Bill Shorten appears set to join the long list of ALP leaders who have embarked on party reform programs. His set-piece speech was due to be delivered just before his mother unexpectedly passed away last week. What we already know is that he had planned to announce changes which would reduce membership costs and drop the requirement that members also belong to a union.
The Age this morning is running with James Massola’s exclusive, drawn from draft notes of the speech, which appear to signal more far-reaching changes. Last year Kevin Rudd, after regaining the federal parliamentary leadership, forced the party to split leadership ballots 50-50 between caucus and the rank-and-file membership. Now Shorten apparently wants the members of large branches to have a 70 per cent say over pre-selection to the Lower House, on the way to 100 per cent in the future.
It’s all about democratising the party, broadening its appeal, attracting better talent and reducing the power of the factional bosses. Gough Whitlam was among the first to realise, in the mid-1960s, that the party had little future unless it expanded its base from the old (and declining) working-class to include the (growing) suburban middle-class. It’s been a familiar story ever since.
But it’s not clear how even these radical changes will arrest the party’s long-term decline. Its structural problem is that its traditional base – the industrial working class – forever shrinks, while the two growing demographic bases – the educated middle class and the suburban aspirational class – have no great allegiance to any party. And political scientists say that any strategy for party renewal which relies on hopes of a growing and active membership is all but doomed.
Labor’s most significant problem is that it no longer projects with any confidence a clear reason for its existence. It is thus increasingly pulled between the demands of focus groups and sectional interests. If Shorten’s changes can address these larger, existential issues, then all power to him.
Russell Marks Politicoz Editor
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Bill Shorten’s plan to democratise Labor
"Bill Shorten will announce sweeping Labor Party reforms that empower rank and file members, rein in powerbrokers' say over candidates and call for fewer factional bosses to be pre-selected for the Senate… In excerpts of the speech published before he had to withdraw, Mr Shorten flagged changes to make it easier and cheaper to join the party and dropping a requirement that party members also belong to a union. But the ALP boss was preparing to go much further."
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