MARGARET REYNOLDS. Labor Review ignores Centralised Factional Control!

The ALP Reviewers certainly deserve recognition for facing some of the issues which led to its recent Federal election defeat. The Review Team has put on the record the factors contributing to misunderstanding and failure to capture the public imagination. Recommendations are a welcome start in charting new directions. However, the fundamental issue of factional control is not considered as a major factor in community alienation.

Of course, many of us have long observed and even benefitted from factional manoeuvres so it is easy to ignore the harsh reality that there are some very negative impacts that must be addressed if the ALP is to reconnect with its community.

Over forty years ago I was told “it is not your turn to run for preselection “……as a young woman in Townsville I had no factional base so apparently no future. Thanks to Labor leaders, Bob Hawke and Peter Beattie I was thrust from obscurity into the Senate. I wish I could be sure that young people from a variety of backgrounds could receive similar promotion without a factional base in 2020. But sadly, the factions have more influence not less.. So many talented potential members and senators will not bother to wait around when the preselection process is so weighted against them. Young people are familiar with professional job selection criteria, so the factional game is a total mystery and lacks any specified process-based transparency.

Factional control of preselection and promotion of candidates limits the capacity of the ALP to build the most successful teams suited to the electorates and states they represent. Frequently in Labor circles we hear that It’s a right or left position regardless of the talent available or the type of skills required to fit the electorate or Senate team. Senate positions are offered to some purely on the basis of party loyalty and longevity.  Those who do not identify and build support in a faction are outsiders and rarely are recognised for promotion. If they manage to bypass factional approval to gain preselection, then their journey is fraught with risk and, like former Tasmanian Senator Lisa Singh, they can be pushed aside for daring to show up the inadequacies of factional pre-selection.

Secondly factional control of the party’s political agenda limits interaction with different communities around the country.   The factions choose the parliamentary leadership team, the National Executive and delegates to National Conference where policy is set. So again, the ALP is limited in its capacity to consider priorities which will vary widely across the country and effectively respond.to different communities.

Of course, a national narrative that speaks to all Australians must be developed and embedded in all that the ALP promotes. That does not mean there cannot be state and regional policy variations which emerge as a result of close community collaboration. There must be some flexibility and recognition of different community needs across Australia. How can predetermined factional choices enable this?

Factional allegiance encourages a rigid “group think “ in many important debates where we need diversity and vision to explore a wide range of options.  Those people who think outside the narrow definition of specific policy are not popular.. They are accused as not being “on message “and are seen as threatening the stability of the party. Yet it is the mavericks and independents who are popular in the electorate and some are taking seats that are traditionally Labor. It is a dilemma for any established party. How much freedom is given to the individual and when must they toe the party line?

Since 1996 the Federal parliamentary party has exerted much greater control over their elected members. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were much more relaxed as leaders who basically trusted their members and senators. Obviously there were differences and tensions over those thirteen years in government. Nevertheless, both leaders accepted that within their governments there were different views which would be expressed publicly and they each had an effective way to resolve disputes. Of course, the media does not help the acceptance of diverse views because the headlines will scream “division”!  However a strong leader can overcome such small minded assessment by creating  an environment where diversity will be seen more positively .

Management of national policy debate does require a degree of control from the policy group in charge .. It would be foolish to allow an open debate on contentious policy as legislation is being considered. However, that should not set the standard for members and senators to speak out on local issues in their electorates. These days we rarely hear from our elected members because they are controlled by central media minders, who must approve press releases and interviews. As a result, we only ever hear from the leadership team and more prominent shadow ministers. No wonder outspoken mavericks have such popular appeal while hardworking Labor members and senators are silenced by media minders.

Finally, factional control must be challenged regarding the way women are treated especially as future leaders. It is the Labor Party which introduced a quota to guarantee opportunities for more women to   enter Australian parliaments. Federally Labor women are offering a fresh style of leadership and they must not be held back by masculine ambition. Factional warlords and a few war ladies must recognise their level of control is not supported by Australians who expect to be part of the democratic process of offering an alternative national government

If we can return the power of factions  to communities then the Australian Labor Party can rebuild and recapture the fundamentals of effective and compassionate policy delivered by past progressive governments.. Hiding from community opinion and avoidance of controversy will not assist Labor to set a new direction. Now that all the disappointment and anger has been exposed, it’s time to challenge the current government on so many fronts.

Margaret Reynolds was Labor Senator for Queensland 1983- 1999

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Margaret Reynolds is a former councillor and Federal Minister for Local Government. She chaired the Advisory Board of the Australian Centre of Excellence in Local Government at the University of Technology, Sydney 2008-2012.

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