The party reform movement

Geoff Drechsler wonders if reform is simply a case of just-add-policy. He calls for an end to the mantra of neoliberalism and a fight for the democratic-socialist heart of the labour movement.

It is reassuring for the future of the Labor Party to see plenty of rank-and file-activity around the issue of party reform. This ranges from the Labor First website to initiatives sponsored by individual branches, such as those of the Camperdown and Ararat branches and is nationwide in scope. At a national level, Simon Crean made party reform an issue in his recent campaign for party president. Of course, the issue of party reform is not new to the Labor Party, with groups such as "The Participants" in Victoria in the 1960s; nor is it unique to the Australian Labor Party, with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the UK dating from the early 1980s.

The movement for party reform, though, must be careful that it recognises what the organisational problems are for the broader Labor Party that undermine the party's ability to win office and affect any program of reform. It needs to ensure it doesn't ignore, or perpetuate, these organisational problems unwittingly, because it comes from the same organisational culture.

Labor's most common organisational problem, now and in the past, is that in any endeavour the means have usually been considered carefully, without any detailed consideration of the end. There is no detailed analysis of what political program the party might implement or longer-term strategy, or consideration of the nature of the wider society around it that needs to be reformed. None of this is surprising in light of the culture within the party and its history. Any process of party reform needs to change this. The circumstances of working Australians in Australian society is very important for Labor's identity and purpose because its historical mission is to represent politically the aspirations and inclinations of this group. What Australians do at work, how they do it and what they think of it has changed radically since the party was formed, and even over the past two generations.

In any process of party reform our goal should be to build a mass party that can challenge rightwing ideas in civil society and ultimately democratise our society and economy to a greater degree than presently. This article outlines the obstacles that hinder achieving this, and outlines two goals that the party reform movement should support - the first is building an organisation that can tap into the great mass of Labor voters and use them as a tool to change community attitudes and educate as part of a longer-term process to increase our vote. Second, party reform should facilitate the establishment of an economic think-tank to generate economic policy and consider what other left parties have tried overseas. The key point is that the type of party we have is fundamentally ideological, as the party organisation's role is to support a program of change. The more thoroughgoing, the more organised we need to be.

Unlike many other social democratic and left parties, the ALP does not have a strong tradition of theorising its own program beyond the next election, or Australian society beyond likely voting intentions. At a government level, the party's left during the Whitlam government, and in the early days of the Hawke government provided an internal critique regarding policy issues. The left, for better or for worse, was later assimilated into the processes of the Hawke-Keating governments, increasing the opportunity to influence policy but blunting opportunities for detailed internal criticism. The absence of a coherent alternative perspective and detailed policy debate is an important weakness.

At a rank-and-file level, other parties, such as the British Labour Party, have always had an array of think-tanks, journals and newspapers covering the full gambit of different perspectives on the left. In Australia, it was the Communist Party of Australia, or people beyond the ALP, who traditionally published what newspapers and journals there were on the left in Australia. This activity is also now currently at a historical low, even with the rise of the internet.

The ALP also has traditionally had a very inward looking culture (with the exception of election time). Most branch meetings occur behind closed doors, any publications are for internal circulation and there is no culture of public engagement where the local branches engage with the local community to either influence attitudes or ascertain attitudes. (There are always a few individual party members who are the exception to the rule through their participation in community groups, though the practice of usually not endorsing local government candidates has also reduced the party's local profile).

Advocates of party reform must remember that for many of the ideologically timid and unoriginal moderates within the party, the party in its current form is exactly the type of party they would like - controlled from above, largely inactive except for at election time and small enough to be managed without 'controversy' (perceived as the unfortunate consequence of too much internal democracy and participation). The current organisational structure can sustain a meek program of reform that neither challenges the conservative and rightwing attitudes in our society or the excessive power and personal fortunes of the established economic elites.

There are two particular areas that party reform needs to specifically deal with. The first is the 'empowerment' of Labor's supporters to broaden the party's base and recruit members. Historically, Labor had a socially narrower (though numerically large) active membership base drawn predominantly from (usually blue collar) working class trade unionists, progressive Catholics and left-leaning intellectuals, which reflected the progressive forces within Australian society for most of the 20th century. Commonly, the political skills of these members had been honed in the union movement. The problem for Labor in the 21st century is that we draw support from across Australian society, which is now much more diverse and segmented than it has ever been. Fewer activists are coming through the labour movement due to the decline of organised labour. Most of our diehard supporters never join the party (and can't imagine themselves as members) and our membership does not reflect our support base. (This also makes the finger waving 'politically correct' elite characterisation of Labor much easier for our conservative opponents, too).

Our structures and processes need to encourage and support greater participation from Labor voters, as there is a vast potential among our voters that we've never tapped into in terms of one-to-one communication and community network building. With the diverse range of people we need to involve, the balancing act is that we do not replicate the class divisions in the society around us in our own ranks unwittingly, so there is a role for political education and training that has never been part of the ALP culture to ensure people can participate at all levels (the exception to this is Emily's List and its excellent activities).

We must be the only major organisation in Australia that doesn't commit itself to comprehensive training programs or strategic planning. The little training that does occur is oriented towards winning elections or administration. There should be a basic training course for all party members that gives some historical perspective to Labor's activities, hones one-to-one communication skills and encourages skills to analyse and formulate political positions in response to current issues. The ACTU has developed some excellent courses for union activists that could provide a good model. To deal with decline in supporters and voters from the labour movement, we need to give working-class Australians the opportunity to join and meaningfully participate in their party.

Labor has been historically fortunate to have had the benefit of being a mass party that could rely on a large base of unionised working-class voters. This is increasingly being undermined by the government's aggressive program of de-unionisation. Labor needs to, at a local level, encourage rank-and-file union activity, especially in greenfield sites. The party should be supporting organising drives and rank-and-file union activity in order to revitalise this progressive community network, which is important for our long-term support. Some sort of workplace branch structure, or at least branch meeting or activities that could be easily attended during or after work, needs to be considered to reconnect with our working class supporters.

To be electorally viable in the long term, the party needs to rebuild its branch network, both the number of active branches and the location of these branches, most noticeably on the suburban fringe. The long-term effect of a declining party membership is most obvious in our eroding primary vote, which has returned to around 40 per cent. It is no coincidence that our inability to disseminate our message is underpinned by this lack of a presence (and thus only the message of the conservative mainstream media is heard). In terms of broader party activities, we need to start thinking of branches as community groups, aiming to have a public profile in the local area and an annual organising plan with a program of activities. An education program for activists is the key to giving them the skills to carry out this new role. Educating and skilling our supporters is now easier with the potential for online education and online policy debate using new technologies. The party then could move from being an electoral vehicle to also influencing debate, shaping ideas and providing policy.

The party also needs the organisational capacity to generate some sophisticated ideas on economics. The answer is an economic think-tank that can generate policy to support Labor's social goals and lead to long-term electoral success. The party needs a think tank-that focuses exclusively on economic policy, the experience of social-democratic parties overseas and democratic socialist principles of social justice, equity and economic democracy. As society, education and technology advance, the material and technical base exists to support such long-time democratic socialist goals as industrial democracy, provided there is the political will and a sound plan.

The ALP seems to be caught, no matter who leads the party, in awe of neoliberal economics. Linear economic projections can never incorporate the non-linear realties of culture, politics and human behaviour. One of the causes of our 1996 federal election defeat was disaffection with the outcomes and insecurity generated by our neoliberal economic policies. The 1996 NSW party inquiry into our election defeat showed that our supporters viewed deregulation and privatisation suspiciously. The privatisation of Medibank Private and sale of Telstra is deeply unpopular with the electorate, even amongst conservative voters.

Australian Labor was not alone in experimenting with a neoliberal economic agenda (then called "economic rationalism") in the 1980s. Left parties across the globe, such as the NZ Labour Party, Spanish Socialist Workers Party, followed programs of privatisation and deregulation. The legacy of these economic programs has been universal - a long-term electoral slump in the wake of these periods of office due to the unpopularity of such programs among their respective core supporters and an increasingly divided and disengaged society from the resulting insecurity of employment.

Historically, the ALP has been most often the party of government in times of crisis arising from new economic phenomena - the Great Depression in the 1930s and stagflation in the mid 1970s. We need a greater organisational capacity to generate responses with equitable outcomes to these new situations. Despite the current economic situation, after 10 years of John Howard┬Ęs free market 'invisible hand', the long-term economic results for Australia look dubious: a skills shortage and - in the past five years when world economic output has increased 25 per cent - Australian exports have only increased by 4 per cent and we have one of the lowest rates of investment in research in the OECD. Overall spending in the economy jumped by 28 per cent in the same period, most the growth being financed from overseas, lifting foreign debt from around $300 billion to almost $500 billion. This easy credit has gone into extensions and mortgages, rather than other more productive parts of the economy, leading to massive personal debt levels. We owe $785 billion on our homes (compared to $75 billion in January 1990). In the past six years, the amount owed on housing has increased 250 per cent from $305 billion. Hardly a sustainable platform for long-term economic prosperity.

There is a misguided perception in some quarters of the party that a neoliberal program is suitably mainstream, unlikely to attract significant business opposition and hence electorally attractive. This is simply historically not true. The examples of John Hewson┬Ęs ideological economic rationalist "Fightback" package in the 1993 election and Mark Latham's "free-market neoliberal populism in the 2004 election are two obvious examples where business was unexcited by neoliberal economic programs. Also, the neoliberal economic model cannot explain longstanding left success such a Norway or Sweden, nor the rapid growth of the likes of Vietnam and China where the primary economic actor is still the public sector. Despite the differing stages of development and very different historical situations, there must be something to be learned from these countries' experiences.

Australian universities have become beholden to neoliberalism to the point that this is practically the only perspective taught in economics departments in Australia. It is also the driving philosophical force behind the government economic departments such as Finance and Treasury. This is quite alarming, and we need to ensure there is a plurality of economic ideas in civil society again.

If Labor is to bring about a new, fairer, more dynamic Australia, we need to be able to consolidate power democratically over the long term, as reforming society and challenging the Australian community to adopt new values, and reinvent a sense of community will take many decades. Consequently, we need a sustainable economic program that will produce consistent economic results, not the unpredictable boom-bust of the free market. We need to be able to tackle structural issues, such as the current skills shortage, that cannot be left to market forces alone. Historically, in Australia, economic stability is also the key to long-term electoral success.

All the issues that a revitalised ALP, a product of the party reform process, will have to tackle are most obvious on the suburban fringe where Labor has fared so poorly electorally - excessive personal debt which in turn narrows voters priorities to simply interest rates, the result of deregulated financial markets and an absence of party activity, which has led to a decline in support among a social group who should naturally be Labor voters. If Labor developed a pool of trained local activists, we could begin the process of increasing our presence and support in these areas.

So a process of party reform needs to equip us ideologically and expand our organisational capacity to challenge the status quo, not only give rank and file branch members more say, as supportable as that is.


Ross Terrill, "Leninism and Consumerism: China is rising, but for how long", The New York Times, September 12, 2006

"Disquiet at the sale of Medibank Private", The Age, September 12, 2006

John Vinocur, "Swedish conservative puts 'work' to work", The New York Times, September 12, 2006

"How Keating hurt Labor", The Age, July 28, 2006

"Good times not for all time", The Age, September 12, 2006

Nassim Khadem, "Interest on mortgages, debt take lion's share of income", The Age, September 12, 2006

Carol Johnson, "Election 2004 - Labor and business: Could Labor's campaign be damaged by the oldest 'wedge' of all?", Australian Review of Public Affairs, September 14, 2006

Carol Johnson, "Reconstructing Labor: Tales of an 'aspirational' showdown ministry", Australian Review of Public Affairs, January 16, 2002

Cesar Chelala, "Chavez and Bush on collision course", Japan Times, September 28, 2006


Add a new comment

Only registered users can add comments.

Registering is quick and easy. You will need a valid e-mail account and you will make up a username and password

Click Register to register with us
or Login if you have aleady registered.