The prime minister has laid down several markers on Labor Party reform today at a party function in Canberra.

Addressing a Chifley Research Centre function this morning, Julia Gillard returned to an issue that has plagued her government, outlining her vision of modern Labor’s core values and how they have changed in recent years, in particular emphasising the importance of choice as well as opportunity. She also flagged support for several reform proposals from the Bracks/Carr/Faulkner post-election review to be considered later this year.

These included an aggressive 8000 recruitment target for 2012, a trial of preselection primaries in some seats, accepting the proposals from the Labor elders to empower party members — which included voting directly for National Conference delegates and the national president — and “embracing online membership”.

While the prime minister’s reform list embraces many of the recommendations from the review, it also reflects the reform agenda being pushed by the NSW Labor Right and particularly the NSW branch’s general secretary, Sam Dastyari, who has aggressively pushed for reform since the party’s smashing defeat in March.

As is now usual in Labor’s media management process, the reform proposals were leaked to the print media overnight, rendering that section of the speech redundant before it was given. In any event, the speech was more interesting for Gillard’s effort to locate her government in the longer reform history of her party and clearly articulate her own vision of Labor values and how they’re being implemented. While much of the emphasis on opportunity and education has been heard from the PM before, she made a point of addressing, albeit subtly, the apparent high level of hostility and anxiety in the community toward her government:

“We live in an age which at its best is one of individual empowerment and at its worst is one of stress, anxiety and confusion … for too many people, the lived reality of a world of so much promise is actually one of feeling adrift in a sea of information and overwhelmed by too much change. The lived reality is one of feeling that they have lost control of their own lives. Indeed, I believe this clash of the choices of modernity with our need for security in life is one of the reasons that there is a sense of anxiety in the community.”

Her response appeared to be to emphasise the party’s collective tradition, but now harnessed to deliver choice, empowerment and opportunity to people, rather than older Labor aims of a welfare state and protecting industrial rights. She summed the theme up succinctly at one point:

“Cradle to grave opportunity. Cradle to grave care for each in the face of life’s risks. Cradle to grave shared expectations of personal responsibility met with a shared resolve to leave no one behind. Collective action used to create great jobs, to build great infrastructure, to deliver great public services — and then collective action used to empower individuals to choose between these good things.”

It was a long rhetorical bow to link Labor’s tradition of collective action to the provision of individual choice and empowerment, particularly given her earlier comments about the anxiety induced by information overload and too much change. But it serves as an apt reflection of the contradictory and occasionally confused ideological moment Labor finds itself in, particular under Gillard, who has adopted an almost Thatcherite focus on the redeeming quality of education and hard work. A party traditionally of the Left, the advocate of collective action and government intervention, one that still retains a “socialist objective”, that now finds itself arguing for market solutions and liberal economics against conservatives arguing for the sorts of populist interventionist policies Labor would have been proud to own four decades ago.

The structural reforms may get up at the party conference in December, and they may even work to breathe some life into the base of the party. But the party’s ideological problem is one that will remain far less amenable to repair.

Peter Fray

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