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Race Mathews

David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Bill Shorten is strong in many respects. Marr shows Shorten to have sound Labor roots and values and to have done good policy work in areas such as establishing the National Disability Insurance Scheme and navigating workplace relations and the future of financial advice reform, but the essay perhaps underplays the corresponding obligation of ALP leaders to pass on the party in as good or better shape than they have found it. 

The acid test of Shorten’s leadership will be to achieve both an early return of the ALP to office and a comprehensive reform and renewal of the party. As Gough Whitlam told a hostile Victorian State Conference in 1967:

We cannot convincingly oppose the conservatism of our political opponents with a conservatism of our own; we cannot stand as a Party of change when we fear change in our own structure. We cannot expect the people to trust us with the great decision-making processes of this nation when we parade, by retaining an exclusive and unrepresentative Party structure, our manifest distrust of our own rank and file within the decision-making processes of the Party.

At the time of the party’s first ever election for its federal parliamentary leader, both Shorten and Anthony Albanese showed that they were alert to this obligation. 

In Shorten’s response to a questionnaire from the ‘Local Labor’ party reform and renewal group, he gave a number of undertakings to initiate both rules changes to democratise the party and hands-on measures to gain, retain and involve members through improved support for party branches and an upgrading of the membership experience. His response to the questionnaire reads in part:

  • Access: It not always possible for members with family and work commitments, or for members in remote and country areas, to attend monthly Branch commitments. We must investigate and trial ways to offer alternative forms of branch organisation and involvement beyond the constraints of geography. We must find ways to use online platforms to help members engage. This could be connecting through virtual meetings or having the option of virtual branches when and where required, and for our rules to formalise this.
  • Organisation: In line with better induction and training offerings to members, the Party should also develop simple online training modules for those elected to Branch Officer roles. This will help Branch Officers to be fully supported to develop the skills to run effective branches and to engage branch members. I would encourage ALP members with backgrounds in workplace education and training to assist the Party develop these modules.
  • Knowledge Sharing: There should be the opportunity to report and apply successful Branch initiatives or learn from thriving Branches so we can continuously improve our operation and engagement. All Branches can benefit from hearing the success of our Branches and I want us to build a new organisational culture around celebrating and applying this success.
  • Community Connected: We must make sure that Branches are properly connected to their communities and actively engage in locally-based progressive campaigns and activities. This should occur not just at elections but between elections. We must build on and sustain the successful work of our federal election fieldwork campaigns but focus on regular community engagement activities and campaigns between elections.

A signal democratisation success achieved at his instigation has been the adoption by the party’s recent national conference of a landmark rules change to allow some 150 of the delegates to future conferences to be elected directly by and from rank-and-file party members. A near miss on his part was the failure of the conference to bring to a vote an intended measure for greater rank-and-file participation in pre-selections.

Less encouraging has been lack of progress towards fulfilment of his branch and member support pledges by the party’s state administrations. Seemingly, his behind-the-scenes advocacy of the pledges has as yet fallen on deaf ears, and needs to become much more upfront and assertive in the face of those within the party who are most resistant to reform. State and territory branches must take responsibility for their failings and live up to the federal leader’s vision.

Nor is that all. Rampant factional disregard for the party’s rules, as exemplified by branch-stacking and the rorting of the requirement for secret ballots in pre-selections and election of party office-holders, has yet to be stamped out. The vexed question of relations between the party’s rank-and-file members and its union affiliates, and the mutual misunderstandings and suspicions to which they needlessly give rise, remains unaddressed. For want of action on these fronts, many of the 15,000 new members who flocked to the party following the leadership contest or in protest against the excesses of the Abbott government are being lost to it. The challenge is to retain these newcomers by improving the quality of the membership experience and building up the capacity of branches and office-holders.

What our troubled times require is the reinvention of the party as it once was – the cutting political edge of a wider social movement that includes grassroots members, unions, communities and community groups on an equal footing. History will honour – and the electorate reward – the leader who accomplishes this.


Race Mathews is a former principal private secretary and resident policy wonk for Gough Whitlam, a federal MP, state MP and minister and academic. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 59, Faction Man. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 60, Political Amnesia.


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