James Button. A Moment of Unexpected Hope

Jul 16, 2015

From the local Labor journal, Grassroots – Party Reform, Past, Present and Future.

This should be a moment of unexpected hope for the ALP. Remarkable election wins in Victoria and Queensland, theopinion polls tracking well, another Liberal Government exposed as mean, tricky and out of touch…it all suggests that after the debacle of the last federal election Labor might be back in power far sooner than anyone could ever have hoped for. The climate of ideas should be on Labor’s side, too. The great policy challenge of the day – how to sustain economic and jobs growth while expanding opportunity and protecting the environment – is going to require smart, interventionist government; laissez-faire won’t do it. 

“The world is waiting for the Labor Party,” said former Western Australian Premier Geoff Gallop when launching an Open Labor group in Sydney last year.Why, then, do ALP members an supporters  feel  so uninspired?

Perhaps it is because the party’s recovery seems fragile, even a mirage. Eighteen months after our lowest federal vote in more than 100 years, the ALP is still in trouble. What we stand for, and whether we have the capacity for renewal on the basis of big ideas and a compelling platform, remains unclear. Even if disenchantment with Tony Abbott or his successor gifts Labor the next election, what then? What’s the long-term plan for changing Australia? Winning for its own sake is not enough.

Bill Shorten has said he wants to rebuild the party and grow the membership to 100,000. He has set the scene for the July National Conference to enact reforms to make party structures and the preselection of parliamentary candidates more democratic.

Shorten’s focus on party reform is admirable, and if he has a real shot it could place him with Labor leaders like Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden, all of whom renewed the party from opposition, but will this Bill be bold? And if so, can he bring the factions with him?

Based on the ideas of his reform speech in April last year, Shorten is likely to push for increased rank- and-file say in selecting candidates and delegates to National Conference, consideration of trials of primary-style preselections that involve Labor supporters as well as members, and lower fees and a one-click sign-up model to supersede the absurd obstacles that confront many people trying to join the party today. These are all worthy ideas, but unless Shorten’s ambition is greater than he has revealed to date, they fall well short of a substantial reform package.

Reform matters for many reasons; for one, it might break down the mistrust that runs deep between the leadership and ordinary members, and renew hopes that there is still a place for ordinary people in politics beyond working the phones and handing out cards in election campaigns.

The members mistrust the party professionals, whom they see, with important exceptions, as focused on personal advancement over principle and unwilling to share power with the rank-and-file. The leadership, for its part, mistrusts the members – they are too few, too old, too prone to fighting lost causes and too out of touch with the realities of Australian life to be entrusted with a real say in candidate selection or party policy. The mistrust is partly a predictable consequence of professionalised politics, yet it must end if the party is to flourish again. How?

The onus is on the leadership to take a risk and to commit itself to internal democracy in the faith that a party in which ordinary people have a say will   be a larger, stronger and more representative party.

Opening up preselections to members is a good place to start. For the Senate and state upper houses, which should be forums for Labor’s best policy thinkers not retirement homes for party functionaries, members should get 50 per cent of the vote now, and a commitment for the proportion to increase as party membership grows. Imagine the democratic potential of a statewide campaign for Senate places, candidates having to sell their platform to the people. Similarly, in lower house seats, the proportion of the local vote should gradually increase in line with membership increases in the electorate.

A growing proportion of delegates to state and national conferences should also be directly elected from the membership.

At the same time, the leadership needs to retain the capacity to intervene in local votes to ensure the selection of a particularly high quality candidate or when a vote looks like it will be compromised by low numbers or by mischief. But these should be the exception and when the leadership does intervene, it needs to be honest about why it has done so. At present it rarely is. Major decisions, such as central intervention in the Victorian Upper       House preselections in late 2013, or last year’s bringing forward of the Senate preselections of Kim Carr and Steve Conroy to ensure they are exempted from the party’s own unanimously endorsed affirmative action rules, are made behind closed doors and never explained to the membership.

The party should be able to explain everything it does with a clear, honest statement on its website. If it can’t, the action is almost certainly something it shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Secondly, the ALP must begin the long and difficult conversation about reforming its relationship with the union movement. This should be an opportunity for democratic renewal on both sides. Unions affiliated to the party have a million members; another million belong to unaffiliated unions. Most of these people are natural Labor supporters; if Labor is to expand its franchise for selecting candidates for office, this would seem a good place to start. But it must be on the basis of one vote, one value, in elections conducted by secret ballot. The bloc votes wielded by a small number of union secretaries on behalf of their factions is indefensible in a party that professes to be democratic.

A democratic party that respects its own people can’t run this way.

Giving ordinary unionists a direct say in party processes could go a long way towards renewing not only the ALP but the union movement as well, as senior party figures John Faulkner and Greg Combet have written.

Open Labor and Local Labor have also jointly proposed reforms that would enfranchise ordinary union members while removing the power of bloc union secretary votes.

Among the four million Australians who voted Labor at the last federal election are many of the country’s smartest and most engaged people. Many of them, even after years of disillusionment, would welcome the opportunity to contribute to Labor policy. Imagine a party that engaged the country’s best minds to help it develop policy through an open process that included not only private advice but public meetings, online forums and wikis.

Such a process could help Labor embed itself back in the community. While a growing membership is vital, at a time when most people aren’t joiners, the party must find other ways to draw on the ideas and energies of its supporters.

None of this is easy or without risk.

But the alternative – doing nothing – is a recipe for slow decline as the leadership and membership grow further apart, and the party becomes ever more closed off from the main currents of Australian life.

There is a great opportunity for brave, democratic reform. The people who see the need for it – in the party, unions and the electorate – are dispersed but their number is growing. The time to act, though, is now. The world is waiting for the Labor Party. It won’t wait forever..

James Button is a member of the operating group of Open Labor, a movement created in late 2014 to work toward a more democratic and open ALP and a braver, more principled politics in Australia. New supporters welcome: sign up to our mailing list at www.openlabor.net.au

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