[Speech to the Kawana Branch annual celebration of Gough Whitlam's birthday.]
That great Labor Reformer, Gough Whitlam, has turned 98. It’s an honour to again wish him a happy birthday.
As Gough has always done, let’s continue to modernise and reform our party and our platform. The Australian people need us to be a party of government. We must not let them down.
Speech to mark Gough Whitlam’s 98th birthday
Check against delivery
Men and women of Kawana –
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gubbi Gubbi people. I pay my respects to elders past and present.
I acknowledge the Shadow Minister for Women, Sen the Hon Claire Moore; the Hon Wendy Edmonds, a former Labor state government minister, state candidate Brent Hampstead, and the executive of the Kawana Branch, including Mark Moss, President, and Robyn Deane, Secretary, and Ray Marx, Vice President. I also acknowledge our union colleagues: Bradley O’Carroll is here, as well as Sarah Mawhinney and Billy Berka.
To the branch, thank you for your initiative in celebrating Gough Whitlam’s birthday. Thank you also for the honour of inviting me to address this sixth annual celebration.
That great Labor Reformer, Gough Whitlam, has turned 98. It’s an honour to again wish him a happy birthday.
As Sen Faulkner said, wishing Gough a happy 92nd:
“Before his election as member for Werriwa in 1952, for decades in Parliament, and after his retirement, Gough’s life has been one of public service, and of dedication to the same consistent principles.
… [He] has believed in the principle that concrete improvements can be secured for the Australian people through legislative and constitutional reform.
That has been the high purpose and motivating ideal for more than six decades of Gough’s life.”
I don’t claim to know Gough. I have met him only a couple of times. And I was among a few hundred people privileged to be present when Gough and his dear wife Margaret received their national Life Memberships of the Australian Labor Party – the first two people to receive Life Memberships from the party’s national conference.
But though I don’t claim to know Gough personally: like a lot of people, I am personally thankful to Gough. As I said in my first speech to the parliament, I was the first in my family to go to University, and I was able to do so because of Labor’s higher education reforms. So I am thankful to Gough for the difference he made to my life, and to the lives of members of my family.
Education has always been front and centre in Gough’s Labor vision for our nation.
And he has always been great at stating, clearly, that Labor vision.
In his important September 1969 speech, his pitch for the 1969 election, Gough said:
“We of the Labor Party have an enduring commitment to a view about society. It is this: in modern countries, opportunities for all citizens—the opportunity for a complete education, opportunity for dignity in retirement, opportunity for proper medical treatment, opportunity to share in the nation's wealth and resources, opportunity for decent housing, the opportunity for civilised conditions in our cities and our towns, opportunity to preserve and promote the natural beauty of the land—can be provided only if governments—the community itself acting through its elected representatives—will provide them.”
That’s a statement of Labor vision and values that is striking for its relevance today.
And in his famous 1972 election speech, Gough laid out the program very clearly. I won’t read the passage in full, but he said things like:
“… Our program has three great aims. They are:
to promote equality
to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land
and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.
We want to give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy – to liberty, equality, fraternity.
We propose a new charter for the children of Australia. … We will make pre-school education available to every Australian child. … Commonwealth spending on schools and teacher training will be the fastest expanding sector of Budget expenditure. … We will abolish fees at universities and colleges of advanced education. … We intend to raise the basic pension rate to 25% of average weekly earnings. … We will establish a universal health insurance system … We will establish a National Compensation Scheme … We will involve the national government in a massive effort to rebuild our existing cities and to build new ones. … We will make a massive attack on the problem of land and housing costs. … We will give local government full access to the Loan Council and Grants Commission … We will exert our powers against prices. … the national government … will move directly and solidly into the field of consumer protection. … We will change the emphasis in immigration from government recruiting to family reunion and to retaining the migrants already here. … We will issue national development bonds through an expanded Australian Industry Development Corporation … We will abolish conscription forthwith. …
And he said:
“We will legislate to give aborigines land rights – not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.”
You can hear echoes of Gough in Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech.
And in his 1972 speech Gough went on to say:
“All of us as Australians have to insist that we can do so much better as a nation. We ought to be angry, with a deep determined anger, that a country as rich and skilled as ours should be producing so much inequality, so much poverty, so much that is shoddy and sub-standard. We ought to be angry – with an unrelenting anger – that our aborigines have the world's highest infant mortality rate. We ought to be angry at the way our so-called leaders have kept us in the dark – Parliament itself as much as the people‚ to hide their own incapacity and ignorance.”
Gough could have been talking about Scott Morrison, in that last paragraph.
Those speeches, and Gough’s program, were ambitious. Not everything was achieved. Not everything that was achieved was achieved perfectly. But those speeches left no-one in any doubt about what Labor was setting out to do.
Compare Gough’s statements in 1969 and 1972 with the first two paragraphs of our National Platform, adopted at our most recent National Conference in 2011:
“As times change, our values endure. The Australian Labor Party was formed 120 years ago to help build this nation and improve the lives of ordinary workers and their families, giving them fair shares in a growing economy and supporting the vulnerable. In the 21st century, we still strive to create a fair, prosperous Australia where everyone has opportunity and nobody is left out or left behind. Our core values have been with us throughout our history and the changing fortunes of our nation: opportunity, responsibility, and fairness.
Labor values are Australian values. Australia is a society enriched by its diversity. Our history is one of hard work, nation building and innovation, proudly welcoming new generations of migrants, respecting Indigenous Australians, weaving a resilient social fabric to support Australians throughout their lives. We are a modern social democratic party which has made Australia better off, fairer and more sustainable. Universal health care, fairness in the workplace, and the age pension are Australian achievements, part of our tradition of working together for the common good and taking care of those with limited capacity to take care of themselves.”
The chapter goes on to speak of our vision and values.
It could be argued that the first chapter of our platform is largely a wordier version of Gough’s 1969 formulation of the things we for which we stand. It is true that the first chapter – our “values chapter” – states the foundation that underpins the matters of detail that follow in our platform. But it unfortunately lacks the crispness, urgency, and clarity of expression of a statement like, for example, the one that Gough made at the beginning of his 1969 speech.
Clarity of vision is, in my view, a precondition for reform. If Labor, today, wishes to be a party of reform, we need to be able to state what we stand for shortly and simply.
The platform matters. I’m so pleased that Bill Shorten has rightly asked the party to focus on producing a democratically-drafted first chapter.
The existing first chapter could be clearer. I don’t intend this to be taken as a criticism of those involved in its development. I was on the national policy committee for two terms: leading up to the 2009 conference, and leading up to the 2011 conference. I now serve on the national policy forum, having been elected to do so in a rank and file ballot across Queensland in 2012. So I have as much responsibility as anyone for the imperfect nature of our platform. But we should strive for better, clearer, simpler expression.
I’m not saying that we should talk down to Australians. As Anna Maria dell'Oso said, reviewing Gough’s “My Italian Notebook,” Gough has never “dumbed down for the Australian people.” Paul Keating was always prepared to talk to the nation about difficult and challenging economic concepts – but his skill was in translating those difficult concepts into language that is easily understood. Talking about complex things simply is a very different thing to patronising people and insulting their intelligence by speaking only about base and basic concepts in the Tony Abbott, sloganeering way.
And though I’ve said that our ‘values chapter’ could be clearer, I would argue that our program and values have, in the past few years, been stated and restated.
In his 2007 national conference address, Kevin Rudd described our modern program: improving public education, investing in high-speed broadband, boosting productivity, encouraging innovation, restoring fairness to industrial relations, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
In her campaign launch speech in 2010, Julia Gillard spoke of moving forward with confidence and optimism; of growing our economy; of the dignity of work; of transforming our education system “…so every child, every child gets the benefit of a great education.” She spoke of a decent health care system, tackling climate change, the National Broadband Network, closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, recognising indigenous Australians in our Constitution.
And in his 2013 election speech Kevin said:
“We believe in values of freedom, values of compassion and values of a fair go for all. These are universal values. They are Australian values. They are also Labor values. The values which caused our Party and our movement to come into being more than a century ago. The values which inspired people to dream of a better Australia. Values which have inspired women and men across the decades to build Australia’s future. Values which gave us fair pay, fair conditions and an independent umpire. Values that built the age pension. Values that built a free public hospital system. Values that built a university system accessible for all under Gough Whitlam. Values that built Medicare for all under Bob Hawke. Values that built DisabilityCare for all under Julia Gillard. Values that built superannuation for all under Paul Keating. These are all values worth fighting for.
And he said:
“For generations we have had the audacity to believe that through the agency of parliament and government we can always build a better Australia than the one we inherited from our forebears.”
Stating our values and vision is something Labor does all the time. I am always frustrated when people claim not to understand what Labor stands for.
Bill Shorten, a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, has spoken about our values and vision many times since he became Labor’s federal leader.
In his National Press Club address in March this year, Bill said:
“From the outside – politics can sometimes seem like the pantomime of professional wrestling.
It is much more serious – and more important than that. Politics is always a rugged contest – sometimes brutally so. It’s a tough contest because we are debating the choices, the priorities that affect Australians’ lives.”
And he said:
This Budget debate – and the years ahead – will be a contest of ideas. A contest about Medicare. A contest about hospitals and schools. A contest about the science of climate change. A contest about superannuation. A contest about our place in Asia. A choice between jobs – and cuts. A choice between making change work for everyone – or leaving people behind. We will ask Australians to choose between a government that empowers the many – or a government that looks after the few.”
And everyone here will have watched Bill’s great Budget reply speech. I can tell you it was amazing, and emotional, to be on the floor of the Parliament that night. For me, it was a highlight of my time involved in politics.
In that speech, Bill said:
This is the Budget of a Prime Minister and a Government who want to tear down everything Australians have built together. By contrast, Labor invests in our people to make our country stronger. Labor educates. Labor cares for all. Labor believes in an Australia writ large. We believe that economic growth comes from extending opportunity. We believe in a prosperous Australia: prosperity for everyone who works and prosperity which works for everyone. An Australia where your Medicare card - not your credit card - guarantees you access to quality healthcare. An Australia where the National Disability Insurance Scheme is a reality for people with disability, their carers and the people who love them – not a scapegoat for complaints about spending. Labor believes that a teenager in a regional town should be studying in a great school – and have the choice of a university education, learning a trade or taking up a rewarding job. We believe that science and innovation should be at the heart of national policy – because they are central to our prosperity. We believe in an Australia where small business can grow and thrive. An Australia that still makes things. An Australia with quality infrastructure – including digital infrastructure. An Australia where women are equal – and pays them equally. An Australia that is closing the gap and extending opportunities for the first Australians. Labor believes in an Australia that cares for its environment – and takes the science of climate change seriously. An Australia where multiculturalism is celebrated as a social and economic asset – not treated as sport for bigots and ideologues. An Australia that is a good global citizen, confident and engaged with the opportunities of the Asian Century. An Australia ready for the future, optimistic about the future and investing in the future.
What I love about that speech is that it is a natural descendant of Gough’s 1969 and 1972 election speeches, in its urgency, and in its clarity.
Compare Labor’s strong, consistent, values-driven statements with Tony Abbott’s 2013 election speech:
“This is what a Liberal and National Party government will do. We’ll build a stronger economy so everyone can get ahead. We’ll scrap the carbon tax so your family will be $550 a year better off. We’ll get the budget back under control by ending Labor’s waste. We’ll stop the boats. And we’ll build the roads of the 21st century because I hope to be an infrastructure prime minister who puts bulldozers on the ground and cranes into our skies. We have a plan and we know how to pay for it.”
The values that underpin that statement are not explicitly stated. Mr Abbott could not have explicitly stated those underpinning values because to do so would be to expose what the Liberal Party stands for: selfishness – the importance of the individual above all else – and insularity. Otherwise known, in Australian, as “blow you Jack, I’m alright.”
It’s a set of values that John Hewson exposed in the lead up to the 1993 election, when he admitted that the Liberals think that if you reach back to give someone a hand, they will pull you back with them.
It’s a set of values that is rarely explicitly stated and yet you do not hear complaints that people don’t know what the Liberal Party stands for, because their agenda is narrow. They stand for the rights of people who already have money to have more of it.
For Labor, our vision and are values are not as simple as selfishness and insularity. We are outward looking. We are courageous. We care about our communities, our nation, and our world. We believe that people’s quality of life is linked with how our communities, nation, and world are faring. We believe that Australians are a responsible, caring and compassionate people. So our program is necessarily more complex. But that doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to state it simply.
For my part, I believe that our program, our values, and our vision should be informed by our membership. The platform process, with all of its imperfections, is still the best way for members to have a say in what Labor should do in government.
And I also believe that one of Labor’s strengths – not just for campaigning, but for generating ideas - is that we are a mass-membership party.
So I have a long-term interest in how we can make our platform-development processes more inclusive, and in how we can grow our party’s membership, both through more people joining, and through more people staying once they have joined.
That’s why I’m so glad that Bill has set membership growth as a priority.
And the good news is that we in Labor have a strong reform tradition when it comes to our party, as well as our nation.
It’s a reform tradition that many associate with Gough. As Sen Faulkner said in his speech on Gough’s 92nd birthday:
“…he was determined to make much-needed changes to get Labor out of Opposition and in to Government.
He pursued party reforms to make the Party a viable alternative government, and policy reforms to make to make Labor’s platform one that truly met the needs of modern Australia.”
In 1963 the journalist Alan Reid arranged for a photo to be taken of the elected Labor leadership waiting outside while the party organisation’s so-called ‘faceless men’ were making decisions inside.
It created strong impetus for reform. Labor has been reforming itself ever since.
Let’s pause to think about the great reformers here in Queensland – people like Tom Burns, Peter Beattie and Denis Murphy, who carried on the tough work of reforming Labor in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1977, the year I was born, Gough came to Queensland and told our Labor-in-Politics Convention, bluntly, that we had to get our house in order. He said:
“… we need to rebuild and revitalise the party organisation itself. This will not be done quickly or easily, but it must be done, and done without delay.
Now is the time to start. There is no point pretending that the state of the Labor party in Queensland – its organisation, its morale, its numbers, its effectiveness – has been anything but parlous …
The great temptation for the party, with its present difficulties in Queensland, is to come up with silly theories about the nature of politics and the Queensland people. Whenever things go badly there is a natural tendency to look for far fetched answers and blame the people instead of ourselves. I don’t think we need to go beyond the obvious for an explanation of our troubles: the party has been run down and defeatist, our policies have been too-little explained and too little understood.
Let us not delude ourselves that dissatisfaction with Mr Bjelke-Petersen is enough to put Labor back, any more than dissatisfaction with the Fraser Government will put us back in the national Parliament. We must put our own house in order first. A reformed and invigorated party in Queensland must be the first step to a Labor government in Brisbane and a new Labor government in Canberra.
You can hear echoes of Gough’s words in Bill Shorten’s speech of 22nd April, in the aftermath of our most recent defeat – the WA senate by-election. He said:
“…today is a day for facing up to some hard truths.
Friends, Tony Abbott did not put Labor in Opposition – the Australian people put us here.
And unless we change, it is where we will stay.
And for Labor to earn the privilege of governing again, we must have an honest conversation about why we lost power.
For too long we have allowed the characterisation that Labor only has an ‘image problem’, a ‘message problem’ a ‘selling problem’ to explain our electoral fortunes.
That we only need to change perceptions – change the way people see us.
It’s more serious than this.
We need to change ourselves. We need to change our party. If we don’t change – we are putting our very future at risk.
For Labor to build a modern, outward-looking, confident and democratic Australia, we have to be a modern, outward-looking, confident and democratic party.”
The sentiments are the same. And like Labor’s 1970s reformers, Bill has, in his April 2014 speech, laid out specific reform tasks. He called for reforms including:
- Making it easier to join Labor online
- Establishing low cost, uniform national membership fees
- Removing union membership from our rules.
- Moving to a direct election model for state and territory parliamentary leaders.
- Increasing branch members’ say in preselections – including moving to a 70:30 model in Victoria
- Trialling primaries in non-held seats
- Making central preselections – that is, where the national executive selects the candidate – the exception, not the rule
- Increasing the number of female parliamentarians
- Giving party members a meaningful say in selecting senate candidates.
- Making national conference more representative, including via direct election
- Revising our platform, starting with a new, democratically-drafted chapter one that sets out our values.
In the 1970s and 1980s, here in Queensland and nationally, our party took up the challenges that Gough and others had laid down for us.
The pace of local party reform quickened after Queensland’s 1977 convention, and, of course, after the national intervention that followed. And we worked hard on changing our processes. There’s still work to be done, but I’m proud of the work our branch has done to make serious and rapid change.
Let’s reflect on how far we’ve come since the 1970s – including on some of the issues the subject of the reforms that Bill is pursuing nationally.
Finances and governance
Queensland’s seven-person inner executive – our local version of Gough’s group of faceless men - was ultimately removed. We moved to a state council process which was then folded into the renamed Labor-in-Politics Convention, the state conference.
Nowadays, we have a broad based administrative committee elected by and from state conference in a proportional representation ballot. Our administrative committee receives much more financial information than the former Queensland Central Executive, that didn’t receive any financial information. We get balance sheets and profit and loss statements. We moved to a professionally managed Labor companies structure. And when I was chair of the rules committee in the 2000s we reviewed our rules relating to finances with the assistance of Senior Counsel.
The composition of our state conference has improved. We still have three main parts: unions, branches and ex officios including parliamentarians, local government representatives, and representatives of party organisations – where Young Labor, the indigenous reference committee, and Rainbow Labor have been added to the former practice of having Labor Women’s send delegates. But both our branch membership and union representation has become more democratic. For the branches, in the 2000s we changed the rules so that bigger FECs (by numbers of members) get more delegates than smaller FECs. And we made the union affiliations process more transparent and evidence-based, through averaging and referring to returns that had been filed.
We’ve also opened up our organisational leadership to give members a say. In Queensland and nationally, we have direct election for the party’s President. It’s an honorary position, but it’s also a position with real influence. The movement towards direct election is also taking aim at national conference delegates. The collegiate nature of selecting delegates to national conference makes them much less accountable to the rank-and-file than state conference delegates are.
More change is needed. For example, in my view, one problem is that state full-time (paid) officials are elected, not appointed. As much as I am reluctant to use managerial language, that’s like electing the C-suite as well as the Board. The result is that the officials depend on constituencies, not the organisation as a whole, for their jobs.
Growing our party is at the heart of our present reform challenge.
Bill Shorten, in his April 2014 speech, launched a membership campaign. He said it was:
“A campaign to create a big party, a nation-embracing party, a party that represents and reflects the Australian people. A membership-based party. A Labor party with 100,000 members”
I strongly agree. We must grow. And our reform efforts have meant that growth is now encouraged and pursued.
Members here will recall the Shepherdson Inquiry at the turn of the millennium. That inquiry shone a light on the practice of manipulating membership rules for influence in the party, including branch stacking. In any reform movement we should remember that inquiry and the lessons learned. We should remember that the nature of power is that there will always be unscrupulous individuals who seek to exploit regulatory or cultural weaknesses to obtain power through illegitimate means.
Our party’s response to Shepherdson was to reform itself. You might remember the Peter Beattie seven point plan. It resulted in the early 2000s special rules conference, which I attended. At that conference Labor introduced measured responses including reducing the availability of postal ballots (which can be more easily manipulated than attendance ballots) in urban areas – where the tyranny of distance doesn’t turn stand-up ballots into exercises in disenfranchisement. We introduced limits on the numbers of new members at branch meetings – an anti-stacking measure. In the 2000s we also changed the way that memberships could be paid.
These were reforms for their time. Membership reforms are difficult because they must serve two competing purposes – preventing branch stacking, but not putting a handbrake on genuine membership growth. Now, with our emphasis on growth, there have been some reforms that would not have been considered twelve years ago – like $5 memberships. We can make those changes now because of the reform work of the past fourteen years - rules and cultural change have removed the conditions under which stacking can flourish. That means that now, growth can be celebrated, not looked upon with suspicion.
There are a lot of membership reforms in the pipeline. We’ve been talking for years – including in the Hawke Wran review and the later Carr Faulkner Bracks review – about the need for alternative structures to traditional geographically based branches.
I welcome, for example, Anne Fuchs’ work in establishing a Business with Labor branch, and all of our policy bodies’ and organisations’ work in creating policy and issue-based events and methods of engagement.
And of course I welcome Bill Shorten’s comments about opening up our party, to make it more welcoming for small business people, people from outside our cities, young people, professional women, and others. In that context he has spoken about our union membership rule.
In Queensland, the union membership rule is not an obstacle to those people joining. It is formulated as a potential reason to decline an application for membership, but only if there’s a relevant union of which the applicant is not a member. But more to the point, it’s a rule that’s just not enforced at the point at which people join. Generally, the only people who are knocked back are people who’ve recently left another party.
But the fact that the rule isn’t used is a reason to remove it, not a reason to keep it. If it’s not used – if its only practical effect is to give the appearance that people from traditionally non-unionised occupations, like the professional women and business owners that Bill was talking about, aren’t welcome, when they really are, then it is a rule that does us more harm than good.
These are good discussions to be having. Our membership is growing here in Queensland – our membership has doubled since our 2012 election loss. That’s testament to the rules and cultural reforms under the leadership of people like our state leader Annastacia Palasczuk, as well as Dick Williams, Anthony Chishom, and Evan Moorhead.
It is exciting to see what will happen next when it comes to engagement and membership.
It would be remiss to talk about membership reforms without talking about diversity.
Tonight, I’ve spoken to Jeannie Woods, who was the first female mayor in her council in the Dandenongs, about what public life was like for her, and I’ve spoken to Wendy Edmonds about some of the challenges. And of course I’ve previously spoken to Sen Claire Moore about issues relating to women in public life – she’s someone who has been an inspiration and role model for women in Queensland politics for a long time.
When I joined the party, in the late 1990s, we were facing a relatively new reform debate: affirmative action and representation for women. Labor Women’s Conference had long had recognised representation within our party structures, but despite early franchise women’s representation in public office had been disappointing.
Affirmative action divided our party for a number of years. It was eventually introduced at our 1999 state conference. I remember the protest that Labor Women’s Organisation members organised for that conference – I was among those wearing an armband made of a teatowel, with obvious symbolism.
It was not as showy as Joan Kirner’s and EMILY’s List’s affirmative action cheerleaders at a national conference in the early 2000s, but the same point was made.
The women who had been campaigning on women’s representation for years were successful, at the 1999 state conference, in winning rules changes that were aimed at making sure at least 30% of parliamentarians and councillors were women.
Affirmative action also spread to the organisational wing, affecting state conference delegate, committee, officials, and other internal plebiscites. We’ve also moved to direct election of the Labor Women’s organisation leadership via statewide ballot, instead of at the conference, enfranchising members who can’t afford to come to Brisbane. And one of the things I’m most proud of from my time on the rules committee is the extension of affirmative action to the electoral college component of preselections.
We’ve since moved to a minimum number for men and for women – our benchmarks are that public office representation include no fewer than forty percent men, and no fewer than forty percent women. That reflects the national arrangements.
Still, more needs to be done. Even though Labor had no federal lower house MPs at all from Queensland when Kevin Rudd left the parliament, my preselection did not attract affirmative action. I am hopeful that Labor will preselect a broad selection of women for the 2016 federal election. And I’m proud of Labor’s work in preselecting some great women for the next state election.
We also need to keep reforming for diversity. Queensland is now ahead of the pack in recognising organisations like the indigenous reference group, Rainbow Labor, and Young Labor as constituent parts of our branch with a seat at the conference table. We have preselected a great Aboriginal woman, Leeanne Enoch, for the next state election. But we no longer have an equity officer on staff, as we did in the 1990s and 2000s. I was talking to Beth Sellers, who is here tonight, about the work that was done to call for the establishment of an equity office position, leading to the position being created in 1996.
Because there’s no equity officer, head office no longer circulates an equity report; and so our eye is sometimes off the ball when it comes to equity and diversity.
I understand that money has been scarce lately, so my comments aren’t intended as a criticism of the organisational leadership. But we need to work harder on equity.
I am also pleased to see our party organisations working so hard to ensure their constituencies have a voice.
Labor, federally and here in Queensland, has also reformed our policy processes. There is an emphasis on making those processes much broader and more inclusive. As I said, broad-based member input into our platform is important if we want to continue our reformist tradition once in government at each level. I am so pleased that Bill is committed to broad engagement in drafting chapter one – our values chapter.
Preselections matter. They are the highest-stakes part of internal party workings. The candidates we preselect determine the type of Opposition or Government that Labor will be.
That’s why reform of preselection processes is so contested.
Since I’ve been a member of the Labor party our preselection processes have changed many times, with different weightings between the local vote and the college, and different compositions of the college. I think it has changed about six times in the sixteen years I’ve been a member.
Now, we have returned to our most branch member empowered, democratic structure for about ten years: a 30% college, elected by all conference delegates from union delegates to conference, and a 70% branch vote, but these proportions can change in electorates according to numbers of branch members. In my preselection, it was about 68:32.
Now, and especially following Bill’s reform speech, there are talks of community
preselections or primaries. My friend Cr Linda Scott stood in one for the Lord Mayor of Sydney. There have been others.
For my part I’m concerned about whether having primaries means that only wealthy people, or people with patronage, can become Labor candidates. In other words, I’m concerned that the only people who’ll be able to win primaries will be wealthier people. But I support the concept of a trial, and I’d suggest that these issues will have to be considered in the debrief that follows any trials.
Another issue under active consideration here in Queensland is moving to a process where rank and file union members have a say in how their union participates in the party’s structures and processes. Again, there are cost implications, but the fact that we are even talking about the “how,” not just the “whether,” shows how far we’ve come in a short time. Only a few years ago, such a reform would not have been genuinely considered.
I’m also pleased with the move, here in Queensland, towards direct rank-and-file involvement in preselecting our senators. Again, it’s a reform we can make because of our work, a decade ago, towards ridding our Queensland Branch of rules-based and cultural conditions that allowed for branch stacking. There are issues to consider in the change: how will we ensure affirmative action? How will we continue the work we’ve done since the 1990s to ensure that not all Queensland Labor senators come from Brisbane – an issue of concern for the reformists of the 70s and 80s? But the move towards direct election is something of which we can be proud. And it’s another reform that only a few years ago would not have been seriously considered.
Parliamentary caucus leadership
Finally, it is impossible to talk about the pace of reform without talking about the way we elect our parliamentary leaders.
At the 2011 national conference, where there was not even broad support for other forms of direct election, direct election of the leader would not have been successful. Kevin Rudd raised the idea in advance of that national conference but there was no appetite for that change at the time.
Two years later, because of changes that Kevin made after becoming leader again, we had a joint caucus and rank-and-file ballot.
Nothing more clearly shows the pace of reform in our party.
Like most rank-and-file members I was devastated by the leadership instability of our time in government. And I confess to being worried about the direct election process: would it lead to an unseemly public fight? But my concerns were ill-founded. The direct election process was a success. The contenders were both respectful and passionate. They spent the entire process actively seeking to ensure they both acted in a manner that showed our party in its best light – as a party where ideas are debated in a constructive way. And most importantly the process gave branch members an opportunity to engage in something that was positive and future-focussed. Instead of the self-flagellation, introspection, and focus on ourselves that usually follows electoral defeat, we talked, as a movement, about what was next for our nation.
Now, in Queensland, we are talking about what shape direct election should have for our state parliamentary leader. Again, we’ve moved past the “whether” and onto the “how” – yet another mark of how far we’ve come, and of how quickly we’ve done so.
For my part, I’d be happy with any process that allows members a real say, and real engagement. Chris Bowen, in his book Hearts and Minds, canvasses some of the different options. One is the UK Tory method of allowing what we would call a 100% rank and file vote, but only amongst candidates who are able to obtain nominations from a substantial number of members of the parliamentary caucus. That’s one of a number of ways of getting branch member involvement in selecting the leader. The trick is to balance democracy and engagement with stability – considerations that are factored into our current national arrangements, and that are under active consideration in the discussion about how our state leader should be elected.
There is much more that could be said about reform. It’s an honour to contribute to the conversation. And it’s a particular honour to do so in the context of Kawana ALP’s celebration of Gough Whitlam’s 98th birthday.
As Gough has always done, let’s continue to modernise and reform our party and our platform. The Australian people need us to be a party of government. We must not let them down.