ABC Radio: Labor Party Reform

16 JUNE 2020

Topics: Adem Somyurek, ALP Reform

Virginia Trioli:  Mr Rudd, good morning. Good to talk to you again. I mentioned before that it looks like Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin will be handed what I’m calling a unsolvable puzzle of ridding a party that’s defined by bitterly opposed factions of branch stacking. Is that even possible within the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd?

Kevin Rudd:  It is possible. The degree of difficulty is high. If we are ranking it on a diving judges’ panel it would probably be around a 7.5 degree of difficulty. But Steve Bracks is a good man, Jenny Macklin is a good woman, both have unimpeachable integrity, and if any two individuals can get to the bottom of this, and not just deal with the immediate issue, but to root out the enabling factors, it’s these two.

Virginia Trioli:  This is one of the most florid recent examples of a long-running problem in Labor. Why can’t the Labor Party get rid of branch staking? They’ve looked at this many times before.

Kevin Rudd:  The core element of the cancer here in my own judgment, Virginia, is the power of unelected factions. And when you have unelected factions who exercise closet power, covert power, secret power within the political parties, then it gives rise to these sorts of behaviours. To be balanced about this, if you were to do a deep analysis of the fights between the left and right factions of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, for example, then similar behaviours would probably emerge. In the case of the Labor Party, the core cancer in my view has been factions. It’s one of the reasons why when I became a leader Prime Minister of the country I refused to attend faction meetings and I sought to disempower factional leaders by reserving to the leader the right to appoint members of the cabinet or the shadow cabinet. It’s only if you disempower factional leaders, that you remove the incentives which they then have to engage in the sort of skullduggery we’ve seen in relation to Somyurek.

Virginia Trioli:  You say there unelected factions, but the reality is that then elected members of parliaments, whether state or federal, join with and join themselves to those factions and perpetuate the division. So, in a sense, or not, in a sense, they don’t have legitimacy, they do have legitimacy because that then forms the core of how the party is constructed.

Kevin Rudd:  The Australian Labor Party stands for a good set of ideals which have endured in this country for more than 100 years. I don’t need to recite for you, Virginia, our listeners to your program, what has been achieved for the country’s overall social and economic good through generations of Labor-led reforms. But at the same time, in recent decades, we have seen what I describe as the cancer emerge of the youth wings of the Labor Party — and again, I see this evidence in the Liberal Party — of new recruits to the party being turned into factional cannon fodder in order to enable their bosses to obtain power within the machine based on the numbers they control, as opposed to the ideas and ideals and capabilities they bring to the table. If you were to do a quick analysis now, Virginia, of the factional powerbrokers in the New South Wales Liberal Party, and the Victorian Labor Party and put them on a public platform and ask them to have a full debate on Q&A about their visions for the country’s future, we’d both walk away screaming in horror because that’s not how they have secured power. It’s purely an internal vicious numbers game for these types.

Virginia Trioli:  Indeed, for those types it seems purely about power and absolutely nothing to do with policy. But before Sunday night, Kevin Rudd, Adam Somyurek’s influence and his control and reports of his people attempting to overtake branches in the northwest of Melbourne, that had all been well reported. I’m not in any way taking away from the Nine report which is quite staggering. But him as that kind of powerbroker attempting to increase his power by recruiting more people to join up, that had been well reported. So how can the premier credibly say that he had no idea of this?

Kevin Rudd:  Well to be fair to Daniel Andrews, and understand, Virginia, I’m from Queensland, the last five or six years I’ve been out of the country —

Virginia Trioli:  Yes.

Kevin Rudd:  — running an American think tank in New York. I’m back here for COVID-related reasons. To be fair to Daniel Andrews, he is not from the side of the party in Victoria which in any way, as it were, benefits from or is supported by the activities of Somyurek and his group.

Virginia Trioli:  No, but he reads the newspaper like the rest of us. I mean, if we saw those reports, he would have seen them too. It’s his own minister.

Kevin Rudd:  And it’s true. I understand some of this has been in the public domain and I’m not seeking to dispute that with you. All I’m saying is that even premiers of the state have had difficulties in times past in always wrestling these people to the ground. It is part of a culture or subculture, which cause most people good, fine, upstanding members of the Labor Party, women and men, branch members and trade union members, to frankly tear their hair out when they see this type of behaviour because it is all about the power agendas you’ve just spoken about. But it’s also been nurtured by subcultures within these factions over a couple of decades. I mean, my major crime against humanity in 2010, when the history is finally revealed, was to have the audacity to disempower these people by removing their ability to appoint people to the cabinet of the Commonwealth of Australia. That’s why they got so angry. That’s why they wanted a political change. If you take them on, and I said this I think in interviews yesterday, Virginia, on Daniel Andrews part, it is not for the faint-hearted. It will turn into a bloody internal fight, but my encouragement of Andrews is that it is a fight worth having in terms of the future of our progressive movement.

Virginia Trioli:  So what is the solution? I remember the former state Labor leader here, John Brumby, quite a while back divided seats into left and right. It was seen by some as a clumsy solution and criticised by others, but it was his solution to this eternal problem of factions trying to steal influence off each other. Do you just divide them up?

Kevin Rudd:  Well, the first rule change which the Labor Party should consider is the formal abolition of factions. So that they become —

Virginia Trioli:  Let me just jump in there if I can. That’s never going to happen in Labor, is it, Kevin Rudd, really?

Kevin Rudd:  Well, why not? For the simple reason that if we don’t reimagine our future, we’re going to be constantly captured by our past. Why can’t we have a political movement where people are elevated in terms of positions of responsibility or authority based on their ability to argue for the ideals of the party, their ability to formulate policy for the future of the state of the country, and their ability to persuade the public to come with us? These should be the qualities which determine with a person makes it to the top or not, either in the Labor Party or the Liberal Party. So a way to do that is to do two things: follow up on the rule which was brought in, I’ve got to say reluctantly some years ago, to make it unlawful under party rules to pay for anyone else’s branch membership. And that’s the key machinery of branch-stacking. But it’s logical corollary is to abolish factions altogether. Once they performed in times gone by, Virginia, some sort of broad ideological function in terms of people’s view of left and right, matters on the economy, on social policy, on foreign policy. That is no longer really the case. They are simply the machinery through which essentially talentless men, and they invariably are talentless men, grubbing their way to the top.

Virginia Trioli:  I guess it’s telling this morning just finally, Kevin Rudd, that you’re the only Labor politician out of the dozens to whom I’ve spoken in the last 24 hours willing to talk about this issue on the record today.

Kevin Rudd:  Well, it’s partly, let me say, there are two cultures of fear in Australian politics. One is attacking Rupert Murdoch because you know you’re gonna have your head taken off the next day in 70% of the Australian print media and that’s one thing. The second is within political parties, it is to assault the prevailing factional power structures, either in New South Wales Liberals, or in the Victorian Labor Party. Factionalism is an enemy of our democracy and should be put to death.

Virginia Trioli:  Kevin Rudd, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.