Source: Ozleft, Marc h 8, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
On March 7 a friend and I attended Gerard Henderson’s conservative Sydney Institute to hear Julia Gillard speak. I must admit that for a while I have been in two minds about Julia Gillard as a potential Labor leader. I’ve only encountered her in person on one other occasion, when she came to address Labor Party members in South Sydney, defending her reactionary policy on the refugee question.
At that meeting, the whole 30 or so speakers from the floor attacked her refugee policy, and I led the attack, ending my short speech by adapting the words of the Roman Senator Cato who ended every speech in the Roman Senate “and Carthage must be destroyed” with my version, that everyone making a speech in the ALP should end with the peroration that “mandatory detention must be destroyed”. That suggestion was taken up by quite a few other speakers.
Talking about that event with others afterwards, I found that many shared my view that despite sharply opposing her policy we were kind of impressed by her vigorous and upfront demeanour in the face of a very hostile meeting. Since that time, I have sensed that a lot Labor leftists, particularly women, shared my grudging respect for her vigorous public demeanour, and in particular the way she confronts head-on the viciousness of the mass media, which always have a subtext of slight hostility to her because she is an unmarried, childless woman who doesn’t conform to the bourgeois cliches peddled by official society about home and family.
It was in that mood of willingness to be persuaded by her that I went along to hear her at Henderson’s right-wing think-tank. Her speech was a salutary lesson to me against any kind of romantic naivete or temptation to take my eyes off the core content of her political position.
Julia Gillard’s address to the lower ranks of the big end of town who attend such lectures was a tour de force in its way. It got considerable television coverage. Gillard is clearly conscious that she has an audience across the spectrum from the right to the left, even including people like me, who up to last night were ambiguous about her.
Her speech was billed as being about Labor in the future. She paid a little bit of lip service to policy matters in a rather general right-wing way. She made a big play to conventional “wisdom” about family values by saying that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had gone too far. A bit of a gesture towards Howard’s white picket fence!
Then the real nitty gritty emerged. She made a sweeping and lengthy attack on the existence of the right and left factions in the Labor Party and her final punchline was a dramatic proposition that Labor should drop the long-standing parliamentary caucus practice of electing the ministry and the shadow ministry, a practice that has distinguished the Labor Party from the conservative parties (in which the parliamentary leader selects the cabinet) for 100 years. She po-facedly presented the proposition that the ALP should adopt the Liberal system as some kind of reform, and in fact the key reform required in the ALP.
Under questioning she was a bit more cautious. When I pointedly asked whether her Bonapartist proposal included the abolition of proportional representation in ALP ballots and a reversal to the ultra-centralist winner-take-all arrangements of the distant past, Henderson (who chairs everything and comments on everything) and Gillard tried to make a joke of my reference to Bonapartism, but Gillard backed off and said she didn’t propose abolishing proportional representation, and Labor could have proportional representation without factions.
When another questioner, probably a reactionary, asked her about union influence in the ALP, she said that she didn’t oppose union influence, and that the 50:50 union/branch arrangement should be preserved in the Labor Party.
Gillard, and her ally Martin Ferguson are in fact being extremely cynical when they attack factionalism in the ALP. Both of them got where they are by shrewd exploitation of the factional system. For months now, Martin Ferguson has been beating the drum for a range of conservative proposals on policy matters that would shift Labor dramatically to the right. Now his close associate Gillard comes forward, despite what she says to the contrary, positioning herself as a major contender for ALP parliamentary leadership.
She is clearly angling for media support for her leadership project. In angling for the media’s support she is attempting to position herself as a Blair-like, New Labor figure. The core of this implicit appeal by Gillard to the media and the establishment is her reactionary proposal, opposed to the democratic Labor tradition, to give the Labor parliamentary leadership (she’s clearly thinking of herself here) the same Bonapartist powers that traditionally accrue to conservative leaderships.
Gillard’s proposals are obviously linked to a right-wing policy shift advocated by Martin Ferguson on the left and Bill Shorten on the right. It’s not accidental that Gillard’s speech to the Sydney Institute shares space on the op-ed page of The Australian, the News Limited broadsheet, with another conservative ALP figure with origins in the left, Rod Cavalier, who lets fly with another diatribe against the influence of unions in the ALP.
When Julia Gillard was defending the reactionary Labor shadow cabinet position on refugees, her position was challenged very effectively by a healthy cross-factional movement, Labor for Refugees. These new proposals on ALP policy and structure, which are clearly linked by such people as Julia Gillard, Martin Ferguson, Bill Shorten and Rod Cavalier, should be opposed by strenuous cross-factional agitation from Labor’s rank and file. The natural human affections and prejudices that people in labour movement politics inevitably develop towards particular individuals they like or dislike must take second place to the vital political and organisational issues that are in dispute.