John Cain has recently called on the ALP to stamp out the “alarming” abuses of power revealed in the Labor-dominated Brimbank council. His observations about the culture of the Labor Party in Brimbank and the deadening hand of factionalism should be provoking a positive debate about what sort of a Party we want to shape to ensure that it reflects the hopes and desires of the Australian populace.

It wasn’t always like this.

When I first joined the ALP around 1980, it was a vibrant, energetic and broad-based Party. Hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds attended branch meetings and the local membership was taken seriously by MPs, unions and the Party leadership. There was an abiding sense of altruism and the greater good in the Party. There was also vigorous debate and branches had a real say in the policy of the Party.

This vibrancy was in part driven by the activism of a number of people who “arrived” in that period, among them some of the bedrock of the Hawke Labor Government and the foundations of the Cain Government.

If you go to a branch meeting these days, it’s likely you will find dozen people huddled around a table in a community hall — most of them of retirement age.

What caused this?

The ongoing reductions in the proportion of representation that affiliated trade unions get at State Conferences of the Party have placed more power in the hands of the membership. This would be ideal if the membership were engaged, informed and had a real and abiding interest in the Labor movement. This is not the case.

As the membership were granted more power at State Conferences, other forces in the Party started to take a hold. By the 1990s, genuine members were being drowned out by another membership. Members who neither paid their memberships or followed closely the fortunes of the Party. I remember a school teacher being asked by a student “Just because my family votes Labor, does that mean they automatically become members?” They had just received membership cards in the mail, without ever attending a meeting or expressing an interest in membership.

Some local activists gave up hope. The branches began to atrophy, while membership grew.

The well publicised figures about membership of the Victorian Branch of the ALP in recent years is indicative of the great malaise in the ALP. It is no longer a Party of community activism, but in Paul Keating’s words about the Liberal Party “a political outfit”. But it is a political outfit which has no longer at its heart decent people striving for Labor ideals, but is a pyramid scheme for membership recruitment.

The changes to the rules that have made them more complex has simply put power in the hands of those who know the rules intimately. They are the beneficiaries of the complexity we have introduced.

What the Party needs is an innovative approach that takes the power out of the hands of few and gives it back to Labor supporters and the wider membership.

The trade union movement has had its difficulties, but in reality, they are in much better shape than the ALP. With its 14,000 members, the ALP has less than .05% penetration in members amongst the Victorian community. Unions who are affiliated to the ALP have more than 300,000 members and yet we continue to have arguments about diminishing the power of trade unions and increasing the power of the membership. Greater involvement of the members of affiliated trade unions could provide a solution.

Offering free or reduced price membership of the ALP to members of trade unions — or even a vote in preselections — would effectively drown out and dilute the power of branch stackers.

To make the ALP a mass Party again will take courage. The traditional wisdom that increasing membership fees and making it harder to join the ALP will discourage branch-stacking is an abject failure. We need a growth strategy instead, because the only way to put the power in the hands of the membership is to make sure there are more genuine members, thereby drowning out current practices.

We need to consider making it easier to join the Party. At the moment the Administrative Committee — a factional body — has to approve every membership, following recommendation from a branch that are also factionally driven. It’s like trying to join a secret society.

Joining the Party shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. We need to lower costs substantially — after all, we are the Party of the workers. At present lawyers, teachers, MPs and political staffers dominate the non-concessional membership of the Party.

Current branches should be consolidated. We should look at a more relevant model for local activism and perhaps State Electorates are of a size that will make meetings have sufficient volume and dynamism to be interesting. The recommendations by Bob Carr and Bob Hawke in their 2002 ALP review had many good recommendations to increase local activism — such as forums based around ideas and activism including online, policy based and workplace groupings. Unfortunately this report was largely shelved.

None of these ideas will be easy to implement. However, now is the time for courage and systematic overhaul of the ALP. My foundations for a solution are simple: less rules, not more; cheaper fees; and to create a broader and re-invigorated membership.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Member for Brunswick Carlo Carli was first elected in 1994 and is to retire in 2010