Yesterday Kristina Keneally published a 10 point plan for recovery of the Labor party.
Will it work? Are there some ideas worth supporting?
RECOMMENDATION 1: A new statement of purpose to replace the “Blackburn declaration”
Response 1: The only thing being socialised nowadays is gigantic corporate losses, and I’d be happy to formally declare the end of that level of socialisation. But in truth, Keneally is correct, in so much as there is little support for nationalisation of any existing industry even among Labor’s few remaining crusty ex-commies. However, there is strong majority support for a state role in most major services – health, education, public broadcasting, transport infrastructure, etc… and also in the creation of new services such as the NBN. As John Graham rightly points out, a key differentiator between Labor and the Coalition should be a belief in the legitimate and vital role of the state. Unlike their hero Thatcher, we believe that there is such thing as society. So do the electorate.
Keneally’s selection of text from the light on the hill speech is one that provides no differentiation from any political movement anywhere at any time in history. Tony Abbott would certainly claim to be “working towards the betterment of mankind”, a statement so broad as to be functionless. The explicit and immediate rejection of notions such as “sustainability”, or “equality” or “rights” as being non-core to Labor’s mission is mysterious. I’m surprised she didn’t throw in liberty, equality and fraternity for completeness.
By all means let’s have a new statement of purpose that better reflects the beliefs of today’s membership and the electorate at large. But let’s ensure we articulate a vision that identifies the unique values and priorities of the Labor party, and which differentiates us from the alternative. For someone who frames the issue in a very corporate way – as one of “brand” – you would think that Keneally would have a better product differentiation strategy.
RECOMMENDATION 2: Aggressively recruit new members by advertising, removing union membership requirements and lowering dues
Response 2: And what exactly would this advertising say? What is being offered?
The implicit social contract of party membership is that you will be a more effective and powerful agent for political change within the party than you would be outside it. Step 1 in retaining or recruiting new members is ensuring that this social contract is being honoured.
Just as the value of being part of the broad party membership has been reduced, the effectiveness of alternate political organisations has grown in recent years. The party is competing for the attention of political activists. If we want to win that competition we need to ensure that we can argue the case convincingly. One example; giving party members the power to directly elect the upper house ticket in their state would provide irrefutable evidence that belonging to the party was more effective than not belonging.
Keneally’s argument that joining the party should be as easy as possible is correct, but hardly the major problem at the moment. With 25% of the membership leaving in the last 2 years, retention is the first issue to be addressed.
Again taking a leaf out of Keneally’s corporate approach – let’s not waste money on advertising until we sort out the product quality issues.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Extend party membership to all members of affiliated unions
Response 3: Why stop at automatic membership for affiliated unions? Why not automatic membership for other groups – say non-affiliated unions, or people with jobs, or people who live south of the Tropic of Capricorn. With little effort we could automatically have 1 million party members by breakfast tomorrow!
Obviously what we need is new engaged and interested party members. The minimum hurdle to join should still be the conscious desire to join. Unilaterally declaring people “members” without their permission or knowledge is not a good idea.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Preselection voting rights extended to all affiliated union members and dues paying members of the party
Response 4: I think an irony earthquake just rocked the east coast of Australia. The ongoing fight of many electorates to be allowed to have a preselection is legendary. The regularly abused N40 rule, giving head-office the right to override due paying members, directly attacks the value of party membership and weakens the quality of candidates. There must be some truth and reconciliation in this regard.
The Carr/Bracks/Faulkner Review 2010 offers some specific recommendations concerning the broadening of community participation in pre-selections, including union participation. Keneally incorrectly believes that her recommendation is substantially different. It would better that she clarify her recommendation to one of support for the Review 2010 recommendation.
RECOMMENDATION 5: Government employees ineligible to vote in pre-selections for the level of government that employs them
Response 5: This recommendation presupposes that the number of government employees in the new N40-free era will be so significant that special rules will be required to eliminate the destructive effect of their block voting. Readers may be more aware than I of electorates where this recommendation is intended to have a positive effect.
It is hard to believe that this will commonly be the case. But again, the removal of pre-selection rights is the most fundamental attack on the value of party membership. It would need to be made clear that there is an insurmountable conflict of interest to support this recommendation. It seems likely that any argument presented would also make these government employees ineligible to vote in our nation’s elections.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Consolidate branches to electorate level
Response 6: This may be quite a good idea for some of the electorates where membership has all but disappeared. In others, e.g. Balmain, where there are hundreds of members and 5 very active branches, it would not be helpful.
Branches can and do amalgamate today. There is nothing to prevent all of the branches in an electorate deciding to amalgamate into a single branch – other than permission from head office. No action or change to the party rules is required here.
RECOMMENDATION 7: Reduce the power of conference
Response 7:And increase the power of who?
Keneally’s suggestion is for more power for parliamentarians. Somehow, if conference had less formal power it would have more actual power. It is not hard to see how the past 4 years could have led Keneally to prefer this position – but the arguments presented are not strong. Basically because it will no longer matter what conference says, conference will be bolder in saying more, increasing the quality and usefulness of their output. Hmmm.
However, it’s not really a tricky question. If you want people to become members – the transfer of power must be to members. An upper or lower house member directly and fairly pre-selected by the membership has a legitimacy and accountability that simultaneously empowers both the parliamentarian and the membership.
RECOMMENDATION 8: Invest in a policy development “think tank”
Response 8:The recommendation lacks any concrete detail on how members could participate in such a think tank. Certainly offering a clear path for members to present their ideas in a way that would be effective in influencing the course of policy formation is key to retaining and attracting new members. The current policy committees don’t not seem to meet publicly, if at all.
Designing an membership inclusive policy development process, that genuinely establishes a meritocracy of ideas is not easy. Assigning the task to head office is worrying, given the history, but until there is some details it is hard to fault the overall concept.
RECOMMENDATION 9: Build a new communication capability based on a broader membership
Response 9:Yep. Good idea. The instinctive reach for government funded media campaigns in support of policy is a symptom of the lack of confidence in the party membership to sell the message within their own communities.
The idea that the party membership would be able to help sell the NBN, or carbon/mineral tax is not taken seriously within the federal or state government level. Perhaps with current membership levels they are right. Unfortunately, the lack of trust and commitment further undercuts the value of party membership and reduces members to mere letterbox and leaflet distributors, rather than political activists.
RECOMMENDATION 10: Recommit ourselves to solidarity and personal integrity
Response 10:Again, a good idea. The practical recommendation is the restoration of the right of caucus to select the front bench. Again recommended by the Carr/Bracks/Faulkner Review.
With the direct pre-selection by the membership of members of both upper and lower houses, the role of factional deal making in selecting the front bench would be lessened. With fewer favours to be returned, the collective decision making process should be stronger, and more in keeping with Labor values, than the presidential leader-as-sole-decision make approach. Perhaps support for this recommendation should be contingent on the introduction of the direct pre-selection of candidates and the elimination of the N40 rule.
Keneally has a go at Rees for requesting sole permission at the 2009 state conference, but given that the objectives of that request it is hard not to be sympathetic to him.
In summary, Keneally presents a top-down approach that plans to “fix” the party using the same opaque, closed and limited power groups who are responsible for the current situation, and then present the finished “product” for adoption to the masses to join (or re-join). The idea that any fix would (and must) come from an invigorated membership itself appears to be both alien and scary.
I suspect that the recommendations are not ill intentioned, and reflect Keneally’s perception, experience, and perhaps even the reality, of a party where the membership is so thin and disengaged that there is genuine fear of trusting such important reforms to them. This appears to be especially true in the electorates where the right faction has dominated or imposed itself, and perhaps were she is most familiar with the local membership.
It seems the path back to mutual trust will be a long one.