Stick with labour movement, unravel the culture

2.53pm | April 09, 2014

We need a system that lets more people have a say in who represents Labor in the Senate Labor’s vote in the West Australian Senate re-run election suggests we have a long way to go to meet our two goals — winning elections, and fighting and winning the battle of ideas. In this light, Bill Shorten’s call to double the size of our current membership to 100,000 members sets the right objective for party reform. 

Meeting the target will be tough. It will require fundamental reform of both our rules and our culture to give more people a say. Democracy and growth go hand in hand. When we offered people a say in the recent ballot to elect our parliamentary leader, tens of thousands of our members answered the call.

Recent community preselections in NSW saw 2500 ordinary members of the community choose to participate in selecting Labor’s candidates, an eightfold increase on the numbers that would have voted had party members only been eligible to vote. Union leaders, parliamentarians and faction leaders who exercised enormous power under the old model need to accept that the old ways have to change.

The good news is that the best of our leaders understand that the prize is worth the trade-off. If we want to grow in strength, we need more genuine opportunities for people to have their say; with a role in selecting candidates, our leaders and conference delegations. Shorten’s recent proposals are a welcome start to an important debate.

The test should be whether proposed arrangements build membership growth and organisational strength, as well as delivering the best candidates to advocate for our progressive vision.

Against this test, Labor’s preselection process for the Australian Senate is broken.

We need to move to a system that allows far more people to have a say in who represents Labor in the Senate.

The Queensland ALP’s decision to open Senate candidate selection to ordinary members is a welcome step.

Labor has had four big national ballots of its membership this century — three for national president and one for its federal leader — and at the end of each of them we were a bigger, stronger party.

As one of the people who have fought and won one of those ballots, I can testify to the rigour of that process. It brings out the best in our candidates and in Labor.

Labor’s National Conference next year should debate measures to introduce broader participation in all candidate selection, including the Senate.

Tough though democratic reform may be, alone it won’t be enough. To grow, our organisation also needs cultural change, mirroring the practices and skills in other organisations that take membership seriously.

To this end, Labor should not fall into the trap laid by conservatives that positions unions as the key impediment to membership growth. Unions remain the largest and best organised progressive institutions in Australian public life.

With just under two million members, it’s hard to think of another institution better able to fight injustice and inequality. It’s also hard to think of a better place to look for a component of our membership target.

Removing Labor’s requirements for union membership is a sensible decision, formalising existing practice in most states. However, union members need to know we want them in our tent.

Labor should leverage the shared campaigning capability of the labour movement to campaign for big ideas, as we did in 2007. In that election, some estimates suggested an additional swing of between 1.3 per cent and 2 per cent in seats with ACTU-led Your Rights at Work organisers and campaigns. As we prepare for the findings of the Commission of Audit, the labour movement needs to build a campaign of similar scale to oppose an agenda designed to hurt the communities we represent.

We should also explore opportunities to directly engage union members in our internal processes. To date, the NSW trials of community preselections are yet to test the model recommended by Faulkner, Bracks and Carr, which gave affiliated union members a chance to vote in lower- house preselections. It’s a worthy experiment, as we consider ways to genuinely connect with the many trade union members who share our values.

Our approach to the reform task must be built on the right objectives. In the 21st Century, our party will need to be big, diverse and well-organised, capable of taking on conservatives in the big fights around inequality, sustainability and prosperity.

One hundred thousand members is the right goal. Distancing ourselves from the labour movement is not.

Article first published in The Australian.