Grasping the Nettle on Democratisation of the ALP

Mark Butler is ALP National President and the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy

Back in 2015, I had the privilege of being elected National President of the Labor Party on a very clear platform of wanting to contribute to reforms that would see our great Party become more democratic and participatory, and substantially bigger and better organised. More than two years later, most of the meaningful changes that were discussed by Party members during that ballot have been blocked by factional leaders at the National Conference and various State Conferences. I’m sorry to say that ours remains a Party that gives ordinary members fewer rights than any other Labor or Social Democratic Party I can think of.

As we begin the year of another National Conference, it’s time to issue a strong call for the Conference in Adelaide this July to grasp the nettle, and to give ALP members the range of democratic and participatory rights that members of our Sister parties across the world take for granted. Party members should have a vote in the election of all important positions in our Party – from Federal and State Parliamentary Leaders down. Importantly, members in all States must be allowed to vote for the candidates we select for Senate and Legislative Council positions. In some States, those positions remain a last bastion of backroom dealing by self-appointed factional warlords – a bastion that must be cracked open. Better protections need to be inserted into our rules to stop these newly-granted voting rights being suspended or over-ridden by factional operatives on State and National Executives. And it’s time for us to expand the right to participate in Labor ballots beyond full membership to a new category of ‘registered supporter’.

Holding any position within the Labor Party brings with it a responsibility that reaches back to the Party’s formation more than 130 years ago. Even our detractors will have to admit that Labor holds a unique position in Australian society as the principal protector of a fair go for all – an equal right to participate in all of the myriad opportunities that our country has to offer its people, regardless of class, creed or any of the other points of difference that are used to preserve those opportunities for the few, rather than for the many.

That heritage is precious, requiring us all to work hard at protecting and enhancing it. Of course, reasonable, well-meaning people can disagree about what that exactly means. A political party doesn’t last 130 years in a dynamic country like Australia by standing still or resting comfortably on its laurels – but there is value in tradition, and in not lightly discarding ways of organising ourselves that have worked in the past. Striking that balance is the core challenge in so-called ‘Party Reform’.

Let me at the outset point out the blindingly obvious – that Labor hasn’t lasted this long because of our internal structures and culture. Some might even argue we’ve lasted this long in spite of them. Labor’s success, its longevity and its central place in the history of Australian economic and social reform all rest overwhelmingly on the power of Labor’s ideas – our relentless vision for Australia and its people. Drawing on Labor’s timeless core values, each generation has crafted those values into a platform that reflects the challenges and opportunities of each particular age. And that’s exactly what Labor is doing again right now. The National Policy Forum is working over the Summer to prepare first drafts of the Platform that will be considered at our National Conference in Adelaide this July.

In the meantime, we continue to lead the national debate in the complex, fast-moving policy areas. Chris Bowen, for example, is already building on his exceptional work in the last term of Parliament and pulling together the most progressive, thoughtful economic platform Labor has had in many years. Penny Wong spent 2017 – on top of her demanding workload as Senate leader – setting out Labor’s thoughts on the complex global scene, as every Opposition must do if they aspire to run a substantial and active middle power like Australia. And I’ve lost count of the number of Liberal Ministers Jenny Macklin has dispatched from the complex portfolio of Social Services in that battle of ideas.

While ideas, vision and policy detail lie at the centre of Labor’s success – they are not the whole story. Because Labor’s not a think-tank – it’s a movement; a movement of people working together to make their country a better place. And that’s what we’re thinking about when we talk about Party Reform. How do we keep our movement – Labor’s ability to mobilise vast numbers behind our ideas – as strong as it was during the ‘It’s Time’ campaign of 1972 – the five election victories of Hawke and Keating – or the ‘Your Rights at Work’ and Kevin07 juggernauts that dispatched John Howard. How do we keep our Party match-fit.

Well, the first challenge is to admit you have a problem – and we do! While our Party organisation is certainly not dying, the most generous description I can think of is that we’re treading water. Party membership is hovering a little over 50,000 and, disturbingly, has declined by more than six per cent since its recent peak in 2015. Consider that British Labour recruited 35,000 new members in just four days after the 2017 election, bringing our sister-Party’s membership to more than 550,000.

Our members are hard-working, motivated believers in the Labor mission. But, as a group, we are not representative of the broader Australian population. We are older than average, and predominantly male. Our primary problem, though, is that we are too small. In a nation pushing 25 million souls, 50,000 members does not allow us to credibly claim to be a mass-membership Party.

For progressive parties, size matters. Unlike our conservative opponents, who enjoy largesse from the big end of town, we rely on a huge number of small contributions to finance our activities – through membership fees and the collective contribution of trade union members. As campaigning becomes more complex and expensive, it’s no secret that our finances aren’t what they might be. Again, compare that to British Labour, which tripled its income from membership subscriptions in just five years to an Australian equivalent adjusted for population size of $10 million each year. Beyond finances, though, progressive parties require an army of supporters to get out there and make the case for progressive change. You don’t need an army to spruik the case for keeping things the way they are. But change is hard – and change needs tens of thousands of shoulders to the wheel.

We need to be honest that the Party itself is no longer capable of organising a substantial on-the-ground campaign, beyond elections. Party members played an important role in the mass-mobilisation of the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign a decade ago, but it was a support role to the work of unions. We can’t compare in scale to the organising capacity today of groups like Get Up. And the extraordinary organising effort of the ‘Yes’ campaign in last year’s marriage equality survey would have been way beyond the capacity of our Party alone – even though it was heavily driven by some of our best campaigners, like the Director of our 2007 election victory, Tim Gartrell. These and other progressive campaigns are inspiring and often highly successful. But – while the Party brings enormous intellectual capacity to bear – our membership base is simply too small to play much more than a support role in any grassroots effort.

The relative stultification of our internal organisation has also permitted machine politics to continue to dominate parts of our Party. Before Christmas, for example, reports emerged of a new carve-up of influence and positions in the Victorian Branch. Remarkably – I think at least – the designers of this new Pact have already decided who the Party’s candidate will be for a seat that hasn’t even yet been created; the new federal seat in Victoria. We don’t know where in Victoria it will be, what community will be represented, the views of local Party members and supporters, or whether this person has any connection whatsoever with the area ultimately chosen. That sort of back-room buffoonery does not reflect a healthy Party organisation.

Perhaps all of this would only be of passing interest to political scientists and the remaining Party members if our external working environment were all beer and skittles. But, as we all know, the environment for major parties has never been tougher in Australia. And the position for Federal Labor is much tougher than the predictions by commentators of a cruisy victory at the next federal election would suggest.

Last Summer, two of the most talented of Kevin Rudd’s crop of young staffers – Andrew Charlton and Lachlan Harris – wrote an excellent analysis of the rise of populism and third parties in the Monthly magazine – a piece called ‘A Pox on Both your Houses’. The reasons for this dynamic have been well-traversed by many of my colleagues, which I won’t repeat tonight. In terms of electoral impact, though, Charlton and Harris point out that – of the almost half a million primary votes Malcolm Turnbull lost the Coalition in 2016 – three-fifths of those votes shifted to third parties, rather than the Labor Party. Labor’s primary vote, at less than 35 per cent, was only 1.3 per cent higher than the record low figure of 2013 – a smaller swing than the Greens Party managed of 1.6 per cent.

In the House of Representatives, almost one in four voters chose third parties, rather than Labor, Liberal or Nationals candidates. While the House cross-bench only numbers five MPs, Charlton and Harris point out that 12,000 votes cast differently would have delivered the Greens and Xenophon four additional seats between them. And it’s not difficult to identify even more seats at risk in the future to the Greens, One Nation or Xenophon. This trend represents a serious challenge to Labor’s ability over time to win majority government, remembering that even Kevin07’s juggernaut delivered a majority of just eight seats.

While the Party’s two-party preferred vote is sitting consistently above 50 per cent, our primary vote remains stubbornly low – moving in Newspoll between 36 and 38 per cent, but ending last year at 37. For context, Kim Beazley attracted a primary vote consistently in the 40s through 2001 – reaching as high as 48 per cent – until the impact of 9/11 and other events at the time brought our vote back to the high 30s. And that was a time when the combined Democrats and Greens vote was running at 9-13 per cent. Labor under Mark Latham also polled consistently more than 40 per cent through 2004. And Kevin Rudd in 2007 never dropped below 45 per cent, even reaching a primary above 50 per cent at times.

Rudd’s two-party preferred vote through 2007 – right up to the election being called – averaged more than 56 per cent, but came in at almost 4 per cent less than that on election day. Latham led every Newspoll bar one through 2004 on a two-party preferred basis; including the two immediately before the election was called, at 52 and 54 per cent respectively. By election day, our vote had collapsed to just 47 per cent.

Now, there are reasons for all of those shifts in the numbers. But they all point to a danger of complacency about any election, including the next one. And complacency in the face of the rise of populism and third parties is especially risky.

Charlton and Harris suggest that there are typically two responses by major parties to a rise in populism and third parties. The first is to copy it – an approach obviously fixed upon over recent months by Malcolm Turnbull, but one I’m glad Labor has rejected. The second is to try to become such a small target that no-one notices you. This was a point of fierce debate in the wake of our 2001 election defeat, I recall. But I don’t think anyone can make the claim that Federal Labor is shirking our responsibility to put out ambitious and detailed policy.

We are running a risk, however, of trying to present a small target in failing to confront the challenge that this phenomenon presents to our Party organisation. Respect for the major parties is running at historically low levels. And that’s not a lack of respect for our ideas and our policies – it’s a lack of respect for our Party organisation. As Charlton and Harris put it, ‘major political parties will need to adapt their structures in ways that build respect, trust, authenticity, conviction and participation’. Continuing to practise the old ways of machine politics will see trust in the Labor Party continue to wither away.

The calls for meaningful reform of our Party structures have been longstanding and broadly-based. They reflect the views of Party members, and of many supporters who might be considering whether to take the plunge and join. And they have been made for many years by our Party’s most successful and senior leaders. Bob Hawke and Neville Wran worked hard at a blueprint for reform more than 15 years ago – a report that was cherry-picked at the Rules Conference in 2002. After the 2010 election, Bracks, Carr and Faulkner picked up those remaining threads and tried again. In receiving their report, Julia Gillard said pointedly ‘some hold that the historic structures of the Labor Party are sufficient to the complex and personalised politics of today. I do not’. Again, though, the following National Conference rejected the key structural reforms proposed in that report. In the leadership election of 2013, both candidates – Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese – promised Party members they would pursue meaningful reform. Bill followed that up in a detailed speech to the Wheeler Centre in early 2014 where he said ‘if we don’t change, we are putting our very future at risk’. But, again, the 2015 National Conference rejected a number of the key structural reforms proposed in that speech.

I’ve been arguing the case for our Party to become more democratic and participatory for too many years now. At the 2002 Special National Conference, I moved that recommendation number one from the Hawke/Wran report be adopted – a recommendation that Party members would get to vote for a component of the National Conference, the Party’s supreme decision-making body. The motion was seconded by Luke Foley and was defeated. The recommendation was echoed strongly in the 2011 report from Bracks, Carr and Faulkner – but, again, it was defeated by factional leaders at the following Conference. Finally, at the 2015 National Conference, Party members were granted the right to elect a minority share of the Conference’s delegates – thanks largely to some leadership exercised by delegates across the factional spectrum in our largest Branch, New South Wales, as well as Bill Shorten’s support.

I am most concerned, though, at the refusal of key factional leaders to allow Party members a direct vote to select our Senate candidates. In his speech to the Wheeler Centre, Bill referred to rancour that surrounded the then recent Senate selection process in Western Australia, concluding that there had to be ‘real change’ that would give ‘local party members a meaningful say in the selection of Senate candidates’. Bill asked the National Executive to work with the WA Branch to develop a model in that Branch that could then be considered across the Party. To their credit, the Branch did the hard work and came up with such a model, but the then leader of the New South Wales Right used the National Executive to block the reform. And, so, it died.

That episode, it must be said, was something of an aberration in the attitude taken by the New South Wales Right to Party reform in recent years. As I said earlier, New South Wales moved to allow members a vote for National Conference delegates before Conference finally grasped the nettle itself. They also helped to drive the experiments in community preselections of Party candidates in a number of State seats and for the Sydney Council. And prominent NSW Right figures like Chris Bowen and Sam Dastyari were among the earliest advocates for the reforms to the election of the Labor Leader adopted in 2013. Happily for the Party, the new General Secretary, Kaila Murnain, sits firmly in the reform mould.

In Victoria, by contrast, there has been a powerful group of factional leaders apparently determined to block even those reforms proposed by Bill Shorten. I’m told, for example, that a proposal to give members a vote in selecting Senate candidates didn’t even make it to the floor of the last Victorian conference before being discharged by the rules committee.

Reforms that allow members to vote for the Party’s Senate candidates have now been adopted by the majority of our Branches – with the notable exception of our two largest Branches and, for reasons I explained, Western Australia. This situation must change. Not only are these the most significant positions from which Party members remain completely disenfranchised. They are also the positions most at risk in the shift to third parties.

Labor’s primary vote in 2016 was better than 2013 – but it’s still the second lowest primary vote we’ve recorded in many decades. And that was against the weakest campaign the Coalition has run in almost quarter of a century. But, our Senate vote was even worse. Labor’s primary Senate vote dropped below 30 per cent for the first time since 1903, coming in lower than the 2013 election. At the 2007 election, Labor’s primary vote in the Senate was 40 per cent and, in 2010, was still 35 per cent. One in four votes cast for the Labor Party’s Senate team a decade ago has left us.

The selection of Senate candidates continues to present the most common reminder that, too often, key decisions in our Party are made by the few, rather than the many. This last bastion of back-room deals must be cracked open. And members should be given a vote in casual vacancy situations as well. Such an approach would mitigate the air of rancour that too often surrounds the filling of casual vacancies through highly centralised factional processes.

Over the years, I’ve heard a variety of arguments against Party reform. Some argue against reform as being anti-union, or a thinly-disguised power grab by the Left. Opponents will also suggest that reform involves us talking about ourselves rather than focusing on issues that matter to Australian households – that it’s a distraction from our real job. While this objection holds a little more water, I’m firmly convinced that a failure to modernise and democratise our Party will, over time, seriously hamper our ability to do our real job. And it’s worth pointing out that reform advocates over the past two decades have included some of our Party’s most successful election-winning leaders, like Hawke, Wran, Carr and Bracks – neither of whom could ever be described as self-indulgent navel-gazers.

A more recent argument marshalled by some against reform has been that we’ll end up like British Labour – with a radical Left leader who is unacceptable to the electorate. It’s important to point to a distinction in Britain. Their lack of any proportionally-elected chambers of parliament – such as our Senate – means that there is limited opportunity for a minor party to gain a foothold in the political scene, creating a gravity that pulls more hard-Left supporters and activists towards Labour. This is not an especially new phenomenon – British Labour has had larger hard-Left tendencies than the ALP for many years.

There are many reasons for Jeremy Corbyn’s success within British Labour – but, prominent among them is the lack of well-organised, inspiring opposition. Charlton and Harris quote Jon Cruddas who said that the Blairites ‘woke up to find a Party that had totally disappeared in front of them. They didn’t know what to do’. Both of the two leadership elections won by Corbyn revealed a deep lack of basic Party organisation, as well as an absence of compelling personnel and narrative on the part of the so-called Moderates.

British Labour is now the largest political party in Europe – probably about eleven times as big as our Party. Its growth off the back of a serious Party reform agenda has been simply extraordinary. Some individual constituencies are now able to call on several thousand members and registered supporters living in just one seat to campaign for a Labour victory.

The new category of ‘registered supporter’ is an individual who wants to participate in the Party – including by voting in the leadership elections - without taking out full membership. Controversially, registered supporters initially only paid the equivalent of five dollars to register and get a vote. In 2016, that registration fee was increased to the equivalent of forty five dollars – and, still, they signed up in droves.

The idea of registered supporter reflects, I think, the way in which an increasing number of people would choose to participate in progressive political activity, including in the affairs of the main progressive political party. To be frank, much of the traditional fare of Party membership – especially the legendary Branch meeting – fails to excite many of our strong supporters. Interestingly, the British Parliamentary Library’s analysis shows that the Labour Party’s registered supporters are more representative of the community than its full members. While both groups are aged a little over 50 years, on average, the supporter group is half female, while Party members are overwhelmingly male (as they are here). Supporters are also much closer to the community average when it comes to graduate and SES status – with Party members far more likely to have a university degree and to be in the highest SES rating.

Overall, these changes have brought an extraordinary level of energy to the Party. In 2016, more than half a million individual votes were cast in Labour’s leadership ballot – compared to 30,000 here in Australia three years earlier. British Labour’s members are enthused and active. The orthodox view that ‘reform = Corbyn = electoral oblivion’ has also been challenged somewhat by the result in 2017 where, in England at least, Labour’s primary vote climbed by more than 10 per cent and the Tory Government was deprived of a Parliamentary majority.

To those who are concerned that Corbyn’s hard-Left agenda is an unavoidable extension of Party reforms, I’d remind them that the ALP rules still give 50 per cent of the vote for Party Leader to the Caucus. But I’d also say – have more faith in the Moderate voice within the ALP to organise better, and to present a more compelling narrative and vision than their equivalents in British Labour frankly have done.

Over the past couple of decades, Labor has arguably only made two meaningful reforms to our Party. While the 2002 and 2015 National Conferences were a disaster from the perspective of broader democratisation, they both achieved great reform for gender equality in our Party. Our Affirmative Action rules have been hugely important in broadening our appeal in the community, and our talent pool in Parliament. The second  major change was effectively forced on the Party, through Kevin Rudd’s insistence in 2013 that the process of electing the Party leader include Party members. Even as the campaign manager for the candidate who lost that ballot in 2013, I can say that’s the best process I’ve ever experienced in our Party – by a long way. It energised and grew our membership in a way I’d not seen before – and it did so at a time when the Party desperately needed a cauterising experience after years of disunity.

Over two decades, though, that’s a pretty sorry record. And it needs to change this year. This year’s National Conference must have a serious debate about reform - not a truncated, chaotic debate of the type we’ve seen pushed to the end of the last two Conferences.

The National Conference must require all Branches to provide Party members with a substantial vote to select Senate and Legislative Council candidates, including casual vacancies where possible. And Federal rules that give members a vote for Federal Leader and National President should be reflected across all of our Branches for the equivalent State positions, as some branches have already done with the support of Bill Shorten.

The rules should provide for a safety mechanism that prevents members from being deprived of a vote through Executive intervention. The Victorian rules, for example, provide for members to vote to select the Party’s Legislative Council candidates – but, it was overridden by Executive in each of the first three Victorian elections that occurred under that rule. The national rules should provide that State rules that grant members a vote in Party ballots can only be overridden by a super-majority of the National Executive. As Bill said in his Wheeler Centre speech ‘from now on, intervention by the National Executive should be the exception, not the rule’.

And the National Conference should determine a path that expands participatory and voting rights in our Party beyond formal membership, to a category of registered supporter who is able to vote alongside members in all important Party ballots. The New South Wales Branch should be congratulated on its leadership in this area – but it’s time to take this concept beyond the experimental phase. This will help us roll out a more structured approach to Party organising – of the type that is so commonplace in trade unions. Because the Party simply must get much bigger and better organised.

The Bracks, Carr and Faulkner review also recommended that the three national presidential positions be granted a vote on the Executive. Ironically, the only national positions that have been directly elected by Party members were deliberately left without voting rights at the 2002 Conference. There has never been a sound reason advanced to deny a vote to those democratically elected positions.

In his 2014 speech to the Wheeler Centre, Bill Shorten said ‘if we are truly serious about modernising the Labor Party, we need to modernise our relationship with the union movement’. Like Bill, I proudly served for more than a decade as a Union Secretary before entering Parliament, and I cherish the relationship between political and industrial labour. But I’ve said previously that there is value in considering the sorts of changes seen in Britain that deal union members more directly into that relationship – rather than solely through their union secretary. Such changes should be considered in the context of a meaningful response to the deep challenges facing unions in Australia, especially in the private sector. I’ll be talking in the coming fortnight about some ideas in that direction.

Such a package of reforms would see our great Party move from simply treading water, to cementing its place as a mass-movement for the twenty-first century. This hard work at getting our own show in shape has to be done in Opposition, which means doing it this year. I’m confident that members will voice their support for these changes, as they did during the Party President election in 2015. And, if no-one else will stand at the microphone in Adelaide this July and make the case for meaningful reform, then I sure as hell will.


Showing 3 reactions

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  • commented 2018-01-23 12:55:54 +1100
    Affirmative action failed in the ALP Senate candidates in Qld, 2016. And an excellent woman, Jan McLucas, a responsive Senator in north Queensland was not selected.
  • commented 2018-01-23 12:32:05 +1100
    Here is an opportunity for the NSW Left to make some democratic reforms of its own. Our Constitution is to be voted on at our AGM soon, and I have proposed some amendments which are consistent with the thrust of Mark Butler’s comments. We need to get our own house in order!
  • commented 2018-01-23 10:38:28 +1100
    100% with Mark Butler. Sick of our Party structures hampering progress and disenfranchising members. GET THIS DONE.