Labor senator John Faulkner does not anticipate that his moves to reform the party’s preselection processes will succeed at this weekend’s NSW State Conference. Faulkner is hoping to have the rules changed so that candidates for upper house elections in NSW and federally will be chosen directly by party members, rather than by the ALP’s Administrative Committee, where trade union delegates are all powerful.
The relationship between trade unions and party rank-and-file members has been strained from the Labor Party’s birth in the 1890s. In the early years of the 20th century almost every state ALP conference saw protests by either unionists or local members that one or the other was being sidelined.
Today, trade union delegates dominate state conference, which is the policy-making body of the party, so they are unlikely to give up their power voluntarily.
A long history of conflict
The first NSW Labor Party – the Labor Electoral League – was created by the trade union movement in the 1890s precisely to defend its interests in the parliamentary arena. The unions still regard the party as theirs.
However, it is unwise to rely too heavily on history to justify present-day policies, since both the Labor Party and the trade union movement have been utterly transformed since the late 19th century. The NSW party has been virtually recreated many times since then:
by William Holman in order to make it electable to majority government in 1910;
by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) creating a rigid faction system in order to get rid of supporters of conscription (including Holman) in 1916-17;
by Jack Lang to create his own personal political machine in the 1920s and 1930s;
by William McKell in the early 1940s to restore sanity and to foster the values of postwar reconstruction of Australian society;
by Neville Wran to further the principles of Gough Whitlam’s social agenda and;
most recently by Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi to outdo Lang in using the party for personal profit.
Not surprisingly, many party members are hoping for a modern-day McKell to restore sanity.
The union movement also bears little resemblance to the Trades and Labor Council of the 1890s. It is now called Unions NSW and very few of its leaders have ever worked at the coalface or spent half a lifetime recruiting members among shearers or stonemasons, as was the typical career path for union leaders until the 1960s.
Now, most union leaders hold their positions because they have university degrees and management experience, irrespective of the craft or trade of their members.
What chance is there for genuine reform?
Calls for the Labor Party to reform are nothing new. Every election defeat at federal or state level brings an official inquiry and report explaining that further effort should be made to stop the decline in party membership and to introduce structural changes to the party to make this possible.
Occasionally there is a more formal inquiry, as with Bob Hawke and Neville Wran’s report after the party’s loss at the 2001 federal election. However, its modest recommendations disappeared without trace.
In his first stint as prime minister, Kevin Rudd tried to reduce the role of large unions by denying a role for left and right factions to choose his ministry. The present leader, Bill Shorten, talks up the need for modest party reform but, as a former union leader himself, it is unlikely that his words will lead to firm action.
In previous eras, federal intervention could force reform of corrupt state branches. The party’s federal executive has intervened in the NSW ALP at least half-a-dozen times and leaned rather heavily another three or four times. The most important occasions were to get rid of Lang in 1939, to disband a pro-communist state executive in 1941, and to sort out the problems of the DLP split in the 1950s.
However, it is difficult to see federal intervention forcing the NSW party to introduce internal democracy. Trade unions are also dominant at the federal level. A very strong party leader, with unchallengeable electoral support, could force the federal conference or executive to intervene in this way, but such a leader is not currently in view.
In one sense, the current political climate is not favourable for such reforms. At the next NSW state election the ALP should improve its position markedly, although it is unlikely to win. At the federal level the reaction against prime minister Tony Abbott is so strong that there is a genuine possibility that Labor could win the next election, even led by a lacklustre Shorten. Party minders will be saying that now is not the time to rock the boat.
The alternative that will become more likely the longer nothing is done is the complete reformation of the party. Robert Menzies accomplished this in the 1940s when he helped to create the present Liberal Party from the ashes of the previous United Australia Party (UAP), which had imploded over leadership and policy issues.
Gough Whitlam completely transformed the federal Labor Party in the late 1960s, although the party structures and name maintained considerable continuity. But such leaders do not come along every day.
A final caveat
Giving power over preselection to local members does not guarantee genuine party democracy. Especially in a party where membership is declining and apathetic, local branches can very easily be stacked, as has been demonstrated time and time again. And stacked branches go with faction-driven preselections.
In the 1922 state conference, for example, AWU branch stacking was so all-pervasive that a motion was debated that all preselections be abolished and any candidate should be allowed to present at election. That is even less likely to be supported in 2014 than in 1923.
Perhaps the better alternative is to allow candidates to contest primary elections open to a vote of non-party members, as in the US, and as happened recently in the selection of Verity Firth for the state seat of Balmain. But primaries can become very expensive and the need for electoral funding becomes even more pressing – along with its temptations. And in a tight contest, it is open for members of opposed political parties to penetrate the process in order to block a candidate whom they fear.
All in all, the lesson seems to be that things are not yet bad enough in the Labor Party to make significant reform likely.