Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Case for Democratisation of the Australian Labor Party


LAUNCH OF TROY BRAMSTON’S BOOK “LOOKING FOR THE LIGHT ON THE HILL”
RIVERBEND BOOKS, BULIMBA

26th NOVEMBER 2011


Thirty years ago I made three life changing decisions.
I married Therese, for which 30 years later she deserves an Order of Lenin.
I joined the foreign service where 30 years ago were always on the lookout for anyone suspected of having an Order of Lenin.
1981 was also the year I joined the Australian Labor Party, from which we had already purged all known members of the Order of Lenin, or at least I hoped so.
For those who know my history, I did not come from a Labor family.

My father before his death was a member of the Country Party – which then would have put him considerably to the left of the modern Australian Labor Party.
My mother, a Catholic from central casting, had, since the split, voted for the DLP.
And despite attending local Young Labor meetings at the Nambour Cane Growers Hall while still at school, I deliberately delayed my decision to join the Labor Party proper until after my university years – so that I could sort it all through both in my head and my heart.
My heart had always said yes, because the Party’s call for a fair go for all appealed both to my deepest human instincts as well as my recent experience, coming from a family of meagre means for whom the Whitlam revolution meant my chance to attend university.
My head took a little longer as I worked through how a party of the centre-left could manage a modern market economy while still delivering a fair go for all – because the latter without the former was little more than political fraud.
Or as the late John Button said later, the Australian Labor Party could not redistribute the nation’s wealth unless it was equally pre-occupied with the generation of the nation’s wealth.
And so began my life-long journey with the great Australian Labor Party.
A Party which formed the first Labor government in the world.
A Party which for the duration of our federated history has either been the government or the alternative government of this nation.
A Party that has painted most of the nation’s history on a wide and expansive canvas; its economic reforms, its social innovation, the centrality of the environment, the place of indigenous Australians, as well as Australia’s independent place in the affairs of the world.
And just as we have painted this great canvas for the nation, the conservatives’ historical mission has been, wherever possible, to erase it.
Ours, a positive agenda of building the nation.
Theirs, invariably a negative agenda to tear down what we have built up.
Because in the end, our creed is about the rights of the many – theirs being about the privileges of the few.
And it has always been thus, which is why I cast my lot all those years ago with the party of progress, as opposed to the party of reaction.
So why would I come to launch a book like this that has more than a few harsh words, as well as a few kind words, to say about yours truly’ s record as the eleventh Labor Prime Minister of Australia?
The reason is simple.
I have never believed that the Government that I led was somehow infallible.
That is palpable nonsense.
The Government achieved a number of great successes, like keeping Australia out of recession and mass unemployment despite the worst global recession since the Great Depression.
The Government, like all governments, had a number of failures – of which I have already spoken over the course of the last year. 
I believe that a genuine public contest of ideas is fundamental to the continuing viability of the Party – and its capacity to adapt to the challenges of the future.
Open debate allows the sunshine in.
Closed doors, driven by factional self-interest does not.
Open participation by all our members and, dare I say it, all our supporters, keeps us grounded in the values for which we have stood for more than a century, and how to apply those values to the challenges of the future.
By contrast, factional deals are primarily about the preservation of power.
To the point that our values are lost in the mud of factional intrigue.
We are now on the eve of the first National Conference of the Party since the events of June 2010 – the Conference which will now consider the Bracks-Carr-Faulkner Review.
It is time therefore for an open debate on the Party’s future.
Its values.
Its policies.
And critically, its structure. 
My core concern is how to reform our Party so that it has a future, not just as a diminished political rump, not a marginalised third party of Australian politics given the opportunism of the Greens, but as the force of progressive politics for our nation.

The Democratisation of the Australian Labor Party: Returning the Party to the people
The core truth is this; the centralised power of the factional leadership of the Australian Labor Party is exercised to the exclusion of the 35,000 members who make up our rank and file.
This does not advance the interests of the Party at large, but rather the interests of the few.
Moreover, it does nothing to expand our core membership, in fact it does the reverse.
Furthermore, it does nothing to advance our core interest in forming and remaining the long-term progressive government in Australia.
In fact, it retards it, it is a comprehensive national turnoff.
So how do we reinvigorate our membership so we are in a position to be the continuing Party of reform.
Of course, this is the continuing challenge of Labor – applying our constant values to the changing circumstances of the nation.
Being what I have long called the reforming centre of Australian politics – a Party for all working Australians, a Party also for Australian small business, a Party of nation building, and critically the Party of the future.
Always looking beyond the horizon, identifying the next great challenges we face as a country, not just reacting to them once they hit us in the face.
In other words, how does the Party renew itself in the troubled times in which we govern, recognising that the Party has re-invented itself many times in the past since its birth during the Great Shearers Strike and the Great Maritime Strike of 1891
The truth is that for the many who do the heavy lifting in our branches, in our community, and on the front line come election time, these 35,000 forgotten members, they don’t have any real say in the big decisions on the Party’s and the Government’s future.
It’s time therefore for some fundamental change.

Principles
I would like to outline what I believe should be the principles for this change:
 1.      The Party needs to be fully democratised by giving full voice to the full membership rights to the Party - members of the ALP want a direct say in their Party on the positions that really matter, not just on the margins.
2. This democratisation should extend the principle of direct election principles as per the following:
(a) The National Secretary, the person most responsible for the future of the Party’s organisational activity in the community;
(b) The National Executive, the chief administrative authority of the Party;
(c) The delegates to the National Conference of the ALP, to give members a real say on policy, to break the power of the factions, and to encourage our mass membership to become fully engaged.
3. I also support a full national debate on proposals already advanced by others on the extension of this democratic principle of direct election to other critical positions for the Party. 
This does not represent a comprehensive blueprint for the future reform of the Australian Labor Party .
Nor does it seek to do so.
But it does go to the fundamental question of who controls power within our Party.
This is one proposal for a focused national conversation to be had by our whole membership around a simple set of principles underpinning the full democratisation of our Party with the simple objective of re-connecting the Party with its full membership.
And to make sure, therefore, that we remain fully connected with the people of the nation.
Because if this Party cannot reform itself then over time it cannot reform the nation. 
Subject to consideration of National Conference, it should also be considered whether these principles (refined through a structured national dialogue) should be then be referred to a plebiscite of all Party members.
Because it is my view, consistent with the principle of democratisation, it should be the full membership of our Party who should determine such fundamental reforms for our future.

The Bracks-Carr-Faulkner reforms
There should no longer be any argument that Labor needs to reform itself.
Those who say that the way we conduct ourselves now and the way our Party is structured is sustainable for the future are wrong.
I don’t believe any delegate to National Conference credibly believes that the status quo is any longer defensible.
Books like the one we are here to discuss today cause us to pause, to reflect, and then to confidently embrace reform as we have done throughout history.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the Party in 10 years time operating the same way it does now.
Otherwise, there is a real danger that we simply fade away as other progressive parties around the world have done, becoming a shadow of their former selves against the aggressive conservative onslaught of a resurgent right.
If in 10 years time, we have not renewed our purpose and our compact with our membership, then we will have failed to maintain our place as the true Party of ideas.
It is also sobering to recall that it was almost 10 years ago we were last given a blueprint for reform.
The Hawke-Wran review came and went without the Party truly embracing a total program of reform.
The truth is we pushed most of it to the side.
Just imagine if, for example, in 2002 Labor had truly embraced the recommendation for online branches.
It is this litany of lost opportunities that should cause us to think very carefully about Labor’s collective response to the Faulkner Review – particularly given the fact that six months later, the factions have continued to suppress the full contents of that review.
Remember, Bracks, Carr and Faulkner, the authors of the Review called for its full public release – what are we afraid of?
That our 35,000 branch members might actually read it?
I believe it is these lost opportunities of reform in the past that mean we must fully embrace the reform package proposed for the future through this review.
Because to pick and choose the reforms we embrace based on the recommendations of the factions, after the process of comprehensive consultation across the breadth of the ALP, by the Review team itself is death by a thousand cuts.
If (and that’s a big if) we have the courage to implement the recommendations of the Review in full, we must also continue our national conversation about the ongoing reform of Labor.
We need to break the cycle of reform only being considered when we reach a political impasse.
Ours must be the process of continuing reform, otherwise we will continue to fail and our political successes will be short lived. 
We should not be fearful of what the full membership have to say.
These good people are drawn from across the Australian mainstream.
And as such they are our best way of keeping in touch with the Australian mainstream.
As Paul Keating rightly reminded us on the Centenary of the Federal Australian Labor Party in 2001:
We were and are a pluralist Party; we’ve had all sorts of people in it – Fabians and Marxists, single taxers and all sorts of characters. But I suppose our boast is we can absorb any culture, and we have.
And we have done so to preserve a single inclusive, progressive voice in Australian national politics through the agency of the Australian Labor Party.
This book, Looking for the Light on the Hill, has other worthy suggestions that warrant further debate over the course of 2012.
And I would like to also put forward some suggestions that the ALP National Executive could adopt tomorrow, if it found the collective will to do so:
-          National Conference should move around the Country.

I look forward to a conference here in Brisbane in coming years.

If Queensland can host the Commonwealth Games, I think we can handle a Labor Party conference.

Sydney does not own the National Conference.
-          National Conference should meet yearly – both of the major British parties seem to be able to manage to do that without the collapse of Western Civilisation as we know it.

Otherwise our total membership becomes marginal to the business of government.
-          The National Policy Committee should be elected after the conference meets, as the Party Rules require, not 12 months before conference as too often happens in practice.

What we stand for – our enduring values
Looking for the Light on the Hill  alleges that the Government does not have an overarching narrative, and that this problem stems from Labor’s values themselves not being clear enough.
I have to disagree with this.

As has been written elsewhere:
The story of the Australian Labor Party is a story of hope triumphing over fear.
It is also our nation's story. Our nation's past, and our nation's future.
A continuing narrative throughout Australia's history that says it is better to build up than to tear down.
That it is better to build the nation, than to wait for someone else to build the nation for us.
That it is better to create opportunity for all, rather than tolerate opportunity for the few.
That it is better to face the future, than to fear the future.
The story of Labor is a story of the triumph of hope over fear.
A story that says afresh to each generation that we can build a better Australia.
A stronger Australia.
A fairer Australia.
An Australia in which all our families can aspire to a better future.
And an Australia that proudly raises its independent voice in the councils of the world in the belief that together, we can also build a better world.
Friends, this is the continuing mission of Labor.
These are the continuing values of Labor.
This is the continuing purpose of Labor.
Now that isn’t me writing a narrative in response to the Bramston challenge.
That is the opening of my address to the Chifley Research Centre in June last year.
And if you look at this government over the last 4 years, our actions do not waver from the principles of the Labor Party that Chifley spoke of in 1949:
Chifley said the job of Labor ministers and leaders was “to create new conditions”
            Which is why we abolished WorkChoices
Chifley said the job of Labor ministers and leaders was “to reorganise the economy of the country”
Which is why we took strong and decisive action in response to the Global Financial Crisis and protected Australians from recession and mass unemployment.
Chifley said the job of Labor ministers and leaders was “bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people.”
Which is why we delivered paid parental leave, a pension that provides dignity for our seniors, support for our families with children in childcare, an education system where kids have the best facilities, the best technologies and the best education standards the government can provide.
And Chifley said we should ”aim to reach, by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here, but anywhere we may give a helping hand.”
Which is why we have doubled our foreign aid over the last five years and we are on track to double it again over the next.
Which is why we supported the Libyan people in the face of a tyrannical dictator.
And is why we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Horn of Africa as one of the largest donors to support the 12 million people facing death from starvation.
But as Chifley also said all those years ago, these achievements rest on the shoulders of the people of the Labor Party.
Listen to his words again today:
When I sat at a Labor meeting in the country with only ten or fifteen men there, I found a man sitting beside me who had been working in the Labour movement for fifty-four years.
I have no doubt that many of you have been doing the same, not hoping for any advantage from the movement, not hoping for any personal gain, but because you believe in a movement that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people.
Therefore, the success of the Labor Party at the next elections depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work.
It is this central fact, it is this core truth, to quote Chifley once again, that “the success of the Labor Party at the next elections depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work”  is what must drive us to ensure that the full membership of the Australian Labor Party are our core for the future.

The democratisation of the Party
Which brings us back to where we began – the democratisation of the Party.
Above all other values, democracy is the core value of the Labor Party.
A Party that was formed to make sure that there was a voice for working people in the affairs of the Commonwealth.
A Party that has been doggedly democratic from the start.
A Party that has been at the forefront of making Australia a fully democratic nation – irrespective of ethnicity, gender or sexuality.
Here in this federal division of Griffith, my local ALP Federal Electorate Council held a members’ forum about a month ago.
Some 50 local ALP members, sat in a circle at the Morningside School of Arts and discussed the 2010 Bracks-Carr-Faulkner Review.
It took us three hours.
That’s democracy in the Labor Party.
It can be slow.
It may not be spectacular.
But it does work.
It is how we came to agreement on those matters that members are willing to give up their time to discuss, to deliberate on, and then to resolve a way forward.
In our case, the challenge was for each branch to adopt in its own right a single local project to demonstrate to the local community that the Light on the Hill was alive and well and shining strong in the suburbs of Brisbane’s Southside.

Finally, I want to touch on how we, as a political party, engage in our national political debate.
The tone we adopt.
The civility we embrace. 
There are some fundamental principles that we must keep in mind to maintain the respect of the Australian people.
First, we must be a party that is honest, truthful, straightforward – warts and all.
The public is tired of spin.
The people want us to explain in straightforward terms why we are doing things, and why we are not doing things.
The people do not expect us to perform miracles, nor do they expect to be misled.
We must also be the Party that is positive – the Party with the plans – the Party of the future.
The Australian people are tired of the wave of negativity that makes up the mainstream of our national politics.
They want a positive plan for the future.
By and large they already grasp the negativity of our opponents.
The third is that we are a party of civility in our national discourse, rather than simply tearing people’s heads off.
Civil doesn’t mean that if Tony Abbott is being a niff nuff that we won’t point it out.
But it does mean that we conduct the affairs of politics and government with greater respect.
We are fools if we do not understand that the public has had a gutful of what currently passes for much of our national political debate.
Finally, we will need to ensure that a Young Labor member, who is out, doorknocking for Labor’s candidates, is doing so because they believe in the values for which we stand.
Not because he or she is a pawn in some obscure factional game.
I was troubled recently to hear that the latest young Labor National Conference had former Senator Graham Richardson as a guest presenter.
To hold Senator Richardson up as a moral exemplar for the next generation of our Party and our movement is just wrong.
The author of “Whatever it takes” – good grief.
To be a member of the Labor Party is to be an optimist.
Optimistic about the future of Australia.
Optimistic about the ability of government to make a difference.
As a member of the Labor Party for 30 years, I am an eternal optimist.
I am optimistic too about the future of Labor in Government, working to create the Australia that we are proud of.
Optimistic that we can keep the economy strong in good times, and in bad.
Optimistic that we can ensure that those who want a stable, secure job can find one, or the help to train for one.
Optimistic for the future of reform of this great Australian Labor Party as we open its doors to the 35,000 members who make up our heart, our hands and our soul.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Southside Goes Green

Australia faces major challenges in ensuring sustainable water supply in the face of drying climate and rising demand for water. We have seen the effects of drought and the tremendous impact of the floods earlier this year. While most of us do what we can at home and at work to help conserve our water supply, there are grassroots organisations in our community working to encourage water saving measures and environmental awareness at the community level.

Norman Creek Catchment Coordinating Committee (N4C) Inc.

The N4C, a local environment group, will receive $20,000 in funding as part of the Federal Government’s Community Action Grants. These Grants are a small grants component of the Australian Government's Caring for our Country initiative that aims to help local community groups take action to conserve and protect their natural environment. The grants are targeted towards established local community-based organisations that are successfully delivering projects to protect and enhance the natural environment.

The funding provided to the N4C will assist with the completion of the Bridgewater Creek Riparian & In-stream Habitat Restoration Project. Bridgewater Creek is a tributary of Norman Creek Catchment. The activities will improve ecological waterway health to Norman Creek and its contribution flow into Moreton Bay. The N4C’s commitment and ongoing enthusiasm to this project is not only benefiting our local waterways but is also increasing community skills, knowledge and engagement with our environment.

If you’d like to volunteer to help the N4C, please contact Damien Madden on (07) 3391 4235 or via email - normanck@bigpond.net.au

Further information about the Community Action Grants and the Caring for Country initiative can be found at - http://www.nrm.gov.au/about/caring/index.html

If you would like to have your community group’s work in this blog, please send an email to – Griffith.EO@aph.gov.au