Across-the-board commitment is vital if state Labor is to achieve much-needed reform.
Labor leader Mark McGowan has thrown down the gauntlet to his colleagues about the need to modernise their party. That’s the easy part; the hard part is to follow through and make it happen.
Inevitably, reform involves someone or some group – factions in Labor’s case – giving up some power. That’s not easy, even if in Western Australia the party polled only 28.7 per cent of the House of Representatives vote at the September federal election.
But the hidden message in the McGowan proposals to Labor’s state conference is that unless change is embraced, medium-term support will continue to drift away, even taking into account the electoral cycle in which backing for the governing Liberal-National alliance is likely to soften.
His proposal for online branches, using the internet, has appeal. Attending monthly branch meetings on cold, wet, winter nights never really had much attraction, whether you are Liberal, Labor or Green.
The plan for greater member involvement in the selection of Legislative Assembly candidates (Mr McGowan was very specific) will raise eyebrows. At present, branches have 12.5 per cent of the delegates who select candidates for state seats.
“We will move to double local say in pre-selections and ensure all candidates in contested lower house pre-selections are required to debate and answer questions in front of local audiences of party members,” Mr McGowan told conference delegates.
“This is all about creating a modern, exciting political party bringing together the best of our history with the demands of the modern era. Change is not something to fear but it is something to embrace.”
The candidate proposal, if adopted, will force faction leaders to be more judicious in which favoured members they push for specific safe seats. It would be harder, but not impossible, to impose candidates outside the electorate on local branch members.
For instance Labor lost one previously safe seat in last March’s state poll when a factional favourite was imposed on local branches and indicated she would only doorknock if she had company. That kind of meet and greet didn’t seem to bother the female Liberal candidate in Perth, who regained the seat for her party after Labor had held in for 45 years.
Mr McGowan was cautious on pushing to emulate the federal move to give branch members a direct vote in electing the state leader. A survey of membership opinion on this issue is already under way.
He was applauded when he reassured union delegates that the Labor Party would always stand by its working and middle class base of manual and clerical workers, adding “we'll always stand by the unions that represent them”.
But the issue of the continued 50 per cent union representation in party forums, when they represent less than 20 per cent of the workforce, was left for another day.
Significantly Mr McGowan sought to reach out to a broad constituency, including businesspeople and small business owners, whom WA Labor has tended to ignore in recent years.
The challenge for Labor members now is whether they pick up the gauntlet and actually pursue modernisation. Success in the 2017 poll could be at stake.
Court in the middle
There is universal dissatisfaction with the conduct of the half-Senate election in WA at September’s federal poll. Less clear-cut is what to do about it.
At first blush, the calls for a fresh poll to decide the six positions up for grabs are compelling; the general view that the loss of 1,375 votes should lead to a new poll is attractive.
The problem with this, on closer examination, is that the positions of the four candidates who topped the Senate poll have never been in dispute. Three Liberals –David Johnston, Michaelia Cash and Linda Reynolds – and Labor’s Joe Bullock were clearly elected.
It is positions five and six that are in contention. Initially the Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang and Labor Senator Louise Pratt were in the box seat, until the Greens Senator Scott Ludlam successfully called for a recount. Not only did the recount reveal that votes had been lost, it also resulted in the last two positions going to Senator Ludlam and the Australian Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich.
The inevitable applications for the Court of Disputed Returns to order a fresh election must come up with a convincing case of how irregularities affected the result. Is the validity of the election of the first four candidates being seriously challenged?
Legally, they would appear to have a strong case to be exempted from any fresh election. Whether all parties would consider that to be equitable is another matter.
And should the court order a fresh election to fill the two vacancies in dispute, it’s likely the Greens and the Australian Sports Party would be swept away. The Liberal and Labor parties would almost certainly top the poll and win the spots.
All eyes will be on the court for this one.