The ALP is in crisis. Ten years ago, ALP membership was 50% higher than the current 35,000. Julia Gillard has set a target of 8000 new ALP members over the next 12 months, a target that is unlikely to be reached. In Victoria this year, 20% of members failed to renew.
ALP members feel the party has abandoned its core values, the values they joined the party to support. Cosmetic change will not repair this, yet almost nobody is spelling out the reforms that are needed.
Real reform of the ALP must focus on giving people good reasons to join and stay in the ALP.
The 2010 review of the ALP by Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner, makes 31 recommendations. Most are good and should be implemented. Several are essential, but as a reform package, the recommendations just don’t go far enough.
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To keep its members, the ALP has to create a governing structure that represents them and defends their values. The party has to give rank-and-file members a real role in decision making. These reforms, even if they do not get watered down, fall short of that.
Probably the most powerful body within the ALP is the national executive, which is elected by national conference. More than 50% of conference delegates are chosen by the leaders of affiliated unions. More than 50% of the ALP national executive are current union officials, and a disproportionate number of Labor MPs are former union officials. Yet less than 10% of the workforce belong to affiliated unions.
To win government the party needs support from non-unionised workers, members of non-affiliated unions, self-employed workers and the unemployed, pensioners and retirees, full-time students, home-based parents and home-based carers of the disabled and aged.
Over-representation of affiliated unions makes it harder to win the votes of these groups and leaves insufficient room for their participation in party decision making at all levels
Real reform requires the overwhelming majority of delegates to national conference to be rank-and-file members, directly elected by their fellow branch members, using a genuinely democratic process. The 2010 review recommends a “proportion’ be so elected.
Real reform means ensuring that rank-and-file elections are not corrupted by branch stacking. It requires rules and procedures to prevent powerbrokers paying the membership fees of people who have no interest in the party — people who are often unaware that they have been enrolled in the party. The 2010 review contains not a single recommendation to deal with branch stacking.
Real reform means the rank and file, not party executives or committees, choosing parliamentary representatives through preselections. This is a key recommendation of the 2010 review, but one that may yet be killed on the floor of conference.
Real reform of the ALP means shifting power away from the factional powerbrokers and union leaders who now control it and back to the rank-and-file ALP members.
Reforming the ALP isn’t just the concern of ALP members. It is vital for the health of Australian democracy.
The ALP national conference meets in December. It has two choices. It can make the above reforms, reinvigorate the party, and keep the ALP at the centre of Australian politics. Or it can settle for business as usual, decay and decline.
*John Lannan is running for the position of federal president of the ALP