Labor Right and union chieftain Joe de Bruyn has dismissed calls by senior Left figures to overhaul candidate selection processes as “manoeuvring for factional advantage’’, despite a Victorian powerbroker warning that the party was teetering on the brink of irrelevance to its grassroots.
A day after Labor’s national president, Jenny McAllister, and party elder statesman John Faulkner called for an end to the “broken’’ system of union bosses and factional leaders selecting upper house candidates, the pleadings for reform have divided the party.
Mr de Bruyn, the national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, said it was “absurd’’ to argue rule changes would increase Labor’s membership.
“The way to increase Labor Party membership is to go and ask people to join, and that is manifestly largely not being done at the moment,’’ he said.
“It’s got nothing to do with whether you have rank-and-file preselections or all the other things … whether it is John Faulkner or whether it is Jenny McAllister, it’s simply people from one particular faction proposing a system which they believe suits their faction better than the current system.
“I think their proposals need to be seen as simply manoeuvring for factional advantage and therefore treated accordingly,’’ Mr de Bruyn told The Australian. “I can’t see that changing that to suit one faction is appropriate.’’
Federal MP Andrew Giles, a key figure in the Victorian Left, has warned that the party was on the brink of irrelevance unless it restored the balance between the power of the factions and “self-interested cabals’’ and the ability of the rank and file to have their say. He said he was “concerned we are reaching a tipping point, where involvement in factional activity is supplanting wider engagement in the party’’.
“Where all contestability in Labor is ‘off the books’ within factional caucuses, our party is greatly diminished,’’ he said.
Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese, who lost out to Bill Shorten in last year’s leadership ballot despite winning the popular vote, said: “I am a strong advocate of party reform that will empower the membership to have greater direct participation in party decisions.’’
Mr Albanese, from the Left, is declining to comment on specific proposals while the Opposition Leader is on leave and sidelined from the reform debate because of his mother’s death.
Labor’s disastrous showing on Saturday in the re-run of the West Australian Senate election has prompted a fresh round of calls for internal reform, with some criticising the preselection of Senate candidate Joe Bullock.
Ms McAllister wants faction and union bosses to cede power to members to preselect upper house candidates, and Senator Faulkner has reignited his push for reform in NSW Labor to “transfer the power of preselection from just a small number of faction leaders into the hands of all the members of the party’’.
Senator Faulkner, who conducted Labor’s 2010 post-election national review with Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, will agitate for rule changes to be debated by NSW Labor at its conference in July and says they are necessary to stamp out corruption and cronyism. He argues that the system of factional patronage saw disgraced former MP Eddie Obeid and former NSW minister Ian Macdonald preselected.
Sections of Labor’s Right are critical of the reform push and are concerned it would see the party lurch to the Left, but frontbencher Chris Bowen last year argued for Senate preselections to be opened up to the rank and file, and Jason Clare said yesterday he did not oppose allowing members to directly vote to preselect upper house candidates.
“We need to build a bigger modern party,” Mr Clare, Labor’s communications spokesman, told The Australian.
“People who vote for the Labor Party should be able to join the Labor Party. People who vote for the Labor Party should also help to select Labor candidates.
“We need to put more power in the hands of our members and our supporters.”
Mr Bracks, a former Victorian premier, has also backed the reform push.
NSW Labor secretary Jamie Clements, from the Right, has written to party members saying he disagrees with Senator Faulkner’s push to open up preselections for senators and members of the NSW upper house.
The Victorian branch of the ALP will grapple with its reform debate next month at its conference but there is pressure for a more muted discussion ahead of November’s Victorian state poll.
Mr Giles, the federal member for the Melbourne seat of Scullin, has implored the party to more effectively communicate with the membership at the same time as acknowledging the potential drag factions can have on ordinary party members.
In comments to Victorian party members and a review of the party’s rule changes committee, he has warned that the challenge was not in declaring factions a negative influence but in determining how to open up the party to a broader group of people.
“There is a world of difference between people coming together to advance shared ideological objectives through our party on the one hand, and on the other hand, self-interested cabals denying others meaningful political space,’’ he said.
NSW Right figure Joel Fitzgibbon, a supporter of reform, sounded a note of caution about where the debate will take Labor.
“The party also has to be ready for the challenges that will bring to the party. I mean the leadership ballot showed that those coming to the party are of the progressive Left and the party needs to ensure that it doesn’t creep too far from the centre because it needs to remain electable,’’ he said on Sky News.