08/04/2009 - 22:00

Party structure needs a shake-up

08/04/2009 - 22:00


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WA Labor needs to act quickly to secure its future, independent from east-coast powerbrokers.

LAST week, State Scene reported on how Western Australia's oldest political entity, the Labor Party, faced the prospect of being engulfed from the top by its powerful east coast confreres.

Tragically, WA Labor is thus in danger of vanishing as a fully independent entity.

To ensure this doesn't happen, Labor leader Eric Ripper should act imaginatively.

He should devise a far-sighted reform plan that includes convening an emergency rescue committee.

For too long WA Labor has been like plasticine in the hands of paramount factional chiefs such as Brian Burke and Jim McGinty, among others.

Before them was hard-line leftist FE 'Joe' Chamberlain, who'd engineered the destruction of the political career of Mr Burke's late father, Thomas.

To save WA Labor, something must be done to ensure factional chiefs no longer hold such power.

Is that expecting too much?

For that to happen, or their power to at least be diluted, Mr Ripper must reshape the party so rank and filers have a far greater say.

If that were done there would be far less chance of east coast outsiders stepping in to direct WA Labor from the top because they'd be confronted by a mass-based party, not one controlled by a tiny handful of local operators.

Continued top-down control also means membership will continue falling.

If that persists the outcome will be a structural shell relying solely on taxpayer funding from the state and federal electoral commissions paid immediately after each election.

And that would mean total control rested with a tiny handful of powerful Canberra-based national Labor headquarters boffins and dependent state secretaries.

Inevitably, policies at state and national levels would be devised in Canberra and promoted in WA by a handful of obedient party boffins, who'll go on to instruct state Labor MPs on when, how and how high they must jump.

And Labor's Canberra MPs would become even more beholden to departmental chiefs who would be Australia's ultimate governing bosses.

That's hardly democracy in action.

Such an approach to governance can, among others things, be dubbed the 'mushroom model', one where there are very few voluntary members and a dwindling voter base - if voting wasn't compulsory.

The defining features would be keeping members in the dark and feeding them with spin doctor-devised slogans and catch-cries.

Opening up the party at membership levels is, therefore, a desperately needed first step.

To embark on that path Mr Ripper should firstly write a letter to all party members advising what has happened to Labor in recent times and asking each member to suggest how WA Labor can be opened up and broadened in outlook.

All responses should be vetted by the emergency rescue committee, which would be staffed by individuals truly committed to opening and broadening Labor.

The mere fact that a party leader had written to all members is likely to be a huge shock. (State Scene stands to be corrected, but it's most unlikely that it's ever happened.)

Such broad consultation would, therefore, have an immediate beneficial impact and should be followed by ongoing regional and branch discussion seminars.

Mr Ripper may need to consult (at party expense) a management expert to help ensure that broadened participation emerges.

Otherwise he could consult the writings of the late Professor Peter Drucker - creator and inventor of modern management - who has written on how successful organisations more closely resemble fine orchestras where each musician develops his or her own talents and expertise and combines to producing a magnificent aggregate sound.

The alternative is a management approach similar to that of the industrial revolution's cotton mills, where everything begins at the top and is slowly passed downwards for those below, standing at attention, to obey.

Crucial to understanding Drucker is the fact that he focused on opportunities and not problems. That's precisely the challenge now before Mr Ripper.

Without putting too fine a point on it, WA Labor today more closely resembles those cotton mills of the 18th and 19th centuries than a fine orchestra.

Among other things, the orchestral approach shows that an organisation values its members and does not simply see them as cogs or numbers.

If Mr Ripper does nothing, Labor management will ever more resemble one of those horrific mills.

Furthermore, its dwindling membership across its dying branches should be consolidated so there are fewer, but larger, branches.

Thereafter, each such branch would only hold two meetings annually.

Such meetings would get the business items of the day promptly and democratically completed by fully informed voting members, who would then be addressed by an expert or experts on particular areas of public importance to WA and Australia.

In other words, Labor MPs should take a back seat at such gatherings.

Expert guest speakers could be invited by head office or by the branches.

However, head office should employ a competent person who contacts potential speakers for branches and arranges their remuneration.

Branch meetings would thus become educational or information events.

Last month, State Scene attended a Council for the National Interest meeting that was attended by more than 100 civic-minded Western Australians.

The world-class speaker was Perth scientist, David Archibald, whose address was titled, 'Why the world will continue cooling and why carbon dioxide won't make a detectable difference'.

The forward to his book, The Past and Future of Climate, is by famous British botanist, author, broadcaster and environmental campaigner, David Bellamy.

Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong, and hired hand, Ross Garnaut - none of them a scientist - would have fainted on hearing his address.

If Labor moved to educating members rather than treating them only as election-day party propaganda distributors, more people would join the party.

Most people correctly see joining parties, not just Labor, it should be stressed, as simply a waste of time.

More importantly, such members would steadily become informed on important public policy issues and the party would begin to gradually produce well-founded policies.

WA and all its citizens would thus be the long-term winners.

There are countless public policy issues to be drawn to the attention of party members at such educationally oriented branch functions.

In a subsequent letter to all members - plus front and backbenchers - Mr Ripper should ask that they suggest one original reformist and one cost-saving idea that a Labor government could implement.

Labor's shrinking branch network should be put to inspirational use and not be seen merely as backup to helping mediocre politicians retain their seats so they can retire on comfortable pensions.

If Mr Ripper adopts a reformist path he'd quickly find two things: firstly, the calibre of party members, and thus candidates, would quickly improve; and secondly, Labor would rapidly regain and retain power, after which the Liberals would feel compelled to copy the Ripper reforms.

Over to you Mr Ripper. Opt for an invigorated future, otherwise you're party will be usurped by east coast power brokers.


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