Sometimes They Come Back For More
That incidentally is the name of a horror movie by a director with the name 'Daniel Berk' (I am just hoping to confuse search engines). And the supernatural gateway that has allowed the DLP to re-enter the world of the living is the almost occult (e.g. secret or clandestine) nature of above-the-line party preference negotiations. In this post I will address both what the DLP is and also refer somewhat to the controversial matter of above-the-line voting.
So who is the DLP?
We have to clarify that there are two DLPs in Australian political history. The original DLP was formed in 1955 and disbanded in 1978. The current DLP is a distinct legal entity that was established since then (in Victoria only) by those who refused to let the DLP pass into history. We have the issue then of whether these two thing are the same thing. In a lot of ways I think they are but in some cases I will need to qualify that. In the rest of this post I will say 'the historic DLP' to refer to the original DLP and 'the current DLP' to indicate the present party.
In a recent post I provided short ideological descriptions of the parties contesting the state election. In that post I linked the DLP to this description of mine from the Political Objectives Test:
Your commitment to both equality and stability puts you in the hazy area that exists between the socialist and the conservative. This combination may seem unusual but consider the way in which both think loyalty to community takes priority over loyalty to oneself. You recognise the value of traditional culture and institutions. You also value government intervention in the economy. You hope that a combination of traditional values and interventionist economics will protect your way of life. You are concerned that the twin forces of free markets and permissive culture promote selfishness and erode community standards.
This description well fits the historic DLP and may well also fit the current DLP. However, to say that we need information on the current DLP across both cultural and economic issues. Long-term observers of the current DLP will have noticed DLP candidate statements in local papers which refer only to right-to-life issues such as abortion. A 'pro-life' stance is consistent with historic DLP policy (keeping in mind that in 1955 pretty much every party was 'pro-life') but we need more info than that to say that the current DLP is the same as the historic DLP. I think for some DLP members, such as its prime-mover John Mulholland, they have been pretty much just a pro-life lobby group that uses elections as a way of promoting the cause. What other time will local papers give your members a guaranteed 50-word space to insert your pet rant?
But Mulholland fell short of the preferences needed to be elected. The DLP candidate that has been elected is one Peter Kavanagh and he seems to have a fuller sense of his own politics. He has been keen to convince supporters of the historic DLP that his party is the rightful inheritor of the party name and legacy as can be seen in this letter to News Weekly. News Weekly is the publication of the National Civic Council (NCC) which is a think tank that was closely associated with the historic DLP. One line in particular from that letter is informative as to what Kavanagh thinks his party represents:
The DLP remains the only political party in Australia which is pro-family, pro-life and genuinely pro-worker.
Those who suffer under the limitations of the 'left and right' dichotomy in politics will have difficulty understanding that someone can even say this.
There has been a lot of confusion in the media in recent days as to what the DLP is. Some for instance suspect that they are homophobic and racist. That is only half right. The DLP position on issues like access to in-vitro fertilisation and same-sex marriage serves to support accusations of homophobia. But to say they are racist is just laziness on the part of those who think that one kind of prejudice will always necessarily go hand-in-hand with all other forms of prejudice. The historic DLP opposed the White Australia Policy years before the major parties abandoned it and as far as I can tell the current DLP are likewise non-racist. All this is hardly surprising once you consider the Roman Catholic basis of DLP membership and support. They will be homophobic in the sense that they oppose 'sin'. However they will be non-racist in accord with the universalist nature of Catholicism.
Then there was the Age editorial (14 Dec 2006) which stated that the historic DLP represented 'middle class' Catholic values. What? Did the DLP members and supporters suddenly become more affluent the moment they defected from the ALP in 1955? Maybe the DLP charged lower membership fees! Of course the Age is referring to cultural values rather than economic standing and it is using 'middle class' as a pejorative term. So by that I assume they are implying a 'white picket fence' way-of-life. But that is arguably as much a working class value as it is middle class. And nowadays the Age is closer to representing middle class 'latte set' values while the DLP is closer to a working class 'battler' identity (but a cosmopolitan Roman Catholic one mind you).
Do I mind that the DLP now have a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC)? It has come as a bit of a shock but that has more to do with having my assumptions challenged than it does in me finding the DLP scary. I differ strongly from much of what they think (more on personal issues than on economics) but at the same time I am prepared to recognise that they represent a set of attitudes that is under-represented by the major parties and may deserve to have some representation. But did they deserve to get one member elected in the way they did?
The current DLP have always got a small rusted-on vote from those who supported the historic DLP. In addition some speculate that they get some votes as a result of confusion over the party name ("Look at the ballot paper... is it the Democrats... is it the Labor Party... no it's the Democratic Labor Party!") but this can never have been particularly big. The DLP primary vote in Western Victoria (the region in which Kavanagh was elected) was between two and three percent. It was preferences that gave them victory and the huge majority of those preferences were above-the-line votes delivered by behind-closed-doors negotiations between parties.
Is it right (for instance) that People Power directed above-the-line votes to the DLP? It is argued that this decision may well have come as a surprise to People Power voters. People Power talk of 'empowerment' and 'self-help' for individuals while the DLP are much more into a paternalistic 'community' deciding what is best for us. On the other hand I think "but how many People Power voters know what People Power stand for let alone that they preferenced the DLP?"
My attitude to this issue of party preference negotiators 'tricking' the electorate differs with my mood. If I am in an arrogant and grumpy mood then I am likely to say that every voter who votes above-the-line is freely deciding to let the party decide the fate of that vote and that what results from this process is the right result. Any voter can at any time consult the electoral commission or the political parties to discover how above-the-line preferences are to be allocated. Any voter can do a bit of homework into who the candidates are. The Internet makes this much simpler than it once was. Nobody is taken for a ride or if they are then they have chosen to let that happen to them.
But in a more realistic and generous mood I do think that we need to have a more transparent and voter-friendly process. Life is busy. Politics is complicated. For many the Internet is still a turgid maze of confusion. Many of us miss getting a decent civics course at school. More can and should be done then to help voters understand the effect of how they vote. Also changes could be made to the way preferences are distributed. One proposal that has got some publicity and which makes sense is to allow us to fill in all boxes in sequence above-the-line. This way the only thing party hacks would then control is the order in which their own candidates got preferences.
And what of the overall result of the new Legislative Council? I got what I wanted. Nobody has a majority and negotiation between different political perspectives must proceed if legislation is to pass both chambers. Labor at 19 MLCs are two votes short and so must go to Liberal (15 MLCs) or Greens (3 MLCs) or Nationals (2 MLCs). With just one MLC the DLP can be overlooked by the government for the purpose of passing legislation. However they can still be there and express themselves in parliamentary debates. The Legislative Council may now even be a chamber worth observing rather than just a place in which to have a nap.