There are always two challenges that face a political party operating in a democratic system such as ours – public trust and public policy.
When I was elected leader of the Western Australian Parliamentary Labor Party in 1996, the trust factor was pre-eminent. The public had invested much in the Labor Government of the 1980s, only to be disillusioned by the corruption revealed in WA Inc. Royal Commission.
Senior Labor figures both inside and outside parliament were found wanting. Some were criticised, some charged with offences and some went to jail. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Strangely enough, however, it provided Labor with an opportunity to become the party of political reform, as the Coalition government was lukewarm about some of the commission’s recommendations. This created space which we were only too happy to occupy. Indeed, the recommendations were consistent with what many of us saw as core values, such as one-vote, one-value democracy, accountability and the public interest.
This helped Labor re-position itself but was never going to be enough. Would the public believe in Labor and trust it to deliver? Had the party learned the lessons from the 1980s?
We succeeded but it required disciplined effort around three objectives: trimming the edges of factionalism; ensuring all communities throughout the state knew that Labor was active and listening; and keeping vested interests well away from caucus deliberations. Some sections of the party resented this style of politics but they were in a minority, except on the question of organisational renewal.
It needs to be said, however, that the organisational renewal question was not as important as it is today. There was energy within the party and robust political debate over important issues such as market reform, forest conservation and native title. My commitment to a reformist approach wasn’t ticked off before there had been widespread consideration in all party forums – from committee, to executive, to conference, to caucus.
None of this was perfect – it never is – but we did look and feel like an accountable organisation in which the common good had a better than even chance of winning.
This brings us to New South Wales Labor today, and indeed to the ALP more generally. The case for serious reform in the organisation has become crucial. The party has too few members, too few supporters and too few voters. What may have been an acceptable mix of tradition and change in the late 1990s won’t be enough now.
There are lots of ideas about how the ALP can be changed and how those changes can be managed – equality of votes, membership selection of leaders, primaries and better scrutiny and training of candidates. There are, of course, many variations on a theme when it comes to the best “package” required to make a difference. However, one question stands out amongst all others: what role should unions play?
Two features of the party stand out. It has a corporatist structure but lives in an era of participating democracy, and it is based on 50% union affiliation, though unions now play less of a role in the consciousness of the working class.
In other words, too few individuals from too narrow a political base are in the dominant position and will need to be convinced that change is needed.
The argument isn’t easy, as particular unions with their particular interests will be on a level playing field. Candidates too will find the going tougher as they are more closely questioned on their politics and their aspirations. Leaders will enjoy more authority but will be tested more thoroughly before being given the right to lead.
However, it’s only a reformed Labor Party that will have the capacity to break the back of the populist right and the green left. Both of these currents have a constituency which is damaging Labor, but not an acceptable philosophy for government.
Social democrats and their main opposition, liberal conservatives, do provide such a philosophy. Indeed, they compete for the right to govern. They do this, however, by way of political parties and they need supporters and members, connections and networks, and activists with energy.
There’s still life in the ALP but without reform will it be enough to meet the challenge of contemporary democracy? What’s at stake here is social democracy: is it an idea that has the potential to define government, or is it just one idea amongst many which seeks influence but not power?