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“Towards A Modern Labor Party”: Bill Shorten’s Speech On Party Reform

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, has proposed a series of reforms to the operation of the ALP.


In a speech to a Per Capita forum at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, Shorten proposed giving party members more say in the preselection of lower and upper house candidates. He also proposed a system of direct election of National Conference delegates.

“We need to change ourselves,” Shorten said. “We need to change our party. If we don’t change, we are putting our very future at risk.”

Shorten called for a “membership-based party” with 100,000 members and said that by July new members would be able to join online via a “one-click” procedure. He said he had asked National and State Secretaries of the party to establish “low cost, uniform national membership fees”.

Shorten said “it should no longer be compulsory for prospective members of the Labor Party to join a union”. This is a party rule more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Shorten conceded it was a “symbolic change”.

The Labor leader also called for the 50:50 split between local members and the central party in preselections to be 70:30, provided the electorate had at least 300 party members. He called for more community-based preselections as have been trialled in NSW. He said intervention in preselections by the party’s National Executive should be “the exception, not the rule”.

Shorten said he had instructed the National Secretary to work with the National Executive and the Western Australian Labor Party “to recommend the best way of giving local party members a meaningful say in the selection of Senate candidates”.

Shorten also said he had asked for “concrete recommendations” on how to make the National Conference more representative by having a mix of people directly elected by members and state conferences.

He called for those involved in corrupt behaviour to “get out” of the party.

Shorten also called for a complete re-write of Chapter One of the ALP’s platform to achieve “a democratically-drafted statement that captures what modern Labor stands for”.

Shorten did not propose any change to the 50:50 split between union and individual membership which many see as the key to breaking down the power of the union-backed factions which control nearly all aspects of the ALP’s decision-making processes.

  • Listen to Bill Shorten’s speech (34m)
  • Listen to Shorten respond to questions – includes remarks by Steve Bracks (43m)

Text of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s speech to Per Capita at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.



As you know, I was originally scheduled to speak to you on April 7.

Since then, passages of what I was planning to say have been reported – followed by a lot of very well-intentioned advice about what else I should say.

It is clear to me that there is a widespread, genuine passion for rebuilding the Labor party.

A passion drawn from our abiding faith in progressive politics and a deep belief in changing our country for the better. Like me, you must find it hard to watch what Tony Abbott’s government is doing to the country we love.

Trying to tear down everything we have worked so hard to build together. Trying to impose their backward-looking, twisted priorities on our nation. Letting thousands of jobs go without a fight, and then blaming the workers. Denigrating the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Slugging families with a GP Tax – the first shot in the Liberals’ war on Medicare. Concocting a false budget emergency to justify an agenda of cruel cuts to schools and hospitals.

Punishing pensioners and yet paying some of the wealthiest Australians $75,000 for parental leave. Sacking CSIRO scientists, rejecting the science of climate change, and paying big polluters to poison the environment. Sending the wrong message on racism and bigotry, and bullying the ABC.

Why do they do these things?

Because the Liberal Party have always put the interests of powerful lobby groups ahead of the vulnerable. That is why they exist – it is what they live for – vested interests.

By contrast, Labor is the party of change, the party of optimism and opportunity for all.

But to fulfil our mission, to live up to our values, we must be in government. It is no good all of us gathering in furious agreement or mutual indignation. If we want to change the government, if we want to change the country, we must change too.

So today is a day for facing up to some hard truths.

Friends, Tony Abbott did not put Labor in Opposition – the Australian people put us here.

And unless we change, it is where we will stay.

Unless we change, we will be forced to watch on as the Liberals undo and unmake everything that modern Australia is, everything that modern Australia can be.

It is only in government that we can put our words into action, and into law.

And for Labor to earn the privilege of governing again, we must have an honest conversation about why we lost power.

For too long we have allowed the characterisation that Labor only has an ‘image problem’, a ‘message problem’ a ‘selling problem’ to explain our electoral fortunes.

It’s more serious than this. We need to change ourselves. We need to change our party. If we don’t change – we are putting our very future at risk.

For Labor to build a modern, outward-looking, confident and democratic Australia, we have to be a modern, outward-looking, confident and democratic party.

This process began with the election of the party leader last year.

It was a big step.

It’s now time for the next big step. Today I announce the start of a major campaign to rebuild the Australian Labor Party and renew our sense of purpose.

A campaign driven by my mandate as the first member-elected Leader of the Labor Party.

A campaign to create a Labor party that’s stronger because we have more members and those members have more of a say.

A campaign to create a big party, a nation-embracing party, a party that represents and reflects the Australian people.

A membership-based party.

A Labor party with 100,000 members.

For Labor to rebuild, we have to involve more people in the work of rebuilding.

More than 4 million people voted Labor at the last election. Almost 300,000 have signed up for our emailing list.

These are Labor’s people. These are Australians who own our beliefs, who share our ideals, who rely upon Labor government.

People who place their faith and trust and hope in Labor.

Australians who, because of Gough Whitlam, became the first in their family to go to university.

Australians who first received superannuation under Hawke and Keating.

Australians who were inspired by the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Australians who know that only Labor can deliver a life-changing reform like the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Australians who want good jobs for their kids and decent aged care for their parents.

These are our supporters, our people. Labor people.

I want them to be our members.

Today I wrote to George Wright, the National Secretary of the Labor Party, outlining my priorities for rebuilding our party-and the immediate actions I want us to take.

I’ve been a member of the Labor party for 29 years.

When I was 16, it took me nearly a year to jump through all the hoops for membership.

Three decades later, it is still too hard for people to sign up to our cause.

I want to change that.

By July we will launch a ‘one-click’ online joining model for new members.

In a time when we can book flights, do our banking and file our tax returns online – every Labor supporter should be able to become a Labor member in minutes, not months.

I have also asked our National Secretary to work with our State Secretaries to establish low cost, uniform national membership fees.

Labor should have a fee structure that includes young people, people on low incomes, students, apprentices and trainees.

But attracting new members is about more than practicalities.

It is also about reaching out to new constituencies.

People in small business.

People in regional towns.

Young people.

Between 2010 and 2013 around 400,000 Australians reached voting age but didn’t enrol.

Four hundred thousand.

Young Australians who are leaving school, taking up an apprenticeship or a university place, moving out of home and looking for work.

Young Australians who do not believe that politics can deliver positive change or that public policy is relevant to their lives.

People who feel that their concerns are outside the understanding of political parties, that involvement in politics doesn’t solve their problems.

These should be Labor’s people too.

Every time I talk with young people about joining our party, someone asks: ‘Why would I want to join a political party?’

Well, if you want to change our party – you have to join it.

If you think the system is broken – help us fix it.

If you care about improving our country – you have to be the change you wish to see.

If you care about what Australia will look like in 2020 and beyond.

If you care about the education and healthcare you receive, the public transport you ride in, the air you breathe – you have to participate in the public debate.

If you opt out – if you choose the ‘plague on both their houses’ option, then you are depriving our country of your talents, your experience and your capacity to engage others.

If you don’t engage in politics, you end up being governed by vested interests – by powerful, privileged voices.

If you want proof, just have a look at the would-be knights sitting around the Cabinet table.

Above all, if we want people to join the Labor party – we must make it clear that Labor is capable of engaging with them and speaking for them.

And if we are truly serious about modernising the Labor party, we need to modernise our relationship with the union movement.

I am a proud union member.

I will always be proud to be one.

I am proud of what modern Australian trade unions have done to lift the living standards of working people in Australia, to seek the fair go and embed it in our community, to make our workplaces some of the safest in the world.

Together, Labor and the union movement created one of the most successful social-democratic countries in the world.

But our world and our workforce are changing. As a party we can’t remain anchored in the past – we need to rise with the modern tide.

I believe it should no longer be compulsory for prospective members of the Labor party to join a union.

And I have instructed our National Secretary to have this requirement removed from Labor party rules.

People have said that this a symbolic change – it is.

And it is more than that. It is a change that makes it clear that Labor is not exclusively for one group of Australians.

We are for an economy where everyone prospers, a society where everyone benefits, an Australia where the fair go is for everyone.

Union and non-union employees.

The self-employed, small business and wage earners.

This change makes it plain that in 2014 Labor is not the political arm of anything but the Australian people.

Let me say a couple more things about Labor’s relationship with the unions.

The Abbott Royal Commission into unions is gearing up.

I know that many in our party, and the union movement, legitimately resent the political agenda behind this exercise.

They know Tony Abbott has always been obsessed with discrediting the people of the union movement and, by association, the people of the Labor party.

The timing and focus of this Royal Commission is the sort of cynical and small-minded practice – the low use of high office – that is beginning to define this Prime Minister.

But whatever the base political motives of Tony Abbott, there is a clear obligation to act in the face of criminal conduct.

As a former union representative and as a Minister, I have always supported actions that fight corruption.

Two years ago, as Workplace Relations Minister, I took the serious and unprecedented step of applying to the Federal Court to have the HSU East Branch put into administration.

The Federal Court agreed that the members of some branches of the HSU – some of the lowest paid and hardest working employees in Australia – were victims of a blood-sucking culture of dysfunction and corruption among their leadership.

For me it was straightforward.

No-one is above the law. No business. No union. No individual.

Corruption is a profound insult and a deep betrayal of everything the Labor party and the union movement stand for.

Corruption has no place in modern Australia, in the boardroom or on the factory floor.

Unlike Tony Abbott, I am not interested in using the Royal Commission as a Star Chamber for settling old scores.

I won’t abuse an important judicial process by rushing to judgment or chasing headlines.

But I will say this.

If you have betrayed the trust of your members – you don’t belong in the union movement.

If you are in the pockets of organised crime – you don’t deserve protection – and you won’t get it from us.

We don’t want you. Get out.

All of us who hold the principles and values of our party dear, must stand together
and meet criminality, corruption and misconduct with resolute strength.

Our best defence is to rebuild our party with a new, more open, democratic and transparent model of membership.

Rebuilding Labor means giving our members a voice – not just asking for their vote.

We have to write a new democratic contract.

When the Labor Party was born in 1891, the vision of its founders was of a membership-based party.

But in more recent times, the role of unions within our party has developed into a factional, centralised decision-making role.

If we are to renew and rebuild the Labor party, we must rebuild as a membership-based party, not a faction-based one.

A broader, more inclusive party.

A party where more people…are more involved…more often.

I would encourage State and Territory parties to follow the lead of Federal Labor and elect their leaders using the 50:50 system.

I admire John Robertson in New South Wales for his leadership on this issue.

I congratulate the ACT, Queensland and Tasmanian Labor who have already taken steps to empower thousands of members by giving them a say in who leads the party.

This is all about respect.

Respect for our members – their values and their judgment.

That is why we will be giving local members a greater role in pre-selecting their local
Labor candidates.

Choosing a candidate for public office is a solemn responsibility – and it should be a right of our engaged members.

Right now, Labor pre-selection processes vary from state to state, both in structure and in clarity.

Here in Victoria, ALP candidates for the lower house are currently elected by a 50:50 vote of local members and a central panel elected by State Conference.

I have instructed our National Secretary to work with his State and Territory counterparts to increase the weight given to the local members’ vote by 20 per cent in every House of Representatives seat with more than 300 party members.

In Victoria, this will mean a 70:30 split in favour of local party members.

I believe we should also be looking at more primary-style community pre-selections in non-held seats, as we saw trialled by our New South Wales branch recently.

A couple of weeks ago, more than 1000 members of the community cast their votes in the Campbelltown pre-selection. That is an impressive number – proof that if we open our doors to the community, the community will respond.

If Labor is to rebuild as a membership-based party, we must also be a community-based party, with candidates drawn from, and chosen by, their community.

It is true that in our 113 years as Australia’s oldest continuous political party Labor’s
pre-selections have gained a reputation for being rugged battles.

But our pre-selections are also a valuable introduction to campaigning for our future Labor MPs.

We should be proud to have these contests in the open.

We must put our faith in transparency – and back the good judgment of local Labor members.

There will, of course, be times when Labor has an opportunity to pre-select a candidate of exceptional quality for a particular seat.

But from now on, intervention by the national executive should be the exception, not the rule.

I remain committed to Labor’s affirmative action goals – and I want this to be a cause that all of us share.

We must increase the number of female representatives in Federal, State and Territory Parliaments.

And I believe a greater local voice in pre-selections will help us achieve this.

Giving our members more of a say in pre-selections doesn’t end with the House of Representatives.

Friends, we need to change our Senate pre-selection process.

Labor has always been well served by our Senators- and we have a motivated Senate team.

But the rancour over the recent Western Australian process shows that in the future we need a method that provides a local voice – in addition to a central component – so that we can select the best possible candidates.

There a range of views on the best way forward, but there is no dancing around the truth.

There has to be real change.

Local Labor voices need to be heard in Senate selection across Australia – and the first steps must be taken now.

I have instructed our National Secretary to work with the National Executive and the
Western Australian Labor Party to recommend the best way of giving local party members a meaningful say in the selection of Senate candidates.

We will be setting a new standard for selecting Labor Senators.

Our work in Western Australia will be used to inform our other State branches in allowing local members to contribute to Senate pre-selection nationally.

This is not about the performance of Labor’s current Senators – they are dedicated contributors whom I support.

This is not about revolution – it’s about evolution.

This is about rebuilding Labor for the long haul.

Our faith in democratic decision-making should apply to our National Conference too.

Which is why I have asked New South Wales State Secretary Jamie Clements to provide me with concrete recommendations on how we can make our National Conference more representative.

Our goal should be for future Labor Conferences to be a mix of people directly elected from and by Labor members, and those elected by state conferences.

Making Labot more democratic and more representative is also about reaching out to union members – not just those in leadership positions – to join our party and participate in our decision-making.

Unions will always have a vital role to play in Australian society – and I want union members to continue to play a role in our party, as members.

So far, I have focused on changes that will give Labor members more of a say.

The simple fact is, Labor can propose all the rule changes we want, but if people don’t see us as standing for the right things, they won’t join us.

Rebuilding our party is not just a technical job of updating our rules.

It is a moral task of renewing our ideas and sense of purpose. That is why I have thrown my support behind the decision of the last National Conference to undertake a major review of the ALP National Platform in time for our 2015 National Conference.

Our National President Jenny McAlister and members of the National Policy Forum along with Shadow Cabinet and Caucus are all engaged in these consultations.

But everyone needs to have a say in this process – and we should start with Chapter One.

Chapter One contains Labor’s enduring values.

We need a new Chapter One, a democratically-drafter statement that captures what modern Labor stands for.

I know we are a big party with a diversity of deeply-held views.

And we are right to be passionate when debating the policy solutions for the challenges that Australia faces.

But we also have a responsibility as an Opposition and as an alternative government.

We must be united in our sense of purpose.

And we must lock in behind the policy position we arrive at.

If we are not united, if we are not focused, then we risk letting Tony Abbott and his government of twisted priorities and broken promises off the hook.

Friends, rebuilding always means risk.

It challenges the status quo – but it is what our great party is about.

It is what separates us from the protectors of privilege who sit opposite us in Parliament.

Rebuilding is never painless.

But it is far less painful than the alternative.

The alternative of a weaker, less-relevant Labor party.

A party left trying to fight the great battle of ideas with an arm tied behind our back.

A party doomed to see its great mission live on only in the archives – and its great successes grow dusty in the trophy cabinet of history.

We cannot let this happen.

We cannot stand still and watch as Tony Abbott punishes the people we in the Labor party have always served.

We cannot submit to the twisted priorities of this Prime Minister.

Australia will always need Labor governments.

Labor reforms, Labor vision, Labor compassion.

But we cannot say Labor is ready to serve – until we change.

Today is a significant step – but it is only the start of our journey.

This journey will take time.

We will be sharing our ideas with the Australian people – and listening to their ideas.

It will be a conversation between equals about the sort of party we want to be.

Because the work of rebuilding Labor belongs to us all.

Together we can make Labor as big, bold and open as the country we want to serve.

This is a duty we owe to ourselves and to our nation.

A modern Labor Party, for modern Australia.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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