View from The Hill

Labor set for battle over selecting Senate candidates

Senator John Faulkner is at the forefront of the Labor reform agenda. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Labor voters in West Australia have been delivered a second slap in the face. After a cross factional union deal put right wing “shoppies” chief Joe Bullock number one on the Senate ticket, left wing dancing partner United Voice WA this week declared he was a most unsuitable candidate and should resign. The union is apparently shocked by the revelation, just before last Saturday’s election, of Bullock’s November comments sledging the Labor party and running mate Louise Pratt (now expected to lose her seat).

Sorry, but this is too cute. First, United Voice knew Bullock’s general views. Second, it’s all upside for it. United Voice got over-representation in state preselections and also filled a 2013 Senate casual vacancy. So now it just tries to make itself look better with an outburst against Bullock, who will be happily preparing for his new job in Canberra, unaffected by a few slings from across the ideological divide.

The Bullock row is part of a wider issue: how Labor’s Senate candidates are selected.

ALP elder Senator John Faulkner this week flagged that at July’s NSW party conference he will move for Senate and NSW legislative council candidates to be chosen by ballots of the state-wide party membership. ALP national president Jenny McAllister is also urging reform of Senate preselections, as is senior frontbencher and former leadership contender Anthony Albanese.

But some on the right, in the party and the union movement, are against rank and file ballots, believing that would diminish right wing power and take the party to the left (because the membership leans that way). Leader Bill Shorten is yet to state a view.

Faulkner is appalled at how factional stitch ups have enabled corrupt individuals to enter the NSW parliament, with all the appalling consequences we’ve seen paraded at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

With the Senate, factional domination in the states has delivered not corruption but batches of sub-optimal candidates.

Labor has always put some party and union hacks into the Senate – but now the quality seems particularly low, compared with the days of John Button, Gareth Evans and the like. Go beyond Penny Wong and where are the high flyers on the front bench?

The debate about how senators should be preselected is also part of a wider one – about reforming Labor’s structure more generally.

Shorten has proposed the rule requiring party members to also be members of unions should be scrapped. But that is a furphy. Mostly the rule is not enforced. Getting rid of it might be desirable but it would not be important.

The core issue is how to break the stifling grip of unions and factions on the party. This goes to both structures and attitudes.

While the unions have 50% representation at ALP state conferences (this then flows through to national conference) they will exercise an influence that is not justified by their role in modern Australia and which works against the interests of the party.

But tackling this excessive power is not something that the ALP faction leaders want to do. Their own power is intertwined with that of the unions.

Even having a slice of the national conference directly elected would not be enough to change things fundamentally.

Just as the quality of the Senate candidates has declined in recent years, so has that of the union leadership and the ALP factional leadership.

It is easy to romanticise the Hawke-Keating era but it did see the glory days for modern Labor. Factions were strong, but they battled over policy, not just preferment. They were workhorses in helping to manage change, as Labor adapted to new circumstances. And the union movement had impressive characters such as Bill Kelty who could mesh the unions’ industrial interests with the needs of the wider economy. Hawke and Keating were able to work with the union movement for economic advancement. (Outgoing Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Paul Howes advocated a variation of this when he urged a grand compact, a proposal that got no traction).

Shorten deferred his speech on Labor reform, due last Monday, because of the death of his mother. So we don’t know yet how much more change he is planning to suggest, beyond dropping the union membership rule, making it easier for people to join the ALP and having the rank and file take part in the choice of state leaders, as they did with the federal leadership after the election.

Shorten is caught in a trap created by circumstances and the expectations he has raised; he’s wedged between increasingly loud demands for party reform, the vested interests of the unions, the world from which he comes, and the reluctance of the factional leaders, of whom he has been one, to relinquish power.

No one seems to know where he will land.

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