Gough's Unfinished Business



The speakers recollected the event itself – describing people hanging off the rafters to hear Whitlam as leader, poised to govern, outline Labor’s plan for government.

This night 40 years later Bowman Hall was packed once again – full of dewy-eyed Whitlamites – baby boomers who had continued to hope.

It was a reminder of that last great wave of activists to enter the Labor Party in the 1970s.

Now, 40 years on, I believe we are seeing early signs of a second wave of activists joining Labor.

These digital era activists will be just as demanding, just as optimistic, just as disruptive as that Whitlam-era generation. They will change Labor just as dramatically.

We must welcome and retain them.

But for these digital activists, Australian political parties today are about as interactive as your average bank ATM. 

Labor has to change.

Labor should lead the change as political parties everywhere adapt to these rising expectations.

I support Bill Shorten’s goal of having a Labor Party with 100,000 members.

The Party’s National Executive now needs to set out its plan to reach the Leader’s goal.

The National Executive should set out a plan – with a timeline, with state targets – just as it did to meet the previous target in 2012.

Even with the best laid plans, it will be difficult to achieve.

Without a plan, it will be impossible.


I want to argue that a future Labor Party needs three characteristics to thrive in the 21st century:

  • It must be better organised nationally, to focus on winning federal government.
  • It must be more democratic.
  • It must be better organised locally than it is today. 

I associate all three characteristics with Whitlam. I think we need to recapture his spirit as we reform.


This is Labor’s lowest electoral ebb.

We are out of power in every jurisdiction other than the ACT and SA. Labor’s primary vote was just 22 percent in the recent WA Senate by-election.

So this is the right time to ask this difficult question – is Labor’s structure more geared to winning state rather than federal government?

Certainly the figures might suggest so:

Since Federation, Labor has held government nationally for 38 of 114 years. Labor has held NSW Government for more than 62 of those 114 years.

In the last 50 years, Labor has held power for 21 years federally. That compares to 35 years in SA, 33 in Tasmania, 28 years in NSW and 21 years in Victoria.



That is to say in the last 50 years, Labor has won power more often in these four States than it has federally.

Intuitively it seems that Labor’s state-based campaign and political structures subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, prioritise winning government at a state level.

And yet, as this recent Budget reminds us, it is federal governments that shape the nation’s character, the national debate, the modern welfare state, the Australian economy and the shape and size of government at both federal and state level.

It raises the question: should we abandon our state- based power structures – our state branches – and move to strengthen Labor as a national party?

I believe that until we strengthen Labor as a national party we will continue to win government federally less often than we should.

This is a journey that Whitlam started – arguing in 1967 that:

‘All the arguments for and against a national organisation, with a national conference directly representing federal electorates and unions, boil down to this question – is the Party to be organised in this last third of the 20th century on modern national lines representative of the whole membership of the party, or is it to remain a committee or coterie composed chiefly of state branch officers, a significant proportion of whom are paid servants of the party...’

Labor under Whitlam and since has strengthened its national organisation, including completely remaking Labor’s then 36-person Federal Conference.

Yet the journey to rise above our strongly federated roots is still far from complete.

Today, the steps that Labor could take to build a stronger national party include:

  • A national conference that meets annually, rather than every three years.
  • A national conference with directly elected rank-and-file delegates, elected locally, and held to account by their local Party members.
  • Allowing affiliated unions a more direct affiliation to Labor’s National Conference either nationally, or as I argue later, locally.
  • A national secretary and key national officials who are in the job long-term. 
  • A national field campaign team lead by Labor’s National Secretary.
  • An ability to join the Party centrally.
  • National membership lists.
  • A well-resourced national policy forum that creates a continuous discussion among Labor’s leadership about values, priorities and policies.

These are Labor reforms we should make, even if it diminishes the role of Labor’s state branches.

But then you might expect a left wing Assistant General Secretary to call for the abolition of the NSW Branch.

So let me quote Whitlam again, in my defence: ‘...we remain state-dominated, state-oriented and state-financed...’

Still true today. 


A stronger national Party would only be acceptable if it was a more democratic Party.

The election of our federal parliamentary leader was a good start.

It is not enough.

Changes to Labor are necessary, because politics is changing. The digital era activists who are joining Labor now will never accept a command and control culture.

Without further reform that confronts the centralisation of power in the party, Labor will be unable to retain many of those new members. We risk a repeat of the culture that saw Labor disappoint so many of its supporters.

Two reforms are crucial at this time.

States need to complete the move to directly electing Labor’s leader, for us to confidently say that Labor has changed.

The NSW Conference will adopt the 50/50 model likely to be favoured at the National Conference.

We will also debate Labor’s arrangements for preselecting its Senators.

I believe Labor will change how it conducts these elections. Our 22 percent primary vote in WA, and the circumstances that produced it, have ensured that. 

I was encouraged by Bill Shorten’s comments in his Per Capita speech: ‘Friends, we need to change our Senate preselection process.'

The Queensland Labor Party has already moved on this. Its next Senators will be preselected by a broader franchise. I note that Senator Joe Ludwig has called for this measure to be adopted nationally.

The Tasmanian Branch, ACT Labor and NT Labor each have an all-member component. The WA Branch is expected to follow next year. 

Local renewal is an important modern focus in other social democratic parties.

It is a response to a major contradiction – that as politics globalises, local communities and local engagement become more vital.

To engage with this reality we need to acknowledge some of the broader traditions of Labor, here and overseas.

This debate is more advanced in the UK where Labour sought to combat the conservative Big Society discussion. Fatally

Secondly, we need to embrace the culture of community organising from the Australian union movement, the Movement for Change in Britain and Organising for America into our Party. This should be a compulsory part of our training, for campaigners, and for all members of parliament.

Thirdly, we should make the change to directly elect rank- and-file delegates to National Conference. Already agreed at National Conference in 2011, this reform remains stalled. 

I believe we could go further: opening up important ballots such as leader and Senators to supporters of Labor, rather than just Party members. British Labour is experimenting with these measures as we speak.

We know already that Party democracy boosts recruitment. In 2013 at the time of the leadership campaign 5,000 people joined in a short space of time. These members couldn’t vote, but saw the leadership vote as a sign that Labor was changing, and was ready to adapt to the 21st century.


I want to argue for one additional big change for Labor as we welcome these new digital activists.

That is this – we should dramatically reorganise ourselves along local lines.

Renewing our local Party structures ensures that Labor never becomes a glorified version of GetUp.

undermined by budget cuts from the start, Big Society nonetheless tapped the public mood and generated its own counter- discussion in Labour.

It drove a renewed examination of British Labour’s communitarian roots, through the work of William Morris, the Co-operative Societies, and the early Fabians including GDH Cole.

Similarly in Australia, Labor’s pre-war traditions are rich with a collective, decentralised tradition that preceded our post-war fascination with the power of the state.

We need to draw on those traditions as we reinvent Labor today.

Four immediate priorities would strengthen Labor locally:

Firstly, we should use community preselections more often, including for federal preselections, in open seats. Labor is still trialling these preselections, but the early signs are promising.

Finally, we can find better ways for unions to engage locally with the Party. This might include a discussion about options for unions to affiliate to the Party locally, rather than at state level.

If unions affiliated locally, their delegates would be appointed or elected by the union from local union members, and would form an equal partnership with local Party members at the electorate council level. These two groups could then work together, and locally elect thedelegatesthatattendstateand national ALP conferences.

Such a change would break dramatically with Labor’s highly delegated structures. It would provide much more direct local representation for rank-and-file members, and for trade unions.

This issue was raised by NSW party units in the lead-up to the NSW Annual Conference, and has been referred for discussion by the NSW Branch to the Organising, Recruitment and Training Committee. 

This referral will start the discussion. We may also see leading party units and electorate councils engage with local unionists to develop trial models for how this could work.

Such a change would be a major shift, but represents a growing trend in how other political parties and movements are responding to the more interactive politics of the 21st century.

It dovetails with the way unions now organise themselves for political action in a systematic and local way since the Your Rights at Work campaign.

This is one model that would see Labor dramatically emphasise its local organisation.

It would strengthen Labor in its weak areas, and enliven us in our strong localities.

It would help both Labor and unions to grow – helping us reach the target of 100,000 members.

Crucially it would revive Labor’s local and community roots – the original reason for

our groundbreaking success as a political party.

I started with those dewy-eyed Whitlamites.

In many ways the structure of a party I am outlining is perhaps most in line with Gough’s vision.

In NSW we have already implemented one of his specific reform priorities.

Whitlam advocated on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in October 1967 at Party conferences in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney for the system we have now partially implemented in NSW – where National Conference delegates are elected locally by each FEC, and sent direct to National Conference to participate, debate, and then to return to report.

We will send the first of those delegates from NSW to the 2015 National Conference.

At a broader level, Gough was an advocate of both strong national and strong local politics. He was for both for the power of Commonwealth government, and for a strengthened local or regional government.

A stronger national Labor Party is a project Gough fought for – and in my view it remains unfinished business.

The vision of a stronger local Labor Party reflects his decentralising drive.

Together they represent a Labor Party in the Whitlam tradition.

Reviving that Whitlam tradition would give us the best chance of attracting the support, the membership and the loyalty of the new generation of activists – the digital activists who will help reshape Labor in the 21st century.

With their help, Labor will be a bigger, more inclusive, more responsive party. It will be stronger nationally – more focused on winning federal government. It will also be stronger locally, tapping the global mood that communities are more important than ever at this time of change. 

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