rudd never really gave the impression of a Labor politician. His demeanour and style was closer to that of an expert commentator on national politics.

More recently, the sacking of Electrical Trade Unions head Dean Mighall, supposedly at Rudd's personal insistence, suggests that Rudd is intent on imposing the kind of party discipline demanded by Blair. While Labor's spin doctors no doubt played up Rudd's hand in Mighall's sacking to counter electorally damaging government claims that the ALP is a puppet of the unions, the unmistakable message to others in the union movement and the backbenches is that internal party dissent will not be tolerated.

Labour's courting of celebrity candidates is yet another sign of the drift towards partlyless democracy. The pre-selection of Maxine McKew and the ABC's Sydney weatherman, Mike Bailey, along with the already elected Peter Garrett, often at the insistence of party elites over the wishes of local branches, is yet another way in which the party is being sidelined by experts.

Kevin Rudd and his leadership team have every chance of beating the Liberals at the next election. While that would be a welcome change, whether it will be a win for democracy--or the ALP, for that matter--is another matter.
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Title Annotation:Kevin Rudd
Author:Scanlon, Christopher
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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