Tim Ayres: 5 Reasons Why Direct Election Isn't Good Enough


Following NSW Labor’s thumping defeat in 2011 and the repudiation of the Rudd/Gillard Labor Government in 2013 Labor members, affiliates and insiders have begun to advance proposals to reform and democratise the Labor structure.

Labor members, activists and supporters have a right to expect that Labor will change and a proper debate about how to rebuild the Labor model is absolutely essential to this.

Change to Labor's structure and practice must be driven by our capacity to regenerate progressive ideas around the modern social democratic project and to reach out to a new generation of potential activists and constituencies capable of building a progressive majority for change.

Advocates for change believe that the benefits are self-evident: their proposed changes will weed out political corruption; will deliver a growing and empowered membership and therefore improved community support, and; it will resolve the inequities and anti-democratic tensions in Labor’s current model. Of course, the model advanced by Senator Faulkner is but one of these.

Faulkner’s proposal is to preselect MLC and Senate candidates via a ballot of all ALP members instead of selection by ALP conference and the principles of proportional representation, in a context where all of NSW Labor's Lower House representatives are elected in member ballots.

I believe that these changes are limited in their intent and their scope is nowhere near comprehensive enough to deliver the change in policy, practice and vision that Labor progressives should demand.

I believe the Labor Party is strongest when the political wing and industrial wing are working together as a movement. The most recent example of what we can achieve together can be seen in the 2007 Your Rights At Work campaign, when the two wings worked together to defeat the Howard government.

Australia needs a cohesive political and industrial labour movement for national development and for fairness. Our efforts to reform Labor must begin from this standpoint – that we are all in this together – and reform must be driven by a sense of purpose that is rooted in strengthening the labour movement.

I don’t believe that narrowly-cast propositions that tinker with one element of the Party’s operations (the direct election of a small cohort of Labor parliamentary representatives in the Senate and Legislative Council) are neither necessary, nor sufficient, to deal with the challenges faced by our movement.

Below I advance five reasons why I have reservations about this particular proposal.

1.     People will be disenfranchised under this proposal

There is much said about who is enfranchised in a direct election model. And it is indeed true that the proposal seeks to involve more party members.

However, little is said about who gets disenfranchised.

In June, the AMWU, the Union I am very proud to lead pulled together 100 workplace leaders to determine our position going into NSW ALP Conference this year.  We had heated debates about our position on key policy issues. We elected our ALP Conference delegation. We elected our choice for the Upper House and Senate positions.

In the same month, the ASU held a ballot of 8000 members to get their endorsement for who the union should support in the Upper House preselection ballot.

These workplace delegates and members are a vital part of the labour movement. They are people like Glenn Wilcox, an aircraft engineer at QANTAS who works a demanding rotating night shift roster. Or people like Shirley Fan, an assembler at Cochlear who works afternoon shift making hearing implants.

Both of them go to work every day, and in a humble way, make a significant contribution to the Labor project. They build the labour movement every day as volunteers, and many face the threat of the sack or demotion because of their union activity. They also get out at elections and volunteer at polling booths and street stalls, in the same way that our activists and all of our officials do.

Proponents of the direct election model miss this voluntary, unseen contribution - Glenn and Shirley won't be feature in newspapers or on Hansard. They ignore the fact that for many people, the Labor party participation structures are virtually impossible to balance with modern work and family commitments.

Evening branch meetings and weekend events exclude people like Glenn and Shirley. What’s more, as union activists, they are already volunteering their personal time to build the labour movement in their workplaces or across their industries.

At the heart of this debate is this fundamental question; who is a member of the Labor party?

On the one hand, you have rank-and-file party members who work hard to build and maintain branches. They volunteer at elections or for local campaigns. They contribute financially to Labor through party membership or donations.

On the other hand, you have rank-and-file members of affiliated unions who work hard to build and maintain organising structures in their workplace and industries. They volunteer their time and money to fight for key workplace improvements and they risk their jobs when they do so. Their self-sacrifice and organising has been crucial in delivering key social and economic changes such as universal health care, superannuation, and paid parental leave.

For over a century, we’ve said to both groups of members; you don’t need to choose between your union activism and your party activism. There is room for both of you, both are important; both build the movement and progressive politics. This proposal seeks to radically shift that principle.

If we actually want to change the culture of the Labor party, we need to be a Party that’s an open movement, not a closed club. That means that we should be encouraging all different kinds of participation. It means that activism, whether in a Labor Branch meeting once a month or in your workplace, ought to be seen as one and the same.

2.     Rules changes can’t eliminate corruption

Labor supporters were shocked by the recent corruption scandals revealed in the ICAC. They undermine our integrity as a modern political party and invite community scepticism about our purpose and values.

Proponents of Senate and Legislative Council member ballots argue that the reason we need to adopt their model is because it is a one stop shop for guaranteeing no future self-interest, corruption or misconduct among our parliamentary representatives.

The truth is, corruption can be and has been, manifested in many different systems of candidate preselection. Corrupt candidates have managed to get themselves preselected in rank-and-file preselection for state and federal lower house seats, including the Member for Fairfield, who was regarded by most as the architect of the self-interested and venal operation that characterised the dying days of the last Labor government.

What’s worse is, some proponents for the position have attempted to frame their opponents as self-interested and sympathisers of corruption. It is as though those of us who hold alternative, genuinely-held beliefs about the future of Party reform ought to withdraw. 

At its core, this is a debate about the best way to involve more people in our party while selecting the best quality candidates who have strong Labor values.

Corruption is ultimately a cultural and governance problem. It comes about because people believe they can put their own personal or financial interests before those of Labor or the public they are elected to serve.

This belief is only developed, fostered and reinforced by a culture and organisation that validates it. As a culture and governance problem, it cannot be addressed simply with a structural fix.

That is not to say that structural changes aren’t necessary. But to point to this reform as the silver bullet that will stop corruption is intellectually lazy.

3.     Where does power go?

Proponents of the direct election proposal often say that their model will act to decentralise power away from the factional chiefs into the hands of ordinary members.

Pause for a moment and reflect on what it would take to run a state-wide member ballot for a position on the MLC or Senate ticket.

You would need to be able to visit all the branches between Bondi and Broken Hill. You would need access to a membership list. You would have to pay for a direct mail out to 13,000 party members. You would probably have to set up some kind of call centre operation staffed with volunteers who could call and persuade members on your behalf.

In that kind of system, where does power go? Arguably, it goes to the people best resourced to run that kind of ballot. In that system, power will concentrate within the political class; Members of Parliament and their staffers, Party officials, union officials, and Local Councillors and Mayors.

And who gets excluded in that system? Basically, anyone who has a real life. People who work for a living outside the corridors of the parliament houses and electorate offices. People who have the most to offer the movement, but the least amount of time and capacity to contribute to it.

4.     Breaking the union/party links

Every 3 years, I attend the AMWU State Conference, the ultimate decision making body in our Union. At that conference we debate whether we will continue our affiliation to the NSW ALP.

It might surprise you to know that this is often the toughest debate of our conference. It has been particularly difficult in recent times as our members have watched our parliamentarians make a mess of it at both the State and Federal levels.

For those who support affiliation, a key part of our argument during this debate over the years has been; ALP affiliation delivers the AMWU the capacity to have a say in the policies that form the party platform and a mechanism to hold parliamentarians accountable when they desert that platform.

By removing a say in preselections, we are forced to ask our members to affiliate to have a say limited to only policy that is often not implemented when Labor takes government.

Perhaps for those with less than altruistic motives, this is a welcome consequence of the direct election proposal. However, for those who believe in the necessity of an effective and vibrant relationship between the political and industrial wing of the labour movement, this proposal puts it into serious jeopardy.

5.     Proportional Representation

For decades, current and previous activist, including AMWU activists, have fought tirelessly to implement the core Left principles of Proportional Representation.

We support Proportional Representation because it avoids a dangerous ‘winner takes all’ model of political power. Under the direct election proposal, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain affirmative action and proportional representation.

Left wing members need to be willing to accept that if a progressive female MLC resigns there is absolutely nothing to stop a right-wing male branch stacker throwing thousands of dollars into winning the spot, and being successful. We can tell ourselves ‘oh we would beat him, we’ve done well in direct ballots’ but the present model has explicit rules recognising PR and AA.

A major structural weakness of the direct election proposal is that it relies entirely on an open merit-based selection process operating without bias. We know women, poor people and other people remote from power do poorly in those circumstances. If you want fair outcomes you have to have a way of overcoming the structural bias in society for wealthy, straight, white men.

I want to support a model of Party reform that makes our movement strong: that democratises our Conferences, that builds a culture of progressive ideas around a narrative of Labor purpose, that supports activists and candidates who put the community and Labor interest before their own and gives our great movement the capacity to renew for the future. I look forward to having that debate at the NSW Labor Party State Conference.

Tim Ayres

AMWU NSW Secretary