When protestors jumped on stage during the asylum seekers debate at National Conference I was disappointed. Not because I didn’t empathise with their position, but because I saw how easy it would be to misrepresent this act as emblematic of a Party that stifles debate and gags those who seek to speak out against it.
And as photographers fell over each other to capture the protestors unfurling their flag with the Party leadership sitting helpless on stage behind them, I thought about just how inaccurate this image would be when presented as a symbol of what took place at MCEC.
I know many others who sat in the auditorium for that captivating debate felt the same way. I know because when the protestors were finally ushered from the stage, new ALP President Mark Butler commented that Labor has its debates in public and the delegation erupted into the most spontaneous and unified round of applause of the weekend.
Because, if you had been a part of ALP National Conference, you would have seen firsthand the open and transparent manner in which debate was conducted.
True, there is a pretty onerous registration process to go through if one wishes to attend as an elected delegate or observer. And factions work hard to control their numbers to overcome each other. But, if you were a casual punter with no ties to the ALP, there was nothing stopping you walking in to the Left faction’s caucus meetings, putting up your hand and asking a question of MPs like Tanya Plibersek or Andrew Giles. Sure, heads would turn – there would be questions like “who's that?” murmured about the room – but nobody would challenge that person’s right to be there. Similarly you could have snuck onto conference floor and enjoyed the whole spectacle.
And our Party is right to embrace this. In fact, we could do more to embed this accessibility in our Party rules. When discussing this article with other Party members recently, the question was posed: “do we need branches?” The obvious spur-of-the-moment reply is “of course!” But this thinking ignores so many changes that have occurred around how people engage in debate in nowadays. You can be sitting on a bus, commuting to work, surfing news sites and decide to publish your opinion there and then. Just tap it out on your smart phone. No need to join a political party or special interest group, and no obligation to be involved in that issue – or any other issue – ever again. Established thinking says we want Party members who will ‘go the extra mile’. True believers who will stand in the rain on polling day, buy endless raffle tickets for prizes they don’t want to win, and attend fundraising dinners where you’d happily pay NOT to eat the food. But let’s be frank about this; these people are proving harder and harder to find.
We need look no further than the success of the Community Action Network (CAN) campaign run by Daniel Andrews in last year’s Victorian State election. Based on the Obama campaigns in the US, the CAN strategy is built on the premise that interactions between non-party volunteers and voters are more effective in shifting votes than the traditional methods of voter persuasion. Indeed, some have suggested that one in five interactions with a volunteer changed a vote, compared to one in 200 direct mail letters from candidates or MPs.
The spirit in which National Conference was conducted shows that we are capable of adapting to less rigid, more accessible form of debate in our ranks. A rethink on branch structure could enable us to harness the vitality and persuasive horse-power that non-party volunteers offer during election campaigns, on a full-time basis.