Reforming Labor in the Asian Century

This article was co-authored by Merric Foley and Elliot Stein, who are Labor Party delegates in Brisbane’s south to the Queensland State Conference.

There’s no shortage of writing about internal party reform but in the Asian Century there is a big opportunity for Australian Labor to reform by connecting more with our own region.

Since Whitlam, Labor has been the political driving force pushing Australia towards Asia. The Australian notion of the China relationship was turned on its head with Gough’s historic visit, expanded through APEC under Hawke-Keating and cemented in political reality with the G20 under Rudd and the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper from Gillard.

It is a surprise, then, that while Australia has grown relationships at the cultural, economic and geopolitical level – especially under the previous Labor Governments – our political parties have been slow to form bonds of the same vigour.  Despite setting the international relations agenda, Labor as a party has lagged behind business and universities in seeking to go out into the region.

An opportunity is there for a new wave of reform for Australia’s political class to form stronger direct relationships with likeminded centre-left and labour orientated parties in developing, emerged and established democracies across Asia.

Australia has a net surplus of political capital and talent. We are one of the strongest, most stable democratic economies in our region. We can easily spent a little of that capital for massive returns in future strategic and economic relationships.

As the oldest labour party in the world the Australian Labor Party has struggled for the rights of working Australians for over a century. Starting from our origins in the Queensland shearer’s strikes, defeats and set back at an industrial level lead to the formation of a political arm, designed to take control of the organs of the government and swing the pendulum toward the working person. As Queenslanders ourselves, we would be remiss to point out that it was Queensland Labor that formed the world’s first government of the labour movement.

Despite natural cultural, political and economic links with the United Kingdom and United States we find that the history of social democratic and labour parties in Asia has much in common with our story and struggles.

In South Korea, rapid industrialisation, and the creation of an industrial working class lead to the creation of powerful trade unions.  As in Europe and Australia, these trade unions saw economic and political gains as ultimately entwined – fighting not only for better wages and conditions, but political rights.

Unions and students fought for democracy throughout the 1980s, culminating in the Democratic Uprising of 1987, in which student protests and mass strikes forced the government to adopt a democratic constitution.

The region has other stories to tell.  In Taiwan, the post-1949 Nationalist government chose to co-opt rather than outlaw trade unions.  While labour activists took part in the struggle for democracy, it was not until the lifting of martial law in 1987 that independent trade unions began to proliferate.

Finally, the 1989 Beijing crackdown fell not just on students, but also on nascent independent trade unions – the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation – that the government considered equivalent to Lech Walsea’s Solidarity.

In all of these stories, we see reflections of our own labour movement.

The opportunity for the Australian Labor Party is to meld goals of a bigger, more inclusive party through internal reform with the policy goals of a bigger, more inclusive regional framework in Asia.

Like free trade, open political dialogue is a net benefit to all participants.

By building links with regional neighbours, we expand the pool from which personnel, policy theorists and activists can be drawn.  Campaign personnel swaps and exchanges are commonplace with UK Labour and the US Democrats. Why not also with Japan, South Korea and other democratic nations.

We will, of course, continue to have other forms of deep engagement with countries like China and Myanmar. In fact it is unthinkable that any political party than Labor would lead the charge in strengthening our China relationship.

The ALP could work with political parties in emerging democracies in the region, particularly in the Pacific as a peer, sharing information and campaign intelligence with developed nations.

The outlines of this reform exist already. The work of the labour movement through APHEDA provides valuable trade union aid abroad and the regular delegations of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Australian Political Exchange Council establish solid foundations for stronger ties.

The benefits of putting greater focus on our political party links with the regional extend beyond the immediate advantage of sharing techniques for the next campaign.

It is no longer accurate to think of Asian engagement as a distinct policy area.  Instead, it infuses and informs every policy area.  In future, for example, Australian education policy will not have a foreign component.  Increasingly, foreign affairs will have an education component.

The same could be said of any policy area. The issues that will enliven the policy debate of the twenty-first century are ones which cannot be approached other than with a multilateral and regional outlook.

We have already begun to see the tip of many of the challenges that will define Labor in the twenty-first century.  Climate change, the environment, asylum seekers, cross border labour migration are all regional concerns, and can only be solved through regional engagements.

Indeed, the most widely-read social democratic thinker in recent years – Thomas Piketty – has called for a global action on tackling inequality of opportunity.  If Labor is serious about combatting rising inequality, this can only be done in conjunction with regional partners.

We would create a stronger political class with stronger interpersonal linkages by starting regional relationships at a political party level. We’d be supporting nations with whom we align geo-politically through the parties in which we align ideologically. This would represent the type of party reform needed for the Asian century.

IMAGE CREDIT: National Australian Archives


About Elliot Stein

Elliot Stein

Elliot Stein is a ALP branch member in Logan South in the Federal division of Rankin.

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