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If Not Now, When?

by Lindsay Tanner

February 5, 2002

Lindsay Tanner, ALP Member for Melbourne, Shadow Minister for Communications This is the full text of a submission to the ALP's internal Committee of Review by Lindsay Tanner, the Shadow Minister for Communications. The review committee is chaired by former NSW Premier Neville Wran and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. It was established after the ALP's election defeat last November. Tanner is a member of the Left faction and a former Secretary of the Federated Clerks Union. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1993.

For the average Labor supporter, the Parliamentary Labor Party's response to the 2001 Federal election defeat seems to go something like this: "We lost because of the Tampa, it's all the unions' fault, we've got to cuddle up to small business, and our primary target is aspirational voters who live in western Sydney".

This caricature may be a little unfair, but it illustrates the nature of the task facing this Review. In order to rebuild Labor we must first understand the true nature of our situation. In particular we must set aside issues of electoral positioning and knee-jerk reactions to anecdotal material from the recent election, and focus on the fundamentals. We have just recorded our lowest primary vote since 1906. If all we do is re-examine our marketing strategy, and ponder how we can better appeal to certain sections of the community, we will not recover. Although our marketing could be better, the central issue is not the marketing, it is the product. And the product is not merely our policies, it is us. This Review should focus not on the superficial questions of tacking emerging new constituencies onto existing ones, but on the very nature of Labor as a political organisation. We have to rethink how we organise ourselves, not just how we present ourselves. Our problems are structural, not cyclical. A new coat of paint might help, but restumping is the main priority.

The origins of our difficulties lie in changes in Australian society. Several decades ago Labor was based on a largely homogenous mass of blue collar families and a trade union movement which represented a majority of workers. The political terrain was clear, most issues seemed relatively simple, and alternative uses of discretionary time were limited. Most political activity occurred through the established political parties and parliamentary processes.

Since then our society has fragmented beyond recognition, trade union membership has shrunk, political issues have become more complex and specialised, more serious political alternatives are competing with Labor, and volunteer political activity has to compete with an infinitely wider range of choices for use of discretionary time. Most importantly, the percentage of voters loyally committed to voting for one party regardless of issues and circumstances has dropped dramatically.

In spite of occasional limited reforms, Labor is still encumbered by a structure, culture and organisational approach which reflect the old world. In the short term we have been propped up by incumbency, the electoral system and public funding of political parties, but the signs of decline are everywhere.

Membership

The best way to understand the value that Labor attaches to party membership is to examine the level of resources we have committed over the years to membership recruitment, development, training and service. We do little to attract members to join, we offer them virtually no fulfilment and influence, and we do little to develop their political skills. To add insult to injury, key party figures sometimes engage in branch stacking exercises which turn the entire concept of membership participation into a mockery.

The Labor Party branch structure has never been particularly vibrant, but it is now in serious decline in many parts of Australia. While nominal membership levels suggest only a genteel decline, the underlying reality is a serious drop in membership participation and an ageing of the active membership base. It is common for genuine Labor supporters to join the party, attend one or two meetings, and then disappear. For those without political ambitions who simply wish to make a contribution, rank and file membership of the ALP is profoundly unappealing. The emergence of the Greens, and to a lesser extent the Democrats, is already hurting the ALP's ability to attract new members amongst young people.

The average ALP member:

  • does not enjoy the right to vote in elections for senior party office-holders
  • has little if any access to forums of decision-making and policy debate
  • has participation options restricted largely to an often boring and alienating monthly branch meeting and occasional hack work in election campaigns.
As a result, Labor supporters around the country are voting with their feet and staying away. In some areas, like the Federal seat of Aston, party membership has fallen well below the critical mass required to sustain a local election campaign and a network of links with the local community. The lack of a strong grass roots base is eating away at Labor's electoral strength slowly but surely. Without local ambassadors, without local networks, and without local activists, our party will become an alien import. It should be an established part of local community life.

The reasons for this decline include the structural changes in our society identified above, and to some extent disillusionment with particular Labor policies. Yet the fundamental barriers to increased membership participation and fulfilment are internal, not external. Reforming our organisation may not generate a flood of new members, but at least it will ensure that we can sustain the critical mass of membership activity necessary for political viability.

Recent reforms, necessary though they have been, have all been about stopping people from joining the Labor Party. Long overdue efforts to tackle branch stacking appear to be having some effect. It's now time we did something to encourage genuine members to join. The key structural changes which are required are:

  • direct membership voting to elect key party positions such as State branch office-holders, Administrative Committee members and National Conference delegates and National office-holders

  • liberalised branch rules which allow members to form branches around any theme which is compatible with Labor's platform and objectives, not just local geography

  • a deliberate ongoing campaign to encourage branches to function as community organisations in their own right, taking action in local communities to pursue Labor beliefs and aspirations at a micro level, thereby generating worthwhile activity with concrete outcomes for party members and ensuring that ALP members promote Labor by their actions in the community

  • a strategy to train and resource ALP members as volunteers in their community

  • automatic rights to participate in policy committees for all members, with specific strategies to enable genuine participation of members outside the capital cities.

We need to offer people reasons to join, and reasons to stay. We no longer have a captive voter base and a monopoly on half the political spectrum. The gradual hollowing out of party membership lies at the heart of Labor's problems. Radical change, whether through these proposals or other equivalent ideas, is essential.

At present, aside from one or two small State/Territory branches, party members do not directly elect party officers, Administrative Committee members and National Conference delegates. Virtually every trade union member has the right to vote for the equivalent positions in their union. Labor's collegiate electoral systems ensure that members are totally remote from party decision-making processes. Elsewhere things are different. British Labour Party members get to vote in National Executive elections, and to elect the party leader. Even the British Conservative Party gives its members a vote in leadership elections. The ALP could introduce direct membership voting for key internal party positions easily without altering the level of input of affiliated unions. I have advocated this reform for over a decade, with little effect. It is now more necessary than ever.

Labor's branch structure is decaying partly because it is one-dimensional. Members of a local branch often have only two things in common: support for Labor and residential location. Branch meetings and activities must therefore inevitably follow a lowest common denominator format. Allowing members to set up branches with a more specialised focus, such as a pensioners branch or a health workers branch, would remove an important barrier to increased membership activity, provided the opportunities opened up by the new structure are fostered by the party organisation. If each member still has only one vote in internal party ballots based on residence, there is no reason why such a liberalised branch structure should engender increased stacking.

The quality of party policy committees, and the extent to which ordinary members are able to participate in their deliberations, varies from State to State. The right to participate in policy committees, and to have access to Ministers and Shadow Ministers, should be seen as an important means of attracting people to join the ALP.

Most importantly of all, Labor needs to completely rethink the issue of what the ordinary branch member actually does. With other equivalent organisations like mainstream churches and service clubs suffering a similar decline in participation, it is obvious that we need to completely overhaul our organisational model.

The answer lies in the distinction between active and passive involvement. People no longer want to be party of the cheer squad, they want to be part of the team. Turning up to an occasional branch meeting and putting leaflets in letterboxes offers almost no value or fulfilment to a branch member. They feel little connection with the pursuit of the ultimate objective, election of a Labor Government and implementation of Labor policies.

To persuade a Labor supporter to participate in an ALP branch we have to offer them something worthwhile to do. Liberalising the branch structure will help, but for the majority who remain members of locally based branches, the answer is to reorient their focus into the community. A group of local ALP members working to assist their local school will generate more political impact, and gain much more fulfilment, than they would engender by putting ALP education policy leaflets in letterboxes.

Introducing a new model of membership participation based on concepts of volunteer involvement and genuine membership training and development could revitalise branch membership. This new model could be supplemented by a series of membership awards for community activity, fundraising and policy development, to be presented by the party leader at National and State Conferences. A bit of genuine recognition of the efforts of ordinary party members would work wonders.

Labor should also conduct a genuine national membership survey with serious questions aimed at eliciting the true picture of membership attitudes and aspirations. This survey should be random, run by a professional opinion polling organisation, and the results should be made public.

Party Culture

The ALP's longstanding internal culture could perhaps best be described as Masonic-Leninist. Byzantine structures, unfamiliar jargon, exclusionary attitudes and an atmosphere of secrecy characterise Labor's organisational culture.

The changes outlined above would help to change this culture, but a genuine effort is required by those at the top to set an example of internal openness, tolerance and respect. Politics inevitably entails many destructive and negative aspects, but there is no reason why we should allow these features to dominate our party's culture.

Aside from the structural changes suggested, there are two changes in approach which would help to improve Labor's internal culture.

The first is to make a genuine effort to foster debate within the party. Policy debate is often talked about, but it actually doesn't happen very often. Our structures make it difficult, and everybody is usually much too busy fighting the Liberals or fighting internal battles. A conscious effort is required to ensure that genuine wide-ranging debate becomes the norm.

As well as opening up its policy committees and liberalising branch structures the ALP should restructure its National Conference to provide for much greater membership participation. Even opportunities like the fringe conference arrangements used by the British Labour Party would be likely to inspire greater involvement and debate. Even without any formal decision-making power, the fact that such fringe forums formed a backdrop to actual decision-making would spark significant membership interest if handled correctly. Venue and logistics difficulties would present some problems, but these should not be insurmountable.

Labor should also develop a mechanism for using the talents of specialist volunteers. It is common for Labor figures to receive offers of policy assistance from both party members and non-members with specialist expertise in particular fields. It is usually very difficult to make effective use of these people because of insufficient resources for liaison and supervision. The ALP needs some kind of specialist volunteer clearing house, where the skills and energies of these valuable contributors can be mobilised and co-ordinated.

The second change which would help to improve Labor's culture is to start to become more realistic about our past. Although, as some Liberals have pointed out, our possession of a past littered with heroes, myths and legends is a significant advantage, it can be over-emphasised. We tend to romanticise and sentimentalise our past too much, and to indulge past leaders with a degree of reverence which is not shared by the general community. Some celebration is appropriate, but beyond a certain point this can make us appear backward-looking and out of touch. There is little point in re-fighting battles of ten or fifteen years ago, and if we present voters with a view of the past which is too much out of step with theirs they will start to question our view of the present and future.

Candidates

Much of the debate about Labor's organisational future tends to focus unduly on preselections. Yet again, people focus on marketing and ignore the product. Better candidates is always an important objective, but candidate quality is such a subjective thing that ALP activists will usually not even agree on whether or not it has been achieved, much less on how to achieve it. We should therefore ensure that the preselection issue remains in perspective. Nonetheless, there are some points to be pursued.

Given the tiny pool from whence they emerge, the overall level of quality of our candidates is surprisingly high. If party members who are too young, too old, not interested or not involved are deducted from the list, the range of prospective candidates from whom we choose is astonishingly small. It is not easy to find a good candidate for a key marginal seat if we have very few members in the seat.

We also have a problem with the narrowing of occupational background and life experience of Labor MPs. The number of MPs who could be described as Labor Movement professionals has increased substantially. As someone who has the same background I can hardly complain too loudly, but we need to make a collective effort to increase the diversity of background in the Labor Caucus. Having managed to achieve substantial progress on the gender imbalance problem, it should not be beyond us to tackle the diminishing diversity problem. Once again, the underlying issue is the party membership. As the ranks of actively involved members who do not work in the Labor Movement have dwindled, it is hardly surprising that those who do have come to unduly dominate preselections.

One solution to candidate quality problems which has become more common in recent years is the "star import" approach. Although this strategy can be appropriate in certain circumstances, Labor should be wary of relying upon it unduly. In particular, it should not be seen as a solution to the problems of small membership and insufficient diversity identified above. The ALP should not allow itself to become a kind of job agency for aspiring parliamentarians in the general community. Party membership and involvement is not the only way a person can demonstrate political skills and commitment to Labor ideals, but it is a pretty good one. From time to time individuals will emerge who may be appropriate as Labor candidates even though they are not party members, but we should not descend into a search for highly popular figures whose political skills and commitment are unknown.

Trade Union Affiliation

Since the Federal election, Labor's trade union links have been the focus of public debate about Labor's organisation. This is unfortunate, because our trade union connection is not the real problem. There are issues which need to be dealt with, there is a need for some reform, but these matters are essentially at the margins.

The key question with our union connection is very simple: should it be retained? I believe it should, and I believe that most Labor members and supporters think so too. Trade union affiliation ensures that Labor retains a mass base, even if the connection is indirect. It provides a source of connection with the workforce and the general community which our tiny membership base does not provide. It gives Labor a substantial organisational and resource base, and a level of stability and continuity which is sometimes taken for granted.

The Liberal party wants to eliminate the Labor-union nexus because it understands that in spite of the problems it sometimes causes it is ultimately a source of strength for Labor. If Labor introduces a 50:50 rule for union representation, does any one seriously expect that John Howard will applaud politely, offer his congratulations and move on?

It is essential that the future of our union connection is dealt with on its merits. We should not make changes in response to pressure from our opponents. We should not allow important issues like unfair dismissal laws to become hostage to a perceived need for Labor to distance itself from its union base. Occasionally we will disagree with the trade union movement on a particular issue. When we do so it should be a genuine disagreement, not a false position driven by a need to be seen to be disagreeing.

The relationship between the ALP and the trade union movement of the 1980s, the corporatist, tripartite approach centred around the Accord, is in the past. The world has changed a lot since that time, and we should not seek to return to those approaches of the past. A new relationship is evolving, but it would be wrong for the ALP to interpret this process as a reason for consciously distancing itself from the trade union movement.

As part of a package of serious reforms, a 50:50 branch-union representation structure makes sense. By itself, or accompanied by merely cosmetic changes elsewhere, it would mean little. An appropriate approach would be to set base benchmarks and a sliding scale, which would allow the ratio of union and branch representation to change over time to reflect changes in the levels of union affiliation and branch membership.

One rule change which is long overdue is the elimination of the practice of unions over-affiliating in order to obtain more influence within the ALP. It would not be difficult to construct a system which uses Industrial Relations Commission returns as a reference point to prevent undue inflation of membership numbers. Labor should also consider requiring unions to elect their delegates to ALP conferences.

Factions

Factions are often identified as the main cause of Labor's problems. When there is internal party division and dissension, they are seen to be causing conflict and disharmony. When the party is united and disciplined they are seen to be stifling debate and inhibiting creativity. In both cases the charges contain an element of truth, but are usually exaggerated.

The framework of disciplined, highly organised factions which now prevails in the ALP is a relic of the past. It reflects bitter polarisations of twenty, thirty and forty years ago. Although there are still intellectual and ideological differences, they are much more diffuse and less susceptible to simple containment within two or three groupings.

As factions have virtually no formal existence with ALP rules, it is difficult to change the role of factions through rule changes. Crude attempts to ban or regulate factions would probably be counter-productive. Cultural change is needed, and can only come from the collective efforts of those at the top.

One emerging problem which reflects the weaknesses of the factional system is the way in which Caucus members are elected to the front bench. In effect, the real selection process now occurs at a sub-faction level, with the various sub-groupings being allocated a specific number of positions. The Right's representation is broken down into State groups, and the Left's is broken down into different tendencies. This means that individual Caucus members are being elected to the front-bench on the decision of a small minority of Caucus members, with no involvement in the decision by the vast majority of Caucus. The contest for advancement is slowly descending into a variety of individual battles within small tribes. The Caucus at large is effectively denied the ability to elect the front bench. This trend has also had a malignant influence on the preselection process, because the acquisition of even one extra supporter in Caucus can be quite decisive for an individual's front bench ambitions. If anything threatens the quality of future ALP candidates it is this pattern of internal fragmentation.

The emergence of this excess of proportional representation is a long-term reaction to the winner-takes-all tendency which in the past tended to surface in Caucus wide ballots for the front bench. Unfortunately the reaction has gone too far, and is in urgent need of correction.

Conclusion

Whether my proposals are adopted or not, it is vital that we recognise that we have serious problems, and that major reform is needed. The time for business as usual is over. After three election defeats in a row, the question about party reform is simple: If not now, when? Labor's future as a political force depends on our ability to reform and revitalise our party.

Lindsay Tanner
Member for Melbourne

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