“Change from within” is a dreary old maxim often heard if you are on the Left and ever dare criticize the Australian Labor Party (ALP), or in particular, anyone from the party’s Left faction. It is trotted out whenever someone points to the ALP’s hypocrisies: standing up for workers’ rights while supporting and creating institutions that undermine them (see: the bosses’ union SDA and the Fair Work Act), claiming to fight climate change while expanding coal and gas fields, and claiming to be a party for the people while holding cash-for-access meetings with corporations.
The argument is that change can only come from inside the ALP, by those who know what it takes to form government; that success can only occur through incremental negotiations, pragmatic compromise, and not rocking the boat.
This mindset was front and centre of a recent galaxy-brain level video from the new and allegedly pro-refugee rights Labor Left MP Ged Kearney. The video was the culmination of a series of events that began with Senator Fraser Anning's speech in Parliament calling for a “final solution” to the immigration problem. True to form, Labor pollies climbed over the top of each other to denounce Anning's racism and fascism, conveniently forgetting that they continue to wholeheartedly support Australia’s island concentration camps that lock up and kill predominantly brown people.
A few days later these same Labor politicians reinforced this deliberate lack of self-awareness by voting to retrospectively validate the unlawful detention of up to 1600 people seeking asylum. Many people pointed out that Ged Kearney, who was elected (in a close contest with the Greens for the seat of Batman, now Cooper) promising to fight for refugees, had not voted against the legislation. Her actions were condemned as a betrayal of not just her promises, but also the people who are imprisoned indefinitely on Manus and Nauru.
Which leads us to the video that Kearney made in response to this criticism. You can watch it if you can stomach it, but in summary, Kearney tries to defend her betrayal for the sake of “change from within”, blaming the Greens for making her feel bad and not once having the guts to admit that it is Labor who is giving bipartisan support to the Coalition government in keeping offshore detention camps open.
But this wasn’t even the worst part of the video. At the end, rather than strategically using her huge public platform to encourage her supporters to put pressure on other Labor MPs to shift their position (and, I dunno, maybe actually achieve real change for real incarcerated people), Kearney sent her supporters to attack the Greens for daring to stand up and call out horrific government policies. If she really wanted to create change, she could also have called out the ALP's ridiculous rules on its MPs voting against their party. These rules use the the threat of automatic expulsion from parliament to prevent progressive and radically-left MPs from building public support for alternative and populist politics, or conversely to oppose dangerous bipartisan policies (offshore detention or anti-terrorism laws).
Sadly, Kearney’s video is a recurring theme for Labor. When they are out-flanked on the left, Labor politicians will ridicule or decry the attempt to exercise democracy as a “hateful” attack on “progressive” candidates. Another example of this is Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad's 2017 election night victory speech, which attacked the Queensland Greens for daring to challenge her - with a radical-left policy platform - and bringing her within a hair's breadth of losing her seat.
This mindset of not rocking the boat, glorifying pragmatic compromise (almost always with the right, not the left), shaming other left-wing democratic opponents, and calling for #changefromwithin is a weak, liberal-centrist theory of change. It is exactly this capitulating and righteous attitude that has alienated many of the party's traditional and progressive voters and contributed to the ALP’s long-term decline.
If only the ALP’s Left faction could look to the UK Labor party for an example of a winning theory of change. Radical progressive Labor parliamentarians and long-time party outsiders, such as Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell (who voted against their party hundreds of times because there is no MP binding policy) with the help of external pressure (e.g. Momentum), overthrew the old, decaying, neoliberal party hegemony. In its place they have implemented one of the most left-leaning and popular policy manifestos in decades.
However, what we see in the Australian Labor Left is a doublethink mindset, hidden behind the excuse of parliamentary unity, which allows people to believe that incremental, internal and personal compromise is truly progressive, even when it involves prolonging the human misery being inflicted in Pacific Ocean prisons. Maybe Ged Kearney was once a progressive, but it looks like she has become just another member of the hand-wringing Labor Left, routinely trotted out to trick people into thinking that the ALP is something other than an empty neoliberal shell.
Calum is an activist with experience in the Right to The City and climate change movement. He is a former Greens staffer and active Greens member. He is temporarily living in Vancouver, Canada, to take a break from Brisbane’s heat.