The last few weeks have been an historic time for the Australian Labor Party with reform being front and centre in Kevin Rudd's fresh approach, Labor Party member and former NSW candidate Peter Wicks explains the in and outs and adds his own take.
NO DOUBT you have all heard the talk of reform within the Labor Party?
Most of us who are Labor members welcome reform.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, along with NSW Labor State Secretary Sam Dastyari, have undertaken a massive overhaul of the controversy plagued New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party.
This is well and truly overdue if the Labor Party wants to remain relevant and competitive in the future, especially in NSW.
The changes that have received the most attention are:
- the requirement that 50 per cent of the powerful Administrative Committee is made up of people from the rank-and-file membership and
- a zero tolerance approach to corruption and criminal activity.
The zero tolerance approach is the most welcome reform.
It does a party no favours to have prominent members – powerbrokers – being investigated for corrupt practices and constantly being called before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
I have reservations relating to the rank-and-file members issue, but I will go into those shortly.
I am usually a proud member of the Labor Party. This reform process could be one of the party's proudest moments, if done correctly.
I have spoken to many members over the last several months about party reform. The last thing any of us want to see is a half done job — the “shuffling the deck chairs” approach.
This post will no doubt anger some, while also pleasing many of you.
I hope it will encourage all of you to become involved in the discussion around these vital reforms.
Let's start at the very beginning.
As Julie Andrews once said, it’s "A very good place to start.”
The Labor Party was born of the trade union movement. We all know that.
Trade unions have been, and always will be, an important part of the Labor Party. However, it’s the role they play that needs to be questioned.
Membership of the Labor Party requires you to be a member of a union if you work in an industry that has a union.
Why? Are we trying to restrict the number of party members?
It’s not a requirement of any union that their members must also be a member of the Labor Party. A one-way street apparently?
I was under the impression we were on a membership drive?
With this in mind, it seems odd to drastically restrict membership like this.
I am all for union membership. I'm a union member myself.
I can assure you there are industries out there with unions I wouldn't join in a pink fit.
For those wondering, I am not referring to the Health Services Union (HSU). The HSU has improved out of sight with Kathy Jackson's faction now just a bad memory.
In fact, I would encourage people to join the HSU now.
Whether we like it or not, union membership is on the decline nationally. Unless we want our party’s membership to decline in line with it, changing this rule seems to be a no-brainer.
My take on the trade union involvement is that they should be involved at only an advisory level.
We are not a single issue party, like many others. The way in which we operate should reflect that.
Industrial relations may be an integral part of our policy structure, but so too are equality, environmental concerns, access to quality public services, and a "fair go for all."
We hear all this talk of rank-and-file members. How we need to give them a greater say in the party.
After these reforms they will make up 50 per cent of the governing Administration Committee.
This raises two questions:
- Who makes up the other 50% of the committee?
- What is a rank-and-file member?
It is safe to say the other 50 per cent of the Administrative Committee is made up of trade union representatives and powerbrokers.
That question is easily answered.
The second question? Not so much.
Given the rule regarding party membership and union membership, it is highly likely that the 50 per cent rank-and-file component of the committee will be members of the unions represented by the other 50 per cent of the committee.
This would seem to make it likely that trade union heavies will continue to dominate the party agenda.
These rank-and-file members will be elected to their positions as Administrative Committee members. However, when you consider how the election process works it is wide open to corruption and committee stacking.
The election process is weighted towards to trade unions and the chosen few that run them. The true rank-and-file member has no chance.
Those representing unions get a bloc vote. Effectively this means their vote counts for thousands of rank-and-file votes. The power of this vote depends on the size of the particular union’s membership.
What this inevitably means is the 50 per cent rank-and-file membership of the Administrative Committee will effectively be made up of union mouthpieces. Spokespeople for those who elected them.
Trade unions voting as blocs must be abolished if we are to ever properly move forward as a party. This would end the culture of the so-called "faceless men."
There are several simple and rather obvious reasons for this.
I know of many members of the Greens who are trade union members and I know several from the Liberal Party as well.
Should members of other parties be entitled to representation and a say in how the Labor Party works?
That does seem a bit daft.
The decided position to take in a bloc vote does not always necessarily accurately represent the will of the union membership. It would be a frosty day in hell when thousands of members agree on every issue.
The only way to have the will of trade union members represented is to give them the right to an individual vote.
Only trade union members who are Labor Party members should be entitled to a vote. That should go without saying.
Given the way things currently are when it comes to voting, it needs to be explicitly said.
The idea of a Labor MP, in either assembly, of a state or territory government being beholden to the wishes of any organisation, including a trade union/s, in order to entrench their position raises a serious conflict of interest.
Reaching the position of MP without the backing of a powerful union is virtually impossible.
This should not be the case. Our politicians should be elected based on merit. Not based on whose puppet they are willing to be.
Putting the power of so many votes in the hands of so few is like sending out an invitation for corruption with a big red ribbon on it. This practice has allowed powerbrokers to maintain their hold over the Labor Party and ensure that their power is not diluted.
The average rank-and-file member knows they have no say. They know their party is being run by a few powerbrokers. Why then do we act surprised when our membership numbers decline?
We need to wake up and smell the coffee.
My gut tells me the Administrative Committee should be made up of 80 per cent true rank-and-file members. Trade unions should not be allowed to campaign on behalf of anyone seeking election.
If we can get rid of the bloc voting system we will have succeeded in ridding ourselves of most of our problems.
The removal of the ridiculous bloc voting system should be implemented for all party position elections. It should also be removed for all party decisions, and for any motions put forward at state or national conferences.
When I talk about bloc voting I am also referring to vote weighting. This is where union votes are weighted more heavily than others.
In a true democracy everyone is allowed a vote. We would not allow a representative of Woolworths to vote in a federal election on behalf of all Woolworths staff. That would be ridiculous. The same should go for trade unions.
It's not rocket science.
Rank-and-file voting can be done via mail, or online. We've done it before; there is no excuse to not do it again.
There should be changes to the way the State Electorate Committee (SEC) and Federal Electorate Committee (FEC) systems are run.
SECs and FECs should not be voting for other members at conference; the same way unions shouldn't be.
People join their local branch to have a say. Not to have their say interpreted or misrepresented by someone on a committee.
We should be doing all we can to make sure everybody has a say, and a vote. We shouldn’t be deliberately limiting this possibility.
SECs and FECs should not be able to override motions made at branch level in any way, shape or form.
This is just another way someone who is there to promote their own self interest can make sure their power is not undermined.
There is no point in anyone having a say if it can just be overridden. Otherwise we may as well do away with branches and leave it up to the committees.
The ability of an SEC or FEC to override motions is a form of censorship. We should fight against our members being censored at every turn; not encourage and participate in it.
I’m of the opinion that executives of both SECs and FECs should serve terms of no longer than two years. This would allow all members to have an opportunity to sit on one of the committees, not just a select few. Many of these people are only there because of branch stacking.
This brings me nicely to the contentious issue of branch stacking.
This is not just a problem that plagues the Labor Party. Every political party has major issues in this area. Any member of any party that says they don't have branch stacking in their party is lying or unaware of it.
This is an issue we should have the guts to tackle while we are in the process of reforming.
I have witnessed it myself, and I have heard stories that defy belief.
There have been many cases of people being signed up as branch members in the immediate lead up to preselections and voting for committees. These people are seen for the exact number of meetings required they are required to vote at, and then never seen or heard from again. Abducted by aliens it would seem?
I have heard of cases where people over 80 years of age were signed up and paid for. Once that occurs they are told how to vote. They are often driven to the vote and in many cases don’t even speak english. They normally have no knowledge of the party or the process they are taking part in.
The rules should be amended so that for someone to be eligible to vote in any preselection, or for any committee election, they have to have been a financial member for two years.
They should also have to attend at least 6 meetings a year to be eligible to vote, unless they can provide a medical certificate.
If someone attends less than half of their branches’ meetings in a calendar year they are hardly a dedicated member.
The meetings attended would need to be of the branch that the vote is related to. For example someone in Gosford can't attend 6 meetings and on moving to Albury expect to get a vote straight away. It is ludicrous for people to vote on candidates they have no know nothing about.
People should be registered with branches in their local area, not where someone else wants to install them.
Someone who lives in the Western Sydney suburb of Pendle Hill should be enrolled in the branch closest to Pendle Hill.
While we are still reforming, the ten-year rule that is often used for branch stacking purposes must be scrapped. This is essential for ending branch stacking.
The preselection of candidates should be done earlier; much earlier. We should have candidates out and able to campaign two years from an election.
How else are we supposed to have a candidate sell their story? This relates particularly to marginal Labor seats and safe Liberal seats. We need to allow our most talented candidates more of an opportunity to become known in their electorates, with more time to work with the local media etc.
Putting up a few corflutes on poles and trying to get your message out in 3 months in a safe Liberal seat just doesn't cut it. Particularly when the candidate is working in their regular job during the campaign, while the sitting MP is able to campaign during every waking hour.
Our candidates should be given the best opportunity to succeed, not have extra barriers thrown in their way.
It can be done.
Susan Templeman in the Blue Mountains is doing an admirable job in her electorate of Macquarie. She has been fortunate enough to have had three years campaigning. It looks like she will win the seat come the federal election later this year. This is what can be done with time on your side.
We should be directing more funds towards safe Coalition electorates too. It is pointless spending all your money in areas where Labor will win at any rate. Safe Labor seats are also more than likely more capable of developing a successful fundraising strategy. We should be targeting seats we would like to win, rather than seats we already have in the bag.
We need to be smarter when it comes to our social media strategy. Our presence online seems to be on the decline.
We should be actively engaging with left leaning websites, Facebook pages, as well as encouraging and helping those who are trying help us online.
The last time there was talk of reform and new party rules in NSW I attended the launch at the Labor Western Sydney Regional Assembly. It was aptly titled, "A New Standard."
The room was full of MPs and party leaders. We had gathered to hear NSW Labor Leader John Robertson's speech. After the speech and the media had left so did the MPs and Sussex St staff.
Nobody was left to listen to the rank-and-file members. It was as if nobody cared what we thought.
I found this disgraceful. I left with a sour taste in my mouth.
We are the membership. We are the ones who hang corflutes. We are the ones who stand outside election booths all day. Campaign at shopping centres and train stations faithfully every election.
They couldn't spare a couple of hours of their time to hear our opinions?
We all ventured into Parramatta on a Sunday morning to have a say. Yet, it seems those running the party, despite organising the event, had somewhere better to be.
I hope they show a little more respect for members when it comes to reforming OUR party.
On a more lighthearted note.
We need to stop this idea of city functions starting at 6:30pm on Friday nights.
Most members don't live or work in the city. This means we have to race from work, venture into the city (during peak hour traffic) and find a parking spot before the event starts. All with no time to change clothes or freshen up. Quite an unpleasant prospect.
I'm sure stretching the starting time to 7:30pm won't keep anybody up past their bedtime.
In all seriousness, I sincerely hope this reform intervention is a genuine one. Not something to be used as a campaign tool to woo back NSW voters, as is being suggested in some quarters.
We are the political party of the "fair go." Yet we are not even offering that to our own members at the moment.
This is why we need to embrace change, not fear it.
We need to have the guts to move forward and change our party for the better.
For what it's worth, if Mr Dastyari or Prime Minister Rudd is reading this: I will put my hand up to discuss taking the party forward with anybody willing to sit down and chat about it.
I'm sure members would find it comforting to know the reforms are based on discussions with real rank-and-file members, not just heads of unions and powerbrokers.
If anybody else has suggestions for reform or feedback, please comment on this post so others can see it.
I also suggest the issues I have mentioned be openly discussed at your local branch meetings, and where the branch feels it is appropriate, motions put forward.
We need to take the opportunity for change while we have the chance.
Tomorrow may be too late.
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