Kevin Rudd's move to give to ordinary ALP members a say in deciding the Federal parliamentary leader is without doubt a move in the right direction for a party long viewed as being in the hands of a bunch of ruthless oligarchs. A ballot can only be brought on at the request or resignation of a current leader, automatically after an election loss or when three quarters of caucus members support it. So will Rudd's initiative be enough to bring Labor's prodigal sons and daughters back to the fold? Anthony Albanese seems to think so in declaring that the decision signals a new ALP membership drive.
Over the last twenty years Labor has haemorrhaged members at an alarming rate and while it claims to have fifty thousand on the books, very few of those are genuinely active and attend branch meetings. Those left are an ageing demographic. As party reform advocate Rodney Cavalier, a former NSW State Labor minister, said not so long ago, when he joined the ALP in the early 70s he was among the youngest members of his branch. Thirty years later he remained younger than the average branch member.
I joined the ALP in the early eighties but left around ten years later because there seemed no point in being part of an organisation where branch members had so little power. Albanese was our branch secretary and we occasionally debated policy in meetings but it all seemed to go nowhere. Even the policy decisions made by the three yearly national conferences were only advisory. Election manifestos were formulated in Canberra and Labor governments would ignore the platform if it appeared expedient to do so. This ground down rank and file debate about party philosophy and current affairs because what was the point.
Many looked past this in the hope of having a say in pre-selecting parliamentary candidates. But in NSW, when a progressive candidate won a ballot against the odds the grey cardinals in Sussex Street would invariably step in to cancel a pre-selection and install one of their own. The structure and processes of the party made it a plaything of hollow factions, Siamese twins mostly indistinguishable from each other except for minor doctrinal differences. Their sole raison d'etre appeared to be to promote political careers.
It is one of the ironies of Australian democracy that those who pursue high office, aspiring statesmen and national figureheads, often achieved their power through ruthless Machiavellian tactics. Those who knew of Paul Keating's ruthless exploits as young apparatchik of the NSW Right viewed his reinvention as Prime Minister and later venerated elder statesman with gobsmacked bewilderment.
So does Rudd's move signal a newfound commitment to grass roots democracy in the ALP? When placed alongside the decision to place an administrator in charge of the now thoroughly discredited NSW branch, it certainly looks as if a new broom is being wielded.
There is little doubt that the circumstances of Rudd's removal dogged Gillard through her period as Prime Minister. Labor Party politicians, for the most part, inhabit a parallel universe, and they did not really in their bones understand that what is deemed legitimate through party processes, is very far from legitimate in the eyes of the public. It has taken a while to dawn on them that the processes whereby leaders are changed should not be an absolute prerogative of parliamentarians.
But it would be wrong to misread this as a revolution in Labor. At heart Rudd remains a centralising technocrat and an intellectual elitist, an aloof patrician cut from the same cloth as Gough Whitlam, but without the latter's thoroughgoing social democrat instincts. To allow card-carrying ALP members to elect his successors might be cathartic for him, to help him to purge his own demons, but it is hardly enough to mollify the disillusioned ex-Laborites.
But if he has faith in the deliberative processes of the party, the Prime Minister should move to restore the power of members to elect the leader but also to determine the policies the ALP takes to the people. In these days of social media and the Internet we have unprecedented opportunities for people, even those who are non party members, to debate and vote on matters of policy. And furthermore, if the party members are to help determine the national leader, why not guarantee that the people they preselect as local parliamentary candidates will always be respected and endorsed. As it stands the faceless men retain the power to overturn their decisions capriciously and when it suits their purposes.
If the mandarins of Labor wish to win back the hearts and minds of those who have abandoned their party, to raise an army to help them fight the election, they will have to do much more to alienate the prerogatives that they have accumulated over the space of a generation.
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He is editor (along with Scott Poynting) of a new book Global Islamophobia to be published by Ashgate in early 2012.