Labor's long and winding road to reform

Labor Senator John Faulkner can always get public attention when he talks about party reform. But as he'd be the first to admit, it's quite another matter to get something meaningful done.

In his devastating critique this week, Faulkner homed in particularly on New South Wales, where appalling tales of misdeeds in the Labor years have been aired at the Independent Commission Against Corruption. His messages about loosening the factional system and the like, however, are also relevant to Labor nationally and follow the post-2010 election review of which he was co-author, with Bob Carr and Steve Bracks.

Faulkner's argument that factions should not be allowed to bind MPs in caucus votes is a no-brainer.

The NSW problem should be separated from the wider reform debate. It's urgent that Labor there must not just change but be seen to have changed.

This week the Left in NSW, at Faulkner's instigation, took the extraordinary step of issuing a public apology for preselecting former Labor state resources minister Ian Macdonald, accused of colluding in the granting of coal exploration licences to benefit the family of Eddie Obeid, former upper house member, by up to a staggering $100 million.

Getting a lot of reform done quickly in NSW matters for federal Labor, facing an election next year. Big anti-Labor swings in 2010 have left a swag of seats on very thin margins. The corruption stench gives swinging voters one more reason not to vote Labor.

Reform nationally is a more complicated issue. Corruption is not the problem. It is less clear what is required. And when the government is fighting a struggle for survival, it is not the time to be addressing what are quaintly dubbed the ALP's ''internals''.

Under national secretary George Wright, the party has been doing a few things to ''grow'' the membership, which has increased by a net 4700 to more than 40,000. But last year's national conference adopted only a very watered down version of the review's proposals for more internal democracy.

Realistically, the time to tackle national reform is when Labor is in opposition. Even then it is problematic for a leader. Confronting party problems helped Gough Whitlam, but for Simon Crean it brought more grief than gain.

The point is, the really fundamental issues are extremely hard, and open-minded people will come to different conclusions about what should be done. Consider a few proposals advocates put forward.

The relationship with the unions comes up perennially. Critics see being tied to affiliated unions, which under the party structure have a big place, as a drag and an anachronism. Others believe that severing or even significantly loosening that link would destroy or weaken the very core of the party.

One suggestion that has gained increasing support is for the rank and file to be given a say in the election of the leader. This happens in Britain, and has the backing of NSW party secretary Sam Dastyari from the Right and a federal Left convener, Doug Cameron.

It would certainly give ordinary branch members a feeling of involvement; it would also make difficult or impossible the sort of coup that ended Kevin Rudd's prime ministership. But opponents point out the caucus could end up with an uncongenial leader. And while the deposing of Rudd was ill-judged, and the NSW revolving premiership disastrous, sometimes a leader should be changed, unhampered by a cumbersome process.

Less controversial is whether the federal caucus should get back its right to choose the frontbench. This was hijacked in opposition by Rudd; in government, caucus agreed to permanently change the rules to let the leader pick his or her team (previously they only formally had the right to allocate portfolios although informally they could, more or less, get who they wanted into the team). Despite the change, recent experience suggests the PM is still highly constrained by the factions in picking the frontbench. Restoring caucus' right to elect it might make ministers marginally less subservient, and would give caucus a feeling of greater empowerment.

Another change sometimes canvassed is letting Labor MPs cross the floor if they profoundly disagree with a policy. That would deeply challenge Labor tradition, putting Labor MPs into a similar situation to Liberals. In an age of cynicism about politicians, there is a good case for saying MPs should be able to break ranks when they feel strongly.

Faulkner's argument that factions should not be allowed to bind MPs in caucus votes is a no-brainer. But the wider issue of factionalism is more complicated. When they are acting well factions can be good for the party; but they can also be a scourge. Obviously they can't be abolished, and it takes more than rule changes to make them behave positively.

Then there is the vexed question of preselections. The party review favoured trialling of ''primaries'' - giving ALP supporters (as distinct from members) a say in choosing candidates. Primaries have the capacity to enliven contests, and to provide supporters with a taste of power that might (but might not) lead them to joining the party, and even becoming candidates themselves. But there are fears about ''stacking'', and the danger of actually discouraging people bothering with membership.

If Labor shied away from the very moderate Faulkner/Carr/Bracks national blueprint, will the next leader want to spark a debate about root and branch change? Don't hold your breath.

Michelle Grattan is The Age political editor.

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