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Whitlam, Birthday Boy, Proposes Major ALP Reforms

The former Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who turns 86 today, has proposed major internal reform for the ALP, including rank-and-file election of national conference delegates.

Gough Whitlam, 86 years young todayThe man responsible for fundamental internal reform of the ALP in the 1960s and 1970s, a campaign that saw him nearly expelled from the party, says the changes are needed to overcome the “friction of the factions”.

Whitlam, whose three-year term as Prime Minister ended with a vice-regal dismissal on November 11, 1975, calls for the ALP’s National Conference delegates to be voted for on an electorate-by-electorate basis by the party membership. At present, delegates to the National Conference are chosen by the State Conferences along rigid factional and union lines.

Quoted in the Financial Review, Whitlam delivers a “scathing assessment” of the ALP machines in the various states, pointing to the ALP’s abysmal showing in Queensland (7 of 26 House of Representatives seats in 2001), NSW (20/50) and South Australia (3/12) as evidence that “the predominant factions in those states cannot win federal elections”.

Whitlam is quoted as saying: “Our national conference is flawed as long as it is composed of state delegations instead of electorate delegates… We must realise that state conferences can’t develop federal programs and should not be allowed to act as if they can.”

The ALP National Conference is an important feature of the party’s structure. It is the “supreme governing body” of the party. Its decisions on administrative and policy matters are binding on the parliamentary members. In the Liberal Party the equivalent body, the Federal Council, can only advise the parliamentary party.

Whilst the debate about ALP reform in the media has centred on the 60/40 rule – whereby State Conference membership is weighted 60% in favour of union delegates and 40% from the branches grouped in federal electorates – there is an emerging consensus that the ALP’s major problem is the power and rigidity of the factions.

Writing also in the Financial Review today, Bob Hogg, the former National Secretary of the ALP, calls for more control of the ALP’s factions. As State Secretary of the Victorian ALP in the 1970s and early 1980s, Hogg is remembered as the person who facilitated factional power-sharing and electoral success at the State and Federal levels in that State. Hogg says the ALP needs to become more “open, democratic and representative of the community”.

Hogg says: “The party will have to rein in and control its factions. There is common concern that they are Labor’s biggest problem. They exist in some form or other in all political parties and will continue in a reformed ALP. However, they are accountable to no-one, yet they exist by trading off the ALP’s name. Outside that “franchise”, no faction would last as a political movement. Rather than remaining informal sub-groups, they have become highly formalised, often with sizeable bank accounts created by fundraising activities that cut across the party’s own needs. There is no auditing of their finances, let alone any oversight of their egregious behaviour. If they continue to operate unfettered, they will end up causing the party considerable grief – far greater than that recently experienced in Queensland.”

Hogg proposes specific reforms, including financial regulation, for controlling the factions, the first such reforms mooted in public by a prominent ALP identity: “It’s time for the form in which factions exist to be defined by the party’s rules. Their accounts and books should be subjected to full audits by the ALP’s organisation and all fundraising from the public should be proscribed. Such simple and unarguable reforms will help shift the balance of power within the organisation back from its Balkanised factions to where it belongs: the party’s state and national head offices.”

In his critique of the ALP, Gough Whitlam likens the present situation to that of the 1950s and 1960s when the ALP often held office in the States, but was unable to win federally. “My theory is the Labor Party only prevails federally when it takes national and international initiatives,” he said. Breaking the power of the factionalised State blocs, he argues, is crucial to achieving this.

Prior to Whitlam’s reforms of the 1960s, the ALP National Conference was composed of equal numbers of representatives from each State. The Parliamentary leadership was not included. The Conference met in secret and was dominated by figures such as Joe Chamberlain from Western Australia. In the 1963 election, then Prime Minister Robert Menzies dubbed the conference the “36 Faceless Men”. This arose from a famous photograph of Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell and his deputy, Whitlam, standing in the dark outside a Canberra hotel, awaiting a decision of the Conference on its attitude to the establishment of a US military base at North-West Cape.

During Whitlam’s struggle to reform the Conference, his opponents on the party’s National Executive attempted to have him expelled. The 12-man executive was dubbed by Whitlam “the 12 witless men”.

Ultimately, the National Conference was broadened to represent the States in proportion to their membership, the State and Federal parliamentary leaders were made automatic members, and the Conference proceedings were opened to the media and the public. In other reforms, Whitlam backed the National Executive’s decision on Intervention in the Victorian ALP. This resulted in the dismissal of the then State Executive led by George Crawford and Bill Hartley, and the institution of a proportional power-sharing arrangement.

The ALP’s structure is currently under review by a committee headed by the former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and the former NSW Premier, Neville Wran. Their report is due next month and their proposals will be considered at the next National Conference of the ALP, due next year, but which may be brought forward to October.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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