top of page

Renate Kamener Oration

Ormond College, 28 July, 2013

James Button


Do traditional political parties have a future?


It is a great privilege to be asked to give this lecture in memory of Renate Kamener.


I am going to speak about whether traditional political parties have a future. In one sense, of course they do. Labor and the Coalition parties have shared government since World War Two, with third parties struggling to win a single seat in the House of Representatives, let alone office. There is no sign this stability is about to end, whatever popular disaffection exists with current politics. But what kind of future do our main parties have? And even more importantly, are they, in their present form, the best vehicle for ensuring the health of our democracy?


My qualifications to speak on this subject are only these. I have been a member of the ALP for the past three years. As a journalist for 20 years I followed politics closely. In 2009 and 2010 I spent 16 months working for the Rudd Government, mainly as a speechwriter. And my father, John Button, was Industry Minister in the Hawke and Keating Governments, and an ALP member for more than 50 years. So my perspective on this subject is both that of an insider and of an outsider.


I will focus on the Labor Party, but I will also say some things about the Liberal Party. I’m interested in the non-Labor parties, and I’m sure our democracy is stronger when all main parties are in good shape. My father had a sister, Marion, who remains a longtime member of the Liberal Party. Over the years we had some interesting family arguments over Christmas lunch. When I covered state politics for The Age in the early 1990s, Jeff Kennett once introduced me to a colleague of his saying: “He comes from a very political family. His aunt Marion is president of one of my branches.”


This subject is a fitting one for a lecture that honours the life of Renate Kamener.


I knew Renate for more than 30 years, from when I was a teenager and Bob was our family GP in Hawthorn.


It was a pleasure spending time with Renate. She had a gift that not all adults have, which was a genuine interest in the lives of young people, pleasure in their achievements, and an ability to talk to them as if we were equals.


I have a vivid memory of being grilled by her over my studies. I remember her direct gaze, her searching eyes, her encouraging smile. She was also a beautiful woman, with a most unusual face.


But I think what I remember most about Renate was her optimism: her belief that good things were always happening or about to happen, especially if you applied your mind to them.


She and Bob also believed that political involvement was an important part of being a citizen and being engaged with the life of the community.


After they arrived from South Africa in 1965 Bob joined the Hawthorn branch of the ALP. Renate did not. Apparently the couple had an agreement that they would always belong to different political groups, because if they were in the same group Renate would always end up criticizing him.


Instead, Renate became a leading figure in the new Jewish Democratic Society and later helped to found a group in Melbourne for Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, Salaam-Shalom.


Bob and Renate passed on their belief in politics and public service to their boys. Larry spent a period as an adviser to Paul Keating.


Marty joined People for Nuclear Disarmament here at Melbourne University, a group to which I also belonged.


One Sunday we all dressed up as spies and staged a protest outside Watsonia Barracks, which we claimed was a signals facility working for US intelligence.


Marty, I think in hindsight we might have been a bit overheated about that, but when you’re a 22-year old university student, if you can’t find a secret CIA base in your home town you’re not really trying.


I want to start by comparing the ALP of today to the one I knew growing up in Hawthorn in the late 1970s, the one to which Bob Kamener belonged. I don’t do so as an act of nostalgia, but to give a sense of what a healthy political party looked like, and to ask whether that can be regained.


In the 1970s Hawthorn was not as posh as it is now, but it was nevertheless a comfortable, mostly middle-class, suburb in the electorate of Kooyong, the former seat of Prime Minister Bob Menzies and one of the most blue-ribbon Liberal seats in the country.


Even so, in 1977 the Hawthorn branch of the ALP had 125 members, and meetings of 50 or 60 were common. In this world political involvement – while not the norm – was certainly quite normal.


The Labor Party was never a mass party. Yet its national membership in the 1970s was about 75,000, twice its size today, in a population that is 10 million greater than in the ‘70s. More importantly, many more of these ‘70s members were active. Branches debated policy and carried motions on party policy, believing they had at least a chance of getting their view adopted at state or national ALP conference. And that if the conference adopted a position, it was binding on state or federal MPs to try to enact it as legislation.


In other words, people joined the ALP in the belief that if they could change the party, they could change the country. They didn’t agree with everything the party did, but they felt it gave them a voice. They worked hard for the party, accepted its discipline, because they felt it gave them a say in the running of the country.


And the MPs these ordinary members elected to Parliament were people who in the main looked and talked like them, people they could relate to. In 1978, the Federal Parliamentary ALP had 64 members. It’s striking to look at the jobs they did before they went into politics. There were 10 former union officials, six of whom had worked in the trade or profession their union represented. Six people had worked in the wholesale or retail trade. There were six lawyers, five public servants, three farmers, four doctors, five tradesmen, five teachers, two accountants and two policemen – one of whom,  Bill Hayden, was leader of the party. There was an engineer, a journalist, a former merchant marine officer and a shearer – famously, Mick Young.


In other ways, the parliamentary ALP was not so representative. It had no Aboriginal member, and still doesn’t. Migrants from non-Anglo-Irish backgrounds were significantly under-represented. Critically, the proportion of women was tiny. The old ALP was a very male party. Yet the capacity of the party to open up to women from the 1980s – under pressure from women members themselves – showed the ALP as a living part of Australia, able to change with it.


Of course, the Labor Party was always riven with factions, personality disputes and hatreds, ten thousand points of view. The parliamentary party always felt vexed by the demands of the ordinary members, and the members always felt the MPs were letting them down. These arguments were conducted in public – on the floor of conference – and the media covered them in full. Older people here will remember the bitter battles over uranium mining and party reform in the early 1980s. These public fights often seemed brutal and divisive, but they were important. They taught MPs to argue in public, and to make the hardest political case of all: how to balance principle with the need to win power. The Labor Party was a party of argument, of combat.


From those endless arguments came the most successful period in Labor’s history. Having been out of power in Canberra, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia through most of the postwar period, from the 1980s the ALP began long periods of power federally and in the five largest states. If there is such a thing as a golden age in politics, this was it for the ALP.


What about today? Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said that so many books have been written about Labor lately that it has become a new literary genre – like vampire novels. This prompted former leader Mark Latham to describe all these books as Labor’s Twilight series. Without wishing to be one more ghoul feasting on the remains, let me give this sketch.


I looked earlier at the jobs federal Labor members in 1978 had before entering parliament. How about the 103 Labor MPs in 2011? There were 22 party and union administrators, 20 political consultants, advisers and lobbyists, 14 party and union officials. The only two significant groups outside these were the 10 business executives and managers, and 12 lawyers and legal officers. In other words, fully 84 of the 103 MPs, before going into Parliament, had paid jobs as members of the political class.


Beneath them is a vacuum, the ghost of a grassroots party. The ALP now has about 37,000 members – about 0.2 per cent of the Australian population over the age of 15. Ten AFL clubs have higher membership tallies; Collingwood’s is twice as large as the ALP’s. But even that 37, 000 figure is misleading. As many as two-thirds of those members may no longer be active. When Labor held an election for its national president in 2011, just 11,600 members voted. Voting for a president is surely the bare minimum qualification in order to be called a party activist.


A senior party figure told me that the Victorian ALP has at most 2000 active members, the South Australian ALP 200. In Victoria the average age of members is 55, the largest single group is people aged 65 and over. No wonder the 2010 Bracks-Carr-Faulkner Review of the ALP said that unless the party changed, there was a risk it would not survive.


What the Labor Party stands for has become invisible to most Australians. Its powerbrokers operate and its MPs are largely chosen behind closed doors. The MPs no longer look or talk like representatives of a wide range of citizens. The party’s power structures are opaque. Its branches are too small and unrepresentative of the population to influence policy and anyway are ignored by the party leadership. The workings of the union movement and how it relates to the ALP are equally obscure to most people. Labor no longer seems embedded in the life of the country.


Are things any better in the Liberal Party? In 2008, the Victorian division had 13,400 members, according to an internal party document, Liberal Renewal. Nearly two-thirds of members were over the age of 60, more than a quarter over the age of 75. Only 6 per cent – that’s 800 people -- were under the age of 30. Of the 13,000 members more than two thirds were non-participating branch members. That makes just over 4000 active members, most of them older than 60, across the state. A quarter of all Liberal members were concentrated in just three electors: Wannon (once held by Malcolm Fraser), Kooyong (held by Robert Menzies) and Higgins (held by two former PMs, Harold Holt and John Gorton, and more recently by Peter Costello).


In these respects the parties are mirror images of each other. Here’s a sentence from the 2010 Labor review: “The 2010 election saw many important polling booths around Australia unstaffed or understaffed for the first time in living memory.”


And one from the 2008 Liberal review: “There are large areas of the state where our branch network is almost non-existent…It is only with extraordinary efforts that we were able to man the polling booths in the north and west of Melbourne that meant we were able to get our third Senator elected at the last federal election.”


Here is the astonishing thing. These parties are tiny. And yet, in one sense, they run the country. They place their people into key roles as advisers, in the public service, corporations, NGOs and think tanks. Through their MPs they set policy directions. They seek to speak to the country about its biggest problems and aspirations. Critically, they choose Ministers, and potential Prime Ministers.


Former ALP leader Mark Latham puts the problem vividly in his recent Quarterly Essay, Not Dead Yet: Labor’s post-left future. As an activist party, Latham wrote, “Labor now resembles a Hollywood back lot. There’s nothing behind the façade. The grand old party of working-class participation has become a virtual party.”


“In no other part of society’’ – Latham continues – “could an organization function this way and expect to survive. This is the core delusion of 21st century democracy: that political parties can fragment and hollow out, yet still win the confidence of the people.”


How did this happen? Seas of ink have been spilt trying to answer this question. Let me briefly note some of the changes.


  • The decline of trade unionism – since the mid-1980s Australia has experienced the most rapid drop in union membership of any country except New Zealand – destroyed the working class base of the party.

  • A change in the politics of the middle-class left: a far greater interest in single issues such as asylum seekers or the Republic.

  • The rise of the Greens to take votes from Labor’s middle-class left.

  • The decline of mass participation and mass audiences across the society – in trade unionism, media, civil society and religion.

  • The increasing affluence of Australian society and the rise of private life.

  • The success of the ALP, its becoming no longer an opposition party but a party of government.

  • The decline of patriarchal politics. My father’s example from 1971.

  • The increasing unattractiveness of politics as a career, and the  relentless media scrutiny of politicians’ lives, which help to thin the talent pool toward the obsessives, the few with extremely supportive spouses, and the very young.


As a result, we have political parties that are mere shadows of their former selves. We have politicians of a declining calibre, in general. We have a tiny and narrowly based political class that nevertheless commands a huge amount of power. We have a mainstream media that is undergoing massive and destabilizing change, in which the range of voices is narrowing, and which is becoming ever more shrill and personality-focussed even as it grows weaker – in face, precisely because it is growing weaker. And we have a disengaged and discontented public. It’s a recipe for a seriously dysfunctional political system.


What are the consequences of this? Ross Garnaut, the economist and former senior adviser to the Hawke, Rudd and Gillard Governments, has spoken of how Australia’s great reform period between 1983 and 2001 is over. In that time, a Labor Government brought down the tariff walls that propped up the least competitive Australian industries; it opened the economy to the world; created a national health scheme (Medicare) and a national compulsory superannuation scheme so that people would save for their old age; it freed up the labour market and introduced new regulations to increase competition. A Liberal Government introduced a goods and services tax and brought in other important changes to the financial system.


Why is it harder to achieve reform? For one thing, politicians have become more cautious, and vested interests have become more powerful.

A new ethos has developed in which there can be no losers from reform. Households have been led to expect that no policy changes will cause any of them to be worse off.


Big companies – some of them with headquarters overseas -- are no longer prepared to accept tough government decisions in the national interest. They spend huge amounts of money on lobbyists and public relations firms to prevent or soften laws they don’t like, or to win excessive compensation for unpalatable reforms.


In 2009, for example, affected companies won lavish compensation from the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for his ETS reforms, a process that Ross Garnaut called “one of the worst examples of policy-making we have seen on a major issue in Australia.” In 2010 the mining industry launched a lavishly funded campaign against the mining tax Mark I, and not only got the tax significantly weakened but may have helped to unseat Rudd as PM. In 2011, the gambling industry created a war chest said to be worth $40 million in order to stop poker machine reform dead in its tracks. Big media companies helped to destroy media law reform in 2013. Big business is not the only effective blocker of government action. The union campaign against John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation contributed heavily to his defeat in 2007 and the legislation’s subsequent repeal.


I am not commenting on the rights and wrongs of these individual policies. Nor am I saying that businesses and citizens should not have the right campaign against laws they do not like. I am saying that in all these cases, a private interest group went up against an elected government and won. It does not bode well for bold reform in future.


But bigger forces are at work tying the hands of governments and political parties. Last year saw publication of a fascinating book: The End of Power, by Moses Naim, a journalist and a former Venezuelan government minister.


Naim argues that the nature of power in our world is changing. It is moving from some nations and groups to others, and it is dispersing to many more actors than before. But something else is also going on, Naim argues. Power, as we have known it, is decaying. Governments, bureaucracies, political parties, big corporations and armies remain very powerful, but the constraints on them are much greater. In Naim’s phrase, power has become easier to acquire, harder to use, and easier to lose.


Naim quotes a range of senior government figures to support his point. People such as Javier Solana, Joschka Fischer and a former Swedish deputy prime minister, Lena Hjelm-Wallen, who says: “I never cease to be amazed at how much and how fast political power has changed. I now look back and marvel at the many things we could do in the 1970s and 1980s and that now are almost unimaginable given the many new factors that reduce and slow down the ability of governments and politicians to act.”


These factors include the courts; international treaties; the movement of people, money and diseases across borders; non-government organisations; international ratings agencies whose verdicts on a government’s performance make it harder to borrow; whistleblowers; terrorists; the Internet.


Most importantly, around the world there are more people alive than ever before who are more mobile, more wealthy, more articulate, more aware of their rights, more inclined to disregard custom, and more difficult to regiment and control.


In many ways, this is a change to celebrate. The hold on power of tyrants and tycoons is more fragile. Power is more dispersed, society has more voices, there is a stronger meritocracy than before. But, as Naim writes, the decay of power has unwelcome results as well. It is far harder to get things done. Harder to contain carbon emissions, address Europe’s economic catastrophe or to stop the killing in Syria.


In 2011 American government was deadlocked over whether the nation would default on its debt. In 2012, only four governments of the 34 countries in the OECD had a majority in their parliaments. Australia’s minority government was hardly a unique phenomenon.


But there is a paradox attached to the decay of power. Let’s consider Naim’s definition of modern power -- easier to acquire, harder to use, easier to lose – in the context of Australian political parties. Power is obviously easier to lose. The ALP changed leaders six times between 2001 and this year. The Liberal Party has had four leaders since 2007. In the 1960s Labor leader Arthur Calwell lost three elections in a row before he was replaced.


Power is harder to use, for the reasons I’ve described above. But it is easier to acquire. If power is dispersed through the world and the nation, it is concentrated at the level of the party.


Our main political parties are now very small. If Victoria has 2000 active Labor Party members, the number of people with power to make important decisions is probably around 50. The number of people who are paid to make decisions – apart from MPs – is around five.


Yet the size of the parties is out of all proportion to their power. If you are determined to rise in this world, it is much easier to do than ever before. You will do better if you are driven, obsessed, probably ruthless. In the case of the ALP, you will need to join a faction, become adept at counting numbers, start speaking the slightly robotic language of the ALP apparatchik. As a young ALP friend of mine put it, you will need to drink the Kool-Aid, start hating the Greens, move out of the mainstream of Australian life.  


Those who make it to Parliament are not necessarily the most gifted but the ones who have harnessed themselves most effectively to this system. In the case of the ALP, you have a weak parliamentary party, out of touch with the community and therefore enslaved to opinion polls to find out what the community thinks, obsessed at all costs with winning elections and preserving seats. In this system, one very driven person can wield a huge – perhaps dangerous -- amount of power.


So what is to be done? Can ways be found to engage and re-engage people? For all that the world has changed, this remains the paramount task of politics. I want to explore three areas where change needs to happen.


  • Giving members more say


Last week the Labor caucus voted to give ordinary ALP members 50 per cent of the votes to elect Labor’s leader. Another change that has been proposed but not yet enacted is a primary system, in which not only members but supporters of parties get a chance to elect candidates for Parliament.


I think both are good ideas. Parties have to find ways to expand the role and influence of ordinary members. Around the developed world, there is a strong trend toward members having a say in electing the leaders of parties.


The United States chooses its two candidates for President via primaries of registered supporters of both main parties. In 1981 the British Labour Party moved to give a third of the votes for leader to affiliated trade unionists, a third to MPs and a third to ordinary members. Since 1998 the British Conservative Party elects its leader in a two-round process. The parliamentary party chooses two candidates, then the 300,000 members vote for the leader.


In Canada the three main parties all give ordinary members a say. The New Democratic Party – the main Opposition party – elects its leader at a convention at which MPs, members of the executive and delegates chosen from branches and associations all get a vote. The Liberal Party and the ruling Conservative Party do something similar.


The French and Italians have gone furthest. In Italy the Democratic Party, founded in 2007, chose its leader from an open primary, with all Italian citizens eligible to vote. In 2011, the French Socialist Party for the first time chose its leader – Francois Hollande – through a primary open to all citizens who met three conditions. They had to be registered to vote, to be prepared to pay one euro, and to sign a charter pledging allegiance to the core principles of the French left: liberte, egalite, fraternite.


I am sure it is no coincidence that these parties all have memberships that are much higher than parties in Australia. In Canada the New Democratic Party has 130,000 members – including 45,000 it signed up in its 2012 leadership ballot. The Liberal Party has 130,000 members, the Conservatives 100,000.


In Britain the Labour Party has 200,000 members, the Conservatives 300,000, in a population less than three times the size of Australia’s.

According to Nick Reece, a former secretary of the Victorian ALP, Australia has the lowest level of party membership of any advanced Western democracy.


Giving members the chance to elect the leader will attract new members, drawn by the chance to elect a potential Prime Minister. It will force candidates to reach out to the rank and file, explain in public meetings who they are and what they believe. More secure tenure for the leader will reduce the likelihood that a run of bad polls can lead to his or her removal.


I have two concerns. The first is with the provision, proposed by Kevin Rudd and adopted by caucus on July 22, that a leader can only be removed and an election held if 75 per cent of MPs first vote for it, and then only when the leader has brought the party into disrepute. This is far too high a standard. There has to be an easier way to remove a dysfunctional leader. In the British Conservative Party, an election contest is triggered if the parliamentary party passes a majority vote of no confidence in the leader.


My second concern is with the language Kevin Rudd used when he introduced the plan. The goal, he said was to stop someone being able to “just wander in one day, and say, 'OK sunshine, it's over.’” This direct and somewhat vengeful reference to his own deposing in 2010 troubled me. What happened to Rudd was tough. But I think that his governing style, his terrible treatment of people, his failure to advance key reforms, the paralysis he had created, made it inevitable. It worries me that he has accepted none of that – or even worse, perhaps want to change the system so that it never happens again to him. Is Rudd changing the way leaders are elected because he genuinely wants to reform the party, or to entrench his own power?


  • Remaking the ALP as a party of argument


The Labor Party must reinvent itself as an open party, a party committed to public debate and argument – as it once was.


That means moving away from staged conferences, where all decisions are made beforehand, behind closed doors, to meetings where real arguments are permitted – encouraged – on the conference floor, in the presence of the media.


It means moving more to the British model of politics, where backbenchers are allowed to express dissent in public.


It means allowing more conscience votes for MPs, in part so that the public can hear their members thinking aloud. For example, a few years ago, under Kevin Rudd, the parliamentary party was locked down on the question of gay marriage. It made the party appear to have only one voice on the issue, which of course was not true. If backbenchers and even ministers or shadow ministers were allowed to express their views, it would encourage people outside to join, knowing there were others in the party who shared their position.


These are huge changes, and will be unnerving for a party that for so long has been committed to public solidarity and discipline. But I think the ALP must become a house of many voices. The biggest risk now is not loss of solidarity but crushing uniformity, and a failure to represent the diversity of Australia.



  • What does Labor believe in?


Finally, Labor must have the biggest argument of all: over what it stands for. This is no longer clear.


As Mark Latham says in his Quarterly Essay, in democratic politics, where there is no belief, there can be no persuasion.


People will only join if they feel big ideas are at stake and they can help shape them. If the party has ideas and principles that are woven into a bigger story about where Australia is heading.


What is that story? It is difficult. Centre-left parties around the world are struggling to find one. Labor’s story will need to include a focus on schools, which are falling behind in some vital areas, on the shape and functioning of our cities, and on ensuring that Australia is best placed to provide high-quality goods and services for Asia’s large and growing middle-class. But here I want to focus on what I think is the biggest question: how to save the planet from climate change and depletion of our natural resources while keeping societies fair and continuing to expand opportunities for people who don’t have them.


Climate change is off the agenda at the moment. But that will change, and probably soon. Barack Obama put it back on the American agenda in a major speech in late June. As his Secretary of State John Kerry said about climate change: “the science is screaming at us.”   


Latham puts it well in his Quarterly Essay what the long-term consequences of climate change will be:


  • Global warming will reduce economic output and income levels, with major consequences for western societies used to increasing levels of affluence.

  • The values of the consumer society, based on cheap energy created from carbon, will no longer be the right values for dealing with the disruption.

  • Concern about the environment will be first political priority.

  • Carbon pricing will be an orthodox approach for dealing with emissions.

  • Hard core free market ideas will lose their power, as government intervention to deal with the crisis becomes necessary and acceptable.

  • Tensions between affluent and developing nations will increase, as the blame game over climate change intensifies.

  • Co-operation between nations to find solutions will be essential. Ideas will spread between nations and people very quickly.

  • The role of education in finding those ideas will be vital.  



So what should Labor’s goal be? I think it needs to lead debate in Australia on finding a real-world but meaningful response to climate change.


I’m going to end with an old-fashioned plea. We get the politicians we deserve. There are people in this room who care about politics. I urge you to join a party. I have preferences for who you should join, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because active, lively parties will force the others to lift their game. If you care about the state of our politics, get involved.


That is what Renate and Bob Kamener did. Growing up in South Africa, they saw the evil of apartheid up close, and joined a small group working against the system. They sold anti-apartheid newspapers in townships they were not supposed to enter. They sheltered one of their group that was pursued by the authorities.

In South Africa, and later in Australia, they maintained a faith that politics could build a better world and that as ordinary people they had a right – even a duty – to be politically involved.


It is that form of old-fashioned activism and spirit that we must work to rekindle today.


Thank you.





bottom of page