Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1614      October 16, 2013


Labor’s new leader and lessons in democracy

Bill Shorten is the new leader of the parliamentary Labor Party. The new process for picking the leader – a Rudd legacy that involves potentially the whole membership of the ALP – has brought forth the former behind-the-scenes king-maker responsible for two previous leadership switches.

Despite the freshness and controversial nature of this history, Shorten will probably get a bit of a honeymoon in the corporate media. The Abbott government’s early gaffs are taking up a lot of their attention in any case. Shorten performs well where it is needed in monopoly-dominated electoral politics – in front of the TV cameras.

He is relaxed and smooth, with a light, authoritative-sounding touch. He is much more adapted to that part of the role than his leadership rival, the brawling debater Anthony Albanese. Trouble is most of the members picked Albo from the “left” and not Shorten from the right. Caucus voted 64 percent in favour of Shorten and so caucus trumps the membership’s choice. And there’s already complaints about the same old factional deals for the choice of the candidates and portfolio allocation and the use of right-wing union slush funds for Mr Shorten’s campaign.

It may be too early to tell what effect this electoral process will have on the morale of the Labor rank and file. Official emails claim around 4,500 people have expressed their wish to join the party on the strength of the new willingness to listen to the membership. We’ll see how genuine the interest is further down the track. Something certainly needed to be done. The ALP has been haemorrhaging members and shedding sub-branches at an alarming rate. The defeat of the membership’s preferred candidate is not an auspicious start, though.

The party has studied itself in great depth in recent times and published parts of a report from Labor luminaries Steve Bracks, John Faulkner, and Bob Carr about its woes. It is hard to say, though, whether the current leadership polling method is in response to disaffection at the base or simply a way to stop the sort of blood-letting and public humiliation that has accompanied modern-day leader changes. It is instructive that there is no talk yet of the membership determining policy for the parliamentary wing. Now that would be democratic!

Of course, Labor has its processes involving state and national conferences but they don’t appear to have had much effect on the rightward drift of the parliamentary party, either. Until this disconnect is repaired, it is hard to see how the spirits of Labor’s rank and file are going to get a long-term boost.

The Communist Party of Australia is a much smaller party than the ALP and attracts absolutely zero corporate support. It has a dedicated membership but, it must be conceded, its record at state and federal elections is extremely modest. Something we are very proud of, however, is the democratic centralist process by which we reach decisions and arrive at Party policy. It bodes well for our future growth.

We recently concluded our Party’s 12th National Congress in Sydney. The whole membership was involved in refining the policy documents that will guide the work of the entire Party for the next four years. Branch meetings, discussion journals, State and District Conferences were devoted to no-holds-barred debate on the draft presented by the Central Committee (CC). Any member or Party organisation was free to present an alternative during this process.

Delegates to Congress were elected by Party organisations. Any member with three years continuous membership was eligible to be elected to the incoming CC. Congress decided the number of members for the new CC which elects own office bearers. There is a contest for leading positions in the Party but factions are forbidden.

It is unlikely Labor will look to the international Communist movement for inspiration on how to get its house in order. It’s not that sort of creature. The parliamentary wing of the ALP will continue to feel the greatest pressure from the same monopoly corporate interests that call the shots that matter for the Coalition, too. The membership will continue to be on the outer when the real decisions are made. They deserve better.

Next article – Union urges Electrolux to stay in Orange

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