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It’s caucus that’s changed, not Labor’s pledge

“How much easier it is for ministers to swat away complaints on an individual basis, especially by smart phone, rather than have to face an empowered caucus.” Photo: Lukas Coch, AAP

All ‘commit’ and no ‘disagree’: CHRIS WALLACE reveals the real reason why Labor’s solidarity pledge is not working.

The Australian Labor Party’s solidarity pledge is being widely sledged in the wake of Western Australian Senator Fatima Payman’s resignation from caucus.

But it’s worth stepping back and reconsidering this core element of Labor’s culture and history against contemporary culture and practices.

1. Pledge-style solidarity is not old hat

Critics shouldn’t be so fast to dismiss the pledge as antiquated simply because it’s part of Labor’s century-plus origin story.

Today it’s current under a different name in Silicon Valley, for example, because of its intrinsic utility. There it’s called “disagree and commit”.

The term’s origin lies in the 1980s tech startup Sun Microsystems, now owned by Oracle. Sun co-founder Scott McNeely’s imperative to “agree and commit, disagree and commit, or disagree and get out of the way” pervaded the company’s operations.

“Disagree and commit” evolved to become common in today’s entrepreneurial startups as a way of enabling talented, headstrong individuals to have their say, make a decision, and then get together behind it – some more cheerfully than others.

The “disagree and commit” cycle is repeated over and over again in startups as they craft their path forward. It means some participants will exit, sometimes painfully, at different points along the way.

It’s pervasive because it makes so much more sense than the alternative of startups being at perpetual risk of flying apart under the centrifugal force generated by those who can’t “disagree and commit”. It’s a regular part of entrepreneurial life, just as it’s a regular part of political life for Labor MPs.

2. Unacknowledged caucus culture changes the problem, not the pledge

There’s been a sea change in the way the federal parliamentary Labor Party caucus operates in recent years.

Caucus used to be a place where vigorous disagreement could occur in a group setting, with MPs joining in spirited debate on contentious issues. People felt seen and heard by colleagues and the party leadership, because they literally were.

The group context made all the difference. MPs shy of speaking up gained confidence when others did so, and spoke up too. Multiple MPs voicing passionate concerns in front of the whole caucus forced the leadership to take notice even – and especially – if it didn’t want to.

Policy could actually change as a result of caucus debate. Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, for example, had to reverse his support for US testing of MX missiles in the Pacific as a result of caucus activism. Hawke disagreed with, but ultimately had to commit to, the overwhelming caucus view opposing it.

Though there has been no rule change stopping this, caucus doesn’t operate that way any more.

An unhealthy habit of silence developed in cabinet as well as caucus under the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd (2007–10 and 2013), who was known for enraged personal pursuit of those with alternative views. Under Rudd it was all “commit” and no “disagree”.

Labor frontbenchers and backbenchers developed ways of working together behind the scenes around that, out of reach of Rudd’s fury, to try to get things done.

The habit that developed then largely continues, with deleterious effect, including under current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

A recent example is the blindsiding of cabinet and caucus in May by the Future Gas Strategy championed by Albanese and Resources Minister Madeleine King.

Significant parts of cabinet and caucus considered it both unnecessary and damaging to the environmental credentials Labor had steadily built with a view to underpinning its Future Made In Australia and renewable energy transition plans.

However, ministers in cabinet and later backbenchers in caucus were passive rather than speaking up to stop or modify the Future Gas Strategy – as was once the norm and is still possible to do.

3. Caucus must operate the way it’s meant to

The operational unity flowing from the solidarity pledge gave Labor an organisational edge over other parties from the outset.

Labor predated federation and has existed continuously since. Meanwhile, there have been five iterations since federation of Australia’s main centre-right party, which have repeatedly formed, performed, then failed and had to be remade.

But Senator Payman’s experience of, and ultimate resignation from, caucus provides a vital window into the fact that “disagree and commit” isn’t working in Labor the way it once did and should still.

Labor figures have criticised Payman for not raising in caucus itself her concerns about Labor’s current Middle East policy. She raised them instead with a number of individual Labor ministers and MPs, and in other subsections of the parliamentary party – not in caucus as a whole.

Those criticisms are correct, but ignore the fact that MPs with policy grievances have been discouraged from raising issues in caucus for substantive debate since at least the Rudd era.

Payman would not have seen fellow MPs raising substantive concerns for genuine debate in caucus during her time in Canberra. Unsurprisingly, she did the thing that is now standard practice among Labor MPs: individual representations to specific ministers.

If anything, Payman went further than standard current caucus practice by taking up her concerns with ministers in person. Caucus members now typically take up gripes with ministers via the encrypted messaging service Signal.

How much easier it is for ministers to swat away complaints on an individual basis, especially by smart phone, rather than have to face an empowered caucus joined in substantive debate on key issues facing the nation and world.

4. Keep the pledge. End the silence

The solidarity pledge is a core part of Labor culture, and one that’s worth defending. The problem is that caucus – and cabinet for that matter – is now all “commit” without the “disagree” part being allowed its full and proper range.

The pledge as it operates today makes for a tidier-looking government for long periods, with occasional severe embarrassments – in this case, unnecessarily losing a senator in unhappy circumstances.

How much better it would be to have Labor ministers speak up again in cabinet, and Labor MPs speak up again in caucus, enabling laggard policies to be fixed faster and passionate MPs to make proper contributions in a full-blooded “disagree and commit” environment.

This would take courage by cabinet ministers and caucus members alike. It would model for new MPs like Payman the way to get policy changed for the better inside Labor governments.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, Professor, School of Politics Economics & Society, Faculty of Business Government & Law, University of Canberra. Republished from The Conversation.

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