Monday, April 28, 2014

A Chat with Bill Shorten

G’Day Mr Shorten,

I want to have a little chat with you about your campaign to rebuild the ALP. I can’t be at the meeting at Coorparoo tonight, but if I was there, and if I was given a few minutes, here’s what I’d say.

There is, to quote your speech of April 22, a “widespread, genuine passion for rebuilding the Labor Party,” and you’re right. The Labor Party needs to change…but, to what? 

It’s not enough to be not the Liberal Party and it’s not enough for you to be not Tony Abbott. You said in your speech that “we need to change our party.” Those of us on the left cheered.

But now what?

 You spoke of your mandate as the first member-elected Leader of the Labor Party. It’s not true, and we all know it. The rank-and-file elected Anthony Albanese to lead the party, and that vote was over-ruled in the Party Room. I’m not sure how you view that, but out here in the suburbs, the members who voted for a Leader are left with the impression that their vote was a cynical, feel-good attempt to make us feel included, while not actually including us.

Your commitment to rebuild the Labor Party is something the left desperately wants to believe in, but last year’s vote for leader has left members sceptical – and that’s not a personal swipe at you, Bill. It’s just the way it is.

Four million people voted Labor in last year’s election, eh? How many of them voted Labor because they didn’t trust Tony Abbott? How many of them voted Labor because the Greens are seem as too extreme? Do we know what motivated those voters? (It’d be a top idea to find out!)

How many 2013 Labor voters actually understood Labor’s policies and supported them?

Cutting the ties?
You spoke passionately about redefining Labor’s relationship with the unions, about ridding the Party of corruption, about a greater say in candidate preselection and about making it easier for people to become members of the Australian Labor Party. These are all positive moves, yet even taken together, I doubt that they’re enough to attract many new members, or even to attract lapsed members like me back to the party.

Internal party machinations and affiliations and processes are endlessly fascinating to the wonks – what about those blokes you spoke to on the tarmac when the Royals were leaving on Saturday? Do they care? What about the staff at Coorparoo Bowls Club who’ll bring you a glass of water tonight? Are these the things they care about?

Joining a political party is not like buying a T-shirt or a cup of coffee, or even a car. It’s a profound and individual commitment to a philosophy, a set a beliefs and values that are more enduring that many marriages.

People join a political party because they share the ideological fundamentals of the party. They join a political party because they support the policies of that party. They join a political party to help effect change and have their say.

Most people don’t join political parties because it’s easy to do, or because it’s corruption-free, or because it’s not the political arm of the union movement.

You said “We need a new Chapter One, a democratically-drafted statement that captures what modern Labor stands for” and you talked about the need for unity and focus.

There it is: the question on every left-leaning Australian’s lips: what does Labor stand for? How does those ideological foundations translate into practical policies? How is Labor different to Liberal? How is the Labor Party of 2014 different to the Labor Party pf 2013?

Bill, how do you expect to attract new members without an answer to those questions?

Perhaps I’ve misread the meaning of your speech. Perhaps your purpose is to attract new members and then involve them in drafting the new direction of the party. This concerns me, as I know a bit about getting people engaged with a cause. A potential opportunity not enough. It’d be like getting married to someone that you don’t know much about, because you hope that you might be able to change that person into someone you like.

What’s next? How are you going to convince people to engage with the Labor Party?

There’s a meeting tonight in Coorparoo for locals to meeting with you to talk about reforming Labor. Tell us more about that – and don’t tell us to come along and find out! The Labor Party is still a long, long way from that.

The ALP - at the beginning of the road back to government

There’s a basic process that the party needs to go through. Consultation is a starting point, and a behaviour that needs to be enshrined within whatever the evolved Labor Party becomes. But for now, you and your team and your entire membership needs to make some decisions about what you want to be. It’s not enough to be de-factionalised (although you must do that immediately and completely); the new party must stand as one FOR something.

I hear that mission statements and elevator pitches are out of favour these days, but it’s what you need as a starting point. One short paragraph that explains who the Labor Party is and what you believe: not a slogan, not a talking point, not a tagline.

You said that you want a membership-based party with one hundred thousand members. The only way to do that is to create something we all believe in.

What do you believe, Mr Shorten?


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