It’s hard to conjure quite the right image for Labor Senator John Faulkner; he’s been a prophet in the social democratic wilderness for some time now; his longevity, as one of the last remaining links between the current party and the Hawke years, makes him the party Methuselah, but increasingly he appears a Cassandra, doomed not to be heeded by his party as he warns of the need for significant change.

His speech last night on Labor reform went further than his previous efforts, both in its recommendations — especially for reducing union control of party delegates from 50% to just 20%, and requiring union members to opt in to being counted for affiliation purposes — and its analysis of the party’s history and structure. Apart from his tailor-made-for-a-grab-quote line that “without trust politics is a contest of personalities, not ideas — a contest with no more relevance than an episode of MasterChef“, Faulkner’s analysis brought together a range of issues: the importance — and dearth — of trust in politics, his failure (more accurately, the failure of the Coalition and Steve Fielding, but he declines to say that) to pass laws to improve transparency of political donations, the privileged position of political parties and, of course, Labor’s internal structures and processes. As he has before, he cited “the stench of corruption which has to come to characterise the NSW Labor Party” — “the party which gave you Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald and Craig Thomson, and promoted Michael Williamson as its national president” — as demanding substantial change.

But Faulkner’s broader thesis is at least as interesting as his proposals for reforming his own party. He has a perhaps old-fashioned view that political parties, and the way they operate, are important:

“[In the] contest of ideas, our political parties are paramount. In our two-party system the selection of candidates and the setting of policies within the major political parties have perhaps as great an influence on Australia’s governance as do general elections. It is therefore essential that Australia’s political parties are open, transparent and democratic –no code-words, no cabals, no secret handshakes.”

And they could only function effectively as reforming entities with that transparency, he said. “Principles of integrity, transparency, and accountability are crucially important to Labor’s reforming agenda, because they enable that faith in the political process, which is critically important to the consensus building that makes reform possible.” He stressed that governments couldn’t undertake reform without trust from voters: “On that consensus of trust rests the operation of our government: the ability to make decisions, even where they may not be popular; the ability to pass laws, even where they constrain or disadvantage some members of the community; the ability to assign what may be scarce resources to priorities, and therefore not to other areas or interests.”

“Ultimately Faulkner is not merely urging Labor to update its internal rules to recognise 120 years of history, but to embrace the opportunities that new, non-geographical communities can offer.”

For those concerned about the apparent inability of major party politicians to undertake large-scale reforms anymore, Faulkner’s thesis deserves consideration alongside the recent speech of former Treasury secretary Ken Henry on the failings of the “Australian mercantilist” narrative.

Faulkner’s other broad point was that Labor’s internal structures had changed to reflect a changing Australia before, and should continue to do so — and what was “cutting edge” in 1891 is unlikely to be useful today. Indeed, Faulkner argued the “delegated democracy” model on which Labor was founded was now anti-democratic:

“We now have technologies that offer unprecedented opportunities for the direct and secure communication of information. More importantly, they provide us with unprecedented opportunities for interaction. And they are woven into everyday life so inextricably that, to the younger members of our community especially, they have become invisible. They offer a huge potential to party organisation and for party democracy,and at the same time fundamentally change expectations of participation, engagement and responsiveness.”

The emergence of social media, Faulkner said, had “profoundly changed our ideas of community and our expectations of what community — and political — involvement looks like. Twenty-first century democracy is very different from even 10 or 15 years ago: self-organising, intolerant of top-down management, expecting interactivity and immediacy.”

Such sentiments could be, and almost certainly will be, derided as a techno-utopian pandering to the Twitterati (as unlikely as that image is for Faulkner). But he has displayed a remarkable astuteness in picking up that the internet and social media have changed our concept of what communities are and how they should work — a key understanding that clearly eludes most of his political contemporaries either in his own party or on the other side of the chamber, and much of the media as well. For nearly all of human history, communities were geographically based — we associated with our families, our neighbours, our work colleagues. Now, we can associate with whatever communities appeal to us, no matter where on the planet they may be. And we expect very different things in terms of interaction from those communities than we did of geographical communities. And Labor must understand this:

“Geographically based organisation, face-to-face meetings, complex procedures and delegated decision-making suited an Australia without cars or telephones — even the Australia of my student days, before faxes or answering machines, let alone mobiles and emails. But it does not suit Australia today.”

That’s the core argument for party reform, from Faulkner — even if you dislike his specific prescriptions, his case for substantially, not just trivially, greater democracy within political parties is based on the ever-growing gulf between historical institutions propped up by their privileged position within the political system and voters with very different expectations of civic engagement and communities.

Ultimately Faulkner is not merely urging Labor to update its internal rules to recognise 120 years of history, but to embrace the opportunities that new, non-geographical communities can offer. There’s a first-mover advantage there for the party smart enough to seize it. Impressive coming from the party Methuselah.

Peter Fray

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