The Prime Minister’s greatest failure is her refusal to lead the reform of the structure of the ALP.
That structure is controlled by a handful of faction and union bosses like Paul Howes. In return for protecting their positions, they are now repaying their debt to her by shoring up her precarious position.
The last ALP federal conference considered a report by Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr for modest party reform. Julia Gillard failed to provide leadership on these reforms and the ALP is now paying a very heavy price.
The rank-and-file of ALP members are appalled and disillusioned. As John Faulkner put it the ALP is a small party now growing smaller and an old party growing older. In the present impasse the ALP is behaving more like a suicide cult than the most successful political party in Australian history.
There is only one person who could have broken through the impasse imposed by the self-interested faction bosses. That person was the parliamentary leader of the Australian Labor Party. Only the parliamentary leader has the status and the authority to lead the ALP in structural reform. No-one else can do it.
In the appalling situation that the ALP faced in the 1960s and the early 1970s, there was only one person who could cajole, persuade and force the ALP machine to act against its own selfish interests. It was Gough Whitlam who stared down the faceless and witless men and forced change. He put his own job on the line on several occasions to overcome the internal opposition. He got rid of the faceless men. He engineered the sacking of the Victorian branch of the ALP that was a dead weight in the ALP organization. A similar sacking of the NSW branch should have occurred in the last twelve months to start restoring the ALP’s parlous position in NSW. But Julia Gillard did not lead the process of structural reform.
What would be the key elements of a reformed ALP structure? Some of these were canvassed by Bracks, Faulkner and Carr two years ago.
- An electoral college composed of members of the parliamentary ALP and branch members of each federal electorate council of the ALP to choose the parliamentary leader.
- Selection of ALP candidates by ALP supporters in each federal electorate registered with the Australian Electoral Commission. Care would need to be exercised to avoid abuse. The present situation is unacceptable whereby only about 100 to 200 ALP members select the federal candidate in each electorate. There are probably about 40,000 ALP voters in each electorate but their choice is limited by the ability of a hand-full of party members, with the help of branch-stacking from time to time, to choose the candidate.
- The federal conference of the ALP should consist of a delegate from each federal electorate council in Australia (about 150) plus a lesser number of federal union delegates. The power of the state branches that are controlled by a hand-full of state union officials must be broken. We need a national ALP. At the moment we have a confederation of six state parties
The existing factional bosses will resist these changes because reform will reduce their power. These bosses are content with a shrinking constituency as long as their own power is retained and entrenched.
The ramshackle and unreprestative structure of the ALP often reminds me of the Catholic Church. Both need leadership at the top to force change.
Julia Gillard has failed to lead the reform process in the ALP. She is the only person who had the clout and the status to do so. She has not done so.