Labor veteran John Faulkner’s cri de coeur on party reform last night certainly caused a stir. After all, he did lash out at reliance on focus groups, factions that exist purely for the sake of power and the stage management that dominates not just party but now even factional debates. But they were just drive-by targets on the way to Faulkner’s real goal, a plea for the party to embrace the goal of restoring a sense of power and participation to its membership, in order to arrest the precipitous — maybe terminal — decline in membership.

The media is not a disinterested bystander in all this. There’s a natural media tendency to support those seen as opposed to the powers-that-be within political parties, particularly when they’re of the stature of Faulkner, without looking too closely at the reforms being championed. On the other hand, seasoned political professionals who make a living from offering conventional wisdom will tut-tut over the reforms and talk about how unrealistic they are. They’re the same pros who rolled their eyes when the LNP — the most democratic major party branch in the country — allowed its Longman preselectors to pick Wyatt Roy and its McPherson preselectors to knock back Peter Dutton. Not all conventional wisdom is wise.

For Faulkner, greater engagement by the party’s membership — and therefore hopefully a greater membership — is a near-panacea for the party’s problems (recall he along with Steve Bracks and Bob Carr authored the review of the party’s election performance). A more engaged membership will reinvigorate Labor, supplanting or undermining the reliance on focus groups, which reflects a hollowed-out party, relying on public funding and donations to continue functioning in place of a mass membership base. And a more authentic party that contains genuine debate is also likely to be more appealing to voters than one obsessed with reflecting back at them what it thinks they want.

There’s a fundamental optimism to this prescription, a build-it-and-they-will-come assumption that may not prove realistic, but business-as-usual is a highly problematic alternative for a party with a declining, ageing, disillusioned membership and an electorate unconvinced Labor knows what it stands for. And the reform package proposed in the Faulkner-Bracks-Carr report has the implicit advantage of being significantly more democratic than the party’s current processes.

However, Faulkner declares himself “very pessimistic” about the possibility of reform, given it threatens those entrenched in positions of power now and threatens a permanent cultural shift within the party that is at odds with the party’s recent history of centralised control. He is right to be pessimistic. The recent momentum within the ALP is is centripetal. Centralisation of decision making and preselection has complemented centralisation of political campaigns and an expectation that MPs themselves will confined themselves to nothing more than reading the day’s official government talking points — or what Faulkner called “a pre-scripted song sheet of lines of the day”. There’s been resistance from some MPs, and from internal reform groups such as Campaign Action, but they’re the exception to the overall party momentum of recent years.

The reforms proposed by Faulkner, Bracks and Carr (and Young, one is tempted to add) dramatically reverse that momentum, redistributing (some) organisational power back to members, opening up preselections to people not even in the party, and removing the shackles on internal debate, risking a cacophony of voices instead of one — monotonous — voice.

There’s no incentives for the most powerful figures within federal Labor to back these reforms. Doubtless there’ll be token reforms — “announceables”, probably revolving around online participation, inspired by the remorseless self-promotion and self-congratulation of GetUp. But neither Julia Gillard nor new national secretary George Wright have sufficient authority to drive such a controversial reform process, not when even reformists are susceptible to the idea that the government has too much on its plate to be bothered with the “distraction” and “navel gazing” of internal reform. “We can support democratic uprisings in the Arab Spring but not within the Labor Party,” said one senior backbencher today.

Despite Faulkner’s plea, the most likely result is Labor continues headed in the same direction, with members not bothering to renew, feeling like they’re wasting their time; branches will close, more unions will think about switching their support to the Greens and the party will continue to be hollowed out. This need not be fatal: instead of a mass-member political party, Labor will become a publicly funded political consultancy, kept alive by election funding and donations, endlessly pumping that money into market research and focus groups, living off the outsourcing of political management we’ve collectively engaged in since the 1970s. It’ll be like a head kept alive long after the body has withered away, and it won’t really be Labor in anything but name, but it’s life of a sort.

And as Faulkner pointed out, there are plenty of powerful figures in Labor who’d rather run a failed party than see others run a successful one.

Peter Fray

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