Four Corners last night reminded me that fifty years ago, it was the ALP that was stricken by faction, especially in Victoria. Now it is the Liberal Party, especially in New South Wales. The sitting MP who was attacked is a very decent woman whom I would vote for. The rest are mongrels. No sane person would wish to go anywhere near any of them. It was further evidence of what we know – the party system in general, and the two-party system in particular, is in deep trouble. What follows comes from a draft of a book about what is wrong in government and business in Australia.
And in Australia the case of the Liberal Party is even more fraught. They usually govern in conjunction – in ‘coalition’ – with the National Party. That party used to represent those in primary industry and contained some of the world’s best practice agrarian socialists. (Most of our tax laws were written for the relief of farmers.) Just what that party stands for now is a little like the quest for the real presence. But what is now clear is that this ménage ȃ trois is very heavily on the nose for about two out of three Australians.
It is not just these two parties that involve coalitions – each of the two major parties increasingly looks like a coalition of factions in itself. The Victorian ALP used to be the most notorious for being riven by faction. That mantle now looks to have been taken by the New South Wales Liberal Party. Factions of one kind or another are inevitable in any political or social grouping – a school council, a club committee, a student’s representative body, the management of a large law firm, the Royal College of Surgeons, or the office holders in a trade union.
But they are also poison to outsiders. They bring images of manipulators, puppeteers in the Godfather, or the most notorious ‘faceless men.’ There is something inherently sinister about factions. And common experience suggests that those who have the time and inclination to go in for this back-room back-stabbing hardly ever represent the general feelings of the overall members of the relevant body. Most people are not so zealous about such affairs – and that is one reason why they are not going into political parties any more. If you say of an Australian that he or she is a political animal, you might be asked to step outside. Most Australians would rather not get their hands dirty, that way or at all, and they leave the field to the enthusiasts, the extremists – and the branch-stackers. And it will only get worse for the major parties if good people decide to invest their time and energy in the independents.
There is something inherently dangerous and hence sinister about any kind of division within groups of people. The result tends to be what we call faction. The Oxford English Dictionaryis almost colourful:
A party in the state or in any community or association. Always with the imputation of selfish or mischievous ends or unscrupulous methods…..Factious spirit or action; party strife or intrigue; dissension.
It is the dissension that is fundamental. And that leads immediately to an allegation of disoyalty. And that is the most venomous charge that can be levelled against a member of any group. In religion, it is a charge of heresy that in other times saw people burned at the stake. And that is the reason why when the English were developing the Westminster system of parliamentary and cabinet government in the 18th century, the term ‘party’ was anathema. His Majesty’s ‘loyal opposition’ was a contradiction in terms. It is worth recalling therefore that our system of two party parliamentary government arose out of heresy.
Common experience suggests that division and therefore faction are more likely to arise in a group that wants to effect radical change, or in one that has lost its way. People in business know that the whispering starts when business is slow, and experience suggests that faction is more active in a party in opposition than one in government.
And let us return to the point that experience suggests that those who have the time and inclination to drive the agenda – stated or merely aspired to by some – of a group of people may not reflect the views of the members of that group as a whole (In my five years at Melbourne University in the 60’s, I frequently wondered who sprinkled what on the Weeties of those in the Student’s Representatives. From time to time I would experience similar quizzicality at the Victorian Bar.)
It was all there on TV. The worst is Alex Hawke. A boy wonder who has never had a real job and who is there for one reason only – Alex Hawke. He even looks shifty – like the Inquisitor of El Greco. He shows why people turn away from the major parties and look to independents – and why that gets up the noses of other people who have never had a real job.
Liberal Party – ALP – Factions – Hawke – Four Corners