This week Kevin Rudd announced that individual members of the ALP would be entitled to a direct say in the election of future party leaders under proposed reforms put forward to the Labor caucus. The change has been presented to draw clear line in the sand from the previous three years in which the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party has had three damaging leadership ballots. This move appears to have been warmly welcomed by grass roots members of the ALP particularly with members of the Socialist Left faction such as Anthony Albanese and Jane Garrett.
If the proposed reforms are successful, this could be one of the biggest opportunities since the early 80’s to reform the platform of the ALP. A leader elected by the 40,000 or more members could be in a firm position to substantially change the ALP policy. Future candidates could stake their candidacy on virtually any issue such as a change in immigration policy or the introduction of a Tobin tax.
It is important though to sober the debate by looking at some trickier bits of the puzzle that need to be solved to reform the Labor movement. If the ALP is truly to return to a mass member political movement, it will need more than just a change in the way party leaders are elected. The health of the ALP is unfortunately measured by the health of its local branches. Journalists will often widely report the closure and merger of branches as a symptom of decline. In my opinion, the sooner the branches go the better. They are archaic political meeting rooms where the talking points are often counter-productive and atmosphere is often intimidating or stale. Although there are some exceptions such as the North Melbourne branch which still has a healthy mix of unionists, academics, community organisers, students and professionals, most branches are largely dominated by old hacks or – to put it bluntly – stacks who are habitually rounded up to fix pre-selections and the selection of delegates to party conferences . You only have to look at the current reports of right wing unions parachuting candidates into local pre-selections as example of how moribund the branch system has become.
I would argue that reforming local branches and the pre-selection process for local MP’s are far more important than the question of how we elect the leader. Serious thought has to be taken in how ALP members engage with the party on a day to day basis. Should local branches be rationalised into a super-branch composed of an entire federal or state electorate? Perhaps local candidates should be selected via open primary contests to further break the ability of power-brokers to dominate the machinery of the party. Perhaps rather than focus on geographic localities, the ALP should focus on idea centred intra-party organisations such as Rainbow Labor which have mobilised and excited so many members. Such intra-party organisations conduct genuine debate around ideas as opposed to the recent focus on personality and personal loyalty within the party. And these idea centred debates can have real outcomes; Rainbow Labor was crucial in changing the party platform to support for same sex marriage. It is doubtful whether an elected leader of the Labor party would be in a position to bring about such changes on their own, even with the mandate of being backed by rank and file ALP members. Nonetheless, the changes proposed by Kevin Rudd represent a welcome change of fresh air. Hopefully other changes will be considered too.
Louis Gregory has an Arts degree with a major in History from the University of Melbourne. He is currently studying a Masters of Teaching (Secondary) from the same institution.