JOHN KERIN: Reform and the ALP

Australia’s oldest political Party, the ALP, is becoming ossified in its structure and totally resistant to reform. It also has many other challenges in representing today’s Australia as a progressive party.

Whitlam and Wyndham (a State and National Secretary of the ALP, a reformer at administrative level with policy smarts) and Dunstan in South Australia, showed that a progressive, national government was possible and that it may be possible for an ALP government to be elected.

However, the same, but then more inflexible and conservative, operatives, still within the Party today, destroyed Wyndham, but they couldn’t destroy Gough. Whitlam gave the Party hope and it adopted an ethos of contemporary relevance, equality of opportunity and a policy agenda directed to redressing years of colonial sloth. Whitlam embraced the educated, middle class without forgetting the Party’s historical roots. However, his total programme, in terms of the reform of the Party and its functions, has still not been accomplished. Reform always involves honesty and courage and the taking of hard decisions, harder now when secular stagnation needs to be addressed?

The same conservative elements today resist any attempt to reduce their power in a structure at State Branch level, which has little relevance to the nature of our society in the 21st Century. The NSW Branch is rotten through and through, intellectually and actually, proven corrupt. NSW State Conferences have been farces for decades where the only game is to ‘keep the ‘Left’ out’ (when it barely exists as a faction), and raise nothing controversial that may give the Daily Telegraph a bad headline or enable the ‘shock-jocks’ to rant. Elements of what was Labor’s ‘Left’, are now in the Greens. The rot started in NSW once ‘whatever it takes’ became the guiding philosophy and State Secretaries moved from administration to political control.

I am talking of the role of unions in the 21st century but acknowledging the key reforming roles once performed by Hawke, Kelty and Crean to bring the union and whole labour movement into some more effective relevance. I see no reformers now. Hawke was of the industrial wing of the Party and Labor’s most successful leader due to his popularity, intelligence, understanding of how the economy works and ability to handle the hostile, conventional media, not because he was from the union movement. I am not anti-union and the Accord allowed both wings of the labour movement to act for the public good.

I am also not critical of individuals in elected office that carry the flag and I believe that the Party still has a capacity to develop policy and some very good people of courage-Bowen, Chalmers, Leigh, Wong etc., people who still understand the ‘Bush’ and also people who perform exceptionally well on their feet, many being women, such as Plibersek, Kenneally and Butler. These elected representatives have managed to survive the faction game-factions that still essentially come from the unions, due to the way state branches and conferences are structured.

Although Labor still has able, dedicated people, it is my contention that the gene pool of our representatives for public office is shrinking and in today’s Australian society, this is not good enough. Frankly, it is not representative of Australian society when 18 of Albanese’s front bench of 25 have only had union experience or have only relied on Party employment; not that all union officials have had actual work experience relevant to their union.

Labor is only ‘competitive’ in the national Parliament due to compulsory, preferential voting. However, this is a primary vote which has declined each decade since the 1980s. It is now below 30% in Queensland. Are those that control the organs, structure and activities of the Party, happy to see Labor slide into total irrelevance, happy with a few people elected to the Senate? The non-major party vote gradually increases, characterising an alienated (many of our young?), single issue focused, disinterested and uninvolved, or intellectually exploited electorate.

The ALP did unthinkable damage to itself in the public perception during the Rudd, Gillard, Rudd years and seems unable to respond to the negative, evasive, dangerous Abbott/Morrison Governments (sic) intent on perpetuating inequality in wealth and income and keeping Murdoch media and radio ‘shock-jocks’ on-side, a ‘virtue’ also shared by some pragmatists in the ALP.

During the period of the Hawke Government union membership was relatively high in the private sector and the first preference vote for Labor, percentage-wise, was always in the 40s. Due to the changed nature of the society and the workplace, union membership in the private sector is dropping, now below 10%, as is the active membership of the ALP, although enthusiastic political amateurs are mobilised during election campaigns. The ALP has to realise that it can’t be a political party without an active membership and just run by ‘professionals’.

Unions have amalgamated, but the four major ones in NSW had a membership in 127,056 in 2004 but 70,090 in 2018.The unions must know that the Coalition is bent on their destruction so as to have an industrial situation matching that in the US in terms of having any power to stand up for the pay, conditions and safety of the workforce and to prevent deliberate exploitation by many employers. What is needed is an organisation of wage and salary earners, the dispossessed and the many other people who still vote Labor on intellectual grounds, based on principles of social democracy, reform and progressive government. I don’t wish to see two major parties of capital to arise nor do I see that coalition formation with independents and minor Parties will bring enough cohesion to bear against the current, divided, lazy, incompetent Coalition Government.

Labor needs to fully recognise what kind of society we now live in and realise that there is abundant research and analysis to guide both an appropriate Party structure and policy directions. The impact of technology, globalisation and ‘financialisation’ has been profound, as has been the neo-conservative response to this of supply side, trickle-down economics, when the RBA says that stagnant wages and demand are the problem with our slowing economy.

The Party has two reports before it, one on the state of the NSW Branch and another on the Party’s performance in the May 2019 election. Who will implement the findings? Will it be the same power-brokers? Will both reports be ignored and forgotten about as in the past?

Both the nature and structure of the workplace has dramatically changed under the impact of decades of deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing etc resulting in part-time, contract, gig, UBER and so many forms of employment and computerised overseas retailing. Public debt has been transferred to private debt and we now have the highest ever levels of household debt and a housing sector out of kilter.

Nearly 50% of us are either overseas born or have one parent overseas born. The impact of digitisation and rise of the distorting social media has both enabled us to be more informed and connected and also more individualistic and prejudiced.

It is no longer 1891.

John Kerin-former Cabinet Minister in the Hawke Government.  


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10 Responses to JOHN KERIN: Reform and the ALP

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    Not one commentator has mentioned the single most important reform that Labor must institute if it is to retain any structural relevance (far less advance its primary vote by some 10% – 12%).

    By ‘Labor” I mean NSW Labor.

    NSW Labor MUST tell its bribing Rightist Unions that they have been overtaken. That effective power no longer lies with them and their huge $$$s but rather with NSW Labor’s human membership – at least 80% of whom is Leftist.

    A properly (yet even minimally) reformed NSW Labor absolutely MUST institute Andrews’ Victorian Gov’ts electoral donation reforms. Those reforms break the increasingly brittle nexus of Right Wing domination – by entities which cannot feel (hence are psychopathological). Such domination doubtless being fuelled, in terms of office-holders, complexedly by innumerable Dark Triadists (‘horrible humans’) – narcissists as well as being psychopathological and machiavellian.

    Were NSW Labor to so surrender for this gargantuan win-win-win, it would eliminate the Greens. The Leftist views of 80% of Labor’s human membership would predominate. No need for the Greens.

    NSW Labor is at least 1/3rd of Federal Labor. These prospective reforms would alter Federal labor as they would NSW Labor.

    This blog is authoritative and influential. I will be very interested to see which of its most influential readers will help sculpt essential structural change. And whether and/or how they might disclose that!

  2. Caroline Fitzwarryne says:

    Great analysis John Kerin and great comment John Goss about independents. I worry too that progressives feel they cannot vote for Labor with the majority of people and structures in place, so agree that maybe strengthening the entry of a number of Labor independents with broad job/community experience is the answer. But that will require progressives in electorates to do a huge amount of community organising to support candidates for the next election, starting now!

  3. Ian Hodgson says:

    Regarding ALP membership, there must be lessons to be learnt from the UK Labour Party. Under Jeremy Corbyn there membership increased massively in a very short time. So what we need is a leader who is able to travel to meet and talk to people, and to offer hope of change, not just going along with the government on most issues. And this of course requires policies attractive to the electorate.
    I know Labour lost the general election, but that was not due to their policies, but the overpowering issue of Brexit. Luckily, we don’t have that to distract us. So there can be no excuses.

    • Hans Rijsdijk says:

      I think this is not quite true. While Labour may have increased membership before the election, it lost all these votes (and many more) because it had no clear position on Brexit, with Corbyn for ever sitting on the fence.
      I think there is no more dangerous position from an election point of view than ambiguity on important issues. Voters are not stupid!

  4. Jim KABLE says:

    How to put this into my perspective. I returned from a lengthy period (over 16 years – most of the 1990s/2000s) in Japan nearly 11 years ago. I spent several years trying to make sense of the political landscape – largely buggered up I would say by the Howard years of privatisation and destruction of the civil service – and I found some reassurance of my social justice ethos within the Bob Brown/Christine Milne Greens and people like Jill HALL still then in the ALP (seat of Shortland) – among a few others for whom I have respect – and I’ll echo those names referenced by John Kerin – Jill Hall’s successor in my local seat – Pat CONROY and Andrew LEIGH, Terri Butler, too from Qld – and more recently Tim Watts (Gellibrand, Vic). But overall timidity re Asylum-seeker abuses and dreadful treatment of my fellow First Nations Australians – in the NT, murders in custody, children and others locked up at rates which call for the underlying lack of respect for Indigenous Australians to be properly addressed – The Uluru Statement from the Heart anyone?!! And Newstart heartlessness. The Biloela Family on Christmas Island heartlessness. Sending our tax dollars to the US to purchase their WMD rather than spending on free public education, free public health – major corporations paying no tax – wealthy Australians able to trickily pay no taxes yet gain all sorts of benefits – the cowing and diminution of “our” ABC, engagement in overseas wars which have no possible relevance to us – the entire Middle East a case in point – the Straits of Hormuz – for goodness sake! Or poking China in the eye with US prodding us to send ships into waters in the South China Sea which have no vital connection to us, either. And last year I finally read Game of Mates 2017 by two UQ academics – Murray and Frijters – explaining how the revolving door of advisers and spin doctors and MP offices and regulatory bodies look after each other – in policy and contracts and other sleight-of-hand-skulduggery and rob the nation of its money. Around the end of last year I corrected a typo on a LinkedIn notice I was skimming past. One of my former lives involved editing papers/articles – the eye once trained (though not for one’s own writing) cannot be untrained. I was thanked – not “yelled” at – and I examined further. I am now a Wave-of-Change (W-o-C) Ambassador for a new political movement led by Victor Kline (his memoir published in 2013 – The House on Anzac Parade – is a heart-achingly honest tale of how he came to be the man he is). So, John Kerin – there is a movement to answer the mood of your essay – The New Liberals TNL – taking back the true meaning of “liberal” from the usurpers of the LNP and recasting it into one of positivity. And not one of the members from the professional political class (now 80% of those in Canberra – never a job outside the political – what do they honestly know of life, one feels moved to ask). Check it out: (

  5. Margaret Reynolds says:

    Thank you John Kerin…..I agree totally and share your frustration of Labor’s institutionalised factionalism which favours compliance over talent !

  6. Don Macrae says:

    It looks as though we depend upon extraordinary individuals to make progress. The organization doesn’t do it. Whitlam was a towering figure – after he made it, but it took him years to crack the organization. Hawke had his industrial base, but it was Hawke the individual who made the difference. Dunstan, and maybe Bracks and Andrews. So disappointing that no-one in the ALP staked big claim after the last election, so we’ve got an iteration of Arthur Calwell, only with less substance. Recognizing the problem is not enough.

  7. John Goss says:

    You have diagnosed the problem John, but what is the solution? Perhaps one way forward is to strengthen the ‘independent’ faction within the ALP. After all the ‘Centre-Left’ faction within the Hawke Government was able to moderate the influence of the Left and Right factions and led to better outcomes. If the independent faction got enough votes to elect one person to the National Executive, that could be the swing vote on the Executive. Admittedly the independent faction is weak at present, with only two Federal Parliamentary representatives – Leigh and Payne from the ACT. (Lisa Singh was a member in the last Parliament but was put into an unwinnable position on the Senate ticket by the unions in Tasmania). But electing just one person to the National Executive is doable, and would be worth putting some effort into.

  8. Evan Hadkins says:

    Labor (and Libs) are now professionalised entities whose goal is to win power (and not do anything useful with it).

    Labor is no longer the parliamentary wing of a movement.

    Time for John, and others who care about our survival and social justice, to move on (if they care more for Aus. than their party).

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