Reforming the Australian Labor Party

John Kilcullen

(1) The Party's objective needs to be restated.

At present the ALP states that its objective is: "The democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in those fields in accordance with the principles of action, methods and progressive reforms set out in these Rules and in the ACT Branch Platform." 

"Socialisation" is an ambiguous word. To some it may mean, making business socially responsible. But to others it means nationalisation, state ownership, the replacement of private ownership by social ownership. The second sense is, historically, what the ALP's objective means. The nationalisation of major industries and economic institutions was once Labor policy, with the aim of replacing the capitalist system with socialism. The idea was that since property is the cause of unjust inequality, the remedy is to abolish private property, at least in the key industries.

But I don't believe anyone in the Labor party now advocates such a program. The Labor Party accepts, and many of its members always did accept, that we live in a market economy in which most of the firms are and will remain privately owned. The point is not to replace capitalism once for all by a different system, but to monitor and correct and supplement the functioning and outcomes of the market.

What is distinctive of the ALP, it seems to me, is that we believe that action by both government and unions is needed to correct unjust inequalities that the market economy continually generates (especially through private appropriation of rent). (Both government and unions: "Asked what Australia had done right that the US had not, he [Joseph Stiglitz] said: 'unions'. 'You have been able to maintain stronger trade unions than the United States. The absence of any protection for workers, any bargaining power, has had adverse effects in the United States. 'You have a minimum wage of around $15 an hour. We have a minimum wage of $8 an hour. That pulls down our entire wage structure.' SMH. See also here )

These inequalities are corrected through regulation (which prevents abuse of market power), taxation (which transfers some of the rent to community uses), union action (which transfers rent from employers to employees) and social programs, e.g. in health and education, which improve the lives of people who are at a disadvantage in the market. When the Liberals come back into power, they attack regulations, reduce taxation on wealthier people, reduce the size of government so as to reduce its power to influence the workings of the market (e.g. they reduce the resources of regulating agencies), attack unions and deregulate the labour market, and subsidise private health and education in a two-tier system (only those who can pay get into the upper tier, then they get subsidies). The conflict over these things is the substance of Australian politics.

In the things we share with the other parties there are also differences of emphasis or perspective. For example, both Liberals and Labor give high priority to national security, participate in military alliances, and give foreign aid; but the Liberals are much too ready to engage in military action overseas in support of the United States and too little concerned with the wellbeing of poor people in other countries. I see these differences as connected with their tolerance of inequalities.

I don't believe that Labor objects to all inequality, to inequality as such; we don't aim at perfect equality in all respects. We accept that some incentives are needed, that parents will want to give their children a good start in life, and so on. But we are against unjust inequalities, and we presume that extreme inequality is unjust. Which kinds and degrees of inequality are unjust depends on some implicit theory of justice. Usually we don't try to formulate any theory; we rely on intuition.

Another high value is "community"; we believe that injustice and extreme inequality destroys community. The rhetoric of equality does not seem to resonate with people who don't already vote Labor, but belief in the importance of community crosses party lines--everyone is glad when members of their community do good work. Unlike nationalism, the idea of community does not imply opposition or competition: the human race is a community.

For an attempt at formulating our objectives, see here.

(2) The ALP and the unions should be separate organisations.

The unions established the Labor Party, and the Labor Party believes that unions are necessary to defend the interests of working people. The ALP and the Unions are natural partners. But I believe they should be organisationally independent of one another.


* The ALP continues to require its members to be members of unions if they are eligible--at least associate or "retired" or "past" members.

* Unions encourage each of their members to become a member of whatever political party they choose and to be active in the party of their choice (so that the Liberals and the Greens will have active members who are union members).

* The unions keep their own money and use it, when appropriate, for their own political campaigns.

* Party conferences do not have official union delegations, Party members who belong to unions take part in Party conferences on an equal footing.

The ALP ACT Branch rules allow people to become associate members if they support the Labor Party but do not want to join a union. This rule should continue. Full membership should require membership (at least associate membership) of a union.

Greg Combet, The Fights of my Life, p. 290-1: "Some people advocate reducing the union share of the vote at state conferences from 50 per cent. I think this misses the point... Reducing the share of the vote these union officials control would diminish their power, but it would not radically open up or revitalise the party...I think the best way... is to devolve power to the hundreds of thousands of individual members of affiliated trade unions in partnership with branch members. Members of ALP-affiliated union could be asked to indicate whether they are Labor voters or whether they would like to become Labor Party members. These union members would then be entitled to vote, along with ALP branch members, in electing delegates to conferences. There would no longer be a need for a fifty-fifty split between the union and the branch vote at party conferences. Members of affiliated unions would participate directly in the party, either on the same basis as branch members, or according to a weighted voting arrangement. This would democratise the ALP in one fell swoop."

Combet is suggesting that union members who identify as Labor voters should automatically become ALP members. I think they should sign up and they should pay a membership fee. He also supposes that the ALP will include members who are not members of unions: I think all ALP members should be union members if they are eligible to join a union. Both political and union action is needed to correct unjust inequalities that the market economy continually generates (see above).

I don't agree with the view often expressed that the requirement of union membership should be removed because unions now represent a much lower proportion of the workforce. Unions have been weakened by globalisation and cultural changes. The Labor Party should not stop encouraging people to belong to unions just because unions are weaker--rather the opposite.

Some say that we should not require union membership because some unions charge high membership fees. The ALP should discuss this with the unions concerned and suggest they introduce a category of associate member. The unions could regard associate members as a recruitment group who might eventually sign up as full members.

Another objection is that some unions -- well, one union, the SDA -- has religion-based policies the union's members have never been consulted about, to which many potential ALP members object (see interview with Linda Kirk, ex-Senator). The only remedy I can suggest is to join the union and speak out against these policies.

John Faulkner on the ALP/Union relationship:

(3) ALP members should elect the national parliamentary leader, without special weight for the votes of caucus members

Kevin Rudd ideas on the parliamentary leader's position should be rejected -- caucus should be able by simple majority to remove a leader and install a temporary leader, but there should then be an election in which all Party members vote, without special voting weight for parliamentarians.

(4) Paid ALP jobs should be advertised to all members of the Party and filled by an objective selection process.

Recently a notice was sent to all members of the ACT Branch advertising three positions in the office of ACT Minister Mick Gentleman (Chief of Staff, Communications Adviser and Office Manager). That is how it should be done. When paid positions are filled in an informal manner, without transparency, this feeds factionalism. 

(5) In Party elections, secret ballots should be secret

This means the abolition of "show and tell". The Party rules provide that some elections be by secret ballot to ensure that voters cast their votes freely, without fear or favour, in accordance with their own judgment. The Party should not allow its rules to be circumvented. For argument see here.

(6) All Party members should be "delegates" at ALP Conferences

I put "delegates" in quotes because what I am proposing is that the Party should move from representation by delegates to direct participation by every member. (Every member who has fulfilled some reasonable eligibility requirement, e.g. attendance at meetings, length of time as a member of the Party). Direct participation would reduce factionalism, which flourishes in a stratified organisation (i.e. one in which members elect delegates to a body which elects a governing committee).

In the ACT direct participation would be simple because we all live in the one city. For the state branches and the Northern Territory branch, and for the national Party, implementation would be more difficult. It might involve regional conferences, or video conferencing, open conferences followed by plebiscites, or something else. Thought should be given to how this could be done.

An objection made against direct participation is that it would disadvantage women. At present the rules require that 40% of delegates should be women. If the women members of the Party amount to less than 40% (which is the case at present), then having all members participate directly in the Conference will reduce the influence of women. This objection could be met by a weighting of Conference votes or by using sortition to allocate an appropriate number of voting batts among the men participants, or in some other way.

There are difficulties in implementing the idea that the highest decision making bodies in the ALP should be Conventions of all members, but this should be the aim.


See also Faulkner/Bracks/Carr, Secret ballots should be secretSubmission to the ACT Participation Review.
See Election statements.

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