Labor must do more to free itself from factional chiefsPosted 21st October 2014 by Clare O'Neil in Articles | 0 Comment
Bill Shorten has a more legitimate and stable hold on the Labor leadership than a leader has had for many years: selected not just by the parliamentary party but, for the first time, Labor’s rank and file.
Legitimacy, because he is the victor in a more democratic process than a caucus vote alone. Stability, because the new rules effectively protect his position until at least the next election.[caption width="620" align="alignnone"] Labor leader Bill Shorten. Photo: Sahlan Hayes[/caption]
But the fruits of allowing members a say in the leadership run deeper than yesterday’s result. The Labor Party is buzzing. Membership has increased. Policy forums have sprung up in every direction. Policy ideas that would never normally see the light of day have been hotly debated. Critically, the ballot has been marked by civility.
Now, Labor faces a choice. Will we close the door on democracy, making this the first and last time the membership helps elect the leader? Or will we use the momentum from this ballot to push for a cascade of reforms that have the potential to change Labor?
Change is not merely desirable, it is necessary. The September 7 election saw Labor’s primary vote at 33.9 per cent – the worst for 100 years. The reason we lost is clear. As Tanya Plibersek has said, we got nine out of 10 for governing the country, but one out of 10 for governing ourselves.
How do we build a party that governs itself well? This will be much more difficult than recovering from a defeat due to bad policy, for which there is a clear process for change. It calls for a new party culture. That means changing the tone of the thousands of unregulated acts that occur in the parliamentary caucus, at branch meetings, at local council meetings, in all the forums where ALP members congregate.
We need a Labor Party that is more unified, kind and inclusive. A party that lives by the values of the broader community, not those of backroom heavies who conduct factional business in Chinese restaurants.
We do not go into the discussion about party reform wanting for good ideas. Several studies have been done on reform, but little has been done with them.
Among the ideas, there are some no-brainers. We need to broaden our membership base, so it should be easier and cheaper to join our party. Membership will be more attractive if it is meaningful. We should support members to coalesce outside the archaic branch structure, in workplaces and around specific issues. If we invested in training our membership, they could be Labor’s best asset, a force of community organisers and campaign experts.
Some ideas have sharper edges. They involve taking power from the bloc votes of factions and unions and placing it in the hands of the membership. Providing the directly elected members of the ALP’s powerful national executive with voting rights would be a start. Allowing members a direct say in the delegates who set policy at Labor’s national conference would be better; direct election of Senate candidates even better still.
These are more difficult reforms, but they will have the most effect on Labor’s culture. If candidates for these positions have to appeal to party members and not just factions, those who will succeed will be the great communicators and fine policy minds who have proven themselves in other areas of community life. People for whom politics is more than just a numbers game. These are the people Labor needs if it is to rebuild.
Some argue that opening up the election of party positions further would be a mistake. They say this leadership contest has driven the candidates too far to the left, in their attempts to appeal to ALP members rather than middle Australia. If this is the case, it reflects the fact that the membership does not represent the broader community. If that is where the problem is, that is where it should be solved.
It has also been said that Labor has focused too much energy and attention on itself over the past few years. This is undoubtedly true. But we cannot use this as an excuse to gloss over the internal problems of the last term. To do so would be to cover a festering sore with a Band-Aid. Our problems are clear. We face a brief opportunity in these first months of opposition to confront them. We must take it.
That’s what we owe to the millions of Australians who count on stable Labor governments to deliver fair policies on health, education and employment. Good reform through difficult conversations now will help us win government at the next election – and this time hold it for the long term.
Clare O’Neil is the Labor member for the federal seat of Hotham.
Originally published October 14, 2013 in The Age