Missing the point

Reading about elections is not always an enjoyable way to spend ones time. This is even more true when the discussion is about 1902 and choice of election methods. That’s what I thought anyway.

It turns out that it can actually capture the imagination. In Australia, we are lucky. Our elections are fair, free and highly democratic while allowing a strong government to actually govern. Yet this was not always the case. Before current electoral systems were introduced, Australia had a very heavy handed election method, with voters bluntly marking one party or another.

Even when reform did occur, it happened for all the wrong reasons. AV (used in the House of Reps) was introduced in 1918 to suit the Conservatives split tickets and fear that the ALP would win too many seats while PR (Senate) was dreamed up to fend off minor parties from winning seats and stem the ability of a future Menzies Government.

These reforms didn’t appear out of nowhere. They were thrashed out over decades before federation and nearly occurred in 1902 but the Government of the day botched the politics of the vote. Shame. But in the end Australia got there, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.

To some, this would show how luck and lack of foresight is of the upmost importance in shaping the future. To me however, it paints a different picture. I believe the right thing (in this case democratic governance) eventuated because the ideas were there, they existed and had formed into accepted alternatives over time. Sure, they needed a catalyst which in this case was an attempted power grab, but the idea was the important step in allowing change to occur.

For this reason, it is with profound sadness that I read about Stephen Conroy’s foray into the murky world of the ALP Review.

Conroy is a smart man. He has ability and is proving a good Minister. He is effectively dealing with his opposition Minister (the talented Mr Turnball) and has the capacity to back track where required, seen by the quiet dumping of the internet filter.

Yet Conroy also wears another hat. That of Victorian Right-wing factional broker. Now, I’ll admit a bit of bias here. I could be described as many things, but Victoria right-wing would probably not make the short list. It is this hat that has Conroy calling for the party to stop ‘staring at it’s naval’.

Any review of the ALP is going to have a major issue. If it holds Government at the time, opinions like this one will abound. Governing for Australians, as opposed to ALP members, is an easy slogan to make which will gather much community support. On the other hand, holding a review while in Opposition doesn’t achieve anything much at all. Opposition leaders often don’t hold much real power (see Simon Crean’s troubles with reforming the ALP) and lack a following to drive home change.

The most recent ALP review is about the future. It is about ideas. Instead of fiddling with the boundaries, it is a real attempt to focus on how the ALP can move into the 21st century. It is about how a Government can reconnect with the people who want to see it succeed. It is how to engage those people who are currently lost, floating in a sea of Green and moderate Liberal messages.

If this is self-indulgent, then let’s indulge. Conroy is right in that fact that Julia Gillard should not be hopping up and down to make sure recommendations pass or fail. Conroy shouldn’t be doing that either. Leave it to ALP Branch members, state executives, trade unions and a few back benchers actually interested in reform. Of course any change to the status quo will attract an avid opposition of entrenched interests.

This is never more true than when talking about political parties. Like all good reform, there will be losers. Some votes will be diminished. Powerful influences will wane. Yet it is inevitable that change will come, as surely as time continues to march forward. An ALP designed in the 19th century cannot survive over the long term if it remains wedded to it’s institutional roots.

This is why it’s important to have the conversation. All the recommendations in the review are not going to be implemented. In fact, I hold little hope that any of them will be done properly. But there is a generation of younger members (and I count myself in this group) who actually believe in the power of open information and direct engagement with wider, diverse audiences. The ideas contained in the review have only just been born. They need time to grow and be nurtured by a new generation, away from the Stephen Conroy’s of the world who misses the point on the entire process.

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