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Wednesday, 21 August 2002
Page: 3509

Senator BRANDIS (6:16 PM) —I am almost lost for words in awe of the theatrical skills of Senator Robert Ray. What we have seen in the chamber this evening has been a bravura performance in hypocrisy by Senator Robert Ray. How could Senator Ray, of all people, the quondam leader of the right faction of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party—and, Mr Acting Deputy President, you will agree with me that he delivered that speech for 20 minutes with a straight face and without missing a beat—give a speech condemning the evils of branch stacking, factionalism, leadership squabbles and character assassination?

He has been succeeded in that role by his protege, Senator Stephen Conroy. No sooner did Senator Conroy saddle up to take the factional reigns than he got bumped off by Senator Kim Carr, who walks into the chamber now. Senator Carr, in a retreat to the pre-Whitlamite days, to the unreformed state of the Victorian Labor Party in the fifties, seized factional control from Senator Ray and his protege, Senator Conroy, and brought it back into the hands of the tomato left.

It is an extraordinary thing that, in a political party as bereft of ideas and principles as the Australian Labor Party, one of their senior statesmen—a former cabinet minister and a party heavyweight by anybody's definition of the word—could stand up and condemn branch stacking and factionalism. This is from the Labor Party. It has been an awesome performance. May I commend to the Senate and to those people who may be listening this evening to the broadcast—if they want to know the way the Labor Party really ticks—former Senator John Button's essay in the latest edition of Quarterly Essay. It is an essay which has attracted—and rightly so—a deal of notoriety in the last couple of months.

Former Senator Button is a product of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party, and the picture he paints of the Labor Party—not just in his home state of Victoria but throughout the country—is of an institution riddled with decay, factionalism, violations of its own constitution and malpractice, an institution which is bereft of a way forward. What does former Senator Button say is the heart of the problem? He says that the heart of the problem is that the Labor Party is in the death grip of the trade unions. This party in the opening years of the 21st century is still clinging to a political structure which was devised in the late 19th century. Of all the institutions in Australian society today, whether they be political, commercial, social or public institutions, it is hard to imagine one that is more hidebound and more resistant to change than the Australian Labor Party. It has not fundamentally changed, either structurally or in its political culture, for more than a century.

Isn't it a sad thing and isn't it amusing and pathetic to see the dinosaurs of that remnant of Australian politics—that mix between an historical theme park and a political mausoleum that people like Senator Robert Ray, Senator Kim Carr and Senator Stephen Conroy represent in this place—lecturing the Liberal Party? The point former senator Button made is that, because the Labor Party is in the death grip of the trade unions, it is becoming more and more out of touch with the Australian people—simply because its recruitment base, the trade union movement, represents a smaller and smaller proportion of Australian society.

Do you know the really sad statistic that John Button recited in his impressive article in Quarterly Essay? It was not just that today only 25 per cent of the Australian work force are unionised but that, of that 25 per cent, only 14 per cent of the Australian work force are members of trade unions which are affiliated with the Australian Labor Party. So much for the claim to be representing the interests of working Australians! Indeed, so much for the claim to be representing the interests of working Australians who are trade unionists! The fact is that only 14 per cent of the work force—one-seventh of the work force—are today members of unions with an affiliation with the Australian Labor Party.

We have had two more products of the political mausoleum—Mr Hawke and Mr Wran—assay a review of the Labor Party. What did they come up with? After an arcane debate about whether trade union influence in preselections should be reduced from 60 per cent to 50 per cent, they actually produced a model which gives the trade union movement, this decaying social and economic base which is the Labor Party's narrowing connection with the Australian people, more say—not less—in the Australian Labor Party's affairs. It is pathetic! It is, in the words of Senator John Button in the title of his essay, `beyond belief'.

All political parties are places of vigorous competition. In all political parties aspirants will recruit their supporters to come to their assistance in ballots. There is nothing wrong with that practice. As the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Mr Lynton Crosby, said recently:

One man's branch stack is another man's membership drive.

That was Mr Crosby's observation. We in the Queensland division of the Liberal Party, which I so proudly represent in this place, have in fact increased our membership steadily, not sporadically, over the years.

Senator Mackay —We don't fly them in.

Senator BRANDIS —I must respond on behalf of my own division of the Liberal Party to the rather uncharitable suggestion that, having an embarrassingly small number of members in the state parliamentary party, the division is not performing well at all levels of politics. At the level of politics that we represent in this chamber—the federal level—the Queensland division of the Liberal Party is performing magnificently well. Did you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot, that the Queensland division of the Liberal Party returns 15 members to the House of Representatives—as many as the Victorian division of the Liberal Party does, a state with almost twice the population? Did you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that there are now more government members— of course you do, Mr Acting Deputy President; I do not mean to insult your intelligence or your wisdom—from Queensland in the government party room here in Canberra than from any state other than New South Wales, with two and a half times the population of our state? We in the Queensland division of the Liberal Party stand proud of our achievement, particularly in securing the return of the Howard government. We stand proud of our achievement over many years in punching above our weight as a participant in the federal Liberal Party's affairs.

As I said a moment ago, political parties will always be fields of vigorous competition, and it is right and proper that that should be so. The question is this: who are able to be the competitors? In the Labor Party, unless you are a trade union heavyweight you do not even get a go. Unless you are a member of the 14 per cent of the Australian work force that has a link of union affiliation with the Australian Labor Party, you do not even get a go. In the Liberal Party our doors are open to all, and that is why we have become the great mass based political party of Australian politics—just as Sir Robert Menzies conceived the Liberal Party to be when he shaped it in the late 1940s.

Let me conclude on this note: Senator Ray, in a slighting reference to my friend Senator Mason and me, referred to a trip around western Queensland which the federal Treasurer accompanied us on last week. One of the things we saw on that trip was a woeful excuse for a shrub in Barcaldine. It is called rather grandly the `tree of knowledge'. I want to describe it to you. It is a gum tree. It stands beside the Barcaldine railway station and beneath it there is a plaque which purports to record the historical fact—it may well be a piece of apocrypha which has become romanticised over the years—that beneath the branches of that tree in 1891, during the course of the great shearers strike of that year, the body met from which the Queensland branch of the Australian Labor Party was ultimately formed. Let there be no denying that in the 1890s, particularly in my state of Queensland, the Australian Labor Party had a proud record. It formed briefly under Anderson Dawson the first Labor government in the world in, I think, 1903. The glory days of the Labor Party—that is, those days about a century ago—began under that tree in Barcaldine. If you look at the old photographs of it, you will see what a magnificent, majestic tree it was. If you looked at it today, it could serve as the most exquisite metaphor for the modern condition of the Labor Party. First of all, it is practically dead. Its life was only saved by tree surgeons a couple of years ago—I believe at taxpayers' expense, because the Beattie Labor government in Queensland has been bold enough to claim it as a national heritage site or worthy of protection by the state environment department. Its trunk is maintained by plaster and cement—

Senator BRANDIS —Yes, it is, Senator Forshaw. Above the once mighty trunk there stretch a few miserable, weedy, half-decayed branches. The disproportion between the dead but once mighty trunk and the few shrivelling, weedy, pathetic branches that emerge from it could not be a better metaphor for the modern Australian Labor Party in that attractive and sleepy town of Barcaldine in western Queensland. If you wanted to see a metaphor for the state of the current Australian Labor Party as diagnosed by one of their great ministers during the time of the Hawke government, Mr John Button, you would not look any further.

The former Labor Party Federal President, Mr Barry Jones, said that the way the Labor Party was going at the moment it was at risk of becoming a heritage party and, just like the heritage tree at Barcaldine—that pathetic shrub—that is what the Labor Party is today. It is a shadow of its former self, so much so that we see the performance piece of a man like Senator Ray, who, as I say, can stand up in this place and with a straight face condemn branch stacking and with a straight face tell us about the evils of factionalism. Yes, that was Senator Robert Ray—the great factional chieftain, the great factional warlord, the mentor of the junior factional warlord, Senator Stephen Conroy.

We saw Senator Ray condemning character assassination. Yes, that was Senator Ray condemning character assassination! This was the Labor Party which, not all that many years ago, members of this chamber might recall, during the course of preselection for a seat in Sydney—and Senator Forshaw might help me with the name of the seat—was engaged in such an ugly contest that one of the participants in that preselection was savagely bashed to within an inch of his life. That was Mr Peter Baldwin who went on to win a preselection somewhere and became, I think, a minister in the Hawke government. Nobody in Australian politics should ever forget the haunting image of the bashed, bruised and scarred face of Mr Peter Baldwin on the front page of the Sydney papers the next morning under the headline `This is the face of modern Labor'.

We in the Liberal Party have vigorous contests, but the violence, the criminality, the sheer political thuggery which has been so much a feature of the Labor Party in its decline, in its decay, is unique to the Labor Party and something about which they ought not to do anything other than hang their heads in shame. People like Senator Ray ought not lecture the Liberal Party on vigorous internal competition. They should try to conduct their own internal competitions without dishonesty, without illegality and— as they have done in some cases—without actual physical violence.