Last to move - Australian Labor and the election of the leader

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Three hundred delegates gathered at the NSW Trades Hall in the fevered atmosphere of 1926 for a Special Rules Conference of the Labor Party.

Fresh in the minds of delegates as the party leader rose to address the crowded room were the events two months earlier in the party room, which had seen a vote on his future leadership of the caucus tied 23-all.

As the leader outlined the political situation he appealed to the delegates indicating he came ‘not to tell you what I would like you to do, but to learn from you what you would like the Government to do’.

An experienced judge of Labor sentiment, his oration had the desired effect.

A delegate rose from the conference floor to move: ‘That this conference has confidence in John T. Lang, Premier of New South Wales, and hereby confirms him in the leadership of the Parliamentary Labor Party for the period of the present Parliament’.

The motion passed by an overwhelming majority of 274 to 4 and Jack Lang returned to the Caucus triumphant, using his endorsement to wield great power over it and the Ministry.

The traditional method of leadership selection would not be restored until the 1939 ‘Unity Conference’, at the Majestic Theatre in Newtown.  That conference received messages from each of Labor’s leaders, state and federal, pleading with it to heal the rifts that had shattered the party throughout the 1930s. It resolved by a comfortable majority to return the election of the leader to the NSW Parliamentary Caucus.

No subsequent NSW Conference could ever consider the question of the election of the Parliamentary leader without reference to Jack Lang. No proposal can be adopted by a NSW Conference without an answer to the question posed by the chaos that Labor faced in the 1930’s.

Our sister parties around the world have adopted a wider franchise for the selection of the parliamentary leader, but the Lang experience in NSW has sounded a cautionary note to Australian Labor. Such a caution that we look to be the last of the English speaking Westminster parties to adopt this reform.

Our sister parties have moved at various stages and adopted different models, but reform has been in one direction – more say for party members, not less.

Usually implemented in the wake of electoral defeat, always in opposition, these changes have now been adopted in the UK, Canada, Ireland, and likely soon in New Zealand. More often than not, a labour party has lead the way, and other parties have followed suit.

UK Labour adopted its change in 1981, following the 1979 election loss to Margaret Thatcher. An electoral college saw leadership votes shared between MPs, trade unions and the constituency membership. The British Conservatives followed in 1998. Their system saw two contenders selected by the Parliamentary Party, who then faced a vote of the full membership.

In Ireland, Labour also led the way. The Party’s 1989 conference saw the entire membership participate in a ballot to select the parliamentary leader. Other Irish parties then fell into line, other than Fianna Fail.

Our sister Party in Canada, the New Democrats, have made a number of changes to their leadership selection processes, settling on a one-member one-vote system for their most recent contest. Their leadership convention met in March, and selected new leader Thomas Mulcair. More than 65,000 Party members participated.

Finally, a discussion paper has now recommended a change for New Zealand Labour and a reform proposal will be debated at their November AGM.

In the UK, Ireland and Canada a broader franchise is now nearly universal.

The striking thing in the UK, Ireland and Canada, whether for progressive or conservative parties, major or minor, is such changes have not been reversed. Once a broader membership franchise has been granted, it is unlikely to be taken back.

Except in NSW, in 1939, in the wake of Jack Lang.

Only by answering that contradiction can NSW Labor move forward on this issue.

If such a measure is adopted it must be done so, not to control a party, as Lang did, but to democratise a party, as each of our overseas parties have done.

It must not be done in the interests of a particular leader, although it may be done to support leaders in general.

The discussion about broadening the franchise in Australian Labor is now a serious one. It is being debated at the NSW Annual Conference, and is on the agenda at the Tasmanian conference in August.

The gathering support for this reform recognises its potential to build a bigger Labor Party. The Canadian New Democrats grew by 50 percent over the course of their most recent leadership ballot. Such growth confirms the central premise of the Carr, Faulkner, Bracks Review – that members will join if they are given a say. It is hard to think of another single measure that would bring so many new members into Labor’s ranks.

A second consideration is leadership stability. NSW Labor has had five leaders in five and a half years. The previous five leaders’ service stretches back to 1952. Then there was the dramatic, overnight leadership change at the federal level.

This instability is a direct result of the culture NSW Labor had built in its parliamentary wing, including the excessive grip of the factions.

The relentless media environment in which politics is now conducted is also a factor. As politics and celebrity become entwined, parties struggle to provide a stable foundation for their leaders to engage in daily politics, without their leadership coming under pressure. Developing a system where it is harder to change the parliamentary leader may provide some of the answer.

As Australian Labor begins this debate, many issues remain unresolved. Who gets to vote, how long they have had to be a Party member, what the trigger is to remove a leader, and how long a ballot process takes – these are all major questions.

The existing Labor Party is a careful balance of relationships involving the leader, the electorate, the Ministry, the Caucus and the broader Party. Each of these relationships must be considered in any model that we adopt.

There will be members of Labor, many of them MPs, who oppose change altogether. They hold the traditional view of the leader as merely ‘first amongst equals’. These Westminster traditionalists will need to explain why Westminster itself has moved on.

Eighty-six years later, as a NSW Labor Conference again considers how to select the parliamentary leader, the memory of Jack Lang looms large.

Unlike Lang’s proposal, our reforms must increase democracy, not tighten control.

Unlike Lang’s proposal, our changes must reduce, not boost, the influence of the factions.

Broadly based election of the leader should only be considered if it helps deliver stable leadership of our parliamentary Party and a focus on the public interest. Our sister parties believe this to be the case. Now Australian Labor will debate such measures.

If Labor adopts a change, one thing seems certain from the international experience. Our conservative opponents will be forced to respond, and party politics in this country will have changed forever for the better.

Author: John Graham


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