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The Conversation
The Conversation
Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Andrew Leigh calls out how Labor's factional 'duopoly' is undermining the party

Andrew Leigh, an assistant minister in the Albanese government, has launched a swingeing attack on the stranglehold the factional “duopoly” has on the Labor Party.

Leigh says the factions’ power is at an all-time high, which suppresses ideological debate, distorts preselections, and discourages people joining the party.

As one of two non-factional members of caucus, it is generally recognised that the promotion of Leigh, who has strong economic qualifications, has been handicapped by not being in the Left or Right.

In a speech to the Per Capita think tank’s John Cain Lunch, released before its Wednesday delivery, Leigh says he’s not arguing factions should be banned but that “not being in a faction should be as valid a choice as joining a faction”.

He says the silence about the factions and their operations “should be a clue. If a group’s practices and deals start to sound like they’ve been plucked from a John le Carre novel, these people should ask themselves whether their shenanigans befit Australia’s most important political party.”

In an excoriating critique of the way factionalism is operating at federal and state level, Leigh says today’s factions “are less likely to broker ideological debates than to try and find a way of avoiding the debate altogether”. He contrasts this with the 1990s feisty debates at NSW ALP conferences, and at national conferences, which showed Labor “was a sufficiently large tent to contain a spectrum of ideological perspectives”.

“If we stifle internal debate, we miss the chance to test our policies among ourselves,” Leigh says.

“As Assistant Minister for Competition, I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem is what we would call an increase in market concentration.” Leigh points to the collapse of the Centre Left faction, which was strong in the 1980s, and the decline of non-factional parliamentarians, producing a duopoly of Right and Left.

“And just as duopolies in the product market hurt consumers through price gouging and profiteering, so too duopoly factions may engage in behaviour that is not in the long-term interests of the party and its membership.

"When factional competition is less intense, dealmaking can replace debate. If factionalism becomes effectively compulsory, the party may become less dynamic.”

Factions can be profoundly undemocratic, Leigh says.

“In some jurisdictions, factions require their members to use a ‘show and tell’ approach to internal Labor Party elections. In the room where ballot papers are handed out, the faction sets up a second table.

"When members are given their ballot paper, they must walk over to the factional table, and hand their ballot paper to a factional official.

"That factional official then fills in their ballot paper, and gives it back to the party member to be deposited into the ballot box. This rule applies to all members of the faction, from new members to ministers. Failure to comply can mean expulsion from the faction.”

In contrast, “no Labor government would tolerate an organisation that set up a table in the corner of the polling station, asking people to volunteer to have their ballot papers filled in for them. We would see it as utterly undemocratic. Yet we tolerate it in our own internal elections.”

Criticising the way the factions carve up seats, Leigh says they are “at their worst when they serve only as competing executive recruitment agencies”.

“In most states, preselection is virtually impossible for people outside the factional system. It’s a case of Left, Right, or Out.”

He highlights the Victorian “Stability Pact” – “an agreement between the factions in which every winnable seat, every party leadership position, and every spot on every committee is divided between the Left and the Right, with a no-contest rule on the other’s possessions.

"Like the nineteenth century colonial powers meeting in Berlin to divide up Africa, the Stability Pact effectively takes away the ability of local members to have their say. Nominally, the party rules say that preselections depend equally on local member votes and the central committee. But if the factions vote together, then even a 90% local member vote can be overridden by a 95% central committee vote.”

Allocating seats to factions is “electorally reckless” because it can lead to failing to field the best person for a particular electorate, Leigh says.

He says factional dominance causes unnecessary division, with the risk of forcing new recruits to the party into an “uncomfortable choice”. Factionalism also has bad consequences in Young Labor and in university Labor clubs, with many campuses having two clubs, one for the Left and one for the Right.

“Factional dominance risks eliminating a tradition with deep roots in the Labor Party: people who simply choose to be part of the party,” Leigh says.

“Most Labor members will never seek a career in parliament or as a party official. They simply want their party to recognise that a non-factional member of the Labor Party is no less worthy than a factional member.

"On election day, these members will staff booths from dawn to dusk. They are motivated not by power, but by altruism. They joined Labor to shape a better nation. They should not be treated as second-class citizens within our party.”

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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