Locking Out the Left: The Emergence of National Factions in Australian Labor

The Australian Labor Party is one of the most conservative social democratic or labor parties in the world — but this has not always been the case. Understanding the origin and evolution of the ALP’s modern faction system is crucial to grasping both its right-wing trajectory and possibilities for change.

Parliament of Australia, located in Canberra. (Canberra Parliament House / Flickr)

In the wake of Labor’s branch-stacking scandal in Victoria, attention has turned once more to the organized factions within the Australian Labor Party (ALP). While factions are decried as remnants of the Cold War or as patronage machines, the reality is more complex. Without understanding its factions, it is difficult to understand the party itself.

It’s crucial to grasp the factions’ self-told narratives as well as their ideological and historical influences. The Labor Left is home to a range of worldviews including Keynesian liberalism, militant laborism, Fabian social democracy, New Left social movements, and democratic socialism. The Left sees itself as the conscience of the party, seeking a government to represent broader social forces. It aspires to lead progressive change from inside the party, not simply use Parliament as a bully pulpit.

The Right is a heterogeneous Cold War alliance of anti-communist social democrats, Catholic and pure-and-simple trade unionists, party officials, and Third Way neoliberals. They are united by a transactional approach to seeking governance, which, while rhetorically claiming to not be tied down by ideology, aims to deliver results to their social base. To quote former New South Wales (NSW) senator and right-wing power broker Graham Richardson, their ethos is “whatever it takes.”

Labor is a federal organization. Beyond the national executive, the true power lies in the state branches. In each state, factions operate very differently and are shaped by different branch rules. National factions are in reality alliances of these state-based factions.

Understanding the national factions is key to explaining the structures that constrain debate and silence dissent. It also sheds light on how the Left was sidelined under former prime minister Bob Hawke’s leadership before eventually compromising, which helps to contextualize the factional system since then. This, in turn, provides insights for possibilities within Labor.

The Emergence of Modern Left Factions at a State Level

While formal factionalism is often associated with postwar Labor, factions go back as early as 1916 when the conservative Australian Workers’ Union formed the “Industrial Section” in NSW.

Indeed, as historian Frank Bongiorno noted, there were many Labor Lefts prior to World War II: “they stretched back to the Australian Socialist League in the 1890s, through the industrial left of the First World War and its aftermath, the Langites and Socialisation Units, and the Hughes-Evans ‘State Labor Party’ with its Communist affiliations.”

The first of the present-day factions, the NSW Combined Unions and Branches Steering Committee (later the NSW Socialist Left), formed in January 1955. Initially formed to support federal Labor leader H. V. Evatt’s efforts against anti-Communist Industrial Groups, it gravitated leftward as more “moderate” elements were incorporated into the party machine.

However, it was not until the 1970s that today’s Left factions emerged at a state level as a result of local circumstances.

In Victoria, the Socialist Left formed after federal intervention in 1970 dislodged the left- and union-controlled Central Executive. Federal intervention into NSW in 1971 introduced proportional representation, transforming and institutionalizing the Steering Committee as an internal opposition to the NSW Labor head office.

In Queensland, a broader reform group cohered into a Left around then-senator George Georges. In Tasmania, party reform in 1976 led to “Broad Left” dominance, leading them to formalize in 1983. The ACT Left Caucus was formed after a left-leaning candidate failed to be preselected in 1982.

The Creation of a National Factional System

While the modern national factional system did not emerge until the 1980s, an informal national left has existed since at least the 1950s. According to historian Paul Strangio, the “Left [was] loosely defined as it constituted little more than a small enclave in the federal caucus.”

Indeed, when Tom Uren joined parliament in 1959, he found no organized group of left MPs. As he recalled: “although a loosely knit grouping considered itself of that persuasion, it consisted mostly of anti-Catholics, although some members were militants or socialists.”

An older, “traditional left” enjoyed a majority on extra-parliamentary bodies, such as the Federal Executive, in the late 1950s. The split that saw the “Groupers” leave to form the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party helped to vouchsafe the Left’s extra-parliamentary majority through the 1960s.

Yet as late as 1974, this was not reflected in Parliament. Former parliamentary left convener Ken Fry noted that when he entered parliament, the Left was centered around Tom Uren and Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns, a leader of the Vietnam Moratorium movement. Yet it did not meet regularly and it responded to events ad hoc.

While the political demise of Jim Cairns and departure of Senator Lionel Murphy to the High Court disoriented the Left in the lead-up to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, by the latter half of the 1970s, it had regrouped and the Left had become the most organized grouping across the labor movement.

Graham Richardson recounted that “At the beginning of the 1980s the Left was the only national faction.” He also recalled unsuccessful attempts to corral state anti-Left groups into a national grouping at the 1977 and 1979 National Conferences.

Two factors converged to reverse this situation. First, the 1981 ALP National Conference introduced proportional representation into Western Australia and South Australia. It was feared this would benefit the Left. State machines no longer fully controlled national delegations, making factional representation in other states more important.

The founding of the Centre-Left in 1984 was the second factor. The Centre-Left was an elitist alliance between parliamentary supporters of former Labor leader Bill Hayden (who had resigned in favor of Bob Hawke) and smaller state party officials who feared the move away from equal state representation at National Conferences would lead to a loss of influence. Given factionalization in NSW and Victoria, the Centre-Left focused on other non-factionalized states like South Australia and Western Australia.

This forced the Left and state-based anti-left factions to develop national structures, the Right effectively formed as an anti-Left “pro-Hawke coalition.” Over two years, the caucus and every state branch became factionalized.

The Hawke Government

Formal factions within the caucus and the creation of separate Inner and Outer Ministries have been justified as mechanisms to manage party and caucus conflicts, necessary to avoid the tumultuous experience of the Whitlam Government. The reality was a government run by the Centre-Left and Right, with the Left largely locked out of Cabinet.

While the Left held around a third of the caucus, the first Hawke Cabinet included only a single left minister, Stewart West, who resigned within eight months in protest over a Cabinet decision to expand uranium mining. Despite scoring highly in the ministry ballot, leading Victorian left-wing MP Brian Howe was excluded from the Cabinet and given the position of the most junior minister. At the same time, the decision-making power of caucus was diminished, while the factions hardened and the number of non-aligned MPs declined.

Before 1990, the Left had only two Cabinet-level ministers. According to journalist Mike Steketee, “the position of the Left in the early years [of Hawke] is perhaps best described as being in government but not of it.

This was the result of a concerted effort. At its launch, leaders of the Centre-Left spoke of rejecting “extreme ideological positions” and guaranteeing party “stability.” Lacking a trade union base, support for “economic rationalism” — the Australian incarnation of neoliberalism — ran deep. For all these reasons, Centre-Left figures such as Finance Minister Peter Walsh were instrumental in facilitating the rightward shift of Labor, pushed by then-treasurer Paul Keating. This enabled Labor’s fiscally restrictive “trilogy,” which curtailed planned social wage-spending associated with the original Statement of Accord, while promoting a neoliberal agenda consisting of deregulation and privatization.

While the Left held a National Conference majority as late as 1979, by 1981, it lost its majority. Throughout the 1980s, it only held around two-fifths of delegates.

The combination of a binding pledge to accept caucus discipline and the combined Centre-Left and Right majority was fundamental to marginalizing the Left. Unlike other comparable parties, this formula does not allow for any level of meaningful dissent. Senator George Georges was a casualty of this — after voting against the Australia Card, he resigned before he could be expelled.

Pressure fostered divisions within the Left, widening the gulf between those incorporated into the Hawke Government and those excluded. Lindsay Tanner, later finance minister in the Rudd Government (2007–2010), described a division between “traditionalists” and “rationalists” that transcended factional boundaries.

The elevation of Brian Howe to the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet, in 1987, symbolized the Left’s incorporation.

The Privatization Wedge

Though the early Hawke Government opposed privatization, by 1986, it had shifted its position and began agitating for a change in the party’s platform.

In September 1990, a special National Conference changed the party platform to allow privatization. The conference approved the sale of the Commonwealth Bank, the airline Qantas, and Telecom.

The privatization of the Commonwealth Bank was a pivotal movement. A combination of bad management and the early 1990s recession saw the virtual collapse of a number of state-owned banks, including the State Bank of Victoria. This was used to wedge the Left: the new premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, hailed from the Socialist Left. Yet she supported the partial privatization of the Commonwealth Bank, which was used to bail out the state-owned State Bank of Victoria. As Political historian Geoffrey Robinson argued, this bailout undercut the Left’s opposition to privatization.

In Victoria, internal turmoil followed. The state Socialist Left split in 1991, with one side forming the Pledge faction to oppose privatization. This was followed by a landslide electoral defeat.

Eventually, the Socialist Left lost control of Victoria in 1996 to an alliance between Pledge, another socialist left splinter faction called the Labor Renewal Alliance, and the right-wing Labor Unity faction. The fragmentation of the factional system in Victorian Labor with shifting alliances has continued to this day, and has been an ongoing source of instability and conflict within the party.

By the mid-1990s, the Left’s incorporation was complete. Elected positions in the caucus broadly reflected internal factional balance while convention allowed the minority faction to hold leadership roles. Conflict was also ameliorated by the declining significance of uranium mining, defense, and foreign policy issues.

The remnants of the Centre-Left, which held the balance of power in both the National Conference and the National Executive, gave way in 2004 to a Right majority. By the mid-2000s, the Left and the Right were all that remained of the national factional system of the 1980s.

Implications and Opportunities for the Left

The Hawke-Keating era was federal Labor’s longest period in office. In that time, the Left was first locked out of power before being allowed in, only to have their ideological worldview repudiated. The imprint of those years continues to linger half-consciously on the Labor Left. It was no longer outside of power but changed by it.

The Left was forced to choose between irrelevance and collaboration for concessions. The pledge to not vote against the caucus denied them the option of parliamentary rebellion, unlike the Socialist Campaign Group in British Labour.

Despite this history, there are still opportunities for shifts within Labor. While Labor has not returned to its pre-Hawke-Keating economic stance, there has been a gradual shift back towards laborism since the peak of neoliberalism within the party.

Any long-term gains still require critical engagement with Labor. Even where the Greens have governed in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, it has been as a junior partner to Labor.

Organizationally, the Right’s majority has waned. At the last two National Conferences, the Right held onto a very narrow majority through issue-by-issue deals with non-Right delegates. There is now parity on the party’s national executive.

NSW is the lynchpin for the Right. Formalized in 1979, the NSW Right (known as Centre Unity) emerged from a grouping of party officers who, since 1939, controlled the branch via an extremely gerrymandered state conference. Only a national intervention can change it. However, this requires a shift in factional alignments, particularly in Victoria and the western states.

Recent shifts demonstrate this is possible. The Left took control of Queensland in 2014. The merger of the left-wing United Voice and the traditionally Right-aligned but militant National Union of Workers to form the left-aligned United Workers Union also has implications.

The loss of a Right majority at the National Conference and on the national executive is the pathway to democratize NSW Labor, a move with far reaching consequences that could trigger a broader realignment within the party. Although the exact outcome is impossible to predict, this could transform Labor into a party with more internal contestation capable of sustaining fluid coalitions that leave behind historic Cold War divides. This may enable a more leftward turn.

Given the barriers in NSW and that Labor is not a mass party, left-wing organizing in other states may precipitate change. Queensland shows this is possible.

Just as Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid in 2016 and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign opened up possibilities completely unimaginable at the time, the end of a Labor Right national majority and democratization of NSW Labor has the chance to do something similar within the Australian Labor Party.