Bill Shorten to ALP: speak with one voice

(Non-immigration post below)

Bill Shorten to the National Policy Forum:

 “All of us have a voice in this forum – a voice that will be heard, but when we arrive at a consensus, when we reach a policy position, we have an obligation to speak with one voice – shadow ministers, caucus members, rank and file members, trade unions and party organisations alike.

When our policy is agreed, all of us must lock in behind it. I don’t want the papers to be writing about our differences – I want them to be writing about our ideas and our policies.

I want them to be writing about the differences between us and the conservatives; about how we’re looking out for working people and they’re looking after vested interests.”

The National Policy Forum is an excellent idea. Having individuals from across the ALP meet outside of traditional forums (like Conference) allows for the discussion of complex issues where there is a diversity of viewpoints.

This said, I don’t believe there is should be an obligation to speak with one voice post-decision.

Shadow Ministers are bound by cabinet conventions. This is exactly as it should be. The notion of a collective cabinet is integral to Australian politics, regardless of party. However caucus members are not bound and should be free to speak out on topics where they feel the need if attempts at internal discussion go ignored. Sometimes this will be a subtle nudge, and very occasionally, a noisy direct shove. Leadership should be able to bind caucus when required but also open up opportunities for where this doesn’t occur.

Trade union leaders should serve their members first and foremost, as opposed to paying lip service to ALP policy which may conflict with their members interests. This is why I see there is a conflict of interest for some unions (such as the CPSU) and disaffiliation is a better long-term alternative. It is true there are benefits in affiliation, but the drawbacks can be harmful for members. It is difficult for any public sector union to support an efficiency dividend, let alone one which reached four per cent in 2011-12 under an ALP government. Advocacy or even a non-response makes a mockery of future battles against Liberal cuts. The same conflicts can be found across various industries, manufacturing and construction come to mind in the current environment.

This doesn’t mean unions and the ALP cannot advocate for an agreed position when in the best interests of both groups, as seen from the WorkChoices campaign and various other policy areas. But consistent compromise, working through the miniature of policy details is vital. It means different voices, with different intentions and goals. Direct public advocacy of a single unified position bodes poorly for the future.

Finally, should rank and file members be locked in behind party positions? Why should individual members with extremely limited power who oppose offshore detention support the PNG solution? Why should people who favour gay marriage support anything other than a binding caucus vote? By calling for this, we make it easier for people to leave the ALP than encouraging them to join. Disagreement of members should be welcomed, fostered and channeled into constructive processes. The National Policy Forum is one such example. There is no need to layer this approach with unnecessary restrictions on advocacy. Eventually we are going to see the processes in place where member opinion is easily quantified and expressed, with strong implications for membership contributions on policy. Show and tell from the privacy of your iPhone won’t work quite as well as current methods.

In the 21st century, you cannot have a mass membership party and lock people into policy positions. Government policy is too broad and too divisive. Public pressure between competing policy positions can lead to better outcomes and figuring out how to achieve this is important.

Too often this discussion gets stuck in overtly political tones based on the next election. The ALP has always been party that binds and winning the next election means the Liberals cannot implement their agenda. Yet we need to also think of the benefits of diversity. Policy innovation doesn’t come from unification. It comes from debate and difference. A variety of approaches where the best one is settled on or reiterated towards. Without debate, without difference, we get policy stagnation. Public advocacy in particular makes the pressure for change greater, as opposed to back-room operating where power imbalances between elected politicians and other groups destroy proper compromise.

After a position is agreed, there will always be advocates and detractors. It is true the Shadow Treasurer should be seen to advocate for agreed policy positions, even those he disagrees with. It is not true however that Bruce from Belconnen should also advocate the same agreed position, even if he sits on the National Policy Forum.

2 thoughts on “Bill Shorten to ALP: speak with one voice

  1. What sort of political party is it where everyone is advocating different policies publicly? Doesn’t that mean there is nobody left actually advocating for the party’s position?

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t believe everyone will advocate different policies publicly. Most people do agree on most policies, this is why they join the party they do. Within the ALP, the vast majority of members and MPs would agree on a core set of values around the labour market and social support, which fuse into policy positions.

    However by stating explicitly public unification in advocacy of agreed positions – for everything – I think we do ourselves a disservice. If a position is agreed to, there will continue to be strong advocates (most likely senior frontbenchers) as well as other powerful interests (such as unions like United Voice on penalty rates). However there should be room for debate and this means not prescribing one voice.

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