Labor reform

By Rewi Lyall

A couple of interesting bits and pieces have come to my attention recently regarding the delicate and perennial issue of internal reform of the Labor Party. It’s a funny thing about Labor that it has a relatively strident section of members who dedicate a fair amount of time advocating some pretty substantial changes to the structure and internal rules of the Party.

One of the recent developments is reported negotiations (with thanks to the Pollbludger for the link) between the Federal government and opposition over amendments to the electoral law which could see unions treated in the same way as corporations for the purposes of donations to political parties: that is, affiliation fees would be banned, or capped.

The other development has been building for a little while and has crystallized in the form of the Labor Reform Forum of the WA Branch of the ALP, which I see had its first meeting in September. That a website for this project exists at all is pretty interesting, given that Labor members are mostly disinclined to discuss such matters in public. That’s why most of the discussion that’ll occur on the site will be password-protected, which is of course entirely appropriate.

Why does Labor need reform, or does it need reform at all? Well, I guess that depends on who you ask. In the main, those who are pro-reform appear to be activists who want to reduce the control of the Party by factional heavyweights and unions (the leadership of both factions and unions often being the same individuals), including those who either don’t want to rely on union support for elected positions within the Party and in parliaments, or who have sought such support and been rebuffed. I’m sure there are many who support reform on principled grounds, but, not believing that altruism is ever really a sole motivation, I tend to believe that other considerations are also at play.

Every so often these reformers have some limited success. After the 2001 election then Federal leader Simon Crean commissioned the Hawke-Wran Review, which provided a series of recommendations which were largely rejected by the National Conference of 2002. However, on the question of the proportion of control allocated to unions vis-à-vis lay members (previously 60/40), Mr Crean was successful in having the Hawke-Wran recommendation of 50/50 adopted. This was partly because it had been framed – including on the basis of his own statements – as a defining issue of his leadership.

Yet this reform has had only marginal effect. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that unions not only control the votes that they accrue on the basis of their affiliation (votes allocated on the number of members that union claims in any given year), but may also influence lay sub-branches. I wouldn’t necessarily use a pejorative term like ‘branch-stacking’ to describe this phenomenon; indeed I’m not suggesting that it is necessarily a bad thing. Not all members of unions are also members of the Labor Party (although all members of the Party are ostensibly required to be members of a union – a rule often honoured in the breach), and those who wish to be Labor members should be encouraged to do so. It’s also no real surprise that union members coalesce in the same sub-branches, or that sub-branches whose membership largely comprise members of the same union might tend to act in concert with union delegates in bodies such as executive committees and conferences.

So the mutually-supporting roles of sub-branches which are dominated by members of a particular union and their, let’s say ‘umbrella’, unions may mean that simply altering the proportions of union/lay delegate positions in various decision making bodies of the party will not necessarily alter the composition of those bodies. I don’t mean to suggest that lay sub-branches in these circumstances are captive to the respective unions, but that it is not unusual for them to act in concert.

It is pretty clear that, despite the rumblings of the ACTU and Victorian unions, the changes to donations rules is not in itself going to further alter the influence of unions over the Party. Indeed, it’s not particularly clear how the Prime Minister or the Federal Parliamentary Party could diminish the role of unions without action at a National Conference, which the unions still largely control. I don’t intend to go into the pros and cons of public funding of political parties in this post, although if you care to comment about it below you’re welcome to.

For that reason, as well, the work of the Labor Reform Forum in WA may turn out to be only of academic interest. Yes, the Ray Review commissioned after the 2008 State election had some pretty damning things to say about the operations of the factions in Western Australia. But the issue of the so-called ‘Balkanization’ of the factions over the past ten years appears to have been resolved with something approximating a ‘stabilization pact’ (to borrow a phrase from our Victorian comrades) between the Shop Assistants Union and the Miscellaneous Workers Union. There is no doubt that this leaves a lot of people out in the cold. There is equally no doubt that the support of one or both of these unions will be necessary for any proposed reform to succeed.

There is every reason to support the consideration of ideas for reform for WA Labor: after all, does not progressiveness go hand-in-hand with dynamism? The Party generally should be congratulated for undertaking this discussion in a relatively open way. Credit should go to Alannah MacTiernan and Martin Whitely for acting as parliamentary patrons for the discussion. I’m sure both of them would have heard this before: having initially garnered factional and union support for their respective pre-selections and maintained their elected positions in somewhat different circumstances their personal experiences may provide particularly useful insights for the Forum. What correlation is there, if any, between their experiences and Ray’s criticism that patronage to a large extent drives factional deal-making in WA Labor? Even if issues of personality, loyalty and patronage are driving factors, to what extent are they natural corollaries to the pursuit of political association? With any luck the Forum’s deliberations will be well-served by the Parliamentary Joint Conveners in answering these and related questions.

I look forward to seeing what comes from the work of the Labor Reform Forum, and hope to write more about it for you in the future.

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