Big ALP loss? It’s time to talk about the membership thing again.

In 2001, after the ALP lost another federal election, Bob Hawke, and  Neville Wran were appointed to write a report about  the structure of the ALP.  I remember it because it was just a few months before I decided not to renew my membership and also because it was the first time that I saw two Labor heroes of mine up close when I went to a party forum where the rank and file was asked about their opinions.

The media release stated: “The recommendations are geared towards making the Party more participatory and democratic, more attractive to potential members, and more in step with the attitudes and aspirations of the Australian electorate.”

“The Report is the result of a rigorous consultation program spanning nine months and involving more than 2000 branch members who attended Party forums in every state and territory. We also met with community leaders, Premiers and Chief Ministers, past and present members of parliament, national union leaders, women’s groups and academics from around the country.
I don’t know what happened to that review.  But not much considering that ten years later we are still talking about the ALP being ‘more participatory and democratic’.  Of course after the near death experience of last year’s election there was another inquiry, this time by Steve Bracks.  Again the report recommended ‘expanding the Party membership, having a say in the party affairs, being involved in the selection of quality candidates’ [SOURCE].

All this was revisited again after the NSW bloodbath.  But from past experiences I wouldn’t hold my breath about much ALP reform.  Of course I haven’t been a member now for ten years but I don’t think the ALP has changed that much.   I remember at that meeting with Hawke and Wran that rank and file members main frustration was that they didn’t feel like they were appreciated much by the Party.  They were seen as foot soldiers to help candidates letterboxing or handing how to vote cards at elections but nothing much more.  And of course they felt disimpowered by the party machine when it came to chose their representatives for their local seats or even being heard when passing resolutions.

I never had rosy coloured glasses when it came to the ALP.  I knew from the start that being a party of government it attracted indviduals which were interested in power (and more often than not they wanted to do good with that power) but it really lost its community feeling once it created government.  I could feel that very much in the period of the Cain/Kirner government.  The ALP in Victoria came to power just after I joined in the early 80’s.  And I remember it really connected to the community which resulted in pretty good policy.  Those were the days were conservationists felt confortable being in the Party or at least siding with it.  In fact one of the best and more ground breaking pieces of legislation, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act came from this process of consultation.

However I could see that as the ALP stayed in government over the years the connection with the community (and with the rank and file which was really part of it) became more tenouos and strained.  The party became more interested in listening to bureaucrats and political advisers.  So much so that from being allies, progressive elements in the rank and file and the community became enemies.  But lo and behold once the ALP lost power and it didn’t have bureaucrats or high powered political advisers anymore the ‘membership’ was re-discovered.

I wonder whether this is what also happened in NSW, but even more pronounced than what happened in Victoria after the demise of the Kirner government.  The only difference is that this time the more progressive elements of the community found another voice in the Greens.  So now the ALP has even less potential membership to rely on.

Membership is an issue but not the main one.  If Labor could really engage with the progressive community as at least the Victorian ALP did in the early 80’s it would be a great step.  Of course unlike then many would be now involved with the Greens which would have a vested interest in the ALP going towards the current path of being the party of “hard-working heterosexual white suburban families” which would reduce their vote in the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne even further, but it’s worth a shot.  Of course the ALP won’t take on more ‘extreme’ ideas, but the current way of relying on focus groups hasn’t exactly being a roaring electoral success either.

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