It’s time for a new Labor Reform Movement

Posted in News, Op-eds

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When I was elected as Labor leader 10 years ago, it was against the concerted opposition of the most powerful union-based factions of the party. And this came 40 years after Whitlam’s famous confrontation with the faceless, factional men of the party’s federal executive. Yet 50 years after Whitlam’s reforms, the power of these factions remains as strong as ever.

For Labor to form government from opposition, its leaders need to rise above the demands of the union-based factions, to broaden the progressive tent beyond the sectional interests of the faceless men and to appeal to the best instincts of the Australian people writ large.

We should be the party of union members, of working families, of small business, of small businesses with an ambition to become big businesses, for those who can’t find a job and those who want decent conditions in the jobs they have, of those with disabilities and those with none, of those who have no home and those who aspire to buy their first. We should be the party of our first peoples, of those who come to our country to start a new life and those from across society concerned about the sustainability of the planet which sustains us all. Above all, we should always be the party of the future, with a path forward for all people, not just the few. And doing so fully mindful of fundamental economic disciplines so that social justice is not delivered by fine speeches, but by sustainable fiscal measures.

With declining union membership, and the radically changing nature of work, there is less and less prospect of the party winning without embracing an ever-broadening political constituency. We cannot simply conclude that the party will win the next election by default. Or that victory will be delivered off the back of the flailing efforts and rolling contradictions of the most ineffective conservative Prime Minister we have seen since Billy McMahon. The Liberal Party are not sentimentalists. They will not sail happily into the next election with a leader taking them steadfastly into political oblivion. They will act.

The community embraces Labor leaders when they rise above the narrow demands of the union-based factions. Australians are not dumb. They see the factions for what they are: a syndicate to organise the distribution of political power within the party, and within a government, with scant regard for merit and maximum regard for ensuring those in political office remember who’s in control. This applies to preselections, to the composition of the ministry or the shadow ministry, as well as major political concessions in areas where reasonable public policy analysis demands caution.

Taking on the factions is not for the faint-hearted. I know from experience. In office I had the audacity to select a front bench based on merit, earning for example the eternal enmity of SDA faction head Don Farrell, who insisted on the appointment of a loyal factional subordinate to a front bench position. As leader, I did not attend factional meetings. As a compromise I met regularly with faction leaders, but incurred their collective wrath when in the middle of the financial crisis I rejected the demands of then senator David Feeney, representing the right faction, for an increase in parliamentary entitlements. My response employed a rich variety of Anglo Saxon verbs to indicate that I would not be pursuing the matter. Feeney and Farrell then began organising what would become the factional coup of June 2010. And the rest is history.

When Bill Shorten among others asked me to return to the parliamentary leadership in June 2013, I insisted on one core pre-condition: that leaders of the Labor Party henceforth be elected through a ballot of the entire party membership, as well as the parliamentary party, on a 50-50 basis. This would prevent another factionally-driven midnight coup.

I asked that the caucus meeting convened to authorise the rule change be held in the Balmain Unity Hall, the venue for the first meeting of the ALP in 1891. I well remember then senator Stephen Conroy, another factional leader, railing against the rule change at that meeting, because it would deliver chaos to the party. In fact there was a surge in party membership and massive participation in the election of their new leader. It was this rule change – the one that Shorten’s principal backer Conroy railed against – that actually protected Shorten during 2015 when there was threat of a parliamentary uprising against him following his disastrous opinion polls immediately after Turnbull replaced Abbott. The change reduced factional power, increased the democratisation of the party, created leadership stability, while preventing any of the monstrous excesses we have seen in the British Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Now, of course the current factional power-brokers want to either freeze party reform in its tracks, or roll back the new leadership rule if they can get away with it. But if the party is to survive and prosper as the authentic voice of progressive politics in Australia, I believe it must do two things.

First the program of democratising the party should continue, including submitting the election of the party’s national conference, national executive and national secretary as well as Senate preselections to a ballot of the entire party membership. This would further reduce union-based factional power and re-engage ordinary people in a broad-based, mass political party.

Second, the party should use this democratising process to dramatically re-engage the Australian people on a new policy agenda, deploying a fully responsive political leadership, responding to the substantive concerns of those alienated from the political process. This is the only way to prevent the continued bleeding of the party’s vote by the Hansonites, the Greens and other populist parties, as we have seen in the general collapse of the centre-left across the world, as well as the corrosion of the broad political centre as a whole and the steady migration of voters to the extremes.

I remain deeply committed to the Labor Party, having now been a member for more than 35 years. Both the party and the unions have much to be proud of in our long history. The values of the movement are unassailable, anchored in the deep principle of a fair go for all. The achievements of the movement have been extraordinary: workers compensation, conciliation and arbitration, the aged pension, universal healthcare, superannuation for all, universal disabilities insurance, a renewable energy revolution. Those who rail against the arguments I advance in this article will allege I am anti-union. This argument is as cheap as it is untrue. They conveniently forget I was the leader who campaigned successfully during 2007 for the defeat of John Howard, the repeal of his Orwellian “Work Choices” Act, and the introduction of the Fair Work Act which remains in force to this day.

I am not anti-union, I am anti-faction. The success of progressive politics has always been its ability to apply afresh its continuing values to the changing circumstances of the times. That is why for Labor to survive and to prosper in these turbulent times, party and policy reform must be embraced with urgency. And if the factions ignore this, then the next wave of reform will come from the ground up, not the top down.

It’s time for the formation of a new Labor reform movement.