The heated debate in the SCU marquee on Saturday afternoon at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival was over the current problems associated with Australia’s Labor Party.
The session was brimming with punters just as passionate about Labor’s fate as the panel of expert political journalists and ex-politicians.
Disillusionment with the Labor Party and indeed politics in general is widespread in Australia— as serious debates around policy are continuously overshadowed by endless polls, PR campaigns and election stunts.
According to James Button, political journalist, author and former speechwriter to Kevin Rudd, Labor has been the main vehicle for change in Australian policy over the last fifty years. However, for the last ten years the party has been in a terrible state.
“Unfortunately it’s not a great party anymore,” Button said. “It’s not embedded in the life of Australia anymore and its policy making is opaque.”
Veteran political journalist Alex Mitchell, agreed that Labor no longer had the same ethos as it held earlier.
“The notion that the Labor party is still working for the working classes is a fib of the imagination,” Mitchell said.
“They are serving the interests of vested interests, not public interests.”
Former Labor politician, journalist and author Maxine McKew was less scathing, however she is still critical of the party’s corporatisation and reluctance to embrace strong and ethical policy-making.
“We’ve become afraid to get genuinely involved in the contest of ideas,” she said.
“We’ve never been in such a period of volatility.”
One issue that McKew was adamant about is Labor’s reluctance to take an ethical stance on asylum seekers.
“It’s perverse to be sending people who have trouble with personal security to a country like PNG, which also has huge problems with security,” she said.
“We’ve turned this in to psychopathic episode when it should have been a manageable issue.”
Mitchell also argued that the media has lost a great deal of its objectivity and is increasingly a powerful proponent of political spin.
“Most of the imbeciles in the press gallery gave up journalism to be become propagandists for one side of the other,” he said.
Button strongly agreed, and added that the media is doing a disservice to the public and their readers.
“Both the political side and the media side have let us down,” Button said.
Indeed, Button believes the media played a big role in dismantling the Gillard government, a case also put by political commentator Kerry-Anne Walsh in her book The Stalking of Julia Gillard.
“They’ve had the Gillard government on a knife’s edge,” he said.
However, McKew argued that the Gillard government was bound to be unsuccessful from its very beginning.
“Gillard was never forgiven by the Australian community for putting Rudd to the sword,” she said.
McKew’s affinity with the Rudd government was obvious. However, she doesn’t see Rudd as a silver bullet solution— rather as a step in the right direction on the challenging road to reform.
The other panelists agreed that there is hope for the Labor party, as long as internal conflict is resolved and strong, and ethical policy-making is implemented.
Clearly Labor requires an overhaul on many levels and winning the next election, now called for September 7, will be a challenging feat. However, Labor supporters still hold hope that it can emerge from the badlands to reclaim itself once again as an honourable political party.
Madeleine Brown is a Creative Writing student at Southern Cross University.