Reforming the Labor Party

It’s the Liberal Party’s organisation that has been in the spotlight in the recent past; preselection contests, such as that for Bronwyn Bishop’s seat of Mackellar, tend to concentrate media attention, if only briefly, on arcane internal party processes that at other times fail to register on the media radar at all.  The complaints about a lack of democracy in the Liberal Party will be familiar to anyone who has also followed the Labor Party debates over the last decade or so. So will the issue of the kind of dirt-sheet circulated to do Tim Wilson harm in his successful bid for preselection in the seat of Goldstein.

The ALP itself has had some respite so far as such attention goes, but it has been incomplete and, we can be sure, only temporary. The preselection process for the blue-ribbon Melbourne seat of Wills, once held by Bob Hawke, has drawn the usual attention to the influence exercised by union heavyweights and factional warlords. More generally, branch stacking and other rorts remain a problem in a Victorian party that still has a Wild West (or South) aspect to its affairs.

This would be a matter of some embarrassment to federal Labor even if it were not the federal Labor leader Bill Shorten’s home town. As David Marr showed in his recent Quarterly Essay on Shorten, the kind of power Shorten exercised as an Australian Workers Union official and right-wing factional leader in the 1990s and early 2000s still helps to sustain a party culture that most ordinary Australians find offensive to their basic values of fairness and decency. None of this is helped when officials seek to use the law to shut down the investigation of rorting, as allegedly occurred in the Victorian party last year when there was an attempt in the courts to force a dissident member and reform activist to hand over membership records. Organisations such as Open Labor repeatedly call for more democratic party processes, but so far with little to show for their efforts. Any opening up of such processes to broader participation is a direct threat to union power in the ALP and to factional bosses’ control of votes and seats. These are assets not to be surrendered lightly.

This is a familiar story in the modern ALP although in the case of Victoria, the electoral success of the party in recent times, and its striking capacity to produce able politicians, probably acts as a dampener on efforts at reform. Again, this is a paradox David Marr noticed; that a party branch that has many of the characteristics of a snake-pit does seem to produce very effective politicians.

The New South Wales branch is differently placed. It has experienced electoral disaster in recent years, accompanied by embarrassing Independent Commission Against Corruption enquiries exposing corrupt behaviour of some former parliamentarians and ministers. And it has had further adverse publicity in recent times: notably, involving sexual harassment claims against Jamie Clements, the general secretary. His removal put the lid on that particular issue as a media story, but wider questions concerning the place of women in the party culture remain. My own instinct is that the intense and anachronistic masculinism of Australian political life, coupled with the obvious prevalence of workplace conduct in party, parliamentary and ministerial offices that would be intolerable in any other environment, are likely to emerge as a major issues sooner rather than later. And as Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin suggests, this will not only affect the ALP.

There have been some reforms of the NSW branch of the party which improved internal integrity, largely arising from federal intervention during the second prime ministership of Kevin Rudd in 2013. The most important of these was the scrapping of factionally-based party tribunals and their replacement by more independent bodies for dealing with internal party disputes. But any suggested reforms that would more seriously disturb the power of the unions and factions, such as direct election by the whole State Conference of the Administrative Committee, the party’s ruling body, or the direct election of Senate and Legislative Council candidates by the party membership, as advocated by former Labor senator, John Faulkner, have been firmly knocked on the head.

These kinds of reform ideas expose the limits of the possible within the modern ALP. Oligarchies do not usually surrender their power. And as former NSW Education minister Rodney Cavalier has often emphasised in his writings on the party, the oligarchy that still largely controls the Labor Party is no different. While there has been some occasional experimentation with more open processes for selecting candidates, recent party decision-making, such as at the national conference of mid-2015, has been disappointing, if not surprising, to those working for democratic reform of the ALP.  Little has been achieved.

There has been one critical national reform of recent years that is worth celebrating: the direct election of the federal leader by the party membership. This is a democratic innovation and should be welcomed on that basis, but it has also provided much-needed stability to federal caucus. Removing a Labor leader between elections is now next to impossible, the very result that Kevin Rudd, who was the author of this reform, intended to achieve. Bill Shorten has benefited but, I would argue, so has Labor from the removal of the temptation to try to get rid of him each time he dips in the polls or has a bad week. Could it be that the constructive policy-making of the federal opposition, so evident in recent weeks, is a product of this stability? There might now, after the election of Jeremy Corbyn, be some second thoughts in Britain about direct election of leaders, or at least about how ballots have been conducted over there, which seems to allow participation by almost anyone willing to hand over a few pounds for the privilege of voting. But it is now hard to see any back-tracking on direct election in Australia, given the benefits it has delivered to the ALP.

Political parties occupy an increasingly ambiguous place in our political system. They are voluntary organisations that claim autonomy from undue interference in their internal affairs on that basis. Yet they are essential to the way the whole system works and, through direct funding especially, to all intents and purposes part of the state apparatus. It is this ambiguity that has to a great extent allowed parties to operate in ways that should offend anyone with democratic principles, anyone who believes in basic accountability.

In the case of the ALP, I remain sceptical of its capacity to reform itself. The most likely impulses towards reform will be major scandal or gross electoral failure, and probably a combination of these. But any changes are likely to be incremental, and carefully calibrated so as not to upset the apple cart of union and factional patronage. That has surely been the pattern of recent years. It is certainly hard to see a state dominated by major parties being willing to force major democratic changes, as the sorry tale of the legal regime covering disclosure of political donations in federal politics shows only too well.

Frank Bongiorno is an Associate Professor at the Australian National University.