I have trouble writing about the ALP. One on hand, I feel deeply that it is the right way forward to advance social and economic goals which I can associate closely with. However on the other, I sense a Party that is fundamentally at odds with a modern Australia.
My friend Tom has written about an ALP discussion evening about the recent review of the party in light of the events of 2010. I also attended this event, with approximately 11 others. Tom identifies membership as the central issue because of how few members there actually are (approx 38k at last count). What do these members think? Why do they think that way? These are questions the current powers that be within the ALP cannot answer as they do not know (for a non-ALP perspective, a broader piece on parties by Mark is recommended)
Tom (and I think it is fair to say many others) see ‘low intensity’ party politics as a major part of the solution to grow a membership base. A GetUp model (or similar), whereby people can engage without commitment, ‘act’ without acting and involve themselves as much, or as little, as they wish.
There are many positives about this approach. Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and unique organisational hubs can definitely drive activity where there previously was none. American politics demonstrates this extremely well with candidates such as Ron Paul, who manage to campaign with a very small core of radical activists but involve others through various means; donations, local talks, community groups and increasingly online methods. For a derelict political party such as the ALP, it presents one of the best options to ‘re-connect’ in the 21st century.
Yet this still fails to answer why people are so turned off? Being a relatively new member, I understand the barriers to entry. Union fees, branch meetings, endless talk of rules and delegates. A feeling of disconnect between what you witness in the history books and what is felt when the 7pm news again disappoints. However these cannot and do not account for why only 38k members exist. There are other barriers, deeper within society.
It is this question of societal malaise from the ALP that has to be answered. Any new engagement, any different way forward, any change to institutional norms requires more than just members. It requires leadership and it requires time. Change is fostered, slowly at first, by a group or individuals who will it forward until in it reaches a tipping point where change is embraced by a wider movement.
In the ALP of 2011, I do not see that leadership. I see John Faulkner who says the right things but has neither the time nor probably the inclination to fight this bitter battle. I see a Prime Minister who cannot fight a battle within the Parliament while simultaneously in the Party. There are union leaders who strive for more power (De Bruyn, Ludwig, Feeney and Co.). The generation of 30 something up and comers, such as Arbib, Bowen, and Ellis are honed in a media saturated environment where winning must come at any cost – including riding rough shot over policy, values and conscience.
I see a room full of people last night, 12 in total, with ideas about membership, policy, pre-selections, rules, factions and ideals. Good and bad ideas. Perspectives borne out of winter door knocking, generations of conservative government and membership of a Party that continues to break hearts and souls with the belief that people will never leave… despite the fact they continue to leave in droves.
Thankfully, these are only the public faces of the ALP that I have a personal vantage point on. It is most definitely true that leadership of the ALP will emerge exactly where I am not looking. Kevin Rudd was not even in the parliament when John Howard was first elected Prime Minister and he managed to do something three other, more ‘traditional’ leaders, could not. Despite cynicism and pessimism about the current state (I’m mostly talking about myself here), leadership will emerge. The greatest shame is that it takes the darkest hours of an institution for leadership to thrive (as I write, I find that Rudd is the preferred leader to Gillard 60:31 and the ALP primary vote is 27%).
It is important to remember that institutional change takes time. With over 110 years of history, the ALP will only move slowly and as a response to defeat and setback. I heard well-intended talk about radical transformation last night. It was passionate, thoughtful and frank, straight from the President of the ACT Branch. Yet in my opinion it is wrong. Transformation takes time.
This is why broader engagement is a worthy goal to strive for. The internet is not going anywhere. This is the reason not to act rashly. Quick fixes will be promoted and debated but should be thought of across the long term. New members are but one piece. What does the Party want from them? What decisions should they partake in? How does the institution, and by it’s nature, our society, get the most out of them? These are questions that should be thought of while trying to attract more people.