Jenny McAllister: Stick With Labour Movement, Unravel The Culture

We need a system that lets more people have a say in who represents Labor in the Senate Labor’s vote in the West Australian Senate re-run election suggests we have a long way to go to meet our two goals — winning elections, and fighting and winning the battle of ideas.

In this light, Bill Shorten’s call to double the size of our current membership to 100,000 members sets the right objective for party reform. 

Meeting the target will be tough. It will require fundamental reform of both our rules and our culture to give more people a say. Democracy and growth go hand in hand. When we offered people a say in the recent ballot to elect our parliamentary leader, tens of thousands of our members answered the call.

Recent community preselections in NSW saw 2500 ordinary members of the community choose to participate in selecting Labor’s candidates, an eightfold increase on the numbers that would have voted had party members only been eligible to vote. Union leaders, parliamentarians and faction leaders who exercised enormous power under the old model need to accept that the old ways have to change.

The good news is that the best of our leaders understand that the prize is worth the trade-off. If we want to grow in strength, we need more genuine opportunities for people to have their say; with a role in selecting candidates, our leaders and conference delegations. Shorten’s recent proposals are a welcome start to an important debate.

The test should be whether proposed arrangements build membership growth and organisational strength, as well as delivering the best candidates to advocate for our progressive vision.

Against this test, Labor’s preselection process for the Australian Senate is broken.

We need to move to a system that allows far more people to have a say in who represents Labor in the Senate.

The Queensland ALP’s decision to open Senate candidate selection to ordinary members is a welcome step.

Labor has had four big national ballots of its membership this century — three for national president and one for its federal leader — and at the end of each of them we were a bigger, stronger party.

As one of the people who have fought and won one of those ballots, I can testify to the rigour of that process. It brings out the best in our candidates and in Labor.

Labor’s National Conference next year should debate measures to introduce broader participation in all candidate selection, including the Senate.

Tough though democratic reform may be, alone it won’t be enough. To grow, our organisation also needs cultural change, mirroring the practices and skills in other organisations that take membership seriously.

To this end, Labor should not fall into the trap laid by conservatives that positions unions as the key impediment to membership growth. Unions remain the largest and best organised progressive institutions in Australian public life.

With just under two million members, it’s hard to think of another institution better able to fight injustice and inequality. It’s also hard to think of a better place to look for a component of our membership target.

Removing Labor’s requirements for union membership is a sensible decision, formalising existing practice in most states. However, union members need to know we want them in our tent.

Labor should leverage the shared campaigning capability of the labour movement to campaign for big ideas, as we did in 2007. In that election, some estimates suggested an additional swing of between 1.3 per cent and 2 per cent in seats with ACTU-led Your Rights at Work organisers and campaigns. As we prepare for the findings of the Commission of Audit, the labour movement needs to build a campaign of similar scale to oppose an agenda designed to hurt the communities we represent.

We should also explore opportunities to directly engage union members in our internal processes. To date, the NSW trials of community preselections are yet to test the model recommended by Faulkner, Bracks and Carr, which gave affiliated union members a chance to vote in lower- house preselections. It’s a worthy experiment, as we consider ways to genuinely connect with the many trade union members who share our values.

Our approach to the reform task must be built on the right objectives. In the 21st Century, our party will need to be big, diverse and well-organised, capable of taking on conservatives in the big fights around inequality, sustainability and prosperity.

One hundred thousand members is the right goal. Distancing ourselves from the labour movement is not.

Jenny McAllister is ALP national president.


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  • commented 2014-04-17 11:42:15 +1000
    If the ALP truly welcomes the contribution of the union movement then it would not be unreasonable that it took a proactive stance against the reformation of the ABCC. Something Gillard was not keen to disassemble.

    Laws that restrict union members from taking appropriate peaceful strike action to bring to the attention of the government and the people of the disproportionate power and abuse of power from corporations to reduce wages conditions and safety standards.

    The recent Lend Lease admissions of 60 plus safety breaches identified through their own internal audit process while the battle for the media and hearts of minds of the people saw the same company vilify the union movement of corporate terrorism.
    Clearly sets the agenda where the desire to dismantle the union movement to increase profits at the expense of worker welfare and well being takes precedent in building personal profit over shared prosperity.

    Why has the ALP not embraced its union roots, campaigned for or when in government reintroduced pay role deduction of union fees and removed any restrictions to unions engaging with workers onsite?

    This would be more than a gesture of good will, it is a commitment to the integrity and acknowledgement of the role of unions and the important contributions it has played in firstly establishing the political arm of the movement and the prosperity and conditions some of us take for granted today. Without the contribution of the union and workers who literally fought and died not only on the battle field but the shop floor and board rooms for the improvement of life in general.

    With the revelations of ICAC confirming what we all knew, being, lobbyists have become the greatest impediment to democracy, well being and transparency in conjunction with political donations that, lets face it, buys influence, legislation and contracts.

    The whole PPP system that has seen governments of all colours sell off state owned assets for short-term political gain and budget corrections under the misconception that regulation and the market will retain the equity of service and economic stability required, is pure folly.

    The Trans Pacific Partnership currently being brokered at the behest of largely US multinationals not only blurs all transparency but also potentially places every government on the precipice of bankruptcy. If governments insist on this course of action we will need a strong Labour movement where the political arm being the ALP and the industrial being the union movement stand up as one to be counted.

    Firstly by removing all reference to the use of the most dangerous phrase in this brave new world of “commercial in confidence”.

    Every PPP whether it is, road, energy, prisons, health, and airports or detention centres has had a net loss for society long term loss for government, politically and economically not to mention sovereignty, meaning further loss for society and massive gains for the not so “free market”. The Toyota CEO said as much when announcing its move to close it factories.

    Any public private partnership without exception needs to be scrutinised by all. As the conservatives are prone to repeat ad nauseam it’s our money, the tax -payers money.
    It stands to reason we should all see how advantageous the philanthropy and benevolence of big business is when offering to partner major community infrastructure and services.

    So before we can regain any credibility in the political discourse, the ALP must reclaim their heritage and legacy that is largely taken for granted by a rapacious society of self – interest. As Keating said, we need to remind the people who went from driving Holden’s and Fords, it was the opportunities provided through progressive ALP policy and union cooperation that they now drive Audi’s and are self funded retirees. By unravelling the sordid web of factional influence within the party and union movement that has mimicked the corporate model of influence, we can then be better placed to attack the disproportionate influence of multinationals that see 80% or more of profits leave the country while paying pepper corn rents where profits are inoculated through off shore tax havens.

    If the ALP and the unions are unable to mount an argument against these practices we deserve to be whipped into submission.

    We have just outlawed the coward’s punch. It is time we now questioned the Christian mantra of turning the other cheek and fight back against the tsunami of anti progressive and social democratic principles of the ALP and union movement by right wing extremists, before we end up like China and paradoxically the USA with a one party parliament. Where we see through lobbying and dubiously judicious directors appointments, multinational corporate boards supplant government departments.
  • commented 2014-04-16 18:14:17 +1000
    While we should value the contribution of unions as partners in Labor, we need to change. Unions have the legitimate role of protecting and advancing the working conditions of their members and have the right grounded in our history to influence Labor.

    However we need to recognise that only a small proportion of members of affiliated trade unions take an active role in the Labor Party. Many are only concerned with just getting by in life and do not care about politics. Some even vote Liberal. If all affiliated union members voted Labor we would still be in government.

    Why should these uninvolved affiliated union members have a disproportionate influence in the election of the Senate, the various upper houses or be able to push conservative policies through having a 50% of delegates to Labor conferences?

    I propose we abolish the right of affiliated unions to send delegates to various Labor conferences and instead suggest that any one who joins or renews their union membership, is given the chance to “opt in” to their local branch or to the Central Policy or On-Line Branch. They should be given the local branch contact details and invited to participate. I suggest they be asked to show their bona fides by being asked to pay a token fee (no more than $20).
    Those interested enough would participate just like any other branch member.
    If affiliated union leaders wished to nominate for positions or preselection they should request their members to attend branch meetings and support them. Similarly if any issue arises that concerns them they can encourage their members to raise the issue at the local branch meeting and if it attracts enough support it will filter up to Labor Conferences through SECs, FECs and Municipal Committees.

    This proposition would have the effect of democratising the Party by having initiatives originate from branches. It would mean those union members who want to participate will have influence and those who don’t will not. It will also help meet the target of 100,000 branch members and revitalise the party at the local level.
  • commented 2014-04-14 12:59:44 +1000
    Setting numbers for the party to achieve is so free market, WASP, economic rationalist thinking.
    This rationale is more creationist than evolutionary, in setting a strong foundation for the future.

    The type of rhetoric that has got the ALP in the mess it is in outside shooting itself in both feet and knees with ICAC inquiries and in fighting.

    Surely going back to the future and engage in the values and ideals that created the need for a labour movement and party is where we should return.

    The values and ideals expressed in our charter are more than admirable they transcend generations concerns aspirations of the day.

    The challenge is to apply them to the zeitgeist and the environment in which we live today.

    The humanity and social standards demanded by Labor supporters from its inception have not changed. People have not changed; the issues of diversity, autonomy equity, oppression and social apartheid have not changed.

    In fact, the Labor ideals are just, if not, more relevant today because the Labor movement in this country has forgotten its raison d’être.

    It has untethered its social contract with the people it claims to represent and those who are unable to defend themselves and allowed the neo liberal agenda of divide and conquer to osmotically prevail, then cover everything with the pall of paternal pastoral care of the privileged to benevolently protect and provide what they think the common man needs.

    I agree with Jenny that The Labor movement is nothing without the union!

    However the union movement as the NSW right and the Apparatchik’s who are embedded in the corridors of power have adopted the born to rule mantra that the labour movement was meant to dissolve when the clarion call was Liberté, égalité, fraternité to the more pernicious “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
    ― George Orwell, Animal Farm

    The succession line of the NSW right where the general secretary is anointed from young labor university angst to ALP staffer to finally take their rightful place in upper house reserved seating after years of sycophantic subservience; then maybe a consultancy with a local Billionaire has been and continues to be the cancer that undermines the Labour movement and the ALP.

    In saying that you do not throw the baby out with the bath water. The conservative’s vitriolic assault on the Union movement as a whole is more akin to their own agenda of non- accountability and centralised authority. Our society would not be what it is today without the counter balance to oppression and exploitation the union movement resisted.
    If the ALP looked in a mirror it would be ashamed into action to remove the processes of entrenched coteries of power and the networks that support it.

    Removing the shadows that allow for the faceless men to grow like pond scum to a more open and transparent system where members are encouraged and free to vote for the people and ideas that mean something to them the closer we will be the progressive party we can be.

    The current dogma that is being propagated is that the party has to change to be more relevant: relevant to what I ask? The neo liberal agenda of the extreme right we now have in power.

    I say we need to revisit the meaning of our labour movement, charter and philosophy meticulously created already that attracted us all to it in the first place. Then once agreed the ideals setting out the blueprint of a truly social democratic party and society of inclusion and opportunity is best served by the inviolable essence of their intent. We can then more easily apply them to circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

    People and humanity ostensibly have not changed in millennia. The Socratic wisdom of an ancient time talk of the same uncertainties we struggle with today. Struggle with the same fears and oppression of misuse of power and argument to control, distort and conflate are more relevant today, as Marx articulated the space between the worker and the means of production grows so does their discontent and meaning for existence and relevance.

    True progressives should be able to see this and adjust and play the ball not the man. A practice that has defiled the labor legacy and cast us adrift of what it is we are supposed to be achieving.

    So to say that the numbers of members is the key is nonsense.
    It might be fine for Dastyari Obeid Bitar Arbib to entrench the idea of numbers at the expense of ideas achieves your goals. It is imperative then to determine what those goals are.

    The idea of community pre-selections is an anathema to me. The idea that by allowing non-members to select its candidate strips away the last shred of dignity the party has.

    To premise the decision on the honour system that community voters are not affiliated to another party is naive and shows an unsophisticated if not tenuous concept of democracy. To mirror the USA’s distorted view of the democratic process is bound to fail and rightly treated with contempt by the Australian people.

    Surely if you stand by your principles and defend them, explain and demonstrate how they effect and achieve results, by translating through appropriate narrative; how building a foundation that expects everyone to carry their weight and we are only as strong as our weakest link will serve us all well as opposed to the trickle down benevolence now in place.

    We start with equitable taxation that encourages investment in people and ideas not extreme personal wealth. We embed the right to free speech and right to assemble we see the state as the instrument to remove discrimination by insisting our institutions serve the people not vested interest.

    It is not hard.
    New Labor no way.

    Labor…there is only one labor not new or old but progressive and contemporary.

    By excising the free market and market fundamentalism from the lexicon of modern economics that has essentially served on a platter governance to multi nationals through free trade agreements and the most pernicious bastardisation of democracy devised, the Trans Pacific Partnership.

    We can focus of well being of the people and the integrity of environment.

    As soon as we believe that the two fit like glove and hand the better. When either or both suffer we all suffer.

    It is not hard and the simpler we make it the easier it will be.
    If every decision we make is premised by how does this impact on our well being and the environment we will make better decisions and achieve better outcomes.
    It will no doubt disturb the 1% and vested interest but not as badly as they make out and the upside is so much better.

    Labor Reform is it really necessary? We have the template, everything else will look after itself, and if it is numbers you want it won’t come from change but being true to yourself and values.
    Look after well-being and the environment and wealth and equity will follow.

    The idea money is the answer is flawed.

    Its not the billions spent on heath or education that matters its the structures and foundation set.
    We should be setting our narrative around the structures. How building roads schools hospitals and training people to work in them creates results. Where our connection to the means of production in tangible and in line with a fair days pay for a fairs days work that allows you to access the goods and services you require.

    I do not want to hear another ALP minister say we are spending x billions on… but explaining how by building a school or investing in research and developing and building renewable energy grids is going to work and do it.

    Instead of subsiding established industries help new companies develop through grants.
    If we spent millions on supporting car industry then we should have made it conditional on building hybrids and electric cars for the new millennia not maintain the status quo. The same goes for fossil fuels. Force the energy companies to invest in renewables a diversification to offset tax. Don’t just give them welfare in the forms of subsidies for an established industry that is on its way out. Subsidies better spent on providing services to those who need them, a true sharing of the common treasury.

    We all want to progress. I can’t fathom billions of dollars but I can see my kids being educated, or treated if ill. I can see pollution and desecration of land and how solar panels for example can make a difference.

    Ideas and people is the ALP way lets not change what we know works just make it relevant to what we need.

    Simple.
  • commented 2014-04-14 11:30:58 +1000
    Unfortunately Bill Shorten is not coming across as an alternative PM. The rank and file voted heavily for Anthony Albanese but the Parliamentary section of the Party overruled the rank and file. I feel it is time for the Parliamentary section to now show us why they overruled the rank and file and to inspire Bill Shorten to get out and start looking like an alternative. The present Government no matter how distasteful they are, are making all the running.
  • commented 2014-04-14 10:26:41 +1000
    We need more than new members. We need a new culture of honesty and integrity and for the internal processes of the ALP to be democratised so that noone like Eddie Obeid can get control of our party again. Honesty and integrtiy also needs to be exercised from the Head Office of the ALP.
  • commented 2014-04-10 18:26:48 +1000
    If the Labor Party is to survive it needs to listen to the people, the real people. At the moment Abbott is setting the agenda even though he is such a (unprintable) and our Labor Party is so quiet. This starts with Bill Shorten. Anthony Albanese had the right tack when he said he likes fighting Tories. We need to take on the Liberal rabble.