National conference no reform for Labor

Hopes for root-and-branch internal reform of the federal Labor Party at its national conference look set to be dashed. The draft organisational reform agenda, published ahead of this weekend's conference, signals that wholesale democratisation of the party's decision-making structures may not happen.

Hopes for root-and-branch internal reform of the federal Labor Party at its national conference look set to be dashed. The draft organisational reform agenda, published ahead of this weekend's conference, signals that wholesale democratisation of the party's decision-making structures may not happen.

Expectations had been building for more than a year that the national conference would deliver deep organisational reform. This belief was sparked in April 2014. Bill Shorten, who won the leadership of the federal Labor Party in its first election to involve rank-and-file members, set down his vision for a "modern, outward-looking, confident and democratic party" in his "Towards a Modern Labor" speech.

Shorten called for:

  • a reduction in the structural power of the union in party matters;
  • increased membership involvement in preselections for the lower house (70:30 split between local members and a central panel) and for the Senate (50:50 split);
  • increased female representation across all party domains; and
  • direct election of delegates to national conference.

However, not all of the bold initiatives that Shorten laid down in 2014 appear on the draft agenda. Conspicuously absent from the document are commitments to enshrine the new rules for selecting the leader in the national party constitution, and significant reform of preselection.

Many of the agenda items are less radical proposals to introduce online policy branches and consider new types of local branches. These sit alongside the usual calls to increase the membership, encourage union members to become active party members, and foster greater engagement by the parliamentary party with the rank and file.

There are also reforms that could be construed as increasing the centralisation and consolidation of power in the hands of party elites. The proposal to require state campaign directors to consult the leader and the national campaign director before the selection of candidates in both targeted and safe Labor seats is a case in point.

The draft statement also "supports state branches that are considering direct election". Significantly, it proposes an implementation committee be established to further explore the direct election of national conference delegates. While this could ultimately result in reform, it is just as likely to postpone change in the short term.

Why such a tentative agenda?

Three key factors can explain the reforms being put forward.

First, while Shorten is federal parliamentary party leader, he does not have the power to change the rules unilaterally. A majority of national conference delegates must approve the changes.

Second, as a decision-making forum, the conference is not naturally suited to deep, system-wide organisational reform. Achieving agreement among 400 delegates on comprehensive organisational reforms is a logistical feat, especially when no faction has a majority of delegates capable of mobilising the numbers.

It is complicated further because the conference also seeks to tackle contentious matters of policy and platform, such as climate change, same-sex marriage, the treatment of refugees and the recognition of Palestine. The national conference has many issues to deal with, and only three days to do so.

Third, although Shorten is in a unique position to argue for the reforms as party leader, he would need to expend significant political capital on this. Given the possibility the Abbott government will call an early election, and Labor being ahead in the polls, Shorten may be reluctant to allow the party to become embroiled in contentious debates, which may evoke memories of the divisive Rudd-Gillard era.

Does it matter if internal reform is not achieved?

The presumption is that failing to achieve substantive outcomes will consign the ALP to political and electoral irrelevance, and Shorten's leadership to oblivion. Both are dramatic overstatements.

For a start, although Gough Whitlam's efforts to reform Labor's organisational structures are widely lauded, few recent Labor leaders have systematically pursued – let alone secured – major organisational change. Leaving aside Kevin Rudd's move to have rank-and-file involvement in electing the party leader in the dying days of the last Labor government, Simon Crean has been the only federal leader to achieve major reform in recent times.

And although political commentators are deeply engaged in the issue of organisational reform, it is rarely a vote-winning issue.

Elections are usually decided by public policy issues, leadership and government performance – not by matters of internal party reform. Both the ALP (2007) and the Liberals (2013) were able to win office while largely failing to act on the major reforms recommended by internal party organisational reviews.

However, there are signs that momentum for organisational reform is gathering pace.

Senior party figures such as former senator John Faulkner and ex-Victorian premier Steve Bracks have renewed their calls for change. They have been joined by former union bosses, such as Greg Combet and Bill Kelty, in calling for structural and cultural change. Within the party, newly formed ginger groups such as Open Labor are calling for party democratisation.

It would be a mistake, then, to view the national conference as a failure if comprehensive organisational reform is not achieved. The short-term importance of reform to Labor's electoral fortunes and Shorten's leadership has generally been exaggerated. However, the pressure to change is unlikely to dissipate.

This article was originally published on the Conversation.

Image: AAP/Julian Smith

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