Reforming the ALP

My very irregular blog updates reflect my busyness in the five months since starting my new role at the Allen Consulting Group. It’s been extremely rewarding and challenging – the name of the game is tap dancing and adapting at a moment’s notice.

Reform of the ALP – and separately the NSW ALP – has been an interesting issue the last year. Fundamentally interest in reform has been sparked by

the ALP’s recent poor political performance;

  • its declining (and ageing) membership;
  • in some cases – poor selection of candidates;
  • factional control of important decisions (e.g. preselections for winnable seats and membership of party forums); and
  • a feeling among many members unconnected to factions that they aren’t listened to and wouldn’t have a chance of being selected as a candidate for parliamentary or important party roles.

These factors reflect behaviour and structural aspects of the ALP. While structures can be changed, behaviour cannot be forced to change – and so there has been focus on reforming structures.

The NSW ALP appears to be genuinely interested in reforming itself and the ALP – something surprising to all observers of Australian politics. Sam Dastyari – its General Secretary – has suggested that local party members have a vote in the election of new parliamentary leaders. I support this.

I would like to see local party members having a vote in the election of new parliamentary leaders. While this structure didn’t work well in the Australian Democrats – leading to a leader that wasn’t supported by a majority of the party-room – the experience of the UK Labour Party shows that such a system could work for an Australian major political party.

Giving local party members a vote would change leadership dynamics – the election of a new leader would take several months and leadership contenders would have to meet and talk with local members. This could be good training for potential leaders. The election process would likely garner media attention and subject the contenders to scrutiny – and the result would not be known before the ballot took place. Factional deals would be less important.

The only real question I can see with this is a governance one – how could such an elected leader be removed? Only at a conference representing the membership? Consulting the UK Labour Party’s Rule book doesn’t clarify how their leaders could be removed – in effect I think they resign if they lose an election or have lost the support of their MPs.

One way to elect parliamentary leaders could be through an electoral college constituted as follows:

  • 50 per cent of the electoral college is made up of votes from financial members of the party (no membership length requirement);
  • 45 per cent of the electoral college is made up of votes from MPs in the relevant parliament; and
  • 5 per cent of the electoral college is made up of votes from the relevant National or State Party conference.

Including the relevant party conference in the election allows affiliated trade unions to directly have an input. It should be noted that they would indirectly have an input through the votes of MPs and local party members even if they didn’t have a direct input.

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