Two years on from a comprehensive review to overhaul the Labor party, the party has squibbed on most of the significant reforms proposed. The report, written by Labor identities Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr in 2011, is gathering dust on a shelf. And the federal Labor government is at a catastrophic low in the polls as it appears to be on course for an electoral wipeout.
Given the extensive and long-running media coverage of Labor’s malaise, Crikey decided to investigate how much of the Labor review has been implemented. This confirmed that less than half of the report’s recommendations have been enacted, with the rest either rejected or delegated to committees and lost in Labor’s internal bureaucracy.
In response to Crikey’s report card, Labor Senator Doug Cameron told Crikey this week that he thought his party’s response to the Carr/Bracks/Faulkner report was disappointing. “I think there was lost opportunity with that review to actually focus on creating a more democratic, grassroot-based Labor,” he said.
“There was a strong view from progressive forces within the party that we had to bite the bullet and make changes. I think it would always be better if you have a more vibrant, democratic party. I think there’s a lot of cynicism in the public about the political process within the party. They want a party that can provide vision and principles.”
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After the 2010 election Labor saw the need to reform. It struggled in the campaign and lost its parliamentary majority and was forced to negotiate with the Greens and independents to form government. In a bid to fix the situation, Labor commissioned a report from three elder statesmen.
Less than half of the report’s recommendations were passed by national conference that year, with major reforms shot down by the party’s Right faction.
The whole report has never been released. The sections discussing the failures of the Rudd government and the 2010 election campaign remain under lock and key, despite Carr and Faulkner calling for their release. Some 31 of the report’s recommendations were made public. They were debated at the 2011 ALP national conference, and the results were less than stellar: 42% were passed completely, 30% were partially passed and 26% were rejected entirely.
Some controversial reforms, such as changing the structure of the ALP national conference to accommodate more rank-and-file members, were offloaded to a new implementation committee for consideration. Since December 2011, according to Michelle Grattan, the committee has met once.
The Left faction of the Labor Party was the primary advocate for change, both before and after the 2011 national conference. One of their primary conveners is Doug Cameron.
Many of the rejected reforms tried in some way to curtail the exceptional powers of union leaders and high-profile party members. These included direct election of the president and vice-presidents by the party base, and rulings to stop the national executive interfering in preselection battles. Another recommendation to hold US-style primaries for seats was adopted but severely watered down following pressure from powerful union leaders. Federal primaries have been expressly ruled out, while a limited number will be trialled in upcoming state elections in NSW and Victoria.
Cameron says including the rank-and-file members in the political processes is essential. He would even consider taking party democracy to its highest level: the direct election of the leader by the membership. “We have to inspire people to join the party,” he said. “I like the British system where the leader has to go out and convince the people why they should vote for him. The issue is creating a role of respect for the membership in the party, that they are seen to be respected. How do you get more democratic representation in the party?”
Although Labor critics decry its ties with the union sector, Cameron says if anything, Labor needs to get closer to its union base.
“I’m not a union official any longer, but the unions should analyse how they can enhance participative democracy,” he said. “I think it should be a closer relationship, but I think it should be one of a broader union base and that broader union base having a voice that is reflected through their leadership. I don’t buy for a moment the argument that unions should be blamed for the situation that the party is in and that the answer is to weaken the trade union involvement in the party.”
Labor might miss these reforms on September 14. With the 2013 election less than six months away, Cameron says he will continue to fight for change. “I’m a very concerned member of the party,” he said. “We need to make changes that strengthen the party and make sure we don’t get a decade of dominance by neo-liberal policies that destroy any chance we have for a viable society.”