My letter to Labor: Infighting only helps the Tories
By Callen Sorensen Karklis
I’ve worked 6 years in retail and 3 years in media advertising – predominantly as a union member for much of that time – and 6 months in call centers in market research roles. Coming from a very mixed background in family ties; an Irish, Scottish, English, Germanic-Scandinavian background on one hand of my family who are Protestants, ADF, timber tradies, age-care workers, public servants and on the other side is Latvian, Spanish, and Aboriginal peoples who are Catholic and sand miners. My shared view of a true Australian mongrel of diversity in upbringing led me into the hands of the Australian Labour Movement at 16 and the Labor Party at the young age of 18, after completing high school. Not that dissimilar a trajectory for those with similar upbringings and passionate in progressive change.
I soon joined my local branch in the Redlands in Cleveland in what was then the Cleveland-Wellington Pt. branch and volunteered for a range of Labor MPs on a state and federal level. I interned briefly with the ALP head office on Peel St South Brisbane and soon became familiar with the unions and their officials and organisers, where it led me to briefly work for the left faction affiliated union call centres at United Voice and RTBU conducting market research and notice of EBA agreements.
I was totally oblivious upon joining in 2011 that the QLD Labor Party was undergoing intense factional infighting over the asset sales of the 2009-2012 period. I was younger and more naïve inspired by the Kennedys of old and “I dream a dream” speeches and the promise of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. I was absolutely gut-wrenched upon the 2012 QLD State election which saw the landslide defeat of Labor to Campbell Newman’s “can do” attitude that threw a spanner to the state’s red tape on over-development which still hasn’t recovered to this day, despite who’s in power.
But I still persisted and ended being voted in as my Branch Secretary and Treasurer only to see the good that both Labor leaders Rudd and Gillard had achieved being broken away by bitter party infighting in the form of endless leadership spills, shocks and horror and we lost the 2013 federal election and I threw a laptop to pieces upon learning that climate denialist Tony Abbott had become Prime Minister. But I persisted and ended up climbing the ranks of my branch to Vice-President then President. I also did so begrudgingly taking advice of elder branch members and ex MPs who I was suspicious of at first but eventually gained respect for.
I was also in Young Labor of QLD where I was involved in the policy committee of Young Labor but learnt that policy debates in Young Labor were more about the theatrics and bar tabs and moved on to find solace in policy action. I ended up leaving the confines of the soft left groups to associate with the more moderate NUW and groups like QILN (QLD Indigenous Labor Network) and Labor LEAN (Labor Environment Action Network) where I worked on the committee of QILN to pass Treaty policy and attended the 2016 State Labor Conference on the Gold Coast as a delegate. I also worked with regional conference delegates at meetings with politicians and lawyers to draft up stronger environmental protection policy for protecting wildlife like Koalas at sites like Toondah in Cleveland and beyond after community groups and scientist showcased their concern for declining wildlife and vegetation.
I was ecstatic with the election of Labor in QLD In 2015 and what looked like the turning of the tide nationally in other states for a time. But as time unfolded, I became extremely demoralized and kicked in the guts only to find out the real cost of disunity and understand it for myself, particularly contempt from some towards policy focused individuals. I still persisted and campaigned and assisted groups like Local Labor who were endorsing the Carr, Bracks review of 2010 which wanted to make the ALP processes more democratic and upon doing so joined the Fabians Society looking to the lessons of Whitlam and Race Matthews and how they changed the labour movement from within away from the Old school Labor of Arthur Calwell by using grassroots tactics and better say for the rank and file in the 1960s. I was briefly for a time Local Labor’s secretary and worked with branches state wide to analyze ways to improve transparency in the politik of the party machine during the branch structure review of 2016 – 2017 to enhance better say for our members. There were also concerns of bullying and inappropriate behaviour in some wings of the party but to the credit of former State Secretary Evan Moorhead the party introduced a code of conduct in an attempt to curb this.
But between the factional manoeuvring and toeing and throwing it was beyond difficult. Some factional operatives were sincere and approachable while others like in any organization had personality faults (everybody’s human); this was true of all factions irrespective of Left or Right inside the party. Some people were willing to see internal changes while others were suspicious and short term thinking only thinking of the next election cycle rather than the long-term effects of effective policy debate and implementation. But factions despite their flaws do have their uses to keep the relative peace both financially and ideologically in the movement to work for a compromise of sorts, and a bigger goal for everyday people and workers alike. Unfortunately, that diplomacy in the factional process is weakening with some taking advantage of it. Former PM Kevin Rudd has merited points about certain power players needing to tone down their influence in war games but it’s so much more it’s the culture within the movement which needs changing too.
I left the ALP in late 2017 after I learnt that the QLD government was going ahead with Adani and Toondah Harbor’s PDA which conflicted with my strong held beliefs of protecting country as an Indigenous person. Despite strong climate policies of the Rudd/Gillard era and policies on a state and federal level to reduce carbon emissions, going ahead with building the Adani mine in central QLD and also proceeding with building 3600 units in the Toondah wetlands on a international RAMSAR site despite party policy contrary to the governments agenda, it was at the time the last straw for me as I felt the party was starting to fall prey to the traps of the conservative side. I warned the party upon resigning that if the party didn’t reform its culture, I could see the party repeating the same mistakes of the centre-left parties globally and the Democrats in the US, with centre-right populist taking charge. I wish I was wrong and that Labor did win the 2019 federal election but this was not to be the case.
Upon my resignation and during the lead up to the federal election, I was amazed that despite the good of many union and party members to hold certain others to account on climate change and over-development issues that many of them were challenged harshly and in the lead up to an election internally. I witnessed a former state secretary of a union challenged for allying himself with other academics and scientist questioning the ethics of the party siding with a Sydney property developer when the party of yesteryear had always backed away from such actions in the late 1980s – 1990s. I also witnessed hardworking union members, ex media people in the party and university students denied entry into branch meetings due to their stance on acting on climate change issues by other party members and whole branches were shut down swiftly. I later learned from friends within the party interstate that the QLD Labor’s branch has the highest rate of knocking back branch membership and or silencing descent today internally which mirrored similar behaviour of those from the pre-intervention era of the party in the 1980s. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this isn’t the most sensible approach to take democratically, it isn’t healthy.
What is clear here is that in the lead up to a state election in QLD in 2020 things are not looking good especially with protesters taking actions into their own hands now that policy options have been exhausted in many people’s eyes. It’s not just the environmental sides at play it’s also the nature of the culture within the factions and the union’s hierarchy where self-interest of some is seen above the rest of the movement. The John Setka saga in the CFMEU on the left and the battle between new Labor leader Albanese is one example (whether your pro Rosie Batty or pro or anti Setka it’s still not a good look the party knows unions must take into consideration the views and processes of their members votes), another is the SDA union holiday from Labor Forums right faction over ministerial appointments, all the while some of the Rights AWU staff have been replaced in party office and coincidentally around the same time the Lefts MP Jackie Trad’s being investigated for having shares in a company home in Woolloongabba by the CCC, it would be interesting to know if this leak came from within? And also the recent brown paper bag saga in NSW Labor. Look don’t get me wrong there are great people in the unions who work endlessly for their members doing it tough especially in light of wage theft and underemployment. But for the unions to become relevant again not to mention the party they need to diversify in their thinking as well this includes the factions of Left, Right and centrist in an ever-changing world. Whats clear about all of this is when the party loses focus on matters of policy and disunified it always heads to election defeats, always.
Look in the history books to the Labor splits, especially. Now it’s a stretch to suggest that recent Labor internal squabbles are another split, but internal dismay still isn’t good. The First Labor Split of 1916 – 1917 cost Labor power over Billy Hughes conscription vote during World War One, when Hughes split the party on the issue in two. Labor had a good track record at the time holding office for almost 6 years all together in the early years of federation and even maintaining the balance of power with the early Protectionist party. Labor didn’t hold power for another 13 years. The split of the Depression split the party into 3 parties that time, Scullin loyalist federally, Lang supporters in NSW, and Lyons defecting to the conservative side. Labor didn’t hold power for another decade until the rise of John Curtin. The third split came to be during the height of the 1950s when catholic unionist formed the breakaway DLP which helped lock the party out of government for a record 23 years. More recently in 1995 QLD Labor lost its majority in parliament partially due to the proposed highway through koala inhabited scrubs and lost power 9 – 10 months later, asset sales infighting cost Labor 3 years in state government in 2012 – 15, and the Rudd vs. Gillard infighting has cost Labor 7 years federally and will continue to do so if no coherent climate policy is found and infighting on other issues isn’t resolved. Divided we fall, united we stand; this was the lesson to be learnt during the great successful innings during the Curtin/Chifley era of the 1940s and the Hawke/Keating era of the 1980s – mid 1990s with consensus style leadership at the helm that won elections, even Rudd knew this in 2007 with agenda to stop Work Choices.
There is hope yet. There are groups like the Labor Academy looking at ways to enhance upskilling activist entering in roles in the Labor party and wider Labour movement. But the party needs to accept that centralizing control on every little thing may do more harm than good. Candidates need to be out and campaigning on party policy (within reason) and not being sheltered on issues like climate change action. Members having a different view on issues like climate change and environmentalism should be encouraged to have a say not silenced. Sidelining community groups is not going to win support to the party or the movement this includes the attitude to some in the unions as well from the party. Real leaders listen to people and step up and speak out for everybody with a consensus mould much like Hawke used too. If the party doesn’t act and learn from this in the coming year ahead, we may just see the real prospect of One Nation gaining the balance of power again for the first time in QLD since the late 1990s and with the LNP gaining power in late 2020. It’s time to act and reform a way forward so that everybody can reach a deal together. Otherwise the party is going to isolate many potential members who will otherwise join the Greens and some who either join the protests or become more radical. Perhaps the infighting has also affected the way it can reach compromises and solutions with other parties and the wider public. Look Labor can start winning elections again if it puts aside the squabbles and actually started putting people forward in the party who can have a sensible mature debate together.
Callen Sorensen Karklis is a candidate running for Division 2 at the upcoming Redlands City Council election in 2020 and previously worked in market research and media advertising. Cal is the former Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the QLD Fabians.
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