Bill Shorten is laying down a sweeping agenda for ALP internal reform that will test both the party and his own authority.
The opposition leader wants the party’s rank and file to have greater say in House of Representatives preselections and some participation in those for the Senate, which have been faction-dominated. He is especially targeting West Australia, after the debacle that effectively cost Labor a seat in the re-run Senate election.
“Primary-style” community preselections – trialled by the NSW branch – should be looked at for seats Labor doesn’t hold, Shorten urges, in a major address to be delivered Tuesday.
He also says the rank and file should directly elect some delegates to the party’s national conference, and repeats that the rule that party members are supposed be union members should go and members should have a 50% say in choosing state leaders, as they now do federally.
Joining the party should be easier – with a “one click” online process to be launched by July – and there should be uniform, low-cost national membership fees.
While Shorten stresses he wants a more participatory party, some of his reforms are limited and others are non-specific, where he is putting work in progress rather than being hard and fast.
This makes for a more consultative process, but also provides scope for those who want to contain change.
On Senate preselections Shorten says the rancour over the recent WA process shows a method is needed that “provides a local voice – in addition to a central component - so that we can select the best possible candidates”.
There is a range of views on what should be done, he says, but “there has to be real change. Local Labor voices need to be heard in Senate selection across Australia – and the first steps must be taken now.”
He has asked ALP national secretary George Wright to work with the national executive and the WA Labor Party “to recommend the best way of giving local party members a meaningful say in the selection of Senate candidates.
"We will be setting a new standard for selecting Labor senators. Our work in Western Australia will be used to inform our other state branches in allowing local members to contribute to Senate preselection nationally.”
This amounts to the federal party directly intervening in WA after the appalling cross-factional dealing that threw up union heavy Joe Bullock as number one candidate and relegated senator Louise Pratt (who has lost her seat from June 30) to number 2.
Shorten says in his speech (made available ahead of delivery to a Per Capita function in Melbourne): “This is not about the performance of Labor’s current senators … This is not about revolution – it’s about evolution.”
But the quality of many Labor senators is seen by critics within the party as poor.
As for evolution: Labor’s factions, which have had an iron grip on Senate preselections, are skilled at getting around changes that reduce their power. If the reforms are too small or too slow, they will undermine them.
In preselections for lower house seats (where systems vary between states), Shorten wants to “increase the weight given to the local members’ vote by 20% in every House of Representatives seat with more than 300 party members”.
In Victoria, for example, where selections are done by a 50-50 vote of local members and a central panel elected by state conference, this would mean a 70-30 split in favour of the locals.
“I believe we should also be looking at more primary-style community preselections in non-held seats,” he says. “If Labor is to rebuild as a membership-based party, we must also be a community-based party, with candidates drawn from, and chosen by, their community.”
One source of discontent in Labor has been how often the central party takes over preselections. With the qualification that there will be times when Labor has the opportunity of an exceptional candidate for a particular seat, Shorten says that “from now on, intervention by the national executive should be the exception, not the rule”.
He also argues that giving the locals a stronger voice will boost the number of women selected for all parliaments.
Shorten has asked NSW state secretary Jamie Clements to provide him with “concrete recommendations” on how to make the national conference more representative. At present the delegates are elected by state conferences, which in turn have 50% chosen by the unions.
“Our goal should be for future Labor conferences to be a mix of people directly elected from and by Labor members, and those elected by state conferences,” Shorten says.
But we won’t know what this will amount to until a proportion is specified.
Shorten seeks to reassure union members about changes that should, if implemented robustly, diminish the power in the party of unions and their chiefs.
“Making Labor more democratic and more representative is also about reaching out to union members - not just those in leadership positions – to join our party and participate in our decision-making. Unions will always have a vital role to play in Australian society – and I want union members to continue to play a role in our party, as members.”
His proposed abolition of the rule about members having to join a union is more than symbolic, he says. “It is a change that makes it clear that Labor is not exclusively for one group of Australians.”
He renews his attack on corrupt union officials who betray everything Labor and the union movement stand for. “We don’t want you. Get out.”
Shorten says rebuilding the party isn’t just about changing the rules but is a “moral task of renewing our ideas and sense of purpose”. In revising the national platform, now underway, there needs to be a “democratically drafted statement that captures what modern Labor stands for”.
Key changes Shorten wants will have to find their way through state conferences and next year’s national conference.
He says Labor has to rebuild to regain office. But it will take time, he says, and he notes that “rebuilding always means risk. It challenges the status quo”.
Shorten has to ensure the challenge he poses to the ALP’s status quo is a substantial one – and that he wins the battle against entrenched interests. He would get some (though not huge) community kudos from successful party reform, but he has a lot to lose if he fails the task he has given himself.