Our Labor insider Rev Cleophus James is reflecting on what needs to change in his beloved party.

I haven’t had a beer and a chat with these blokes for a while and it was good to catch up. These guys are quality ALP hacks and they wear the badge proudly. One of them, is one of the best campaigners in the ALP anywhere in the country. I am happy to mark him down as a likely candidate for a future National Secretary. The other is one of the better thinkers I know. He is, in the great tradition of Labor luminaries over the years, an incredibly widely read person. He has a real ‘Old Labor’ feel about him and a sometimes-revealed passion for the defence of the little bloke, but his best and sometimes most disturbing attribute, is a ruthless honesty about his faction and the party.

After a few beers and the odd game of pool the conversation turned to the recent Federal election and the structure of the ALP. The opinion of both these blokes was that something had to change. Ethnic branch stacking and the pre-selection processes in general came under heavy fire. Both said something had to give. Remember, these are two blokes who have in the past and will continue in the future, to work the branches and help with pre-selections. Both are relatively young and will be influential in the party in the future.

Neither thought that we lost the election because of our party structure but both thought we ran the severe risk of being a shit Government because of some of the dud candidates that would have made up the back benches as well as some of the old fellas still hanging around from the Hawke-Keating days.

Their solution was a closed primary system whereby voters on the electoral role can register as Labor voters with the Electoral Commission and then take part in an open ballot of registered ALP voters. It happens in the US and studies there indicate that there is very little in the way of party registration cross over (where supporters of one party register with an opposing party in order to interfere mischievously with the pre-selection).

They both agreed that there needed to be room for a union component in the pre-selection. (For those of you for whom the mention of unions in the ALP is a red rag, please refer to an earlier piece of mine on crikey subscribers can access a searchable archive.)

The idea has grown on me over the last few days. It would give us a tool to beat the Libs over the head with. Let’s face it, they already have the most corrupt pre-selection processes of any political party in the country. For example, Federal Liberal President, Shane Stone lives in Darwin and votes in preselections in Melbourne. If that’s not bad enough, I’m told some of the people voting in the recent Ryan pre-selection live in Hong Kong and that’s all within the rules! Maybe the best one of the lot was recently retired former member for the State seat of Colton in SA, Steve Condous, who had residents Athens enrolled in the Liberal Party to assist in his pre selection. Again, this was within the rules.

The introduction of a primary system would help ameliorate ethnic branch stacking and make it harder for factional duds to be imposed on local branches, while at the same time lifting the quality of candidates that the branch might choose to put up.

No-one can accuse me of being an opponent of factional wheeling and dealing and I am not arguing that it should stop. Factions provide the same stability to parties that parties provide to Parliaments and the primary system won’t lock factions out of the process. After all, who else is going to provide the campaigning know how and ground troops? The real advantage of the primary system would be to allow the continued emergence of people of the likes of former Senator and Minister John Button and recently deceased former Member for Hawker, Ralph Jacobi who constantly held that seat against the odds. The current factional system is in danger of becoming so institutionalised and rigid, that people like those just mentioned wouldn’t get a look in. It has to be recognised that some talented people just won’t join factions and there should be a mechanism to get them into Parliament. This might just provide it.

Perhaps I will survive the next week.

Try and get to confession in the next couple of weeks as part of your preparation for Easter.

God bless.

The Rev can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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