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ALP Reform: Does it matter?

By Gary Johns - posted Tuesday, 30 July 2002

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 jobs?


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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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 9 July 2002.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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