How Should We Elect Our Leader Members or Caucus: Labor is Mature Enough to Elect Leaders

Labor is Australia’s oldest political party and one of the oldest progressive parties in the world. It would be easy to take comfort in this longevity, to reject the need to fundamentally rethink the way our Party works to ensure the Party survives and prospers. As well as being easy, it would also be foolish.

- The Hon. Chris Bowen, Shadow Treasurer and Member for McMahon

Each generation of senior party figures owes it to the Party to leave it stronger than we found it. In this era of declining union membership, the challenge to the ethos of volunteering, the prevalence of social media and the breakdown of inter-generational party loyalty, this means considering radical organisational reform.

There has been no shortage of ideas and contributions. This is a good thing. An ongoing discussion about how best to organise the Party for modern times is not a sign of weakness or disunity. Rather, it should be seen as a sign of maturity: the
maturity to recognise the significance of changes in society and respond to them.

The Prime Minister has suggested a trial of primaries as a way of broadening the scope of people who are involved in choosing ALP candidates. She is right to do so and I support the trial. 

We also need to take the steps towards more direct party democracy taken at the ALP National Conference as a starting point, not the end point and have ongoing, respectful conversation about the structure of the Party over the medium to long term, so that the debate at the next National Conference in two years time is well grounded and not rushed.

Late last year, I said publicly that there is a good case to consider more involvement for ALP branch members in key personnel decisions, including potentially the election of the Labor Leader. In my view, Caucus members aways will and should have
a key role in electing the Leader. But we also need to examine the arguments for involving the broader party membership as well. 

Firstly and most obviously, the Labor Party needs more members. The problem has been well identified. In 2002 there were about 50,000 people carrying an ALP card in their wallet. Now there are 38,000. We need to consider giving members more
of a real say in key decisions. Few decisions are more important than the election of party leader. While not a panacea, the prospect of getting a vote in this process is likely to be more effective in encouraging party membership than any other measure. 

We do also need a broader membership. The quest for party members is about more than mere numbers. We need a membership that is reflective of the broad progressive community. A party which aspires to represent the broad community must be representative of that community. As Labor’s membership falls, there is a danger that our formal members become less and less reflective of the broad Labor base. We need a membership reflective of the demographics of Labor support, including strong representation from the suburbs and a viable presence representing rural and regional areas.

Re-engaging with traditional Labor supporters in the suburbs by giving them a say in the election of our leader could be vital to the future of our Party. 

Some might argue that our membership will not necessarily be representative of the voting public
at any given time and giving them a vote on the leadership is dangerous. This is a valid concern.

However, I argue that measures to encourage membership are the best way of ensuring our membership is as broad and diverse as possible.

We should learn from the experience of our friends: it was the British Labour Parliamentary Caucus that gave Britain the disastrous leadership of Michael Foote, while the broader membership produced Tony Blair. In the US, Democratic primary
voters have showed a predilection to support moderate, electorally attractive presidential candidates. 

In this era of transparency, it is important that the public also demand more of our political parties. Having an open process with a series of debates between potential party leaders, for example, will have its messy moments. But if the leader of the party is able to claim the legitimacy of a broad charter and a transparent process, this will give Labor an advantage over our conservative opponents.

I have come to see this debate as vital for the Party. Of course, there are plenty of options for the Party to consider. The British Labour Party has an election with three constituencies: the party room, branch members and union members (candidates must be nominated by a critical mass of MPs). The Tory Party allows its party room to choose the top two candidates and then throws the choice over to party members. Likewise, Canada’s Liberal Party elects its leader by a party convention, while the Canadian Conservatives have a system recognising the strength of the party vote in each electorate. One
option for the ALP to consider would be allowing the Caucus half the votes in a leadership ballot and giving the broader membership the other half. Some will argue that to secure Labor’s future we should be focusing on achievements and what we
stand for. They are right. However, that doesn’t mean that the sorts of reforms I’m talking about aren’t important as well.

When Labor reforms, its strengths over the Liberals will be even greater, and they in turn will
inevitably face the need to change.