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Speech at the book launch of Power Crisis by Rodney Cavalier, Sydney



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Leadership a speech by

Senator John Faulkner At the book launch of

Power Crisis by Rodney Cavalier

Sydney Cricket Ground, 13 October, 2010.

Ladies and gentlemen, as many of you no doubt know, since agreeing to launch Rodney’s book, I have been asked to take part in Labor’s Review of the 2010 Federal Election Campaign.

Some of you may be hoping I will give a sneak preview into the Review or its deliberations. I am sorry to disappoint you.

I am not here to talk about the Federal Campaign tonight, or about the matters covered in the terms of reference for the Review.

I am here to launch this book.

This book represents but a tiny fraction of the massive number of words that Rodney has committed to paper, and inflicted on the rest of us, over the past decades. He is an inveterate diarist, a compulsive chronicler of local branch and Party events and of

course the editor and chief author of the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter, now in its one hundred and sixty seventh edition, a weighty tome that defies the name ‘newsletter’ and ‘branch.’

But this is the first book that Rodney has published.

And it is, as one would expect, knowing Rodney, a very critical look at the Labor Party.

According to the author, the modern ALP is unrepresentative of its membership; values free; and unsure of its future direction.

Despite this scathing assessment, there is one thing that all of us who know Rodney know to be true: his criticism of the state of the Party, passionate and prolix as it is, comes from his deep and abiding loyalty to, and love for, Labor and its traditions. He writes, both in sorrow and in anger, of how he feels Labor has fallen short of its history, fallen short of its promise and fallen short of its obligations to its members and supporters.

 

And in this book, he focuses on what has come to be called in the media the ‘NSW disease’ - the churn and burn of political leaders, the perceived short-term focus on polling and the relentless tactical battle for day-by-day advantage in the media, and the endless, constant, politics of spin.

One of the questions this book seeks to answer is why the modern ALP treats its leaders the way it does - the relationship of the Party with its Leaders or the Leaders with the Party; the links between leadership and policy; the evolving history of the ALP as a membership organisation, as the political wing of the union movement, as a modern professional political party.

Labor has changed since the days when Rodney and I were fresh-faced, in his case slim, in my case far more hirsute, young branch activists. It seems the Party changes more rapidly with every passing decade. While that may simply be due to our advancing age, it is undeniable the Party changes its leaders more rapidly than ever

before. In this last single term in NSW, the State Parliamentary Labor Party has had three leaders, three Premiers: Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally.

This book is their story, but more importantly, it is Labor’s story.

When we look at the relationship of the Party to its leaders, we also have to look at what political leadership is. Because the relationship of our leaders to our Party and to our broader Australian community is at the core of political leadership.

Political leadership is easy to demand but it is difficult to define.

We are always being told the government, the party, our leaders, should show leadership.

Usually, those who find themselves in a minority on a particular issue demand that politicians show leadership, by taking that minority position; while those in the majority insist politicians should respect the democratic will by taking the majority position. In my experience, often an individual can argue both sides of that debate in almost a single breath, depending on whether they are in the minority or majority on the topic of the moment.

Neither slavish obedience to popular opinion, nor egocentric disdain for it, are political leadership. Political leadership is a balancing act, a constant tension between having the courage of conviction and having the capacity for consultation. This is, as Rodney describes in the book, the essence of the McKell model in NSW.

Australia has had some great political leaders, and some not so great.

One of the great examples of political leadership is John Curtin. Not just as wartime Prime Minister, but within the ALP - dealing with the issue of conscription, an issue that 30 years earlier had ripped the Party apart. Rodney rightly lauds his example. Curtin did not simply reflect the party back to itself - but nor did he ignore the tensions and divisions within. He persuaded, and cajoled. He faced hostile crowds at ALP meetings and conferences. He was determined to achieve what he saw as a vital policy change - but he knew he could only achieve it with the Party, not despite it.

 

That is a crucial point. The energy and enthusiasm of the Party’s members, their passion, their commitment, is a fundamentally important part of achieving any of the social changes and progress that are, ultimately, Labor’s raison d’être. The moment any Leader starts to regard the constituency of the party - members, conference delegates, State or Federal executives, State or Federal MPs, and yes, unionists and union organisers - as an annoyance, a hindrance, an obstruction - well, history shows us they are venturing onto some very thin ice.

And I would say that it is also clear that political leaders, of every stripe and party, in every democracy, must also recognise the fundamental importance of the energy and enthusiasm of the community for any program of reform.

Change, sustained, substantial change, is the promise of the ALP. And change, sustained, substantial change, is only possible with widespread support from the community, as difficult as winning that support can be.

The process of winning that support can be difficult and painful. But the minute any political leader starts to regard the public as an annoyance, to be ignored, or bribed, or snowed, history again tells us they are venturing onto some very thin ice.

Ladies and gentlemen,

At the other end of the scale is Doc Evatt. No one could say Evatt didn't have conviction - or courage. And the judgement of history has been that those convictions were correct - it is not a good idea to ban a political party, nor is it in the Party's or the national interest to have the ALP become the puppet of an outside group. But Evatt was unable, or perhaps merely unwilling, to persuade enough of his Party or enough of his community to share his convictions. He could not, or at least he did not, build the consensus so necessary to Labor’s project and so necessary for successful leadership.

Evatt and Curtin in their different ways, like many other Labor leaders, undeniably had the courage of their convictions.

But let us not forget that having the courage of your convictions requires not only courage - but conviction.

There are times when I look around modern politics and I am reminded of that old poem by William Butler Yeats, with its line “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

I do realise that Yeats was about my age when he wrote those words, ninety odd years ago, and it might just be the eternal truth of middle age that we despair of the younger generation, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and perhaps the way they do their politics.

But I feel strongly it is part of a greater truth. In modern politics, too many of those with conviction lack the courage to defend those convictions unless they coincide with certainty of electoral victory - while too many have courage in abundance with no conviction to guide it - save their own personal advantage.

 

It takes a little bit of conviction and a little bit of courage to vote for the Australian Labor Party. A little bit of conviction in Labor’s values; a little bit of courage in believing that the political system, the government, can bring about a better

Australia. Voting for the ALP is putting your faith in the ambitious and optimistic idea that Governments can do more than just protect the status quo.

You need that conviction and that courage whether you are a rusted on party member from Banks or a swinging voter backing Labor in Bennelong.

And it’s fair enough for Labor voters to expect just a little bit of courage and conviction in return.

This is the bargain the Labor Party has always had with Labor voters.

But this means after we do the hard slog required to win an election, Labor Governments are judged just a little bit differently. They are expected to stand up and show some political courage and political conviction.

This doesn’t excuse Labor from the brutalities of modern electoral politics. It doesn’t elevate us above the media cycle, or exempt us from the hip pocket realities of elections. It doesn’t mean we are too important for marginal seat campaigning, or too worthy for one liners. It doesn’t mean we are too omnipotent for focus groups or too

self-assured for quantitative polling.

What it does mean is we can’t be captive to these political realities. They are useful tools, not goals. They are useful tools for the constant task of political leadership - to engage with and persuade our fellow citizens, to build a consensus behind our convictions. Sometimes, that means standing against the prevailing wind. Sometimes, that means showing a bit of courage.

Some believe these days, political courage is a recipe for electoral defeat. Some believe the only important element of campaigning is to use every trick in the book, all the polling, TV ads, one liners, the sound bites and the scare campaigns, the hot buttons and cold showers one party can possibly muster in order to win.

It is easy, and at the moment very popular, to disparage and deride those tricks, not to mention the people who employ them as shallow, lightweight, new school, weak as water, win at all costs, stand for nothing by standing for everything, risk free, vanilla ice cream, white-bread, low-fat, glucose-free practitioners of the art of politics.

But ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to.

I don’t actually disapprove of those tools or of the idea that modern professional campaigns should use them. A large dose of political cunning is needed to win elections, and part of honing and deploying that sense of cunning is using all the tricks of the trade available.

In modern politics if you don’t have that sense of cunning, you are on your way to becoming an exhibit at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Political cunning in modern politics is as important as policy, as personalities, as ideologies and ideas. It pains me to say that, but I believe it’s true. It’s certainly

 

been true in Australian politics for more than a hundred years: and I believe it will be true for many more.

But those tricks of the trade and tools of the campaign must always be just that: tools. They are the servants of politics, not the masters of policy. For Labor Governments, State and Federal, political cunning must always serve political courage, and never substitute for it.

It is no secret modern Labor is struggling with the perception we are very long on cunning, and very short on courage.

We are struggling with the perception we are wholly and solely driven by polling and focus groups.

Labor is facing highly negative and often ferocious election tactics from the Coalition. The tone of political debate has become so belligerent, so crude, that faith and trust in any government to deliver is almost impossible to obtain. That suits oppositions, and it suits conservative parties, less likely to be pursuing a reform agenda, and more likely to be dividing than uniting.

It does not suit Labor. A party that exists to offer the promise that government can bring about change for the better does not benefit from the cynicism and apathy that breeds in today’s climate.

We can, and we should, use the techniques of political persuasion to change that climate and reinvigorate political debate. We could, but we should not, use the results of political research and polling as a map for directing Labor policy.

Aside from any other problem with using research as a guide - like the fact it shows the world you have all the convictions and the courage of a weathervane - it is very easy to find that polling and focus groups are telling you what you are already

convinced of and most want to hear to be true. That is why it has become a weapon in too many of our Party’s internal battles - and from what I hear, in those of other parties as well.

Anybody can find “hot buttons” in the electorate. The skill is to find ways to reduce the temperature.

Properly used, qualitative research works for political parties.

• It brings forward the voices and perspectives of people who operate away from insider politics

• It can assist with finding the best way to educate the electorate and explain the intricacies of sometimes unpopular party policies.

• It allows a party to take the policies it wishes to implement and use professional research techniques to explore and test how best to communicate them, and

 

• It has a critical role in ensuring the effective use of campaign resources. If millions of dollars are being spent on advertising, it is a no-brainer to spend a fraction of that on testing to make sure it works.

Improperly used, qualitative research is corrosive of the political process.

• If parties simply regurgitate lowest common denominator opinions from focus groups, political leadership and policy integrity is sacrificed.

• Even greater abrogation of leadership occurs if opinions or prejudices expressed by just a handful of voters in a focus group changes the direction of party or government policy; but worse still

• The misuse and manipulation of party research to influence internal party affairs or parliamentary party ballots is just plain unconscionable.

Polling is not and can never be a substitute for leadership. Polling is not and can never be a substitute for policy. If Labor and Labor’s leaders only listened to the polls, if everything we did was always with popularity as the only end, Evatt would never have opposed the referendum on banning the Communist Party; Labor would not have opposed the Vietnam War; Whitlam and Hayden would not have persevered to introduce Medibank after two decades of ferocious opposition from the medical profession; the Hawke-Keating Government would never have undertaken its economic reforms; the State Labor Governments of Neville Wran and Bob Carr would never have protected and preserved our rainforests.

Labor must be hard-headed. Our opponents will use polling, often to good effect. But Labor must remember that all the political cunning in the world can’t substitute for courage, for leadership. We can use our highly refined sense of political cunning to assist in winning elections, but that cunning cannot, and will never provide the leadership we must show to honour the bargain we strike with Labor voters.

Rodney says it all on page 165 of Power Crisis, “Focus groups are based on the precept that you can not go wrong if you give the punters what they want. The manifest decline in political courage, the absence of decisions for the long-term, is the result of a narcotic reliance on focus groups and qualitative polling. Contemporary political leaders dare not seek to persuade the electorate that [something popular] is wrong and why.”

For the Labor Party, steeling our spine and showing real courage, not just cunning, is the challenge that lies before us. The only institution powerful enough to insist we show this courage and honour the promise we make to Labor voters is the Labor Party itself. Not just its leadership, its parliamentary members, its secretariat, its party members, or its supporters. Only the entire party, from our newest member to its oldest dinosaur - like me - has the combined fire power to insist we don’t just win, but we show the leadership and courage we were elected to exercise. For the Labor Party how we do that is perhaps the most important question we now face.

Ladies and gentlemen, very few, if any of us will agree with all the judgements formed and views expressed in Rodney’s book. All of us though should acknowledge they have been considered and developed over 40 years of active

 

membership of the Australian Labor Party. But wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum, no-one could deny that this book we are here to launch tonight, very much like the author himself, is hard to ignore - in fact you do so at your own peril.

There have been times when the Party could not ignore Rodney.

In 1972 as President of the Hunters Hill Branch he called the police to a Branch meeting - for the first times in decades - to remove a member who would not stop talking!

In the mid 1970’s Rodney’s Honours Thesis was improperly published by his then factional enemies. Of course, its withering character assessments of some of the Left’s leadership in N.S.W. - only intended for the eyes of his supervisors at The University of Sydney - were exposed for all to see. It didn’t help his popularity with some!

In 1985 there was much publicity over Rodney’s handling of an industrial issue, as Minister for Education. The Teachers’ Federation complained to the Left faction. We responded - at the time - by setting up an investigation, soon dubbed by all as a ‘trial’. The Trial became a farce, highlighted by a magnificent Herald cartoon of Rodney being whipped by a feather before a jury of Kangaroos. This didn’t help his popularity with some others.

But throughout those years and since Rodney’s output has never slowed. The Fuller and Gladesville State Electorate Councils’ monthly Executive reports and Campaign Committee reports were immense documents - never less than twenty and sometimes nearly fifty densely typed foolscap pages - a unique historical record, read by next to no one. Fortunately no legal action was pursued by those defamed.

When Rodney was a member of the Guildford Branch he penned an important portrait of the Labor Party in the 1950s - the decade of the split - using the records of three ALP Branches: Guildford; Hunters Hill; and Panania.

And of course, we have the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter, in its 15th year of publication, as I mentioned its 167th edition, and extending to many more than one million words. The Newsletter is the only genuine Labor Party periodical in Australia.

And after so many years and so many words we now have a book: Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party.

Rodney, no stranger to the media, has not been reluctant to be interviewed about the book. He is accustomed to tough interviews but met his match last week with a reporter from a community radio station. Let me share it with you…

Reporter: What do you think of the chances of Kristina Keneally?

Rodney: My book stops with the fall of Nathan Rees.

Reporter: Are you worried that your book will hurt Labor?

 

Rodney: How can the truth ever hurt? Is there a greater loyalty than writing about your party's shortcomings?

Reporter: Will you be supporting Labor at the next election?

Rodney: Absolutely - I will be putting in 14 hours at the Bowral Memorial Hall.

Reporter: For which party?

Rodney: Nothing. Complete silence. Rendered speechless. A first.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

This book will certainly spark debate, a debate which I think it is important to have, a debate that is too often not encouraged in the modern ALP.

I think this book serves as a valuable reminder that amongst all the talk of “whatever it takes,” amongst all the number counting and opinion polling, amongst all the wizardry of technology and relentlessness of the 24 hour news cycle, we must never forgot these simple facts:

The tools of politics must never be our masters; those who support us deserve our most courageous efforts; and, ladies and gentlemen, leaders lead.