Julia Gillard’s action in parachuting Nova Peris into the Northern Territory senate seat is understandable. The ALP machinery is so decrepit and undemocratic that occasional use of power by the parliamentary leader is necessary.
Party members have left the ALP in droves over the years. It is a ramshackle organisation that is so easy to manipulate by faction heavies. With so few party members it is remarkable that there isn’t more branch stacking and manipulation in preselections. Apparently only about 230 party members voted in the preselection for Senator Crossin for the Northern Territory Senate. But there are over 30,000 ALP first preference voters in the subsequent senate election. So a small group of party members foisted Senator Crossin on ALP supporters.
But Julia Gillard’s intervention is only a bandaid. She had a great opportunity at last year’s ALP Federal Conference to put her weight behind substantial reform. The party was considering the report of John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks to start the process of reform of the ALP. Prime Minister Gillard did not provide the leadership necessary. Almost a decade earlier Bob Hawke and Neville Wran also proposed reform of the ALP machinery, but little was done.
Gough Whitlam showed that with a party machine controlled by factions and state secretaries it is only the parliamentary leader who has the heft to break through the vested interests who are more concerned about retaining power in the machine than in advancing good policy to enthuse its rank and file and win elections.
If Julia Gillard had used her ‘captain’s pick’ 12 months ago to lead the reform of the ALP, the organisation would be in much better shape today and the parachuting in of Nova Peris would be much less necessary.
An exercise of the captain’s power at that time would have included the sacking of Sussex Street. If that had been done there would have been a dramatic lift in the party’s standing in NSW, particularly in western Sydney.
Nova Peris’ selection will help but it is really small beer compared with the wider reforms that are necessary. Only the parliamentary leader can do it.