Simon Crean's pursuit of ALP reform will have little direct bearing
on the outcome of the next election. It may help stamp his authority
on the party, which may assist his leadership, which in turn may
improve his prospects at the polls, but it will not determine the
next Labor Cabinet or its policies. Nevertheless, Simon Crean is
right to pursue reform.
The ALP and the other major parties can no longer rely on the blind
loyalty of members, 'rusted on' by class and ideology. For the foreseeable
future the market in mainstream ideology is dead. Regulated capitalism
won hands down. Furthermore, workers are either happy with their
lot, unhappy with their lot and want to move out of the working
class, or are too busy to worry about it. Any way you cut it there
is little market in a mainstream party for policy activism based
on ideology. In an undifferentiated market, policy work is a grinding
business. It's a job that will not attract many takers. Therefore,
under any set of rules or structure, small party memberships are
the way of the future.
Nevertheless, for the sake of political stability, the majors have
to field candidates for public office in order to win office. The
system works for ordinary voters because politicians want to be
in power. They get paid to tailor policy for a majority constituency.
That is a difficult task. In some ways it does not matter two bob
who parties select, as long a they do the job. Nevertheless, in
as much as parties need to win votes, a party with too narrow a
base may fail to attract a sufficiently wide audience. But the proof
is in the pudding, who the voters support, not in some preconceived
notion of the correct mix of identities - women, working class,
ethnics and so on. Only those with the right skills and tenacity
need apply. So, is there a fair competition in the ALP for these
The accusation to which ALP reform is apparently responding, is
the dominance in the parliamentary wing by trade union, party and
electoral officials. At present a couple of big wigs run the show
in each state. It is not a very attractive system for new recruits.
The dominance is real, and the parliamentary wing were almost all
elected with factional support. And the factions are based on the
bloc vote of affiliated unions. Changing the proportion of the vote
assigned to branch members and unions will probably not change the
control over preselection exercised by unions. Only the abolition
of the bloc vote, the ability of a trade union leader to carry all
of the votes of his union delegates, will change control. A proportional
representative ballot by union members for party delegates will
loosen the grip of union leaders. Anything less will be window dressing.
What else to do? Government has a significant ownership in political
parties. More than a third of their income comes from the taxpayer.
These monies are well accounted for at the end of each election,
but there is an argument that the parties should be open to all
those who wish to join and adhere to their rules, and that the competition
for jobs is fair. In effect, parties are now part of the electoral
system provided by the state. Public scrutiny of the parties can
occur through the courts and an increasing number of party disputes
are ending in court. But as many have found, a win in court does
not mean a win in the party. As part of the price of taxpayer support
for the new, small and professional parties, the parties should
make their rules available for public scrutiny.
Parties have been managing these subtle and intimate aspects of
political recruiting for a long time. They are experienced at it
and as private associations should continue to do so. The one addition,
as a condition of registration for public funds, is to make their
rules available for public scrutiny. This may assist new leaders
who want to open their parties to new recruits.
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