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The light on the hill has been extinguished: does Julia Gillard have the spark Labor needs?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s rally to the Labor faithful on Friday called for party reform. It’s become a familiar pattern of introspection within the ALP, starting with the Hawke Wran Review in 2002…

Gillard is trying to re-cast her party building on the tradition of great ALP leaders John Curtin and Ben Chifley. AAP/Alan Porritt

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s rally to the Labor faithful on Friday called for party reform.

It’s become a familiar pattern of introspection within the ALP, starting with the Hawke Wran Review in 2002, and followed almost a decade later with the Bracks, Faulkner and Carr Report.

Flawed structure

In her speech to the Chifley Research Centre Gillard acknowledged fundamental flaws in the party’s outdated structure and called for “change” – “vital to strengthen our party and be a party of ideas”.

Addressing the party at a time when many political commentators have placed Labor close to death’s door, Gillard nonetheless refuted the assertion that social democracy was dead. But, as an organising principle Gillard argued that it was in desperate need of modernisation.

While not discounting the fact that the ALP is a party “built unashamedly with collective action as our foundation stone”, given expression through a variety of party decision-making structures such as local branches, affiliation with trade unions, and the binding discipline of Labor caucus, Gillard argued that these structures were insufficient to deal with the “complex and personalised politics of today”.

Her solution? Labor must also embrace “choice and control within our political party – not just collective action”. The individual must be given a voice within the party organisation.

Brave policy making

In emphasising the need for the ALP to be a leader in national policy development, Gillard remembered the great victories of successive Labor governments built on the basis of collective action, decision-making and well-being, such as Medicare.

Yet she also pointed to the tough political decisions that need to be made today: “Yesterday’s Snowy Hydro Scheme is today’s National Broadband Network. Yesterday’s dollar float is today’s carbon pricing”.

Gillard’s examples illustrate that over the years the challenges faced by policy-makers have basically remained the same.

They grapple with how to balance Australia’s short-term and long-term interests, striking a compromise between different groups in Australian society, and combining economic prosperity with social well-being.

The role of the party

However, the role of political parties as policy-makers in Australian politics and society has changed.

One line of argument amongst political scientists is that parties are no longer fulfilling the role that they once played as a wellspring of policy ideas and as a means of linking citizens and state through vibrant party memberships and organisations built on grassroots democracy.

Rather, they are now hollow shells, with the parliamentary party increasingly making the key policy decisions with very little input from party members.

Another argument is that there never was a “golden age” of political parties: they have always acted as centralised, hierarchical organisations with only a superficial deference to the membership.

This view is based upon an organisational reality that reflects the competitive nature of party politics and the constant struggle for electoral advantage.

Both conceptions of political parties have important implications for the changes that Gillard is proposing to reinvigorate the Labor Party.

Gillard’s proposals

In pushing for change, Gillard has argued that the ALP needs to modernise its decision-making processes “and recognise that the old branch structures alone are not the future”. Last Friday’s speech put forward a number of proposals for party reform, to be debated at the national conference in December:

  • Recruiting 8,000 new members in 2012 and establishing a community organising approach to developing connections within citizens.
  • Trailing community pre-selections, or primary-style candidate selection contests, in some seats.
  • Offering members “more opportunities to have a say and a direct vote in important decisions”, such as the direct election of the Party President.
  • Embracing online membership and opportunities for supporters to become more involved.

These reforms are based on a conception of political engagement that is moving away from the notion of collective action and towards individual initiatives for involvement. As Gillard emphasised in her address:

“Every individual Australian wants to write the story of their own lives with more choice and control than ever before. This approach – combining the strengths of collective action and the opportunities for individual choice – needs to live and breathe in our political party as well as our government”.

Party membership

So how does Gillard’s view of a new ALP organisation fit with the competing characterisations of political parties?

Both perspectives emphasise that parties are crucial for democracy, but differ on the extent to which a large, grassroots membership is needed to achieve electoral success and policy goals.

At face value, the proposed reforms appear to be invoking the first conception of a political party - that of a strong and responsive membership organisation where reform is necessary in order to stem membership decline and bring the party back to what it once was.

Initiatives such as recruiting 8,000 new members, community organising, direct votes for members, primaries and online supporters’ initiatives all appear to support this goal by strengthening activity within the party.

Classes of membership

But viewed from another perspective, the reforms also have the potential to downplay the role of membership.

For example, party scholars have written on the dampening effect of the introduction of direct democracy and one-member one-vote decisions in political parties, which are believed to marginalise the voice of party activists at the expense of the largely inactive, and moderate, individual party members who typically defer to the decisions of the parliamentary leadership.

The increasing prominence given to the involvement of “online members” and party supporters might also serve to dilute the views of existing active members. The introduction of party primaries (in allowing members of the community to participate in party pre-selection contests) arguably removes one of the key incentives to join political parties (the right to select candidates for public office).

Progressive party?

If adopted by the ALP National Conference in December, the reforms may well reinvigorate the Labor Party organisation, but in a way that substantially alters the rights and obligations of a traditional party membership.

If Julia Gillard has read the expectations of the Australian public and its desire to participate in parties on a more “individual” basis correctly, then they might well attract a new base of support to the ALP.

But how this type of party organisation and shift in the character of party membership proposed by the reforms might serve the ALP as a progressive policy-maker will remain to be seen.

In order to succeed as a “party of ideas”, Labor will need to be able to listen to and reconcile the views of thousands of individual members in a way that preserves the bottom-up spirit of the party’s collective organisational principles, rather than being dictated by the party’s leaders.

New technologies may provide the opportunity to do this, but they also need to fit with the community organising principles that Gillard has proposed.

Dangers of reform

Online party membership and supporters’ networks need to be thought through in relation to traditional financial party membership.

The logistics of party primaries need to be considered, as well as the potential for branch-stacking to re-occur.

Labor needs to think through the implications and some of the inconsistencies in its reform package before it promises too much, because if it once again fails to deliver on party reform, disaffection with the party will only increase.