There is a line in David Bowie’s song ‘Fashion’ that says “They do it over there but we don’t do it here”. Well it seems that our politics seems to be caught in the ‘fashion’ caper. Abbott’s tactics seems to mimick the USA Republican Tea Party strategy of search, block and destroy, while according to today’s Gillard’s speech the ALP is seeking to introduce a USA style primaries system to select candidates for the elections.
This is not new of course, it was an idea introduced by Bracks/Carr/Faulkner review after the elections that in a way we can say the ALP ‘lost’. The idea is to ensure that those who may not necessarily want to be a ALP member can have a say in choosing a candidate. As an ex-ALP member, who left partly because I felt that the Party wasn’t that interested in hearing members’ ideas, I can see a few problems.
I have seen examples of branch stacking and manipulations of branch numbers in order to favour a candidate. What is to say that these sorts of shenanigans wouldn’t occur by registering ‘ALP supporters’ it would be even easier that stacking mambers. Also while I don’t agree with Senator Conroy o a few things (except that he is a true football believer) I agree with him that such a move would devalue the idea of being an ALP member.
The fact is that big parties attract people attracted to power. I think that it is a bit more exposed in the ALP than in the Liberal Party. As someone who lives in the Federal seat of Batman I remember that back in 1995, national secretary Gary Gray threatened to install Martin Ferguson(who has NSW right pedegree) through national executive intervention if ALP members in Batman decided to vote for a different preselection candidate.
But the process was also tarnished by the usual wheeling and dealing and stacking by other candidates. Sometning that leaves the rank and file somewhat alienated.
The other reason why people may want to join the ALP is to contribute to its policies.
One way to do this was to join a Policy Committee to formulate policies and motions that would then be brought to conference. Of course they had to go through a conference ‘Agenda Committee’ that would decide which motions were to be debated and which wouldn’t be. While the sound of being on an ‘Agenda Committee’ sounds as exciting as searching for fleas in a dog, it was extremely important for factions (and associated ministers) to have representatives there to ensure that motions that were favourable to a faction or another would go through, and in some cases collude if the motion was seen to controversial.
Often these type of motions wouldn’t even go as far as the Agenda Committee. That is because ministers would ensure that friendly members would be present in policy committees to ensure that unfriendly ‘radical’ motions were either watered down, postponed ad infinitum or even better abandoned. You knew how the wind would blow. The Environment Policy Committee in the late 80′s spend lots of time for a forestry policy and even now I remember a young Peter Batchelor in his job as Socialist Left ministerial gatekeeper absolutely flying off his handle in rage about it in a SL meeting at Trades Hall, calling the policy (to protect native forests) irresponsible, unrealistic and with no concept of the realities of being in government etc.
Back in June Ian Munro wrote an article in The Age about why ALP members left the party, and in there he mentioned something that the ALP did before:
A network of policy communities concerned with social issues such as health and law reform typified the party during the 1970s. They were active and they linked Labor to community activists, offering a “community of support” for its ideas.
“They were issues-based groups that offered innovative policy thinking that was able to be picked up when Labor got into office,” .
One of the beneficiaries of that work was former Victorian premier John Cain, who speaks of the “prodigious” policy development that preceded his time in office.
I do remember that time because it was when I joined the ALP. Community groups were invited in developing policies and many of these ideas (such as the ground-breaking Flora and Fauna legislation) were formulated from this process, even if the participants were not ALP members it gave the party considerable energy and purpose. The difference now however is that Labor has abandoned these groups, seeing them as another pressure group instead as their constituency. Consequently we see Julia Gillard glibly talking about the value of work and setting the alarm early, and these ex-allies going to the Greens.
Therefore the path to rejuvinate the ALP is not by using primaries. That unfortunately smack to me of the usual quick fix solution that has characterized many of the directions of the ALP lately. Connecting to progressive groups, involve them in the process of policy making, instead of policy being directed by focus groups and the editorials of the tabloid media is, in my opinion, the way to go. Not all the policies may be accepted. The ALP is a mainstream party that needs the votes of the middle ground, but it will make a party eneregised and full of people that want to contribute, and also it is likely that from that group of energised people a few good representatives for parliament will also spring up (of course if they are given the opportunity to stand). Representatives much more in tune with their communities than some union officer parachuted from afar. But it is hard work. Is the ALP up to it?