At a recent meeting of ALP members a federal MP gave a report to the meeting that in order for there to be a change in ALP policy concerning treatment of asylum seekers the community would first need to be won over.
I do not doubt that the report is an accurate account of the reality of the politics within the ALP parliamentary caucus.
But the other political reality is that there is no likelihood of the community being won over to a more humane policy towards asylum seekers for as long as both major political parties support offshore, long term, internment of asylum seekers as the best means of reducing the risk of deaths at sea.
I make no criticism of the MP who delivered the report. But the question remains as to whether the ALP parliamentary party will attempt to lead community opinion towards more humane solutions to the problems of death at sea. Will the ALP parliamentary party promote the view that, whatever the acceptable solution to deaths at sea might be, it cannot be to lock up people in what can fairly be described as concentration camps and in breach of the international convention against torture?
This leads to another issue- most people join the ALP because they want to see a more humane, equal, socially just Australia. They might prefer to join the ALP rather than the Greens because they accept that politics will always be about more than posturing. They will accept that the electorate, sometimes conservative, needs to be won over. Nevertheless they will still expect to see members of the parliamentary caucus articulate positions in favour of a more humane, equal, and socially just Australia. Their progressive political aspirations are frustrated whenever the ALP appears reduced to arguing that it can better manage a system that produces less humanity, less equality and less social justice.
Yet there is a constant temptation for the ALP parliamentary leadership not to lead but to fold to whatever is perceived as the most immediately favourable electoral course. It is a problem for the Conservatives as well. The members of the ALP are usually somewhere to the left of the middle of the electorate, the members of the Conservatives, usually somewhere to the right of centre.
The main problem for rank and file members of the ALP in terms of meaningful party democracy is to have structures within the party which ensure at least some pressure on the parliamentary party to articulate the rank and file’s political aspirations. This is why the President of the party should not be a serving ALP politician. The President needs to be able to speak to the parliamentary caucus on behalf of the Party, free from the “greasy pole” influences that elected office invariably brings.
The enfranchisement of rank and file ALP members by giving them a direct vote for Party President is a welcome development. But it is accompanied by a new problem. Serving members of Parliament are better placed to win these elections for party positions. This is because of the greater exposure to ALP members that they obtain through holding public office. Unless a rule is introduced against serving politicians running for these posts, there is a danger that they will come to monopolise them. The result will likely be that rank and file members of the party will become more diminished in relation to the influence that they can bring to bear on the parliamentary leadership.