LABOR cannot thrive as an association of political professionals focused on the machinery of electoral victory and forming, at best, contingent alliances with Australians motivated by and committed to ideals and policies.
A party organisation staffed by experienced and competent strategists and managers is necessary to serve the campaign and organisational needs of Labor's members and supporters, not to substitute for them.
Some years back, I heard a member of Young Labor explaining a recruitment strategy: "Today's activists, tomorrow's leaders." I don't blame that individual for being absorbed into a culture that treats activism as a temporary phase on the way to the real work of entering professional politics, but I utterly reject the implication that our party is attractive only to those with the life goal of becoming parliamentarians.
Rather than "today's activists, tomorrow's leaders", I would say that "today's activists, tomorrow's activists" better represents the party I joined and the party I believe we must be to represent and help those Australians who most desperately need a government guided by the principles of making life better for working Australians.
We have lost a generation of activists from Labor and, if we do not face the challenges and opportunities of reform in structure and culture, we will risk losing a generation of voters as well. The party has become so reliant on focus groups that it listens more to those who don't belong to it than to those who do.
Once, our test for whether or not our policies met the expectations of the community was conference. The arguments on the conference floor when they didn't were audible blocks away.
At Labor's last national conference, not a single contested measure was put to a vote on the conference floor. This is seen by some to be a triumph of party management. Dissent is contained behind closed doors. All potential embarrassment is avoided.
I see it rather as a symptom of the anaemia that is draining the life from the Australian Labor Party: an apparent aversion to the unpredictability of democracy. Trying to cast internal debate as disunity and revolt may spare us from damaging headlines, but it also has meant our members feel the only roles for Labor loyalists are as rubber stamps for decisions already made behind closed doors and as polling-booth fodder on election day. In our desperation to avoid bad headlines, we have closed off the avenues for debate that are the lifeblood of our party.
The principles of caucus unity and consistency with the party platform historically have meant decisions of the party, once debated and resolved, are abided by.
They have not meant, and ought not to mean, an absence of debate or the appearance of an absence of debate. Labor needs to get better at explaining what solidarity and unity really mean, both to the public and to those within the party who have come to interpret it as acquiescence.
There is nothing wrong with using polling and focus groups to test advertising strategies, explore misunderstandings of, or misapprehensions about, our policies or to focus and sharpen what we say about what we believe. There is, however, something deeply wrong when we use polling to determine our party's policies and even our values. Labor must never forget you do not earn the right to lead by perfecting the art of following.
In recent decades, Labor has met the challenges of a media focus on national and state level campaigning with an increasing corporatisation of our campaign and party organisation. It is essential the ALP recognises the political climate that gave rise to these strategies has changed. Recent political campaigns overseas and the success of third-party organisations in Australia have shown we are in an age of internet democracy: self-organising, intolerant of top-down management, expecting interactivity and immediacy.
Authenticity has, I believe, come to be valued more by the citizens of our democracy than the appearance of harmony. And, from a purely practical standpoint, with the increased interactivity of communications, there are more and more opportunities for pre-planned communication strategies to be exposed and their hollowness revealed.
Staying on message is no longer enough. Our party and those who represent it must engage intelligently with the message.
Party discipline is essential when it comes to legislative votes but was never intended to be used to block parliamentarians from talking to their constituents about their decisions and their opinions. If they are trusted enough by the party to be chosen as parliamentary representatives, they ought to be trusted enough to speak aloud in public without a pre-scripted song-sheet of lines of the day.
I have said so often before, and I say again now, there is nothing wrong with people who have the same goals working together to achieve them. Factions are older than political parties. They were found in the Roman Senate and at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
However, when factions become mutual support associations divorced from ideas and devoted purely to securing promotion, they are toxic.
We have, at a state and a federal level, looked at our dropping support and, more often than not, we have blamed the leader. And, in NSW, more often than not, we have changed the leader. It is time for the party to realise that there is more amiss here than any one individual can be asked to shoulder the blame for. It is time for us to realise we have significant problems as an organisation and we must resolve them. To do so, we must draw on the strongest and best traditions of our past: our passion for social and economic justice, for fairness; our history as champions of democratic processes within our party as well as in the wider political arena; and our commitment to reform.
The resistance to reform by some within the ALP has made me very pessimistic about the possibility of achieving meaningful change in our party's structure and organisation. As is the case in any institution, those with the power to effect or to prevent change are always those most advantaged by the existing structures. I had believed, and I still hope, that the stark reality of our circumstances would break through the very human disinclination to surrender power and influence. But it seems that the most difficult part of the reform process will not be structural. It will be cultural.
The ALP was formed because working men and women in Australia needed a voice in parliament. They needed a government that would understand their needs and would use the resources of the state in the interests of all the community, not merely the few. The need for such a party still exists, and will still exist even if Labor fails the test of reform.
This is an edited extract of the Third Wran Lecture delivered in Sydney last night by John Faulkner.