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The way ahead for Labor

By Rebecca Simpson - posted Friday, 18 November 2011

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has shown her capabilities as a leader on both domestic and world stages. The Gillard Government passed its carbon price legislation through Parliament, although it has struggled to pass its Malaysia deal. At the recent 2011 APEC Summit, Gillard joined talks with other Pacific nations' leaders to pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She has also bolstered Australia-US ties by allowing the US to set up a military base in Darwin. This relationship reaffirmed by US President Barack Obama's visit to Australia.

While the latest approval rating of Julia Gillard is encouraging, moving up to 39%, will these recent strengths of Gillard be enough to improve her government's future prospects? If Gillard hopes for more support from the Australian people, her government's credibility with ALP members needs to be salvaged. December 2nd will mark an important day for the ALP. It is the start of the party's 3-day long National Conference. And if progress is made at the conference the fortunes of the Gillard Government are likely to improve.

The Gillard Government was built on shaky foundations. When Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd to become Prime Minister, she did not have the endorsement of the party's rank and file. It created disillusionment over the organisational structure of the party – who really has power over decision making in the party? She will first need to rally the support of her backbone, the Australian Labour Party (ALP) members, if she aims to maintain an upward trend in public popularity.


The fall in party membership is a reflection of the evident indignation at the ALP's current organisational structure. Membership sits at 35,000 after a high of 50,000 in 2007 during Kevin Rudd's leadership. Allowing members to have a greater say in party and policy decisions is key. The launch of the nation-wide Labor Renewal campaign last month is proof that party members do not want the ALP run only by the senior leaders. The aim of the campaign is to encourage people to join the ALP and to strive for more influence from its members on the direction of the party.

Labor Renewal campaigners led by national convenor, Darcy Byrne, are pushing for structural reforms to be implemented at the National Conference. So the National Conference might be a key indicator for the future fortunes of the Gillard Government. If the reforms are passed, then people may be more inclined to rejoin the party. As party membership grows again, then greater public backing could follow.

The reform ideas are drawn from the recommendations from the ALP's 2010 National Review: Report to the ALP National Executive. Former Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, Senator for New South Wales, John Faulkner, and former Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, conducted the investigation, mentioning the need to ensure greater participation from members for the party to regrow.

The report was based on submissions from party units, members, supporters and affiliates of the ALP. One Sydney ALP member commented that "as a party member for nearly 39 years it seems that branches are now treated as irrelevant by head office – only good for handing out on election days." Other members also remarked on the lack of inclusion of members. If the party rank and file are feeling deserted how is the public able to trust the government?

To give members more capacity to shape decision-making, recommendation 26 of the Review suggests the implementation of a primaries system in the selection of candidates for certain seats. The system would give local party members 60% of the vote, 20% for registered Labor supporters in the community and 20% for affiliated trade union members. Recommendation 25 stipulates that the intervention by the national and state executives should be a last resort in pre-selections. It is important that the recommendations are adopted at National Conference so that members feel more included within the party.

Input from ALP members in policy debate and outcomes is also vital. For instance, the NSW Young Labor Council voted in favour of marriage equality. Its delegate, NSW Young Labor President, David Latham, has vowed to vote to change the Marriage Act at the conference. A majority 62% of the public also supports the legalising of same sex marriage according to a Herald/Nielson poll. Even if the Labor platform is amended after a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, Gillard has ruled out the government proposing a bill to change the Marriage Act.


Additionally, Gillard is planning to challenge the Labor's platform after announcing her support for the selling of uranium to India. While it is important for the Prime Minister to make clear what her positions are, it must be remembered that she is part of a political party. She needs to remain accountable to the rank and file and allow their voice to be heard. If the ALP has more internal transparency with great member involvement, the public will place greater faith in the Gillard Government.

Now all eyes are turning to the National Conference in December to see whether the ALP is prepared to renew itself. Julia Gillard said in September this year, "I want there to be debates, I want there to be votes, I want there to be surprises" at the conference. Party members would probably agree with her. When the rank and file members see that their ideas can change the actions of senior ALP officials, then there will be great satisfaction. Public support will also accrue if integrity within the party is demonstrated.

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About the Author

Rebecca Simpson is a third year Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney majoring in government and international relations. She is a freelance writer for Switched on Media and writes for various other publications in her spare time.

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