Labor's backroom 'buffoonery' could come to haunt Shorten

Mark Butler may not have much of a political profile outside his home state of South Australia, but as national president of the Australian Labor Party his Fabian Society lecture this week exposed an issue a succession of Labor leaders have squibbed.

Put simply, the question Butler posed – although he did not use the phrase "social democrat" itself – is whether Labor will continue to be constrained by its "labourist" heavily-factionalised union-dominated traditions, or whether it will become a broader-based social democratic party with some prospect of regenerating itself.

Labor under Bill Shorten may have congratulated itself on having come close to winning government in 2016, but the fact remains the party's primary vote remained below 35 per cent, and its Senate vote under 30 per cent.

These are bad numbers historically for a party that proclaims itself to be broad-based.

Essentially, Butler put on the table an age-old argument between traditional Labor in which a union-influenced party establishment holds a lock on preselections and other party positions, and those who want the party to be more representative of the wider community.

This is what he had to say about shenanigans in Victoria where a recently refurbished backroom "stability pact" is about to deliver a prized new seat – this seat has not even been named or defined – to a factionally-endorsed candidate.

"Remarkably, the designers of this new pact have already decided who the party's candidate will be for a seat that hasn't even yet been created …That sort of backroom buffoonery does not reflect a healthy party organisation."

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Left unsaid by Labor's national president is Victorian Labor's so-called "stability pact" – likened facetiously by its internal party critics to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 between pre-war Germany and the Soviet Union – enshrines the internal party influence of Shorten, and former senator Stephen Conroy, now a gambling lobbyist.

The "Short-Cons", so-called, have been the architects of some of the more questionable preselection stich-ups in recent Labor history. Candidates without factional support have little chance of advancement.

Labor president Mark Butler, right, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Photo: AAP

Labor president Mark Butler, right, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Photo: AAP

This state of affairs does not reflect well on Shorten, and certainly contradicts his professed desire to democratise the party.

Needless to say Butler's intervention has infuriated Labor colleagues – critics point out that he has long played the role of factional heavy in South Australia – and prompted the question why the national president had chosen this moment to accuse his leader of being party to "backroom buffoonery".

I forwarded that question to Butler without a response, so in the absence of an explanation one can but speculate. What seems likely is that criticism of a party culture is not separate from manoeuvring ahead of this year's National Conference to be held in July in Butler's hometown of Adelaide.

Labor's Left has been making ground on the Right in what has the makings of an arm-wrestle in July on various motions and appointments. Butler himself is of the Left.

This brings us to an interesting question that relates to party membership numbers. Who is right: the president or the Leader of the Opposition?

In his Fabian Society speech, Butler said this: "Party membership is hovering a little over 50,000 and disturbingly has declined by more than 6 per cent since its recent peak in 2015."

This contrasts with Shorten's version of events in which he said in response to Butler's criticism: "The Labor Party before I became leader had about 42,000 members. It's now got about 56-57,000 members so we've had a 30 per cent increase in membership."

This discrepancy is not easily explained.

In his Fabian Society speech Butler drew unfavorable comparison between the ALP's poor record in attracting new members and British Labour's recent success, having democratised its institutions, and opened its leadership positions to rank and file ballots.

In all of this, it is not as though Labor has not sought to address its factional issues in various reviews of its political successes and failures going back to Mark Dreyfus' review of the 1996 federal election rout.

In 2011, a review conducted by former premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, and Labor grandee John Faulkner, recommended greater democratisation of the party's internal processes, but this was stymied by factional opposition.

In 2015, some progress was made towards enabling party members a greater say in electing representatives to a party-establishment and union-dominated national conference.

However, not since 2003 when Simon Crean got the party to reduce union influence at conference has there been significant reform despite a lot of talk.

If there is comfort in any of this for a factionalised Labor Party it is that its opponents are riven by factional conflict as well, in some ways worse than Labor given there is less structure to these arguments and thus they tend to be more personal.

In Victoria followers of Liberal president Michael Kroger are at war with the party establishment. In NSW so-called moderates and social conservatives are similarly at each other's throats.

As a prominent Labor frontbencher fed-up with factional game-playing put it: "Their factional shit is as bad as our factional shit."