August 24th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Embryo experiments: are there any limits?

ALP's problems deeper than pre-selections and branch-stacking

Zimbabwe: Mugabe aggravates drought crisis

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dizzy with success / Angry amnesiacs

EMBRYO EXPERIMENTATION: Consuming our unborn is indefensible

LAW: High Court judgment deepens native title confusion

General Cosgrove was wrong on Vietnam (letter)

Why the stock market plunged (letter)

Snowy River plan damages Murray basin (letter)

Infrastructure savings (letter)

COMMENT: Whose voice can be heard?

VICTORIA: Public forces backdown on Victorian sex zone plans

POPULATION: Time to set the record straight

COMMENT: Can the ABC be saved from itself?

ECONOMY: The Reserve, interest rates and inflation

ASIA: Taiwan's banking system under siege

BOOKS: Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

BOOKS: American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, by Thomas Keneally

Books promotion page

ALP's problems deeper than pre-selections and branch-stacking

by News Weekly

News Weekly, August 24, 2002
Hidden inside the Hawke-Wran report into the Australian Labor Party is a statistic which should send a shudder through every sitting ALP member in the country.

At the 2001 election - the supposed status quo poll in which the seats in the House of Representatives barely changed at all - Federal Labor recorded its lowest primary vote since 1906.

That was lower than the 1975 and 1977 humiliations suffered by Gough Whitlam and lower than the 1996 election which smashed Paul Keating's majority and ended 13 years of Labor rule.

Problems acknowledged

At least Neville Wran and Bob Hawke were honest enough to acknowledge in writing the seriousness of the problem facing the party, which has now been beaten three times in a row and shows little prospect of avoiding a fourth loss.

The two party elders, and arguably the most successful Labor leaders of the modern era, have completed their long-awaited review of the organisation and handed their 38 recommendations over to Simon Crean and the national executive of the ALP for implementation.

Most of the recommendations are sensible, if not long overdue, and should meet little opposition from loyal party members tired of attending pointless branch meetings and whose views are completely ignored when it comes to candidate selection and policy formation.

The message Wran and Hawke got from talking to thousands of people in branches around the country, from 2,000 individual members who had direct input, and from reading submissions from almost 700 others, was clear - Labor's party faithful felt disconnected and ignored by those privileged to have secured a seat in Parliament.

Wran and Hawke were also wise enough to understand that if the party faithful feel disconnected, how much more disconnected must the general public feel?

There are key recommendations which seek to end what Neville Wran called the "evil" of branch-stacking; the well-canvassed rule change to reduce trade union power; and another important rule which seeks to increase the size of National Conferences.

According to reports, at the last minute the review committee sensibly backed away from a recommendation to lift the 35 per cent quota of safe seats for women to 50 per cent.

This has raised predictable howls of outrage from the ALP sisterhood who want more ALP women in Parliament, but truth is that the sisterhood only wants a certain type of woman anyway - one who is pro-abortion.

The ALP's 35 per cent quota has been achieved but at tremendous cost in the form of member frustration and disappointment and the arrival in Parliament of several mediocre women who would never have made it on merit-based pre-selection.

It is likely now that most if not all of the Hawke-Wran recommendations will be crunched through the special National Conference to be held in October at which Mr Crean's "leadership" qualities will no doubt be trumpeted loudly. There is still likely to be opposition in some quarters, but Crean has staked his job on the reforms and the unions now opposed to the reduction of their power will be silenced.

One of the likely consequences which will come from granting a stronger voice to the ALP "rank and file" will be a Federal Labor Party increasingly dominated by the left.

Labor has always had to grapple with being pragmatic and ideological at the same time, with wanting to serve its own constituency and being mindful of the needs of the wider populace.


But the fact is almost every successful Labor Government has been a moderate progressive administration, which has had to resist the calls from the more strident grassroots for radical change to society.

The party has been described as a self-perpetuating oligarchy and attempts to break up that oligarchy will see unintended consequences.

Wran and Hawke have come up with a series of recommendations which they hope will give a voice to the disenfranchised membership, but avoids tackling a deeper question which is also hidden in the report.

"The process of rebuilding Labor's voter base must begin with a thorough restatement of the Party's values, and consideration of the most appropriate ways to transform these values into policy," they wrote.

Nothing in the report is more important to Labor's future success than these words because they go to the heart of Labor's real problems.

Sure there is branch-stacking and boring meetings and not enough being done to encourage quality candidates, and these can be largely fixed by changing the party structure, but nothing has yet been done to show the rest of Australia what Labor actually believes in any more.

Until that question is tackled the reform process will just be window dressing.

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