Reforming and performing

What have ALP internal party reform and the performance of Bach’s The Art of Fugue got in common? The question popped into the blog’s mind this week after hearing the great Angela Hewitt perform the Bach work and spending some time talking to Race Mathews and Local Labor people about their campaign to reform the party.

By 2005 Angela Hewitt had recorded all the Bach works for keyboard – except for the Art of Fugue. Taking to the Melbourne Recital centre audience at the start of her Australian tour she said she had always thought it was surprising that at the end of his life Bach had ‘finally written something boring.’ But about the same time she and her record label were bombarded by emails asking why she hadn’t recorded them and when would she? Hewitt proceeded to study and think intensely about them and started to analyse how it would work with a keyboard. The end result – a great performance of an astonishing work.

Internal ALP party reform is, like Bach’s The Art of Fugue, ostensibly something that some would see as a bit boring and something that takes a very long time, intense activity and deep thought to appreciate and master.  Race Mathews has now been working on party reform for longer than Angela Hewitt has been recording Bach. He started in the late 1960s when, working with Gough Whitlam and Dick Hall, he was instrumental in bringing about the major reforms which contributed to the Whitlam election Since then he has been an Opposition adviser (and blog colleague at the time), Cabinet Minister, party reform activist, completed one PhD and is just finishing a D.Theol. The last is not as strange as it looks as it comes out of his PhD research into the co-operative movement.

Now Race is National Patron of Local Labor, a grass roots party organisation campaigning for party reform, which has used the current ALP leadership election campaign to ask the two candidates for commitments to a series of party reforms. Replies are expected fairly soon and, if the two candidates agree to the reform propositions, it could lead to one of the most far-reaching reforms in the party’s history. This is important for more than just internal democracy as it has highly significant implications for the party’s campaigning power and the health of its policy making. To give an example, in the recent Federal election the expected massacre in the Sydney western suburbs was averted – not because of St Kevin – but rather because of work by grass roots based community organisers modelling their activities on the successful Obama campaign. As Local Labor argues party reform can mobilise such a resource across the country. It is doubly important because, despite the usual journalistic prediction of a decade in the wilderness for the ALP, the numbers make it clear that the next Federal election is winnable for Labor and losable for Abbott. There are many seats under the 2% margin and the total swing required is only 3.5%. Interestingly the first post-election polls (the Morgan poll) suggest public opinion is tight and the new government is not experiencing the benefits of a post-election halo effect impact on their polling.

So, what does Local Labor want? The group has sent a questionnaire to both candidates seeking commitments to the “implementation of recommendations which will help mobilise a committed, effective grassroots organisation capable of making a significant contribution to winning the next Federal election.” The questionnaire results will be distributed to rank and file party members eligible to vote in the leadership ballot as well as being made public. The questionnaire seeks commitments on:

  • Establishing a reform implementation committee to audit and oversee progress on national, state and territory commitments to reform;
  • Introducing annual State of the Party reports which would measure on the ALP’s health and effectiveness;
  • Making it easier for people to join the ALP and creating a new category of ‘Labor Supporters’;
  • An education program for members on party history, principles, policies, governance and rules;
  • Increasing online consultation with members to ensure members and supporters have  input to party policy formulation (Indicatively, United Voice is now doing this with their membership to ascertain who they should support in the ballot and setting a precedent for other unions);
  • Giving priority to locals in pre-selections; and,
  • Direct election for all National and State Conference delegates.

A performance of The Art of Fugue is something very special but so is, for Australians, meaningful ALP party reform. Sitting near the front in Angela Hewitt’s opening Australian tour concert was Barry Jones, the best placed ALP figure to truly appreciate both and a reminder that, without party reforms in Victoria, Barry may  never have been elected to Parliament when he was.