No better time for change within Labor
This op-ed was originally published in The Australian.
Last week in Rome I attended a conference of progressive political parties.
It was hosted by the Italian Democratic Party, which is now the most popular party in Italy following the political demise of Silvio Berlusconi. However, that popularity hides a difficult truth -- parties of the Centre-Left have been remarkably unsuccessful in winning office in Europe for at least a decade.
Social democrats today are in power in just five of the 27 EU countries, compared with 12 out of the then 15 EU members at the turn of this century.
In the face of such a disturbing trend, the political leadership and strategists in several progressive parties have been working on ways to better engage with the wider community. Despite the reluctance of those with an interest in maintaining strict internal control, some parties have embraced direct elections of the party leader and other candidates at general elections. This means opening up the selection process to the party's rank and file or even further, to the wider electorate. Not surprisingly, where this has happened there has usually been a corresponding leap in support for the party.
The French Socialist Party has been remarkably unsuccessful in presidential campaigns. Like the other European Centre-Left parties, the French Socialists suffered from an ageing and declining membership, which in turn left them increasingly isolated from the political mainstream. Their only president since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958 was Francois Mitterrand. So the party tried something new: a couple of years ago it introduced open primaries for the election of their presidential candidate. This meant giving a vote to anyone who wanted to participate in selecting the Socialist Party's candidate at presidential elections.
The level of participation in the primaries was remarkable: nearly 2.9 million people voted in them. Furthermore, more than five million people watched the televised debate between the candidates for the Socialist Party's nomination. The debate even beat the popular French show Master Chef on a rival network, no mean feat in a nation of gourmands.
Given the proximity of the French presidential elections, one of the big topics of conversation at the Rome conference was how the French Socialist Party's candidate, Francois Hollande, would fare in the first round of that nation's presidential elections. Well, now we know. Last Sunday the French people voted in the first round of their presidential election. The result was very encouraging for the Socialists. Hollande scored 29 per cent -- the biggest bloc of votes -- followed by Nicolas Sarkozy on 27 per cent.
The final run-off election between Hollande and Sarkozy will take place on May 6 with the polls and most political pundits forecasting a win for the Socialist Party candidate.
The French are not the first to try this approach. As I mentioned earlier, the Italian Democratic Party is enjoying a surge of popularity that has put it on the cusp of power. It, too, has opened its doors to the public in a way no one really would have contemplated just a decade ago. In 2009, 2.8 million Italians paid a minimum of E2 each to vote in the Democratic Party's primaries for the selection of its candidate for prime minister. Today that party has more than 10,000 elected representatives across Italy and about 6000 local branches. The polls suggest that it will form a government at the next general elections.
These are just two examples of a trend being embraced by progressive parties across the world. The Danish SDP, the Canadian NDP and other progressive parties also have embraced this inclusive approach with remarkable electoral benefits.
None of this should really be surprising; it's what happens when parties open themselves up to like-minded citizens and ask them to take part in their decision making. The alternative is to lock out the broader electorate and allow frustrations and resentment to build up.
So far the Australian Labor Party has been resistant to thoroughgoing reform. The problem here isn't ideology -- the ALP has never been an ideological party -- it's power. I've written at length about how the structure of the Labor Party, with the dominance of unions and factions, is preventing it from going down the path of its counterparts in Italy, France, Canada and even Britain. The strong performance of Hollande on the weekend should be a catalyst for real reform by the ALP in the way it selects its leader and its candidates.
To be fair, some steps are being taken in NSW -- under the leadership of ALP secretary Sam Dastyari, and he deserves credit for doing so. The so-called community preselection for the ALP's Sydney City Council lord mayoral candidate is a fair start; it is a form of primary. However, real change will occur only when those men and women with vested interests in maintaining the status quo recognise that the time to relinquish much of their power is upon them.
Having worked on innumerable campaigns for Labor and witnessed its highs and lows, I know that we truly are at a critical point in our 121-year history. If we refuse to change the way we select our leaders and candidates the ALP will ossify. But the party has demonstrated during the past century an ability to adapt and flourish. If Labor makes bold reforms now and encourages a far greater sharing of power within the party it can give itself an entirely new lease of life. That, however, is a decision that only the Labor Party's leadership and internal constituency can make.