April 2006



By Mungo MacCallum

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Google a definition of 'faction' and this is the first answer that appears:

fac-tion n.

1. A form of literature or film-making that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or uses real people or events as essential elements in an otherwise fictional situation.

2. A literary work or film that is a mixture of fact and fiction.

Well, how reassuring can you get? Faction: a realm where reality and make-believe intersect and overlap. No wonder the idea holds such appeal for beleaguered politicians. But, regrettably, the dictionary continues:

fac-tion n.

1. A group of persons forming a cohesive, usually contentious minority within a larger group.

2. Conflict within an organisation or nation; internal dissension.

And the dictionary notes also that ‘-faction’ can be used as a suffix meaning ‘making’; ominously, the example it selects is ‘petrifaction’. Back to the cold, hard world of Realpolitik.

In one sense politics is all about factions: they are the very reason for its existence. After all, politics is the art of settling disputes between different groups without killing people, a necessary and even noble part of civilisation. Political parties are no more than factions writ large: people sharing a particular idea or a common purpose who have banded together to try to achieve their aims by constitutional means.

But parties, as their leaders constantly and earnestly assure us, are broad churches. Within their congregations smaller groupings form, usually governed by different priorities. Originally the divisions are ideological, between a broad Left, which tends to be internationalist, idealistic and deeply concerned with principle, and a broad Right, which concentrates on practical voter concerns and pragmatism. At best, it is a productive arrangement; as a politician whose name I have forgotten once pointed out, a bird needs both wings to fly.

This divergence occurs in our broad-based parties – Liberal as well as Labor – although the Libs are reluctant to admit it and usually cover up their internal squabbles more successfully, because power in the Liberal Party is concentrated at the top: the rank and file are welcome to contribute, but in the end the Führerprinzip applies. Labor, on the other hand, makes at least a pretence of participatory democracy: power is supposed to evolve from the bottom up. The factions are not mere discussion groups; they have real political muscle and they are seldom afraid to use it.

While they remain aware of their role as parts within a greater whole, this is not a problem. As Labor’s veteran senator John Faulkner has argued, there is nothing wrong with like-minded individuals working together for a shared program, although even at this early stage things can get out of control. Following the great split of the ’50s, the Left and Right in the Labor Party became not just collegiate rivals but bitter enemies. The state branches operated on a winner-takes-all principle: for instance, New South Wales ended up in the hands of the Right, while Victoria became the power base of the Left.

This led to some anomalies; Arthur Calwell was, in every conventional sense, a man of the Right – a staunch Catholic, an advocate of the White Australia policy, a fervent anti-communist, a suspicious and even paranoid figure who had operated a stringent and authoritarian system of censorship in the war years. But he was also a Victorian, and thus had to find his support base among the extreme Left. His younger challenger for the leadership, Gough Whitlam, was a political pragmatist, but all his inclinations were to the Left – an internationalist, a civil libertarian, a rational optimist. But as a New South Welshman he had to rely on the hard Right for advancement. It was a paradox that shows that even in those days ideology was not absolute; when an opportunity for power beckoned, there was always room for negotiation.

And in any case, neither the Left nor the Right could be considered a solid block. The Right was generally well disciplined, except perhaps in Queensland, where the AWU Right split from the old-guard Right. But the Left fragmented magnificently. At various stages we had the moderate Left, the far Left, the Maoist Left, the socialist Left, the new Left and an original remnant, perhaps best described as whatever was left. It became a little like Copernicus’s astronomy: factions within factions within factions …

Great fleas have little fleas

On their backs to bite ’em

And little fleas have lesser fleas

And so ad infinitum

The factions were, and to a large extent still are, controlled by the trade unions and their bosses, a disturbing number of whom cling to the belief that as the unions founded the Labor Party in the first place, so it should still be theirs to use (or abuse) as they see fit. Party rules have always given the unions what is now a disproportionate voice in its organisation, and the factions have used this base to fight for control of the party machinery in each state. This used to give the winner direct control over preselections for both state and federal parliament, and although that is no longer entirely the case – these days rank-and-file members have their say, so a fair bit of judicious branch-stacking is also necessary – the threat of dis-endorsement by a state’s central committee is still a very powerful inducement for any serving politician to toe the line.

But even in the bad old days before Whitlam crashed through the antiquated party structure (a case of petrifaction if there ever was one), there were those who managed to keep the factions at arm’s length and still make a successful career. In Victoria a small group calling themselves the Participants actively fought the dominant Left but eschewed any connection with the minority Right; their numbers included John Button, Barry Jones and Michael Duffy, all ministers in Bob Hawke’s government, and John Cain, a Victorian premier – not a bad line-up.

And until about twenty-five years ago the federal Caucus, while broadly divided between Left and Right, was wary about laying down any formal factional structure. Certainly there were identifiable hardliners on both sides, but there was also a sizeable floating population in the middle that valued its independence. It was possible to predict which way most of them would go in a critical party-room vote, but they were not mere numbers.

Ironically, it was the Hawke era of reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction that saw the factional system cemented into place. Not at all coincidentally, this was also the time of the great influx of party officials and union organisers into the federal parliament. These were men (almost exclusively) who were used to working in and with factions, and although their workplace had now changed, they were buggered if they were going to abandon their traditional work practices. The heavies went into action.

This was the heyday of the Right’s Graham Richardson and the Left’s Gerry Hand, and their enforcers, overlords who held that loyalty to the faction was at least as important as loyalty to the party. When elections were held for any position within the parliamentary party, factional members were given how-to-vote cards. In the case of election to the ministry, the faction leaders split the available positions according to the size of their membership. Until then, elevation had been based largely on talent; now unquestioning service to the faction became at least equally important.

Faced with this fait accompli, happily accepted by Hawke as a way of settling internal disputes with a minimum of public brawling, most of the remaining non-aligned group in Caucus bowed to the inevitable and formed their own faction: the Centre Left, which on most issues was actually closer to the Right than to the Left – such are the vagaries of factionalism. Although the new grouping boasted some impressive names – Bill Hayden, Neal Blewett, John Dawkins, Susan Ryan, Peter Cook – it never achieved the clout of its rivals, at least partly because it never really tried. It was more a haven for the disaffected than a mover and shaker. Its critics derided it as a Clayton’s faction: the faction you have when you’re not having a faction.

But even then there were a few defiant standouts: Bob McMullan remained defiantly independent to the last, and the maverick Graeme Campbell formed his own one-man faction: the Extreme Centre. He turned away all other applicants in case they led to a split.

Entertaining as this was, behind the scenes the faction wars were turning ugly. The common sets of beliefs that had previously underpinned the groups were now withering away and being replaced by an unadulterated fight for power. This did not stop the ritual exchange of insults: Keating regularly referred to the Left as “Balmain basket-weavers”, and had to be restrained by Richardson from saying in public that the Left’s only concerns were “more trees, wider nature strips, and eat your own shit”. But Bill Hayden was probably closer to the mark when he told parliament: “Being called a mate by the New South Wales Right is like being kissed by the Mafia.”

And in truth the factional bosses were now a lot less like philosopher kings than the capi of the Honoured Society; family heads whose only concern was the acquisition of as much territory as possible by any means available. Loyalty was the only virtue, and might, in the fullness of time, lead to the ultimate reward: a safe parliamentary seat. In return for this privilege, the occupant was expected to vote strictly as instructed, especially with regard to leadership issues. Failure to follow orders would lead to swift and terrible retribution – what the faction could give, the faction could take away. And the result is there for all to see: one side of parliament – and of course it is the one on the left of the Speaker – increasingly composed of timid and complaisant hacks, time-servers, blood relatives, never-has-beens and never-will-bes.

And the long years of Opposition have made it worse: as the prospect of ever being able to implement policy recedes, so does the importance of the policy itself. The triumph of the factions leads inevitably to easy populism, to risk-avoidance and the absolute primacy of guarding one’s own arse. The factions themselves have got smaller and sillier: within the federal Caucus alone there are half a dozen identifiable splinters, most of which differ from each other in nothing more than the ambition of their petty chieftains.

Every so often some brave soul – or more probably, someone who has lost out – will speak out to decry the whole system as corrupt and unsustainable, and, incidentally, making the ALP all but unelectable. The war lords and their acolytes will sneer in reply that this Jeremiah was himself in some way a beneficiary under the system and will dredge up the records to prove it, as if that settles the argument. But how could it be otherwise? A whole political generation has emerged under the cloud of factionalism. No one is completely untainted. And no one, or at least no one who matters, is prepared to risk a career to pull the temple down.

Gough Whitlam once said that the weakness of the present generation of Labor leaders was that they had never really had to fight for the job as he had; and his fight involved not just rivals for the leadership but the whole party organisation, the 36 faceless men of the federal conference, the 12 witless men of the executive, the Victorian trade-union movement, the intransigence of the old guard. It took years, but he won, and the party has benefited ever since.

Now it is once again time, indeed past time; but Kim Beazley continues to pretend there is no real problem. He prefers instead to dwell in that other faction, the one where harsh reality segues into Fantasyland, the happiest kingdom of them all.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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