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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 9

Burying Margaret Mead: Environment and the Labor Party

Felicity Wade

I was twenty-seven and had joined the staff of the Wilderness Society only a couple of weeks before. It had been a bumpy landing. It was late 1995, the dying days of the Keating Government and a year of forest madness. At the end of the year before, the Government had identified an extensive list of native forests to be given temporary protection from logging while proper assessments could be completed. In response, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) had organised a logging truck blockade of Parliament House. The environment movement had played equally hardball and the Cabinet retreated, impossibly jammed.

A tired, conflicted government botched it with ample help from the key protagonists. While the sound and fury had mostly subsided, the Wilderness Society continued to be camped out in a rogue Labor Tasmanian Senator’s office in Parliament House, lobbing grenades.

I was wandering about, finding the halls of parliament both exciting and lonely. I was pretty-much ignored by my new employers, given no sense of my task or the larger strategy. Unlike most in the Wilderness Society, I had no history in either the environment movement or politics. I’d never been to a forest blockade. I saw an ad in the newspaper and applied for the job as a communications officer. I was wondering what on earth I was doing there. I was feeling nostalgic for my previous job in advertising, never mind that I had left it because I wanted to change the world. I hung around. I was irrelevant, no one stopped to include me amidst the exciting flap of daily tactics.

Then Bob Brown waltzed into town. This was before his successful run at the senate in 1996. I organised some interviews for him and was given the job of driving him to the ABC studios on Northbourne Avenue. It was the first time in three weeks that anyone had actually spoken to me. I don’t remember the details, but he asked me questions about my love of the bush, where I’d come from, had me blabbing about the mistake I’d made in taking the job and reassured me that we needed people like me in the battle for Australia’s environment and that my efforts to work out my place in it mattered.

It was encouragement that changed the course of my life. Twenty years later, I remain a solid Bob Brown fan.

But I am card-carrying member of the Labor Party and run the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN). My love of the once-in-a-generation politician and activist didn’t hold me to his party, even though I had a box seat in watching its emergence and establishment in Australian Federal politics.

I am a creature of the environment movement. The world outside formal politics has energy and freedom unavailable inside the system and much can be won without its constraints. I believe more than ever that ideas are only generated out of civil society – those battling in the tedium of daily politics have limited horizons and imaginations.

The Wilderness Society – my particular corner of that movement – was largely invented by Bob Brown and shares some key bits of DNA with the Greens. Brown was the Society’s charismatic leader through the Franklin River campaign. When I quickly shifted out of the no-persons land of the Wilderness Society’s national organisation to run the New South Wales chapter in 1996, my board was held together by Geoff and Judy Lambert, some of Bob Brown’s oldest confidantes. And for at least most of the next two decades, an obsession with Tasmania’s forests defined the organisation.

Inevitably, the relationship between the Greens and the Wilderness Society had to change and grow up. Rules were introduced that no decision-making person in the Society could be a member of a political party after the Queensland election in 1995. (Formally illegal in terms of freedom of association, but no one let that worry them.) The Greens backed the Liberal–National Party Coalition after they promised to block a freeway through koala habitat on the Gold Coast while the Goss Labor government negotiated a huge protected area on Cape York with the Wilderness Society. The Society had a civil war over it, and much blood was lost. This was the beginning of the discussion about whether the Greens were the political arm of the environment movement and if so, who called the shots.

But that is all very ancient history. I have a backpack full of stories of the decades, as an environment activist and my tetchy relationship with both the parties of the left, the Greens and the Labor Party. The activist straining for particular policy outcomes is inevitably in conflict with political parties whose interests are mixed up with the pursuit of power. In the end, however, I joined the Labor Party. As with anyone who joined during the last Labor Federal Government, it was not because of the inspiration it provided! Fundamentally, it was because I believe it is time for environment advocates to talk to the centre. Put another way, I am keen to bury Margaret Mead and her ubiquitous quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

This quote headed the fundraising letter I received at last tax time from one of Australia’s largest environment groups. On protection of the environment, Mead is out of date. Her quote speaks to an earlier stage of the environment movement’s mission.

Environmentalism has won the argument but not the institutions of our democracy. What’s more, with climate change threatening life as we know it, the challenge is huge and can’t be delivered by the morally fearsome few – we must speak to all sectors of society and truly build coalitions across interests. To deliver lasting and deep change we must take most of the society with us, imposition of change by minorities is brittle and breakable.

The environment movement did a great job of hectoring from the margins and dragging the goal posts way out. But now people across society recognise that we can’t trash the planet. Sure, there are still powerful vested interests trying to protect their profits. And middle Australia may not particularly like smelly greenies and our austere, earnest ways. But they are on our side. We are no longer a minority group of outsiders pushing from the edge.

My thinking was that it’s time for us to dump the moral superiority of vanguard politics. It is time for environment advocates to talk to the centre, rather than fighting it and alienating natural allies. We need to own our status as representatives of middle Australian values and join centrist institutions and enshrine environmental values in their heart.

So there I was entering the big, powerful institution of the ALP, feeling like Dorothy entering the Wizard’s house – tentative and awed, flanked by a few powerless comrades of the brave, brainy, big-hearted variety.

We set about rebuilding LEAN – the Labor Environment Action Network – and making it a force for change in the Labor Party.

LEAN’s campaign

LEAN was started as a cross-factional environment organisation within the Labor Party by former ALP President and NSW Senator, Jenny McAllister and former NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally in 2004. After a few iterations, LEAN is once again an active force and has proven the power of cultural subversions by winning its campaign to have the Party re-embrace climate leadership, adopt a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, and commit to net zero emissions by 2050 with credible interim pollution reduction targets to get us from here and there.

Of course, as with any campaign, we relied on those uncontrollable external factors that fell our way. Over the first six months of 2015, the build up to the Paris Climate Meeting shifted the international discussion and Tony Abbott’s strident opposition to climate action began looking crotchety and regressive. The debate over the Abbott Government’s attempts to scrap or hobble the Renewable Energy Target alerted Labor to the popularity of renewable energy amongst the electorate.

But when we sat down in a room above a pub in central Melbourne in late 2014, the fear of Labor retreating on climate change was very real. The wounds of the political car-crash of carbon pricing under Rudd and Gillard were still fresh and hard-heads were arguing that silence on the issue was the best path forward. One of the first hurdles was to ignore some senior figures telling me that if I cared about climate change I would back off and leave the issue until Labor was in Government.

LEAN wanted to do three things: put climate change back in the centre of Labor’s offering by winning policy change on renewable energy targets and economy-wide pollution targets; embed within the Party the idea that near complete decarbonisation of the economy was possible; and change the narrative so it wasn’t a greenie imperative but core Labor business.

That meeting of a scraggly bunch of Labor members developed a campaign platform and frame. The frame included arguments about why Labor needed to make climate change a conviction issue, not a tactical one. We were on strong ground in making the point that the electorate wanted to see Labor showing that it believed in something after the mess of the Rudd–Gillard years. We were careful to frame the imperative in terms of Labor’s key concerns, with climate change as a threat to equity, safety and prosperity; and the solution as an opportunity for economic growth, innovation and job creation. We also foregrounded the need to deliver transitions that provided protection for impacted communities as important Labor business.

Our policy prescriptions were grounded in the work of ClimateWorks, a climate policy group at Monash University chaired by former Labor Deputy Premier of Victoria, John Thwaites. ‘One of ours’ is a powerful legitimacy enhancer in the Labor Party, especially when it comes to green issues. ClimateWorks had released a report in September 2014 that modelled a path for the Australian economy to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The report provided a straightforward narrative about what it would take to deliver the changes needed. From it, we pulled the timeline for deployment of renewable energy and we established our central call for a transformation of the energy sector. To deliver this, we identified that Labor needed to create one ministry for climate change and energy to stop contradictions in the sphere and a comprehensive approach to carbon sequestration through land use.

In the end, our campaign failed to solidly engage the Party in the detail of paths to decarbonisation instead coalescing around the two headline policy asks: a policy of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030; and adoption of the carbon pollution reduction targets proposed by the Climate Change Authority, which we short-handed to 50 per cent by 2030. The campaign was titled 50/50. Its target was the 2015 National Conference of the ALP to be held in July 2015. Held once every Federal term of Parliament, the National Conference debates and establishes the policy platform of the Federal Labor Party.

When it came to strategy, our path to influence the Party was defined by our limited tools. LEAN is one of a number of internal Labor ‘ginger’ groups, communities of interest around particular issues that seek to push for policy change. Other such groups, most notably Labor for Refugees and Rainbow Labor were much better connected. They could rely on building a community of powerful figures who were prepared to stand up for the issue in the Party’s traditional decision-making elites.

LEAN does not attract the ambitious or the powerful, or their acolytes. Our issue is too tricky and politically fraught – a wholesale restructure of the economy is not bite-sized. What’s more, it explicitly requires conflict with some of the Party’s strongest vested interests.

As for the union leadership, most did not answer our calls. Those who did meet LEAN patted us on the head and sent us on our way. The union and Party elite’s interest in groups of organised rank and file members is understandably small – a disempowered membership has fed the system as long as anyone can remember. A survey of the tools at hand left us with a singular path forward – talk to the membership!

All this made for a genuine manifestation of the rank and file. In terms of strategy, LEAN had little choice but to rely on a grassroots approach. This is what makes the possibilities that LEAN began to model new and powerful.

With no access directly to the membership, the local ALP branches became our surrogate. Getting our hands on lists of local branch secretaries was our next great challenge. These had to be stolen or handed over – in the digital age version of a brown paper bag – by friendlies in state offices. We cobbled the money together to pay a freelance designer to design the materials: workers and wind turbines beneath the Southern Cross all in Labor colours of blue and red. Not a touch of green to be seen.

At state level, we held open meetings to kick start LEAN. Small groups of people would turn up and form LEAN groups. From this, we built teams of volunteers who met and built connections and skills and set about visiting the local branches of the Labor Party. LEAN volunteers would give a short presentation often followed by long debates and lots of questions. When it came time to test the membership’s appetite for climate action by asking for support of our position, there was unequivocal enthusiasm.

Three hundred and seventy local branches passed motions in support of LEAN’s call for adoption of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and adoption of credible carbon pollution reduction targets. For a party making much of the need to reform, and to include its membership, this was a powerful demonstration of the membership’s commitment. I did very little of the on-ground meetings, mostly watching from my email account as the list of local ALP branches rolled in, a catalogue of Australian places: Balranald and Geraldton, Townsville and Burnie, Mt Druitt and St Kilda. It was a testament to the broad, often slumbering – but still very much alive – community of Labor true believers across the country.

As National Conference approached, dodgy photos taken at branch meetings in support of 50/50 tumbled across social media. We had more of these photos than we got around to posting. These images, often groups of ancient stalwarts with a smiling green-shirted young LEANer, created not only a catalogue of all the plastic chairs on wooden floors in dark, ‘echoey’ halls that are the architecture of meetings of the Labor faithful but a testament to the diverse, ordinary, passionate people who make up the membership.

Over the next months, the state Conferences in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia supported the adoption of the Climate Change Authority’s pollution reduction targets. In New South Wales, LEAN had nothing to do with this. The local branches put it to the conference themselves. Because Party Conferences at the state and Federal level are the highest policy-making forum of the Party, theoretically this meant that a large section of the Party had already committed to the pollution reduction targets.

LEAN also engaged with the party’s official policy development process. The previous National Conference had established the ‘National Policy Forum’ with the intention of enriching and broadening the policy development discussion before National Conference. The National Policy Forum was a group of sixty people, twenty from the Federal Parliamentary party, affiliated unions and the party membership. Its members were charged with consulting across the party before meeting for two face-to-face seminars in the lead-up to the National Conference to formally propose policy changes and additions to the existing National Policy Platform.

LEAN had no representation on the Policy Forum so we just started turning up. We wrote a comprehensive submission to the Environment and Climate Change chapter as well as making suggestions to embed climate impacts and mitigation across portfolios. Many of our suggestions were adopted. We headed off some worrying proposed changes to Labor’s nuclear policy, strengthened the commitment to environmental law reform and included acknowledgement of the scientific consensus of the need for developed nations to deliver net zero emissions by mid century. Needless to say, the National Policy Forum did not support our proposal for inclusion of our renewable energy target or specific pollution reduction targets. It was however, an important context – with most of the party’s key players in the room – to prosecute our argument.

As the campaign strengthened in the branches, LEAN talked with people across the Party. A number of trips to Canberra were arranged with fairly open invitations for anyone actively involved in LEAN to join us to visit Labor MPs. Democratising access is another of my bugbears and allowing ordinary members to front up to their politicians and talk to them about the campaign was a small victory. One evening, Shadow Climate Change Minister Mark Butler hosted LEAN drinks in Parliament House and a broad array of Labor MPs turned up. After myself and leader Bill Shorten had spoken to the crowd Joel Fitzgibbon jumped up – not a natural ally of environmentalists – to assure us that his and Gary Gray’s attendance were not as spies but as those who recognised we had to get along and sort out these issues cooperatively in the Party.

A couple of months out from the Conference the internally powerful Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) responded to our campaign with an open letter to all Federal Labor MPs and the union leadership. It expressed its opposition to our call for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Shifting energy generation away from coal-fired power to cleaner sources will have deep structural impacts on the CFMEU membership and the industries they work in. The CFMEU, under the leadership of National President Tony Maher had been remarkably progressive on the issue, recognising the inevitable threat to his members and responding to try and ensure workers were protected in the transition. The CFMEU had supported the climate package of the former Labor Federal Government and embedded themselves in the negotiations, ensuring their interests were well defended while also allowing the reforms to occur.

This was a moment when the campaign nearly derailed. We had no structural power; CFMEU had loads. We wrote an open letter back stating our opposing view on the costs to consumers and workers that the transition would impose as well as the larger imperative that modernising our energy system presented to the economy. We minnows had no choice but to stand our ground. Luckily, we were backed by a huge swathe of rank and file members and their branches.

At a meeting of the national Left a couple of weeks before conference, I stood to outline LEAN’s proposal. As we were still negotiating with the CFMEU, no one was supporting us – overt opposition to the CFMEU is not a common habit of the Left of the Labor Party. As I was speaking I saw CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor raise his hand for the floor after me and was nervous. O’Connor said he wanted the room to know that the CFMEU knew climate change was happening and was committed to responding, that they had some differences of view with LEAN that we were working to resolve but thanking us for showing respect and not calling them rednecks. Having come up against the CFMEU over decades in the forest debate, that exchange most powerfully illustrated the value of being ‘inside’. The ability to resolve the conflict came only from environmental concern being an organised and legitimate stakeholder within the Party. In return for support of the 50 per cent aim, the CFMEU was able to negotiate strong undertakings from the Party to protect its members. The resolution on the floor of Conference that committed Labor to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 included a commitment to establish an agency to redeploy affected workers and structural adjustment strategies and investment for impacted communities.

Resolution 214R was put to the Conference by Bill Shorten and seconded by Tony Maher. It was passed unanimously.

And that’s the happy ending: at the 2015 National Conference in Melbourne in July Bill Shorten proclaimed climate action a key differentiator with the Coalition Government, adopted a 50 per cent renewable energy target for 2030 and included in the Policy Platform a commitment to credible pollution reduction targets before the next election. As the Sydney Morning Herald put it: ‘The Shorten approach follows a strong and well-coordinated campaign inside the ALP by a group calling itself the Environment Action Network and backing a “50/50” campaign in favour of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030’.

A large block of LEAN lime T-shirts whooped and hollered from the floor, causing Tony Maher to comment from the lectern that it was like looking being at a swimming carnival – green and red before him. Shadow Environment Minister and newly-elected National President Mark Butler, who was a consistent supporter of LEAN, generously acknowledged the campaign across the weekend:

In my nearly 30 years in the Party, I have not seen an organising effort on a policy issue like LEAN has delivered. It was phenomenal.

It was not always a comfortable relationship for a Shadow Minister to have a strident and well-organised lobby group keeping the pressure on, but this campaign was important. It gave Bill, I, and the rest shadow cabinet the assurance that the Party was behind us as we stepped out to lead on climate change.

Senior Right figure and Shadow Finance Minister, Tony Burke said:

It’s the most effective grass roots effort I’ve seen within the ALP. The leadership consulted widely to work out what needed to be done and then campaigned relentlessly in every Party unit to push Labor’s commitment as far as possible. They campaigned hard at the grassroots while also enhancing a strong relationship with the party’s leadership.

I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t quite know how they did it but I do know our environment policy is the strongest we’ve ever had and LEAN had its fingerprints over every page.

In November 2015, just before the Paris Climate Change Conference leader Bill Shorten formally delivered the second part of our campaign with a Labor commitment to delivering net zero emissions by 2050 and adoption of at least 45 per cent pollution reduction (on 2005 levels) by 2030. Climate change policy is now central to Labor’s differentiation with the Turnbull Coalition. Bill Shorten attended the Paris Conference and consistently talks of climate action’s role in delivering economic opportunities and a modern, dynamic Australia.

LEAN demonstrated that the membership could be organised to force change on the parliamentary leadership. We proved too that the membership care about the environment. However, one good campaign does not a reformed party make. This is the bigger challenge.

Labor Needs to Work out Integrating the Environment

Labor’s history on environmental reform is pretty good. Labor is the party that saved the Franklin, the Daintree and Kakadu. Labor is the party that introduced environmental impact assessments and put environmental considerations in the mix of all planning and land use decisions. Labor is the only party that in government has delivered significant environmental outcomes. This sets it apart from all.

However, it is my contention that Labor’s environmental legacy has been delivered by ‘the great men of history’ (and I don’t use the gendered term by mistake). Labor’s environmental outcomes have relied on powerful individuals within the parliamentary party spending personal political capital to deliver. Bob Hawke protected the Franklin River, Graham Richardson protected the rainforests of the Wet Tropics and Tony Burke delivered the world’s largest marine park system.

The last NSW Labor Government illustrates this. Premier Bob Carr and Environment Minister Bob Debus were a dynamic duo, one from the Right and one from the Left. These two men, as key players in the NSW cabinet, mandated great environmental outcomes – a million hectares of wilderness were protected, the world’s first emissions trading scheme established and the native forest industry was restructured. Their exit from Parliament however led to a fallow time for environmental issues with no continuity embedded in the institutional arrangements of cabinet or caucus. The last term of NSW Labor was deeply stinky and deeply brown.

My fear is that this model has worked for protection of iconic places but may be inadequate to deliver the changes the climate crisis demands. To shift an economy against the wishes of some of the world’s largest vested interests will require considerable political leadership and some existential commitment. Deeper roots are essential if the party is to respond confidently to the challenge.

There are three factors of production – labour, capital, and the resources out of which things are made (called ‘land’ in the original classical formulation). The Labor Party was born in a time when the conflict between labour and capital was the main game in town. The third factor of production was a neutral actor to be happily exploited. This of course has changed fundamentally with the earth making pretty powerful noises about its conflict with capital’s exploitation. The Labor Party has failed to modernise to include this. And with life as we know it under threat from climate change, this isn’t good enough.

As US President Obama said at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in September 2014, ‘For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week – terrorism, instability, inequality, disease – there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate’.

To be a modern social democratic party, Labor must embed a response to this challenge. Recently I heard Labor giant Barry Jones discussing the importance of climate change action to Labor’s future. He catalogued a long list of ‘things beginning with C’ that Labor needs to grapple with in order to deliver this: ‘coal, cities, cars, consumption, concrete and contraception’ were among his list. This points to the big philosophical nature of the challenge of truly embedding an environment sensibility in the heart of Labor. It goes to some fundamental issues in our current political economy.

It also reveals that climate change is not just another of the band of ‘socially progressive issues’ that mark so much of modern elite politics. Rampant inequality and climate change are fundamentally the economic issues of our century. A proper response to these is a different beast to the ‘progressive’ politics I see pedalled so often by both parties of the left. I hate the word progressive. I want it buried with Margaret Mead. It mostly describes a flaccid politics that appeals to socially progressive, post-materialist elites without fundamentally challenging the neoliberal hegemony. It explains why the Greens lost three per cent of their primary vote when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister. I want a more robust politics than the grab bag of social issues it usually denotes. I want a politics that addresses the disparity, ugliness and planetary challenge of globalised capitalism.

It is also interesting that the centrality of environment issues is already felt in the dynamics of Labor Governments. Bob Debus, a veteran of state and Federal Labor cabinets made the observation to me recently that, ‘The schism down the centre of the Party these days is not left and right, it is brown and green. The great debates around the cabinet table in my experience divide on this fault line’.

The key question becomes, can Labor modernise to include this deeply twenty-first century imperative? Labor has a history of morphing and modernising. But old habits and structures are entrenched and the necessary adjustment to Labor’s core mission is not going to happen lightly.

You hear the odd lament that the Party missed the moment in the early 1980s when it could have bought environmentalism in, perhaps affiliated environment groups like unions. While this is probably fantasy considering the limitations of much labourist thinking, it points to that moment when Labor’s failure to respond made it complicit in the creation of the Greens. Now that was a strategic blunder that has been creating huge effort on the left flank ever since! And with the percentage of 18–25 year olds voting Green heading towards 30 the pain is only set to continue.

Another impact of the rise of the Greens is that the Labor Party has lost a whole generation of politically active types for whom the environment is a key motivator. They have joined the Greens and their environmental activism has been sorely missed. The lack of connections between the environment sector and the Labor Party remains shocking. There are very few personal friendships. This is tactically baffling to me as an environmentalist and as a Labor person. It would seem to reflect a lack of long-term strategic thinking from both sides. My clear commitment to environment outcomes was a source of distrust in the Party. It is the distrust of two cultures meeting who know nothing of each other except for unsubstantiated claims the others are cannibals. But Labor is no more a monolith than any other group of humans and the dearth of environmentalists has mattered to the Party’s ability to respond to the environmental imperative. The lack of connection has also limited the environment movement’s ability to deliver lasting, audacious outcomes. Often the environment movement actively limits progress on its issues with its naivety and arrogance. It’s refusal to run a long-range game, to work with allies and to learn the lessons of history limits its impact. Much of this could be improved with better relationships delivering a deeper understanding of the dynamics and imperatives of governing.

Don’t get me wrong there are large barriers to entry for the idealistic and the activist. There is plenty to dislike in the Labor Party and real cultural barriers to getting involved in its decision-making, the most obvious being the distasteful nature of the factions. The factions are led by oligarchs, whose power is based largely on their ability to remain in these arid places, operating on loyalties and enmities born in student politics. I don’t have a critique of factions per se. In a large institution, people inevitably form into groups in order to assert power and leadership around shared ideas. And this system still manages to produce some good, smart politicians. But beyond that gracious acknowledgement of the notion of factions, today’s factions are pretty ugly. While they might nourish those who grew up in them, it is nonsensical that a person who joined the Party later in life would submit to the factions. With few real ideological differences, they are little more than power-hungry friendship groups. So does this mean – unless you go to university with these characters and are acculturated to the factions – the best one can hope for is to be a loyal branch member? This is a problem for the Party. Especially, as Barry Jones eloquently put it, pre-selection today is primarily ‘a reward for factional fidelity’.

The Hope of the Membership

But there is great hope. And I believe reason to try and realise this hope. As with any political party, Labor includes two parties. There are those involved in the wheeling and dealing, the careerists and factional players. And then there is membership, numerically much greater, the good souls who join because they genuinely want to make Australia a better place. Labor is full of such people. Getting inside it is a warmer experience than the media face would suggest. It is thick with the salt of the earth, people who believe in their country, equity and decency.

And at least as many are ex-members of the ALP – people who joined to make a difference and found paths to do this difficult to locate. My osteopath for instance explains she joined the Labor Party when it delivered the first female Prime Minister, thinking it was time to pitch in. She attended one or two dull branch meetings and gave up.

But those members who battle on are the people who joined LEAN and went out to visit branches. John Christoforou is a 57-year-old accountant and small business advisor on the NSW Central Coast who jokes, ‘I care so much for the environment I joined the Labor Party’. He visited every branch in the Federal seat of Robertson. John Gain is a retired carpenter who travelled the length and breadth of New South Wales talking to regional branches and in his quiet way backed with steely commitment convinced them of this issue’s importance. David Mason is a former senior human rights bureaucrat and winner of the Public Service Medal who in league with his environment activist kids not only presented tirelessly to branches but also wrote many of our serious policy submissions and runs our Twitter account. (There is no better place to keep up with Labor-related environment news!) Louise Crawford is a Victorian actor in her early 40s who joined the Party to change the world and stop climate change. She managed the branch visit program across her state.

According to the 2011 Review of the Labor Party written by John Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, Labor still has 900 local branches. These meet each month in draughty halls. They turn up because they believe in democracy and the social-democratic ideal. They turn up because they believe in Labor and its promise of a fairer country. They are the great, untapped resource. Australia has no other political network like it!

LEAN was a wobbly, imperfect attempt to shift the fundamentals by aggregating the power of the branches and the membership. One branch member, in the Federal seat of Kooyong, explained to me recently about how hard it was to run a branch and how disempowered they mostly felt but how LEAN’s visit, the enthusiasm and passion of its presenter and the promise of working together across the Party was energising – ‘it was like a pipe that suddenly had water gushing through it or a wire that once again had electricity’.

As the early attempts at democratising in the Party have shown, the Iron Law of Oligarchy is alive and well. The Iron Law of Oligarchy explains that in any complex organisation power coalesces in the leadership. Democratisation does not necessarily change outcomes or re-make the Party. The great experiment of community pre-selections in New South Wales, where candidates were chosen by a ballot equally weighted for local ALP members and local community members, universally delivered the factional pick. This is not proof of the factions’ ability to pick stellar candidates but a reflection of the lack of invigorated alternative relationships and networks in the Party to support and promote leaders. Someone argued to me recently that democratisation was a good thing as it would keep factional power in place but ensure they can’t bowl up complete duds as candidates – this is a weak offer indeed!

The only answer to re-invigorating the Party is to once again build participatory democracy; an alive and agitating membership. This won’t come from the never-ending rounds of rules debates alone. These are the domain of insiders, and more specifically insiders for whom the system has failed. Nothing is more alienating for ‘normal’, good-hearted party members than an embittered insider ‘rabbiting on’ about rules. Instead, reform must be grounded in things we passionately believe in.

I believe that serious organising of the membership could force change. I’m unsure whether LEAN will survive, there are huge pressures on a voluntary group which, in reflection of my thoughts above, is not ‘owned’ or supported by either the Party or the environment movement. But the promise is there.

It is my dream that LEAN builds ways for serious activists, wanting real change to deliver on John Button’s promise – to change the Labor Party and change Australia. That is, not only deliver environmental commitment but a model for more fundamental reform by rebuilding a community of empowered and active members.

I believe Labor can do things the Greens can’t. To change the fundamentals of our future requires we take the majority of people with us. Labor is still the party that is overtly interested in the economic interests of ordinary Australians and can bring the centre with them, leading and compromising to deliver deep and lasting change. Australia is not just us inner-city wankers. It is a melting pot of people doing their thing, getting by. The ‘paradise of dissent’ is still deep in the Australian psyche but it’s not going to be delivered by an elite or a minority. The broad middle of Australia is open to fairness. And it wants its kids to live in a safe and healthy environment. Our challenge is to deliver a politics that speaks to the values and imaginations of middle Australia.

Labor at its best is magnificent. Sometimes you catch it within the union movement – that whiff of passionate commitment to fairness, the hatred of the accumulation of capital at the expense of ordinary people trying to look after their loved ones. I heard it echo recently at an event reflecting on the work and philosophy of Gough Whitlam – the depth of thought, effort, and institutional strength that lies latent in a hundred years of people straining for justice and a better society. It is a deep well. And of course, the membership that is defined by people of decency who believe taking the centre with us to deliver equity and fairness is a historic mission. It is in all our interests to try and revive Labor’s tired and sometimes obscured heart.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer