For over a century, the raison d’etre of the Australian Labor Party has been as the parliamentary wing of the industrial movement. In practice, of course, it has long been a far broader church than that and had to balance the views of disparate groups — Kim Beazley Snr’s famous utterance about the “scum of the middle class” replacing the “cream of the working class” was made decades ago.

In that time, however, trade union membership has fallen dramatically, from over 40% of male workers in 1992 to well below 20% now, and from 35% to the same level for female workers. Labor is now the parliamentary wing of a movement that is barely a shadow of its old self.

That doesn’t automatically demonstrate the need for Labor to abandon its structural links with the union movement. Unions have long provided high-quality politicians to Labor, leaders with executive and political experience who have a strong sense of their core beliefs from having fought for them on behalf of members. But it is also, increasingly, delivering a succession of hacks who view public service as a reward for years as head of a union, and outright crooks like Craig Thomson. The result is a party preselection system that in effect disenfranchises the remaining ALP membership without the benefit of delivering high-quality candidates.

John Faulkner’s proposal to overhaul upper house preselection processes in the New South Wales branch of the party to allow party-wide ballots — similar to the reforms he called for as part of the Carr-Bracks-Faulkner review of the 2010 election — has immediately drawn criticism from entrenched powerbrokers like NSW branch secretary Jamie Clements. Some have even criticised the proposals because Faulkner is himself a member of a faction, as if that automatically invalidates his arguments.

Preselection by ballot may not necessarily deliver higher-quality candidates than those provided by factional deals and the structural importance given to unions. Members of all parties have been known to make decisions that defy what the pundits believe is politically savvy.

But greater party democracy and the opportunity to influence real outcomes within the party is critical to the future of all political parties. Not just Labor.

Peter Fray

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