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Why I Left the Labor Party

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The other day, Queensland Public Sector Union secretary Alex Scott resigned from the Australian Labor Party — and his rather articulate letter of resignation struck more of a chord with me than I would have thought possible.

You see, I wasn’t always swirling at the centre of this powerhouse of Australian politics, here in the Democrats. I was once, in fact, proud to call myself a member of the ALP. Now, normally I’d just leave that behind me — after all, I haven’t been in the party for more than six years and I have no first hand knowledge of what’s going in there now. But recently it’s come up a few times while talking to current ALP members (Democrats National Executive: if you’re reading this, don’t worry, I didn’t tell them about the secret installation or Plan Zeta). They ask me why I left (or suggest I come back), I tell them this story, and they all make exactly the same expression and go hmmm.

It’s old news, and I was a nobody in the party, but here’s the story anyway — meant as a biographical side note for people who know me, not as some deep or meaningful analysis of the ALP and its current woes, and not as party bashing. You’re all adults, you can make up your own damn minds.

I was a member of the ALP from 2003 to 2005, and held some sub-deputy-vice-assistant type position in a branch in the northern suburbs of Perth, WA. I helped with state and federal campaigns, I acted as a scrutineer, I went to meetings, I ate pizza, and I grinned while other members made prank calls to conservative talkback radio. That was about it, really.

One week, we were geared up to support a local candidate for preselection. We wanted to get a particular candidate in who was an involved member of the local community, fully in-line with the principles of the party, had great qualities for campaigning and could pull sparkly rainbows out of puppies' ears. In the other corner was some well-connected blow-in who just wanted to be an MP, and saw our district as an easy leg up.

So we rallied whatever members we could to come to the meeting and show support for our guy, and maybe have a show of hands if necessary. But what really happened is that there was some controversy that dominated the meeting, and we got to sit there and listen to some union head rant and rave away the whole evening. Nothing about preselection was discussed, and at the end of the night some guy came into the room and told us that the other guy had been approved. Right.

It was a tiny, tiny battle, and really… one preselection candidate? Who cares? But after this, I started to pay much more attention to how important decisions were made within the party, and time and time again I saw this pattern repeat. Last minute calls made by dictatorial wonks. Policy handed down from on high by members of parliament, driven by campaign needs rather than principles. Decisions made at times and places specifically picked to exclude certain people. Tactical, timely diversions. And so on.

I came to realise that the aim of the game wasn’t to be the candidate. It wasn’t to be on the branch executive. It wasn’t to be the person who attends meeting after meeting. It wasn’t to be a part of the community.

The aim of the game was to be the person who shows up at the last minute and says, your candidate is this guy, seeya later.

Whatever the rules are to that game, I had no desire to play. So when my last reason to stay was no longer a factor, I left.

Maybe this has all changed in the last few years. Maybe if I’d hung around for longer I could have learnt to play the game, and I would have gotten somewhere. Maybe it was different in other parts of the party. But from the sound of Scott’s letter it really doesn’t sound like it.