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At an ALP Branch

May 17, 2011

If a score or more of people are prepared to gather under the banner of the Australian Labor Party – battered in the polls and election results – I’m happy to turn up. So it was at Randwick-Coogee Branch, meeting at the Randwick Labor Club last night with nearby Kensington-Beaconsfield Branch joining in.

I spoke about the review into the last Federal election undertaken by Steven Bracks, John Faulkner and me. I said the proposals for rules changes and different party practices were not as important as other things, like correcting the abuses that have grown up in Labor Party ethos that were on display in the last four years in NSW. 

“Whenever I heard certain people described as ‘powerbrokers’ in the caucus – and I read this on a weekly basis – I was almost ready to organise a petition to have them ritually clubbed to death in Martin Place” I told the branch. ” The electorate found it repellent. It must never be revived. It took a lot of skill and energy to drive Labor support in NSW down to the level it reached in the last election.”

I said the review had supported rules changes like a limited experiment with primaries and more direct elections for party officers. The reason was to give people more reason to turn up at branch meetings and work for the party at elections, more reason to value party membership. But they weren’t the main thing.

I said:

Put this down to the fact that I’m an old Whitlamite, but I think that the key to revival is always going to be advocacy by the parliamentary leadership, the leader and his or her front bench. The party apparatus – conference, executive and branches – is one thing. But it’s the leader and his or her office, and the front bench who are selling the party from the first news bulletin at 5:30 each day. As a party we’ve got to rediscover our capacity and zest for advocacy.

The branch was generous enough to present me with John R. Hales’ Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. Some time, not too soon, you will read a review on this screen.

14 Comments
  1. CamS permalink
    May 17, 2011 6:22 pm

    Hi Bob,

    I too agree that the leader of the party in government should be driving advocacy and passion in the party that encourages people to join, and the lack of that (in perception rather than reality, perhaps) more than anything is contributing to the ALP’s low primary vote at the moment.

    But surely the apparatus of conferences and executives that are more of a factional love-in than a source of advocate policy development does, in some ways, sideline those who are genuine about advocacy and whom would make ideal spokespeople for progressive, rational policy.

    What is your view on this?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 17, 2011 6:35 pm

      I back leadership any day. As a kid, new to the party, I wanted a good leader like Whitlam more than I wanted tinkering with rules. The people vote for the leader.

  2. Pete from Hay permalink
    May 17, 2011 8:23 pm

    Partisan Politics aside, I live in a rural area near a river hence Labor with an agenda often driven buy Greens that is mostly destructive to our local economy (Murray Darling Basin Draft) is my primary motivation against the Labor Party

    I support the NBN, I’m fairly neutral on the Carbon Tax (at this stage) and likewise Immigration (we have declining population here)

    But again the Primary Negative the Murray Darling Basin Draft consequence is so negative it rules the positives out.

    Having said that the National Party still have some serious support issues out here as well, notably there reluctance to speak out against the Murray Darling Basin Draft with the same conviction they speak out about the Carbon Tax. They appear to be more interested in fighting battles on behalf of the Liberal Party (Carbon Tax) rather than true Rural Battles such as standing up directly against the Murray Darling Basin Draft.

    When I associate the name Barnaby Joyce with something, the word “Sycophant” (to the Liberal Party)..comes to mind.

    Many Rural people who think of the National Party as the part that supports Rural Australia often look fondly towards the progressive Western Australian model that Brendan Grylls runs and that Tony Crook is a Federal MP…as the future National Party structure pro active effectively helping and advancing Rural Australia. Rather than the sad antiquated, squatter, “it’s my turn to lead” Queensland dominated political party based on gentrification and private school connections.

    And this is a primary reason why on the Eastern Coast of Australia from North to South, Independents are winning former National Party seats.

    Something stinks in the Bush…rural people won’t vote Labor; but they won’t vote for National Party politicians that are seen to be working harder for the rich urban Liberals rather the hard working often aspirational voters in Rural electorates.

    Hence the rise of the Independents, even here in the electorate of “Farrer” we have an Independent Louise Burge within striking distance of taking our local Federal or State electoral seat.

    Hay and Deniliquin went backwards under the Hawke/Keating, Howard and Rudd/Gillard governments. If we go any further backwards economically mainly due to government imposed water and environmental impositions we will be little more than a memory.

    We are fertile ground for an Independent, we are also fertile ground for a National Party that actualy has a rural based core political strategy, but that is not the current Warren Truss/Barnaby Joyce Queensland led mainly urban/urbane Liberal “small n” national party, which misses supporting most of the important rural issues.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 17, 2011 9:59 pm

      Interesting perspective. Out of interest, plse expand on how it affects you and your property. I would find it interesting.

      • Pete from Hay permalink
        May 18, 2011 11:13 am

        I’m actually a ratepaying townie Bob, something that our local Hay Shire Council recently neglected to place in a published list of Key Stakeholders in the shire (I’m still scratching my head about that)
        Hay township house prices in town have declined probably in line with recently published 25% plus at Narranderra. Also lot’s of places 4 Sale and up for Auction are not getting any interest or bids.
        Recently a major local irrigated fruit and vegetable employer announced they were moving their property to Cotton growing and many jobs were lost through that. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/03/08/3157964.htm
        Hay has a 150 year history mostly as a thriving productive rural NSW township, I hope that the Murray Darling Basin Plan implementation does not destroy it.

  3. Damien Hogan permalink
    May 17, 2011 11:23 pm

    Hi Bob,

    Great to see you at a branch meeting – the foundation of the whole show really!

    I heard that some western Sydney booths couldn’t find party members to staff them at the last state election. And yet in my own electorate (Balmain) we had 700+ volunteers and I even got a couple of breaks during the day for the first time in years.

    Your work on the recent review is a vital contribution to some of the changes that are required to reinvigorate the party. The underlying social contract between the party and its members is currently experience some strain. By that I mean that… being a party member should clearly make someone a more effective agent for political change than not being a party member. This statement should be both true and widely perceived to be true. I’m not sure that this applies for enough rank and file members at the moment.

    For all the talk of making branches more interesting and simplifying meeting formalities – I believe the real path to a party renewal is providing clear and obvious value to rank and membership – renewing the social contract in the modern era. To me, and many others, that means empowering the rank and file by giving them direct control over the election of key positions of power within the party – which is aligned with at least one of the review’s recommendations.

    Recently a new rank and file advocacy group has formed to pursue some of the recommendations you outline with the review. You can see the formative efforts at http://ouralp.net. I would interested in your take on how rank and file members can help the review’s recommendations implemented.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 18, 2011 8:42 pm

      One idea : if the party adopts our recommendation of allowing branches to bid for party money to fund innovative activities, then develop a proposal. Make it a good one. If it works in building branch membership then the party has a template to lay down elsewhere. Also, think about an on-line presence. That might be the future fornpolicy debate.

  4. Ivan Pagett permalink
    May 18, 2011 8:16 am

    I think that an experiment with U.S. style Primaries might well be the answer to the problems of branch stacking. It would have to be done properly though or it would just be another arena for corruption. I found the description of the Iowa Caucuses in Simin Schama’s beek “The American Future” very attractive. If we had truly open primaries in which every interested person could vote it would greatly reduce the influence of “power brokers”, of course it would also greatly increase the cost of campaigning.
    It’s also vital, as Bob observes, to ensure the primacy of the Parliamentary party over the party machine. Even more so now that the machine is dominated by union leaders who now represent a much smaller percentage of the population and are much more susceptible to pressure from small groups of their membership.
    As to Bob’s colourful suggestion for what to do with the so-called power brokers i could not agree more. We can’t stop them laughing all the way to the bank bt we can stop the next generation getting their noses in the trough.

  5. Sergio permalink
    May 18, 2011 2:05 pm

    Bob

    Wouldn’t the usage of US style primaries result in the Labor Party eating its own.

    There is little worse in my opinion than watching a bunch of Democrats or Republicans waging war on each other in an effort to win their respective Primary battle.

    The winner invariably comes out of this war bloodied with their reputation sullied..

    • Damien Hogan permalink
      May 18, 2011 5:05 pm

      There is no doubt that giving rank and file members the power to directly elect key positions will result in fierce competition for those positions. But this is the story of democracy, and is not a problem particular to open/closed primaries within political parties.

      The best arguments that can be made against empowering the rank and file through democracy apply equally to Australia’s own democracy – or democratic systems everywhere. It is not that democracy is flawless, it’s just better than every other alternative (to paraphrase Mr Churchill).

      If we want Australians to participate in the Labor party then the party must make the case for joining. E.g. “As a rank and file party member you will be able to directly elect the Labor party’s upper house ticket. Non party members cannot vote.”
      A clear reason to join. Unfortunately not a reason that is true today.

      The recent review by Carr et al., showed that the party lost more than 20% of its members in a 12-18 month period. Business as usual wont reverse that trend.

      • Bob Carr permalink
        May 18, 2011 8:47 pm

        Primaries are worth a try, as an experiment. The big disadvantage is excessive power over candidate selection to public sector unions because teachers and police organize their members to get our and vote and extract promises of no public sector reform before they endorse a candidate. Explains a lot about California’s bankruptcy.

    • Pete from Hay permalink
      May 19, 2011 9:09 am

      As a non Labor member but as an Australian who considers our family as rural middle class battlers from working class roots, in my opinion Primaries may help deliver some candidate a qualities I think are often lacking in many Labor politicians

      Charisma
      Ability to cut through speaking to non-political people (Hawke was good at this as is Abbott)
      Successfully selling themselves (if they can’t sell themselves they will struggle to sell a policy or ideal)

      People who win Primary style votes most likely tick these 3 boxes.

      They will also have to sell their ideology to your party, and if they do, that means they have successfully sold something to you. Also means the people voting for them have a feeling of ownership in their ideal and future political success or failure.

      Any one running in a primary would have a rigorous pre-screening background check prior to their nomination.

      The Labor Party members will most likely still vote on who runs in the Primary elections, so they still have control of the Labor Party. It just takes the trying to pick a winner from the party approved candidates out of the ALP members control and gives the public an opportunity to become involved in the process.

      Desired outcome candidates that win elections and deliver effectively selling policy to the people.

  6. Ivan Pagett permalink
    May 19, 2011 5:04 pm

    Sorry to post two comments but this time I’ll try to spell it in something resembling English. I do think Primaries are worth a try but the franchise would need to be very broad. Not just paid up union members. If it were limited to ALP members there would be an issue straight up of the differential membership fee structure. Without voter registration by party it would have to be open to everyone. Before everyone dismisses it consider this, participating in the Primary might give some ownership of the candidate supported that would translate to a vote in the general election.

  7. Michael Samaras permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:36 pm

    I support the recommendations of the report produced by yourself, John Faulkner and Steve Bracks, but do not really understand the reservation you have expressed here about the possibility of unions ending up with “excessive power” over candidate selection through a primary system.

    Could the unions really have more power through primaries than they do through the ALP’s current arrangements?

    The latest figures show that the unions affiliated to the ALP represent about nine per cent of the work force, and about 7 per cent of the electorate. But about 80 per cent of the ALP’s current senators are former union officials.

    7 per cent gets 80 per cent. This is gerrymander that would make even Sir Joh blush. But that is how the ALP currently works.

    If anything, a properly constructed primary system is more likely to wind this union gerrymander back, not intensify it.

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