“The integrity of the partisan”

This is an edited version of remarks to the Australian National Univeristy Meet the Author series, Canberra, 12 May 2015

What do we think of the person who thinks with the mind of the Party? Thanks to George Orwell, our image of the partisan mind and voice is that of duckspeak and doublethink. Just as Orwell’s fictional characters set a shattering stereotype of life on the party line, so the hugely admirable elements of his own character and career set us a wonderful type of the honourable dissident, the alienated insider, a ‘man of the Left’ free of the lies and murder of Stalinism and of the lousy muddling-through of the social democratic parties.

As appealing as Orwell’s deep integrity is, for the political person, though, his is a paradoxical image; there is a kind of despair at politics at work in that conception of the political saint as the man outside the system.

I often thought of this paradox as I wrote The Gillard Project (Penguin 2015) – what I hope is a loyal and at times discreet book.

This is an approach driven by a bit of humour, humility, perspective and forgiveness. I never wanted to be querulous or to “set the record straight”, much less settle scores.

In part, this approach is also because my honest analysis of the period 2010 to 2013 is that the policy project of the then-Government is more interesting and relevant to the Australian future than the politics of the Labor caucus in that time.

In part, I also think that the contest between Labor and conservatism is a more important explanatory factor in understanding what happened to the country than either the contest within Labor or the occasional failings of Labor’s strategy or culture; and yes, also that that contest within Labor and those failings of Labor’s strategy or culture are not exactly a ‘gap in the literature’.

I write in The Gillard Project


“What did Hugh Gaitskell write of the General Strike in 1926? He would not ‘desert his side just because it had miscalculated its means’.”


That is the higher partisan mind.

In February, Katharine Murphy in the Guardian Australia made a fascinating study of the present Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who to many even sympathetic long-term observers seems to have lost perhaps his better self, and certainly his more interesting self, as he became an ever more partisan figure in the role of Liberal leader – in Murphy’s words, fitting himself ‘to the requirements of the firm’.

I am not desperate to compare myself to Tony Abbott.

But even if, like Tony Abbott, there is a sense in which I live, and write, as a partisan, there is a difference: it’s that I’m a Labor partisan.

And no one ever called my party a firm.

I write in The Gillard Project


“Labor is more different, and different in more ways, than ever I understood. It’s obvious our own structures and theory of self are different – we have our own ecclesiology; no one ‘rats’ on the Liberals – but in government I learned that Labor is actually a different kind of thing. The difference between Labor and other parties is ontological … we are a ‘party of initiative’. And we operate in a system mostly made up of ‘parties of resistance’. Things begin in Labor, they begin with and through Labor, in a system with so many incentives to stop things happening; we’re not just a cause, we cause things.”


That’s my view of Labor. And in turn, it’s my view that judging the integrity of the partisan is inseparable from judging the conduct of the party he or she signs up to – inseparable from an actual political judgement about the rights and wrongs of the parties.

You can’t judge it from a stance of false neutrality. Orwell is a saint – but not because he rejected solidarity, because he rejected Stalinism.

If you believe – as I’m inclined to believe – that the real test in your public life is “who’s side are you on”, then the real ethical question becomes not how closely you stick to your side; but whether your side is right.

Not your integrity as a partisan, but the integrity of your party. The partisan accepts a larger conscientious burden – I allow myself to be held accountable not only for my own deeds and words but for those of a party. The moral of my story, or at least my lesson from the Gillard story: if you’re going to follow orders, you’d better choose your commander well.


About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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