Why the Labor Party is not ready for reform

July 29, 2015

By Dennis Glover

28 July 2015

Behind all the predictable headlines about Bill Shorten’s victories and the Left’s defeats, something else significant happened, or rather didn’t happen, at the ALP National Conference. There was almost no party reform. No new post-socialist objective, no new democratic rights for party members.

Big deal, some might say, with reasonable justification. After all, the ALP’s objectives and rules will never be in the forefront of the voters’ minds.

But it’s still strange, because while no explicit promises were made about party reform, members of the ALP were definitely led to believe that this time something substantial would happen. After the collapse of the Rudd and Gillard Governments there was an almost unanimous consensus that the party was in the process of dying and needed resuscitation. This was meant to be the moment the faceless men of the factions would be put in their places and new members, attracted by the promise of democratic control, would make the party more representative of the general population, etc, etc.

But when the nearly 400 delegates came together all the urgency somehow evaporated.We shouldn’t be surprised really. After all, national conferences are almost always like this. Far from the cliche that the national conference is when Labor destroys its re-election chances by obsessing on itself rather than on the electorate, it usually over-compensates with either a show of pre-election unity to anoint a prime minister in waiting, or a choreographed dance in which the Right crushes the Left, with the Left loyally paying its part as the Black Swan.

Factions a barrier to change

Add to this the fact that almost all the delegates, including some of the shiny young talent naturally associated with reform, are factional players or strongly beholden to the factions, means that change is all but impossible. Anyone watching the debate on the rule changes may have noticed the strange fact that the word “faction” was hardly uttered, when everyone knows that factional self-indulgence is the real problem.

The result is that at the end of the national conference, we were left with the bizarre spectacle of right-wing commentators fresh from reporting the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, arguing that union dominance of the ALP is a good thing because it stops the crazy rank and file democratically determining the party’s policy. Go figure that one.

So what do we know from all this?

Is it that the ALP will never change and shouldn’t change?

Perhaps. Many participants in internal reform movements will be asking themselves why they bother.

But perhaps not, because party reform isn’t just about rule changes or the re-writing of objectives. On their own, these things are somewhat time-wasting and self-defeating.

Palpable wind of change needed

To have any point, real reform of political parties like the ALP must be accompanied by something else: a palpable wind of change sweeping through the organisation, driven by generational renewal, changes in societal values, and new ways of thinking and talking about how our economy and society works.

Think of the feeling of renewal that swept through the British Labour Party when Tony Blair took over, and through the Democratic Party when Barack Obama won the presidential nomination. It wasn’t about rules; it was about a wave of confidence that reform would create a better future.

That these prerequisites for party reform are absent in the ALP can be seen by looking at the proposal put up to replace the socialist objective. Here’s what Luke Foley proposed in these pages last week: “The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential.”

Ignoring the fact that it is grammatically incorrect (singular somehow becomes plural), it says almost nothing that couldn’t have been said by any political party over the past 40 years. Labor was being asked to give up a set of words that, for all their problems, have endured for almost a century as at least a vague symbol of its members’ moral outlook, for something that looks like a bullet point on a management consultant’s PowerPoint slide.

But the debate has resulted in some good, because by resolving to set up a body to review the socialist objective, Labor will be putting its sharpest minds to the task of thinking up something better. Luke Foley has done the ALP a favour. Because instead of just getting rid of the socialist objective with little serious thought as to what will replace it, Labor now might just come up with some considered statement about what social democracy means in the second decade of the 21st Century. In the hands of a new generation ready to exploit a new mood for change in the nation, it might just have some practical purpose.