June 26, 2013

Australian Politics

Too Much, Too Young: The Culture of the ALP

By Nicholas Reece
Too Much, Too Young: The Culture of the ALP

Correspondence to Mark Latham’s Quarterly Essay Not Dead Yet: Labor’s Post-Left Future.

By Nicholas Reece

Available in the current issue of Quarterly Essay. www.quarterlyessay.com


ONE of the most powerful passages in Mark Latham’s essay is when he writes of his own failure. For the first time I am aware of, he admits he came to the leadership too young at forty-two, with too little life experience and too much of his policy thinking still a work-in-progress. Latham’s personal experience is surely a modern-day parable for the ALP. Now in his fifties, Latham is producing the most prescient work of his career. Yet at this very point he finds himself estranged from the party to which he gave twenty-five years of his life.

How did this happen?

Clearly Latham has a bit to answer for. His indiscretions and failings during his time as party leader have been extensively catalogued. But what has been less scrutinised is the role of the ALP in his ill-fated career trajectory. In less than two years the party catapulted Latham from relative obscurity to party leader, only to see him lose an election and then resign from parliament and quit the party.

To go from obscurity to messiah to outcast in such a short period of time surely says as much about the organisation as it does about the individual.

Part of the explanation of this organisational shortcoming lies in the fact that political parties are strange beasts. The activities they undertake are important and complex, including electing MPs and leaders, formulating public policy and running campaigns. Yet their corporate culture is very different to that of other enterprises undertaking similar activities, such as the public service, academic institutions or even advertising firms. Instead, as the academic Glyn Davis and others have detailed, political parties and their parliamentary groupings have an ethos which is more akin to that of a street gang, those groups of disenfranchised youths who band together for mutual profit and support.

Latham is a case in point. In a different organisation he would have been recognised as a promising talent who needed more time in middle management before he was ready for a leadership role. Instead, the desperate gang, in this case the federal Labor caucus, decided he fit the bill and made him their leader. For a short while he was hailed as a new messiah. But then fortunes changed, the tenuous bargain between the leader and the gang unravelled and Latham was brutally cast out. He retired from politics at just forty-three, with his best years still a decade away. While much has been made of Labor’s revolving door of party leadership, the Liberal Party is just as susceptible to this ruthless and unforgiving modus operandi – after all, it has had four leaders in just over five years.

The situation is made possible by a parliamentary system in which the leader holds office with the consent of the party room, which is made up of MPs from the same party. In this way, in a nation of 23 million people, a person can be elected the leader of the Labor or Liberal party, and even prime minister, with the votes of between just thirty-five and fifty-five of their party colleagues.

Given Latham’s searing personal experience, there is one party reform proposal that I am surprised he did not advocate. That reform is the direct election of the party leader by the rank-and-file members of the party. If such a model was in place, it is unlikely that Latham would have been elected leader when he was. Instead he would have needed a few more years to build his profile. It is also possible that his departure would not have been so swift.

Over the last two decades progressive and conservative political parties around the world have introduced institutional reforms that give ordinary party members a direct vote in the election of the party leader. In the United Kingdom and Canada, which are Westminster parliamentary democracies like Australia, all the major parties now give rank-and-file members a say in choosing the leader. These changes mean these democracies do not have the revolving door of party leadership that is a feature of politics Down Under, nor do they suffer from the mindless media-driven leadership speculation that we must endure. Moreover, their political parties have membership figures the Australian parties can only dream of.

Latham details the decline in membership of the ALP, likening the modernparty to a Hollywood back lot with nothing behind the façade. The ALP has a national membership of around 40,000. The Liberal Party is in a similar situation. The major Australian political parties now have fewer members than many AFL football clubs and struggle to staff voting booths properly on election day.

Direct election of the leader by party members could help reverse this decline. One of the many similarities that Australia and Canada used to share was the fact that we had close to the lowest level of political-party membership of any Western democracy. But as result of party reforms in Canada it is now Australia that holds the wooden spoon for citizen engagement with political parties. Last year Canada’s left-of-centre, trade union–supported New Democratic Party held a ballot of its members for the leadership. As part of the election campaign, the party signed up 45,000 new people and now has 130,000 members. The other major progressive political party in Canada is the Liberal Party. It registered 130,000 members and supporters to participate in a leadership ballot in April 2013. Meanwhile the Conservative Party used a similar model to elect Steven

Harper as its leader in 2004, with a ballot of its 100,000 members.

Sooner or later the Australian political parties are going to work out how unusual they have become by international standards. The crisis in membership numbers together with the problems caused by the rapid turnover of leaders makes it inevitable that one of the major parties will move to give ordinary members a direct vote for the leader. And once one major party makes the change, the other will doubtless follow.

Latham’s main proposal for party reform involves the introduction of community-based primary pre-selections that allow party members and registered “supporters” to vote for the local candidate. He argues that local primaries will attract new branch members and volunteers, pre-select better candidates, provide a valuable profile boost for the successful candidate for the election and transform the party’s culture through community engagement.

As Secretary of the ALP in Victoria I was involved in Australia’s first primary pre-selection, held in the outer metropolitan state seat of Kilsyth in 2010. The Kilsyth primary and subsequent primaries held in some NSW seats have enjoyed modest success. The accusation that primaries will give rise to “money politics and corruption” has not been evident in the trials to date. Opposition to primaries comes from vested interests in the ALP who see them as a challenge to their power base. It also comes from those in the rank and file who see primaries as devaluing their own party membership by allowing “non-members” to vote in party elections. Nonetheless, community-based primaries have had enough success to warrant their further trial, including in a winnable parliamentary seat.

The bigger point to be made here is that the ALP needs to do something. The party of reform needs to show it is able to reform itself. The party founded on a radical democratic experiment needs to show it is still capable of democratic innovation. It cannot keep commissioning major reviews by party elders and then ignore the more challenging findings. A bit of experimentation and trial and error should be embraced. The federal structure of the party is useful in this regard: mistakes can be confined to a single state, while success can be rolled out nationally.

A reform package aimed at increasing member support could involve a further trial of primaries in some winnable seats, together with direct election of the party leader by ordinary members. This injection of democracy at the top and bottom of the party would present a grand bargain to party members: on the one hand, they give up some of the power of their membership by giving “supporters” a vote in local elections, but on the other, they get a new power to cast a vote for the party leader. Together these reforms build a bigger and stronger party that stands more chance of electoral success.

In writing this piece I am conscious that I have added further pages to the national pastime of speculating on the future of the ALP. Much of this work is not helpful. So I finish by noting that none of this should be seriously debated this side of the September federal election.

The single best thing the ALP could do for itself is to win an election. A victory in a significant state or federal election would help bring some perspective back to the forecasts of demise for Australia’s oldest and largest progressive political party. After all, it was just over four years ago that the ALP held government nationally and in every state and territory in Australia.

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