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Thursday, July 11, 2013

ALP Organisational Reform; and Urgent Policy Prescriptions


above: Could Rudd 'break through' on ALP internal organisational reform?

In this two-part article, Tristan Ewins responds to critical perspectives on ALP internal organisational reform put forward in the 'Herald-Sun' and 'The Age'. In part-two he also argues again for a definitive policy agenda from Rudd in the run up to the Federal Election,  including National Aged Care Insurance.

Tristan Ewins
As Kevin Rudd settles in again as Australian Prime Minister there is ongoing speculation in the media with regards the election date, and the substance of Rudd’s proposed ALP internal organisational reforms.  

The Herald Sun holds that the latest possible day for the election  would be October 19th, with parliament likely reconvening in August.  And as I’ve argued before, I believe this option is to be preferred – as it provides Rudd with an opportunity to assert a credible policy agenda of his own for the next term;  and perhaps even ‘get some policy runs on the board’ – helping him acquire a more distinct and ‘up-to-date’ political profile.   We will return to the matter of policy soon; but first we will turn to Rudd’s proposed organisational reforms.

Rudd’s ALP Organisational Reforms

Also of concern is the response to Rudd’s projected organisational reforms in the “Herald-Sun’ and ‘The Age’.

In the ‘Herald-Sun’, (10/7/13, pp 22-23)    James Campbell tries to dismiss the reforms as a “Labor Power Grab” and effectively argues that the so-called ‘faceless men’ should keep their power in order to prevent grassroots influence shifting Labor policy to the Left!   Not only does Campbell make the outrageous assertion that grassroots members just “do as they are told” by “The barons and their henchmen”.  He makes the blatantly contradictory argument that: “the candidates would have to parrot their members’ opinions rather than attempting to appeal to the broad mass of uncommitted and moderate voters.” Hence  Campbell seems confused, making mutually exclusive claims about who’s really in control.  Though he makes a more insightful observation that spending caps would be necessary for campaigns to stop costs from getting out of hand.  

Meanwhile in ‘The Age’ (10/7/13) David Day makes a more credible argument.  Day apparently accepts Rudd’s proposal of a vote for party leader based on 50% rank and file votes, and 50% of caucus. But he points out that the requirement for 75% of the caucus to support any party-room spill before any change in leadership between terms leaves parliamentary Labor with very little room to move.   So perhaps a 60% or 65% requirement would be more appropriate, setting the bar higher for leadership challenges – but not too much so.  And such mechanisms would need to be deployed with great reservation –due to the logistics of organising ballots.   (and the destabilising effect of ballots too often)

The question of a union component in electing the leader is a complex one, and it seems to work in Britain.  There are arguments both for including the unions in this process, or instead emphasising the empowerment of the rank and file- which could be necessary to boost critically declining member levels.

Day also makes the valid observation that a more ‘presidential style’ in elections and politics is probably bad for Australian democracy: making politics more about personalities than policy. (and in a way which really doesn’t fit the Australian Constitution)   Though restoring the federal caucus’s role in electing the Cabinet is a check against such reversion to a presidential style of politics.

There are a number of observations that should arise from this discussion.

Firstly the ‘faceless men’ rhetoric is stale, and could just as easily be deployed to refer to internal Liberal Party power-plays by Costello, Kroger, Kennett and the like.  Though the proposed reforms would dilute greatly the power of union leaders – who are often relatively unknown by the public – to influence leadership ballots.   Yet as things stand affiliated unions would still influence pre-selections and the Party Platform.  

This flows in to broader debates about the proper role of unions in a party of labour – if that is to be what Labor remains. (at least as one facet of a multi-faceted party) One option would be to have direct election by the Labor members of National Conference delegates and of parliamentary candidates.  This would give local Conference delegate elections much greater relevance and urgency – revitalising local branches – who would have more immediate influence over the Platform.  Though unions would also continue to contribute with the election of 50% of the Conference delegates, and therefore 50% of the National Executive – hopefully on the understanding that the Party Platform would be respected, and only diverted from as a consequence of dire tactical or strategic necessity.  (and if the reform could be secured - with the consent of at least 60% of the National Executive) 

Former NSW treasurer Michael Costa is effectively arguing for union representation at Conference be brought down to less than 17 per cent – the rate of unionization in the broader workforce.

Arguably, though, maintaining an organisational link with the unions is an important means of anchoring Labor in the needs of labour, and preventing a populist drift to the right on industrial rights.  Even were unions not included in the leadership ballot a renewed culture of respecting the decisions of Conference could empower organised labour on that front relative to today.  Of course there is the common argument that some union leaderships have abused the trust of their members; and some have used unions as personal fiefdoms and power-bases. And this author is uncertain of the balance of factional forces in affiliated trade unions. But promoting a political outlook (rather than and purely industrial outlook) is a good thing. And conceding the decline in the collective organisation of workers, and their ability to exercise solidarity through mutual association is not the answer.  Building ‘chains of equivalence’ amongst diverse social movements, however, is part of the answer; and hence union control of certain ‘economic chokepoints’ could one day be central to defence of our rights and liberties.    A novel option could be to broaden the ALP’s social base by allowing other genuinely progressive environmental, civil rights and social welfare organisations to affiliate.

And in response to James Campbell:  Apart from the contradictions in his argument, he is also assuming that the Labor rank and file have no self-restraint, and no independence of thought.  But in reality, even at the furthermost organised reaches of the Labor Left there is an appreciation, these days, of the need to develop electorally sustainable policies.  (If anything, re-active (rather than pro-active) electoralism has gone too far, with insufficient emphasis on grassroots mobilisation, and on the ability to carry a debate on the basis of mobilisation and quality of argument)  

If Labor moves to the Left – and I believe it should in a range of areas from fiscal policy to welfare and a liberal, civics-oriented National Curriculum – it needs to do so in such a way that carries the relative centre of debate and opinion with it.  Or failing that, to carry some radical reforms through at the relative margins.  (curriculum reform for instance)  Rank and file members understand this.  And given the vigorous promotion of a robust culture of internal debate, new members would most likely understand this as well.

Further: were significant organisational reforms instituted there could be a massive influx of (tens of thousands of) new members. The groundswell could overwhelm the capacity of the factions to control assuming the Party wanted to promote and accommodate independent grassroots activism and organisation.  Independent candidates could arise for Conference; as could new formations.  (perhaps with the re-emergence of a ‘Centre-Left’)  But self-discipline would arise in the context of an internal discourse on having to carry the relative electoral centre and shift it in real terms towards greater social equality, and greater personal and collective liberties over the long term.

Big Policy Options for Rudd

Above: Compassion, Social Responsibility and Distributive Justice needed on Aged Care
National Aged Care Insurance

An important and central policy initiative could be National Aged Care Insurance: again paid for either from superannuation concession reform, reduction in the rate of Dividend Imputation to a rate of 75%,; and/or extra tiers in the Medicare Levy.   

As 2013 Australian of the Year and President of Alzheimer’s Australia, Ita Buttrose has pointed out, the quality of residential aged care especially is a ‘running sore’ for the country. This is especially the case with the treatment of residents suffering from dementia – with over-medication and forcible restraint employed far too liberally.   And premature or unnecessary residential accommodation is common in Australia compared with other nations, sometimes leading to a swift mental and emotional decline.  See:

But a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme could ensure  high quality aged care of whatever kind  is needed - whether residential, low-intensity or at home.  This care would be provided on the basis of need, and not on the basis of user pays.  

As the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association argues (NSW):

While there are many practical problems associated with making equity release work as a significant funding source for aged care, CPSA is fundamentally opposed to forcing people who have no other significant assets to sell or reverse mortgage their home to pay for residential or community aged care. Their home is all they have got and it is something they have worked long and hard for. They need to keep control of their home ownership for as long as they want or need to for the sake of their dependant/s.” (see: )

For those needing residential care, the package I am suggesting would include further improvements in wages, conditions and career paths for Aged Care workers and nurses.  And there could be mandated improvements in staff-resident ratios;  provision of private rooms; new standards with regards regular outings, social visits and other facilitated social interaction; provision of information and communications technology; standards for the quality of food and to ensure that food is actually eaten; incentives for nursing homes to provide garden space for residents; provision of dental care for all with the need. Aged citizens in residential care need much more to do than be sat in common rooms starting at walls, or at the television all day.

And for those wanting and able to remain at home; including with the support of personal carers (often family), such a scheme could also increase the level of support in similar ways.

Importantly: The Combined Pensioners and  Superannuants Association has also observed that the National Disability Insurance Scheme cuts out at 65.  Arguably this can only be justified if ‘the slack is picked up’ (completely!) by Aged Care Insurance – with no loss in quality of support or care. (and indeed there must be improvement of care regarding the specific needs of aged disabled Australians)  National Aged Care Insurance can ensure support for these needs can be ‘locked in’!   See:

Aged Care Insurance would resonate strongly with many Australian voters.  Like disability, problems of aged care and support in the community is something that any Australian might have to confront one day – whether for themselves or for their loved ones.  Extra funding is already necessary to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable; and with an ageing population there is a stark choice between fiscal pressure and neglect – or fiscal reform and improved services for all in need.  The fear of relatively low income and working class families of being forced to sell their only significant asset (their home) is also great and cannot be understated.  Much political kudos could be gained by meaningfully addressing those fears.

Movement on ETS Vital

Finally and as I’ve also argued before – and as I emphasise again -  Rudd would be wise to revert early to an emissions trading scheme (ETS), while placating the Greens with extra resources for the Clean Energy fund. This would free Labor from the impression of having ‘broken a promise’ on the carbon tax.  (sadly, that is regardless of the real substance and value of the policy, which I personally supported at the time; Perhaps the backlash could have been contained with earlier implementation – but it is too late now…)  Such an early reversion could be paid for with further superannuation concessions reform; and with plenty of funds devoted to tax breaks and cost of living measures for low income Australians. These would be specially targeted to neutralise the anticipated response of bosses to increases in superannuation contributions. (ie: holding back on wages)  A legislated increase in the minimum wage could also help, as could further Federal Government subsidies for skilled low-income workers in areas like child care and aged care.

These are interesting times.

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