A Federal Government Minister is quoted saying it is not party structure that wins elections but leadership and policy. Agreed. The contribution of Hawke and Keating and, before them, of Whitlam makes the point.
But the ALP structure is declining so rapidly that unless more members are recruited we won’t have supporters to run polling booths or undertake telephone canvassing. In other words, nobody to get the brilliant leaders a majority in parliament by getting the vote out. That is the case for more involvement and participation through direct rank-and-file election of national executive members, for example. Give people reasons to join branches and arrest the decline in membership. Without that the party might become a cadre party – no more than 25 members qualified to vote in a preselection, for example – rather than a mass membership party. Right now it’s probably positioned somewhere between these two models.
As for primaries, here’s an observation. I have serious reservations about the US primary system. It gives too much power to public sector unions. California provides a case study. You only get a seat in the State house by promising everything to the teachers, fire officers, prison guards etc and they turn out to vote for you and their pension entitlements are bankrupting the state. It invites small activist groups like the National Rifle Association to throw their weight around in the selection of candidates. And it requires big sums of money to get the vote out – which exacerbates the first two problems.
Aware of these, the review has taken a cautious approach and limited its recommendation to non-held or open seats and capped the percentage of party supporters ( as opposed to party members ) and union members who get to vote. I’m not sure of my colleagues Steve Bracks and John Faulkener but I would see our recommendation on primaries as an invitation to an experiment.
Putting all of this in context, think of the European social democratic and labor parties – big, 100 year old, broad church organisations based on the industrial working class. They have all
contracted as the working class itself has contracted. In some countries right wing populist parties running anti-immigrant rhetoric ( anti-Islamic rhetoric ) are pulling support away, in others the Green Party pulls support from the left ( in Austria it is both, in Germany there is a left party as well as the Green Party but no rightwing populist party ). Support for social democrats is falling to 20 something percent levels. And as a result of other social changes membership of most traditional organizations like churches is falling too. Political parties are not the only institutions in trouble.
But they are the institutions that concern me because history teaches that strong political parties are the mainstay of democracy.
I am happy for the ALP national executive to release the bulk of our review because the rank and filers who presented their opinions to us want to see all our thoughts. Nothing to fear in a bit of openness.