View from The Hill

Labor candidates asked to give pledges on a wide agenda of party reform

Bill Shorten will be asked to answer questions on party reform. AAP/Dan Peled

The rather extraordinary exercise in internal party democracy – at least for a major Australian party – that we’re seeing in the ALP is just leading to an appetite for more.

As Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten travel the country, holding rallies of members and using the media to appeal for votes, a grassroots group called Local Labor is seeking detailed commitments from each candidate that, if elected, he would push for a much wider reform of the party.

Their answers will be distributed to the rank and file party members who will start voting this week. Up to 40,000 people are eligible to vote.

One of the ALP figures behind the questionnaire knows a thing or two about promoting the cause of party democracy. Race Mathews, a former federal and Victorian MP (and former state minister), who was founder of Local Labor and is one of its national patrons, worked with Gough Whitlam on party reform in the years before the election of Labor in 1972. That reform process was vital in making the ALP credible for office.

Other national patrons are Carmen Lawrence, Peter Beattie and John Faulkner.

Faulkner, together with former premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, proposed wide ranging changes to make the ALP more democratic in a report done on the 2010 election. But only very limited progress was made at the 2011 ALP national conference, because the proposals threatened the vested interests of party power groups.

Local Labor, which has more than 700 members, was set up to promote the report’s reforms.

In a statement tonight Mathews said this leadership election was “an historic opportunity” to get discussion of further changes, beyond the one now being implemented of allowing the membership a 50% say in choosing the leader.

Among the most important commitments being sought from the candidates are giving priority to locals in preselection and pushing for greater diversity of candidates, agreeing to direct election for all national and state ALP conference delegates, and making it easier for people to join the party, as well as creating a new category of “Labor supporters”.

The questionnaire asks their views on “trialling community based pre-selection primaries open to Labor members and registered Labor supporters and union members in all states and territories.”

The questionnaire also asks the candidates whether they would agree to:

  • establishing a reform implementation committee to audit and oversee progress on national, state and territory commitments to reform;

  • introducing annual state-of-the-party reports to measure the ALP’s health and effectiveness;

  • an education program for party members including ALP history, principles and policies and

  • increasing online consultation with members to ensure an input to policy formulation.

Mathews said reform was an inevitable process in any organisation wanting to grow and improve its effectiveness.

The involvement of grassroots community organisers in limiting losses in western Sydney was an indication of what could be achieved, he said. Such action would be particularly important in the next federal election where the Abbott government would have many seats on small margins.

Shorten and Albanese are to have at least three debates – in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Both candidates today indicated the Labor government should not have hit single mothers in a controversial decision in the search for savings.