Why reforming Australian Young Labor matters

Across the world, the declining electoral fortunes of social democratic parties have led to internal discussions about the need for party reform. From Refounding Labour process in the United Kingdom to New Zealand Labour’s organisational review to the adoption of an open primary to determine the French Socialist Party’s Presidential candidate, there is an acknowledgement that social democratic parties need to change. In Australia, the National Review has framed much of Labor’s debate about party reform and what kind of change is needed.

Since the National Review’s release, there have been many discussions about the merit of primaries, direct election of President and National Conference delegates and the role of unions. However, there has been one glaring omission from ALP reform debate. Absent from the National Review was any mention of the role of young people currently within the ALP or how to keep them in the ALP. In particular, nothing was said about the current state of Young Labor.

Young Labor has a mixed reputation depending on who you talk to. Some think of Young Labor as a joke, others highly regard it as providing the on-the-ground campaigners that help win elections. Whatever one thinks of it, excluding Young Labor from the reform discussion ignores an important fact. Young Labor shapes a large section of the party membership. Many future parliamentarians, ministers and party leaders are a product of Young Labor. How people learn to operate in Young Labor, what they experience and what behaviours are normalised often shape how they act in later years. Sadly, Angus Oehme quite accurately highlighted some typical behaviour you would find in many (but not all) Young Labor branch across the country. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, even worse behaviour has been highlighted in the media many times in past.

While the National Review spoke about the “need for a change to long established patterns of behaviour and culture,” it did not recognise that much of that culture and many of those behaviours are shaped and reinforced by people’s experiences in Young Labor. Changing the culture of Young Labor is likely to lead to cultural change elsewhere in the party. The starting point to change that culture is reforming Young Labor through introducing direct elections by rank-and-file members at all levels.

By introducing direct elections, individuals running for positions will need a platform and talk about what they will deliver if elected to a larger electorate of members. People will need to present their case and convince people to support them on the basis of merit as they cannot just buy off a handful of people with positions. It will encourage a shift towards focusing on values and campaigning on issues that matter to young people such as improved education policies, affordable renting, marriage equality, abolition of youth wages rather than whether you control a handful of the fifty-two Australian Young Labor National Conference delegates.

A shift from an insular behind-the-scenes approach towards a more outward approach of engagement and campaigning should be encouraged within the ALP. It will encourage a culture of greater accountability to members and in the long-run the party will be better off as it encourages the development of those important skills needed during election campaigns and in Government.

The direct elections should be conducted under one member one vote (OMOV) system. A vote should be given to every single party member under the age of 27 so they all have a say in who their local, state and national Young Labor Executives and Office Bearers are and who their delegates to Young Labor, State Labor and National Labor Conferences are. The move by the NSW ALP to adopt an online vote for the newly established Policy Forum and its use for City of Sydney community preselection shows how directly electing these positions could work, addressing possible concerns about the logistics of direct elections.

Young Labor reform is far from impossible. Young Labour in the United Kingdom has gone through a democratisation process, moving from an appointed Chair and towards direct elections in a number of years. It actually would be far easier than reforming the rest of the ALP as the ALP National Executive has the power to reform Young Labor and bring about this change. Reforming Young Labor must be seriously considered, the future of the party might just depend on it.

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