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Tear down that wall, Senator Faulkner

ALP stalwart Senator John Faulkner’s recommendations do not go far enough. AAP

Let’s get serious, Senator Faulkner, the problem is the process of candidate selection.

John Faulkner’s excellent speech last night describes a process of ALP decline that has been underway for most of his long career in public life. It’s a cri de coeur we should have heard years ago. But it’ll go the same way as previous efforts to reform a near-dead party organisation.

Faulkner’s shortcoming is not his acknowledgement of the problem and its symptoms; rather he fails to understand the process required to fix toxic organisational cultures.

The ALP won’t reverse its long-term organisational decline with a few more rule changes, as suggested by Faulkner last night. Real change requires someone to put a bomb under the place.

The persistent ALP insider belief that rule changes can solve cultural toxicity is part of the problem. Nearly a decade ago, then ALP leader Simon Crean led a crusade to reform the ALP by reducing direct union representation at state ALP conferences to 50 per cent.

This, it was thought, would help revive the ALP’s branch structure. It did nothing of the sort. Local ALP branches continue to close at an alarming rate, meanwhile ALP MPs are ever more likely to have an employment record that includes a stint in a union affiliated with the ALP.

Crean’s reform effort helped to destroy his own leadership. The rule changes did little but re-acquaint many voters with the exclusiveness of the ALP structure and the way power is centralised within it.

Crean holds an unenviable position in ALP history, as one of two national leaders not to lead his party in an election campaign. The other was Frank Forde, Prime Minister for a week between the death of Curtin and the swearing in of Chifley.

The ALP has been in a spiral downwards with many “causes” reinforcing each other. Membership decline solidifies the grip of factionalism; campaign professionalism with its emphasis on messages, safe candidates in neutral tone suits and centralised control all leave little role for individual members and supporters. As more members drift away, factions get more insidious, centralised control gets tighter – so it goes on.

A wall has emerged between the ALP and the people it purports to serve. Each year there are fewer people inside the wall and more on the outside looking at the pile of bricks that grows higher each year. Focus groups are peepholes for the entombed insiders.

Incremental reform and appeals to the ALP’s factional warlords to mend their ways will not interrupt the ALP’s pathway to oblivion. There have been internal reports of inquiry over the years, all as well-intentioned as the one released by Senator Faulkner and former premiers Carr and Bracks.

These reports always talk boldly of getting members more involved, as did Senator Faulkner last night. This just ends up shuffling the deck among those few remaining stalwarts inside the wall. The poisonous ALP culture is never changed by these largely symbolic reforms, it just gets worse.

The only way to change the culture is to dismantle the wall of exclusion that has built up around the ALP over the past quarter of a century.

That means opening up pre-selections to many more people. Open pre-selections are the bomb needs to use to blow apart its toxic culture.

When the ALP had lots of ordinary people among its membership, and rank and file ballots were more the rule than the exception, potential candidates for parliament under the party’s banner had to actually get some practice in seeking the votes of people who were representative of the concerns of their communities. That’s how you build community connection in a democracy.

Yes, I mean some version of US style primaries.

But we don’t have to look across the Pacific for inspiration; we can look instead back to the beginnings of the ALP in NSW. In the early 1890s anyone willing to pay 5s (50 cents) a year membership fee could vote in the local labour pre-selection.

This pre-selection system was stunningly successful, but democracy is an uncomfortable business, and the NSW Labor Council (now Unions NSW) soon stepped into constrain the genie it had let out of the bottle.

The ALP needs to go back to that brief period when Labor really was a community-based party. Arguably, the ALP was never more inclusive than it was back at the start.

Repeated efforts by the ALP organisation to control pre-selections and ALP parliamentarians has resulted in an ever narrower base level of support. First to go were the Protestants (over caucus discipline and later overseas conscription), then the small farmers and rural dwellers (because the ALP focused on its urban working class vote), then the Catholics (off to the conservative side after the split).

The details of the pre-selection rules don’t matter much, as long as they are open enough to make them effectively beyond the control of the gang inside the wall. Any pre-selection that doesn’t attract at least 2 per cent of the eligible voters in the electorate concerned (about 2000 in a federal seat) should be considered a failure.

Sure, democracy is messy. Local pre-selections where just about anyone who supports the ALP can vote if they want to, will throw up a wide diversity of candidates. Some of them will be marvellous, some will be awful. That’s what changing the internal culture and reviving a dying party will look like.

Overall open pre-selections will generate competition internally and candidate diversity, that will strengthen party forums and in particular parliamentary caucuses. Open pre-selections will force the ALP, through its parliamentary candidates, to re-connect with a broad electorate.

Senator Faulkner and his colleagues in the ALP’s insider elite need to do more than tinker with the masonry, it’s time to tear down that wall.

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