The ALP – what is to be done?

If only Kim Carr and Stephen Conroy cared as much about Victorian ALP internal reform as they cared, respectively, about the future of manufacturing industry and the level of licence fees for media owners and how quickly the Finkelstein media inquiry could be buried.

Between them – and their factions – the movement towards party reform in Victoria has not only stalled but gone into reverse. Late last year the ALP ginger group, Local Labor, got commitments from both leadership contenders, Shorten and Albanese, to extensive party reforms. Most of the reforms they favoured stemmed from the successive reports on party democracy from key recommendations of reviews such as by Mark Dreyfus (1998), Hawke/Wran (2002), Faulkner/Bracks/Carr (2010) and Alan Griffin (2011).

Ironically the Queensland branch is pressing ahead with implementing reforms while the Victorian branch is lurching back into the days in the 1960s when Bill Brown, Bill Hartley and the Trade Unionists Defence Committee ran the Victorian ALP. The latest manifestation of the problem is the current Victorian State election pre-selections and the way the majority of grassroots members have been locked out.

Fifty years ago the ALP Scoresby State Electorate Council wrote to all Victorian branches expressing concern about the state of the party and making a series of recommendations on how it could be reformed. The key driver of this process was Race Mathews who subsequently worked with Gough Whitlam, became a Federal MP and then a Victorian Opposition adviser and ultimately Minister. The two Bills who ran the party demanded branches return the Scoresby letter unopened.

Fifty years later Mathews is trying again as a catalyst for Local Labor and now writing to all branches once again saying “new challenges for the Party stem from endemic misconduct by its Right and Left factions, both separately and in collusion with one another. Their monopolisation of the Party’s governance and decision-making bodies locks out the majority of members who neither belong to nor support a faction. The facts speak for themselves. General meetings are used by the factions to lock in their members to decisions arrived at by inner circles behind closed doors. Union delegates to the Party’s State Conference mostly aren’t elected, but appointed by factionally-aligned union officials or management committees, subject to their acceptance of factional direction.”

The campaign, and the rank and file uproar, seems to be making the ALP re-consider the pre-selection process but the underlying problems still persist.

The Matthews letter says: “Current circumstances call for a response such as that of UK Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell (Mathews is also a keen student of Labor history and named one of his sons Keir) in addressing his party’s 1960 conference: ‘There are some of us who will fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love. We will fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party – with its great past – may retain its glory and its greatness’.”

“A resolutely independent ‘third force’ of unaligned or factionally disaffected branch and affiliated union members is required, such as last secured the reform and renewal of the party in 1970, and thereby paved the way for its return to office under Whitlam’s leadership two years later.

“The facts speak for themselves. Factional abuses are exemplified by Victoria’s recent round of state seat pre-selections, where a so-called ‘Stability Pact’ between the factions enabled them to divide up the seats to their mutual advantage, irrespective of the party’s best interests or the wishes of local members. The effect of these abuses has been to check the momentum for party democratisation to which the recent parliamentary leadership contest gave rise, and the influx of new and returning members that resulted from it. Failing a significantly larger and younger party membership, promising strategies for greater community outreach and engagement are likely to be undermined.”

If that solution sounds familiar, it is – adding to Whitlam’s points about party, policy and people a fourth arm – community organisation. Significantly it was community outreach, based partly on the Obama campaign, which minimised ALP losses in Sydney western suburbs to the terrible as opposed to the irremediably catastrophic.

The latest push is to try to use the forthcoming ALP Federal Electorate Assembly (which elect ALP Conference delegates) elections to get up unaligned party members who might oppose the factions. In the meantime for all the critics of Brown and Hartley, in between the odd bit of Stalinist organisation, they did believe in things, albeit policies which were unlikely to be popular with the electorate.  What their successors believe, other than in factional power, is another question.