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Connecting With The Missing Middle: Reforming The Parliament And The ALP

February 1, 2002

This article is a summary of a speech given by Wayne Swan, the ALP Shadow Minister for Families and Community Services, to the Fabian Society. Click here to read the complete speech.

Wayne Swan, ALP Member for Lilley and Shadow Minister for Families and Community Services A senior ALP shadow minister, Wayne Swan, has advocated radical reforms to the ALP's structure and organisation, in the wake of the party's third successive election defeat last November. Swan has also proposed a number of parliamentary reforms to revitalise the political process.

Swan argues that the ALP lost the election because it was caught in a "classic wedge" between the so-called "battlers" and the suburban middle-class. He says that Labor lost the election for three reasons:

  • it lost the "battlers" to the coalition "because the Howard Government's aim was to convince the people it was hurting the most to ignore their pain and vote on the basis of their fears."

  • it lost the "Whitlamite generation" who saw the party' stance on refugees as unprincipled.

  • it lost the suburban middle classes, the "Westfield Mallers", the people who believe "that the Government only provides benefits for the undeserving."

As part of a plan to revitalise the political process and the ALP, Swan proposes a number of constitutional and parliamentary reforms:

  • returning to the question of a republic, but with a directly-elected President.

  • fixed four-year parliamentary terms.

  • constitutional change to take account of new scientific advances such as gene technology.

  • a more independent Speaker of the House of Representatives.

  • strengthening the Standing Orders in Parliament to compel ministers to answer questions.

  • more government policy should be announced and debated in Parliament.

  • bans on press photographers in Parliament should be lifted.

Swan argues that the ALP is also in need of reform. Within the ALP, "the top has been strengthened while the base has been weakened, a circumstance as fraught with danger in politics as it is in architecture." Swan says "we should change the rules to make as much of Party activity and election campaigning open to mass participation and that includes getting the rank and file and affiliated trade unionists more involved."

Specifically, Swan says the ALP should not back away from its support via unionism for Australian workers and their families.

He argues that factionalism is a far greater problem than unionism, making the party too inwardly focused and bureaucratised. "Many in the Party who could have made a contribution, but don't belong to a faction feel they are ignored and so drift away."

He proposes three reforms to the structure and organisaton of the ALP:

  • direct election of some key organisational positions by Party members, such as Party President and the branch component of the National Executive.

  • fixed terms for some of these positions.

  • replacing the present preselection system with a two-tiered primary system. The Party could select a short list of potential candidates and registered Labor supporters could then vote for their preferred representative.

Swan argues that the ALP has to adopt new policies for the future, policies that build upon the reforms he proposes to the parliament and the party.

He says that the conservative government maintains its policy of undermining the faith people have in the "positive power of government to create opportunities".

Swan argues that the ALP has to be committed to economic policies that deliver low interest rates, since these are crucial to the living standards and the purchasing power of the voters the party has lost. He talks of the need to restore faith in the ailing public health and education systems, making more social investment in emerging areas such as technology, and providing greater reward for effort.

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