Taking democratic reform to National Conference


Dear friend,

These are heady times for the ALP, with Saturday's amazing result in Victoria, a Federal election by May, and the 2018 National Conference kicking off in less than three weeks. As a delegate I plan to write a regular newsletter about the event, and what it says about the party, the potential for reform,  and current issues in politics and policy. While I’m a member of Open Labor, these opinions are my own. 

I’m excited to be going to Conference (first timer!) but I know that six or seven independent delegates, among about 400, can’t do much to effect change unless we hold the balance of power, which at this stage seems unlikely.  I hope this dispatch is one way I can add value. 

Also, Open Labor is holding a pre-Conference forum with Independents Eric Dearricott and Linda Condon (a delegate and proxy delegate respectively) on Saturday 8 December, 1.30-3.30pm, at the Unitarian Church, 110 Grey Street East Melbourne. Come and hear what is likely to happen at Conference, and have your say.

In this letter I'll discuss two options for party reform: one practical that should happen now, another more speculative that might help to break the impasse we have on party reform. I'll discuss policy issues in later emails -- once I've had a chance to read the platform!

A say for members in selecting Senators: it’s time to do it

A proposal to give party members in all states at least 50 per cent of the vote for Senate and Upper House candidates failed at the last National Conference, in 2015. It should be put to Conference again. In Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia, party members get no direct say in the selection of their Senators. In Victoria, for example, Senators are appointed by the Public Office Selection Committee, which is elected by state conference and tightly controlled by factions. While members get a vote in in other states and territories – 100 per cent in the ACT, for example – their overall lack of a say in these preselections bears out the comment by shadow minister Mark Butler in his speech on party reform last year: the ALP “gives ordinary members fewer rights than any other Labor or Social Democratic Party I can think of.”

Why is reform to Senate voting vital? Because the Senate is vital. It should be home to many of our best policy minds, people who have a bit more time to think than lower house members, who have to deal with the heavy demands of their electorates. Giving ordinary members a vote would both enable and force Senate preselection candidates to speak directly to the party and the public: to explain what they stand for, and which policies they would pursue. It gives members a greater stake in their own party, a reason to go out year after year and campaign. It would almost certainly ensure a higher calibre of Senate candidate than the party has produced lately, and it would help us to build a bigger party.

But while this would be a significant change, it would still be piecemeal. Is there a more structured, systematic way we can think about how to grow and strengthen the party?

A national council for party growth and democracy

There’s a big paradox about party reform. Nearly everyone says they want it. Bill Shorten and Mark Butler have given signature speeches about it. Party elders from John Faulkner to Steve Bracks to Neville Wran to Bob Hawke have held inquiries and written reports about it. Yet so much is said, and so little is done. Why?

The simple answer is that people with power don’t easily give it up. But there’s no point reformers simply complaining about that. It’s a fact of life. It’s also true that since the failure of most of the 2010 Bracks-Carr-Faulkner proposals to be adopted, reformers have not come up with a coherent strategy to reform and democratise the party in a way that brought in new people and new ideas.

Instead, we’re stuck at an impasse. The ordinary members don’t trust the leadership to reform, and most leaders -- whatever they say in public -- don’t trust the members with reform. I’m generalising of course, but a lot of senior figures, especially on the Right, see the bulk of members as too activist, too inner city, too left wing – and, above all too few -- to be trusted with a greater say in running the party. Give them too much power, they think, and we’ll be unelectable within a week. No doubt the face of Jeremy Corbyn stalks them in their sleep. (From the little I know of him, Corbyn worries me, too.)

So the power brokers have a few valid reasons to feel nervous. Not to use trickery to strangle sensible reform proposals like a rank and file vote for the Senate and Upper House, as factional leaders in various states have done. Not to use stability pacts and other deals done in the dark to divide up seats and other spoils of power. But they’re right that the membership of political parties is especially prone to the polarising forces at work in society today, when the strongest place from which to be elected and to govern remains somewhere near the centre.

The problem with this position is that it’s not just MPs and leaders who get a party elected. It’s the ordinary members who do the door knocking and leafleting, walking, talking and persuading. A former Howard Government minister I once interviewed gave me his version of the paradox of party reform: every MP claims to want it, none of them actually do, yet it matters. A healthy number of party members in an electorate, the ex-minister said, could make the difference between a seat being marginal and being safe.

So what’s it going to take to make natural Labor supporters show up? In his 2014 speech at the Wheeler Centre, made six months after he became leader, Bill Shorten said that his hope of seeing a party of 100,000 members could only be achieved if the ALP became more democratic and open to a wider range of Australians. He said, “If we don’t change, we are putting our very future at risk.”

In his 2018 speech, Mark Butler also gave pragmatic as well as principled reasons for reform, also linked a larger, stronger party to a more democratic party. He said the party needed to be honest that – unlike the unions or Get Up or the marriage equality campaign – it was no longer capable of organising a substantial on-the-ground campaign, beyond elections. “Our membership base is simply too small to play much more than a support role in any grassroots effort.”

These are non-trivial problems. They are masked at the moment, with the party on the verge of power in Canberra, but at some point they will return. Is there a way to tackle them that creates dialogue and trust between the leadership and the membership, that makes both sides feel that while each has to give, both stand to gain?

Here’s an idea. The party should establish a Council for Growth and Democracy, either elected half from party MPs, half from the members, or a third from MPs, a third from members, a third from affiliated unions – especially if the unionists are rank and file members, not merely factional drop-ins. The party’s National Policy Forum, which prepares the draft national policy platform, is constituted under this threeway structure. The council would work alongside the National Policy Forum by examining and proposing ideas to grow the party while making it more open and democratic. It would explore different models for preselections, for election of all party leaders, for running preselections that involved registered supporters as well as members.

It could also look at ways to reform the party-union relationship – maybe on the lines that Greg Combet and John Faulkner have proposed: encouraging more ordinary union members to join the party and vote in preselections in exchange for ending bloc votes for union secretaries at conferences, and so on. The council could thrash out ideas in a thoughtful, honest way, and present them to the wider party, to inform debate.

Above all, it could open a larger discussion about how a political party can embed and embody democratic principles, in these times when democracy itself might be under threat. The lesson of perhaps the most significant internal reform over the past 20 years – implementing affirmative action for preselections and other party positions – is that big reform takes time, and needs structures and people that will fight for it. This council could be such a structure.

The idea is hardly very developed, and no doubt there are many objections: the factions would game it, we shouldn’t debate our internal structures in public, it’s a distraction from the main issues, and so on. Wayne Swan, when running for national president against Mark Butler this year, made it clear he had no time for party reform, or “tinkering with internal processes.” It was the party’s ideas and “showing we mean business about creating a better, more democratic and more equal society” that would bring new voters and members.

Swan is dead right about ideas mattering most. But people don’t want to just be given ideas from on high; they want to contribute them, too. And democracy is an idea, one of the best there is. How we reinvent it is one of the great challenges of our time.

In Europe many social democratic parties – Greek, German, French, Dutch – have been nearly destroyed. Labour in Britain could soon take power -- or it might split in two. The Democrats in the US are under huge pressure, despite their good result in the midterms. Populism, among many other things, is a demand to give people more voice, and a protest that they haven’t had it for a long time. It would be silly to think these trends won’t show up here one day. We need to think about them now.

I’m also interested in debates about climate change, immigration, asylum seekers, education, the economy and jobs, and ensuring that a Labor Government moves quickly to create an Indigenous voice to Parliament that is recognised in the Constitution. More on all that later. If you’ve read this far, thank you, and I’ll try to be shorter next time. Here’s to a Conference that helps to elect a federal Labor Government, and makes it stronger. 


James Button