ALP must look to primary system

By: Sam Dastyari

On June 22, 1891, the leaders of the newly formed Labor Party in NSW woke to read, in a daily Sydney broadsheet, of the end of their political party. The Labor Party, the editor noted, "must necessarily be neutralised or eliminated in the end". Since that first article 120 years ago, claims about the death of the Labor Party have been greatly exaggerated.

The Labor Party has survived three serious splits, 20 federal leaders, several ideological realignments and occasionally a unique ability to be its own worst enemy, all of which is a remarkable achievement. The political success story of Labor, the oldest surviving labour party in the world, has been shaped by an ability to reform at critical junctures; an ability to engage with new voices, new faces and new ideas. With a declining membership and a potential crisis of identity, the Labor Party now finds itself at one of those critical junctures, particularly in NSW.
There are three paths available. First, we can continue as we are. Some argue the party should simply engage in a few cosmetic changes at its national conference in December and move on. For some, there is no real internal crisis; identity and membership issues come and go. They argue that the structure of the Australian Labor Party is the same today as it was when we were in power in every state and territory a few short years ago, and engaging in significant reform risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is a path I reject as failing to recognise Labor has survived because of our ability to change rather than resist it.

Second, we can engage in the wrong reforms and become a shrinking party of inward-looking activists. The Labor Party of the 1950s will never be the Labor Party of 2011. For some, however, the answer to all our challenges rests in the pursuit of a mythical structural purity that can never be achieved, an endless maze of internal ballots and introspection, driving out anyone whose passion for ideas and debate stretches beyond debating the mundane inner workings of the ALP.

All NSW party members who lived through the NSW Labor government's last term can attest first-hand to the dangers of falling into the trap of becoming an inward-looking organisation.

Finally, we can take the tough decision and open up our party to include the community in our candidate selection and decision-making. We can recognise that the answer to our internal identity crisis will not be found by introspection. We need to reach out and directly engage with the community and those who rely on Labor governments.

At the NSW ALP conference on July 9-10, I will be proposing a series of significant party reforms to challenge our inward-looking focus and to engage directly with the community. It will also begin the path towards creating a stronger organisation where promotion through patronage is a thing of the past.

At the heart of these proposals will be shifting our candidate selection process towards a US-style primary model. Under these changes, the local community will have a direct say in deciding who the Labor candidate will be for their area. Beginning with some local government elections in NSW next year and five winnable state seats at the 2015 state election, voters who are prepared to identify themselves as Labor supporters will be able to participate and vote for who they think should be the Labor candidate for their area.

Primaries are a logical progression of the principles the founders of the party espoused; that our representatives should be chosen by a large cross-section of our members and supporters.

The process for identifying ideas also will be opened up to the community. A new body, the state policy forum, comprising the entire shadow cabinet, trade union leaders and rank-and-file representatives will be charged with open community engagement in ideas. New ideas are needed for a vibrant Labor Party and these ideas cannot simply come from within. Our policy development process needs to recognise the power of harnessing external ideas.

John Faulkner identified the challenges for Labor in his Wran lecture last week. The solution is a party prepared to reach out and engage with the community, a party not afraid to open itself to new ideas and new people. If party reform simply makes us more inwardly focused, then we have failed.

The challenge that awaits us today is no different from that facing our party's founders 120 years ago: to create an open, relevant movement focused on the community and not itself. Those doomsayers predicting our decline will again be disappointed.

Published in The Australian, June 15, 2011