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Revitalising brand Labor Mk2 - the Latham fallout

By Corin McCarthy - posted Tuesday, 11 October 2005

Since writing "Revitalising brand Labor", Labor has been ripped apart by a series of tirades from Mark Latham. Latham’s sheer lack of balance and his inability to imagine more than the current morass make him a sorry figure, a hypocrite, and a coward. He argues for change from factional bastardly but does not act - moreover his personal politics exemplified the very worst of the system not its best. His violent language and unabashed ambition prove his failure.

Those who want more than factional machine politics should consider action in the Labor Party.

What actions?

  • Changing pre-selection to reward high profile local candidates; and
  • using primary pre-selection for 65 per cent of winnable seats delivering popular involvement and centre-ground candidates.

What are primaries and when should they be used?

Primaries are used in US politics to pre-select candidates. They involve the general public registering with the local party to vote on local candidate choice. Primaries are voted on by any “sympathisers” and not just by party members. This breadth means that Labor would move beyond the confines of its narrow membership - whether union members or the “identity politics” clique.

The success of primaries depends on how involved the community becomes in the choice. A large turn out would see high profile local moderates have the best chance of success and these candidates would broaden the Labor support base.

Primaries should be used for at least 65 per cent of safe and winnable lower house seats. With 35 per cent of seats remaining for executive pre-selection, senior members of the Labor Party - who may bring something beyond mere populism and choice - like Gareth Evans or Craig Emerson, could still be as involved as the past without compromising intellectual rigour for populism.

Also within the seats reserved for executive pre-selection, a smaller selection of machine politicians than is currently the case would be selected. They are useful in organisation and discipline. It is also appropriate that shadow ministers be made exempt from seeking primary pre-selection and primaries could be limited further in times of government.

The 65/35 split is an appropriate balance and is better than the current executive only model. It would mean at least 20 primaries across the varied Australian political landscape prior to the next election, testing the water and seeking the most high profile local candidates for the Labor cause.

Why primaries?

Labor needs to connect with communities and move beyond the inertia of constant internal discussion. The Australian community is not something to poll but something to live in and Labor members of parliament must represent the broad centre-left of politics.


The Labor membership has become a marginalised Left and consequently fails to represent local electorates. People who have worked on campaigns have been repeatedly made aware of this - (with advice such as) “Don’t speak about Mabo, interest rates, tax, economic management, refugees”, among other issues. The real issue is that Labor may run away from its members’ concerns at election time, but it can’t hide from the reality.

Therefore Labor needs a bigger constituency to move beyond its identity crisis, to find both its legitimacy and its values to win elections consistently.

It is important that primaries require aspiring politicians to connect with community issues. A system that rewards involvement in neighbourhoods, schools, unions, churches, policy forums and business would provide a popular candidate choice from a broad range of centre and left-of-centre politics. This can only create interest and debate of Labor’s policies and values.

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About the Author

Corin McCarthy was an adviser in opposition and government to Craig Emerson MP. He also advised Labor’s 2007 election campaign on small business issues. He has written widely on these issues in The Australian and On Line Opinion. He currently works as a lawyer in London advising on major infrastructure projects. These views are his own.

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