AFR - Labor Pains
ALP Must Look to Members, Australian Financial Review, 29 March 2011
In the 2002 Winter Olympics, Australian speed-skater Steven Bradbury won gold after the four leading skaters crashed into one another and fell to the ice. The way Barry O’Farrell won the NSW election bears some similarities to the way Australia got our first Winter Olympics gold medal.
On the fundamentals, NSW Labor was expected to lose. The last state government to be re-elected after 16 years at the helm was the Queensland government in 1986 – the year John Farnham topped the charts and Crocodile Dundee was released. In the 21st century, governments that have been around for 1½ decades have all the popular appeal of a mullet haircut and a denim jacket.
Yet while longevity predicted a Labor loss, what occurred was the political equivalent of hanging, drawing and quartering. The party of McKell, Wran and Carr suffered the worst defeat of our 120-year history.
In my view, this does not reflect any crisis of ideology. Ask any Labor representative what our party stands for, and you’ll hear the same themes: opportunity for every child, open engagement with the world, dignity in work, a voice for invisible Australians.
What the NSW election loss pointed to are the major challenges with our party structures. Labor’s 2010 National Review (also known as the ‘three wise men report’ after its authors Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner) noted that in the past decade, more than 100 ALP branches have closed in NSW. It concluded: ‘The Labor Party now faces a crisis in membership.’
While it is true that our membership share is smaller than ever before, recent trends are merely a continuation of what has occurred for the past sixty years. In the early-1950s, 1.2 percent of Australian adults were members of our party. Today, the share is around 0.3 percent.
People are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.
The decline in social capital is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television. Australia needs a renaissance in community life – including in our political parties.
Another way to see the link between Labor Party activism and broader social capital is to look across the country. As I found in my book Disconnected, Canberra outperforms the rest of the nation on many social capital measures. ACT residents are more likely to play sport, to volunteer, and to donate to charity. It is probably not a coincidence that Canberra also has an active Labor Party membership.
Although plenty of the factors that affect ALP membership are outside our control, there is still much that Labor can do to make joining more attractive. The National Review recommended more party democracy, new policy forums, a campaign training academy, and better online engagement.
We should acknowledge that there are two models an organisation can follow: low cost–low power, or high cost–high power. When you look across other groups, those that are cheap to join (AFL clubs, GetUp) tend not to provide their members with much say in how the organisation is run. By contrast, groups that empower and provide generous services (unions, scouts) generally require a substantial commitment of time or money.
For Labor, this means that we could expand the number of positions that are directly elected by the membership and train every member in the latest community organising techniques. Or alternatively we could follow the UK Labour model of allowing under-27s to join for a penny, and stop asking members to attend branch meetings. But we should not do both. It would be a mistake to give more power to our members and ask less of them in return. This tension will lie at the heart of party reform debates leading up to our National Conference in December.
For NSW Labor, the challenge will be to recover the passion and energy that Kristina Keneally embodied, but which her government was seen to lack. As for Mr O’Farrell, let’s wish him luck and hope that he is able to govern in the spirit of the moderate wing of the Liberal Party. If the last four years have taught Macquarie Street politicians anything, it should be that ‘crash or crash through’ often ends with a bang.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and author of Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010). By coincidence, he was Barry O’Farrell’s Labor opponent in the 1995 election.