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With the fresh wounds of the rerun WA senate election adding to the pain of last year’s federal rout, a new crop of Labor MPs have a unique chance to redefine their ailing party. By Sophie Morris.

Federal Labor’s next generation

It was a Friday afternoon on the Gold Coast and Labor MP Jim Chalmers was addressing workers whose industries faced an uncertain future.

He could have told the National Union of Workers conference that Labor would fight to retain their jobs, that the government should somehow be stemming the tide of industry restructures that had contributed to the loss of more than 27,000 positions since the election.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he told them he didn’t believe in “command and control” government intervention in the economy. The restructuring was inevitable.

“My main point is that instead of ending the age of entitlement, as Joe Hockey says, we need to usher in a new age of empowerment,” he said.

“This is the best way for the labour movement to stay relevant industrially and politically: to work out where the jobs of the future are going to come from, what industries and locations, how we make them more secure, and how we train and teach people to succeed in them.”

Chalmers is among a posse of ambitious 30-something Labor MPs who replaced the party’s old guard in safe seats at the 2013 election. They entered parliament as voters booted Labor out, slashing the party’s lower house seats to just 55 in the 150-member chamber.

Their excitement at being elected was tinged with trepidation about the scale of Labor’s loss but they refuse to accept they face a long stint in opposition. Already, they are beginning to discuss how they can reinvent the party.             

On the Gold Coast, Chalmers went on to talk about how Labor needed to focus on the outer suburbs and ensure the people who lived there had skills to master new technologies and jobs available close to home.

It was the germ of an idea – nothing quite so concrete as a policy – but it was a pointer to behind-the-scenes discussions about Labor’s future direction.

Those discussions have gained a new urgency after the rerun West Australian senate election last week, which left Labor just 6 percentage points ahead of the Greens on first preferences and possibly reduced to one upper house seat in the state. As Labor struggles to find its feet in opposition, it risks being eclipsed by a boisterous senate crossbench.

For the crop of new MPs such as Chalmers, who plan to be around for a long time, now is a crucial juncture. It’s a chance to redefine the party they will eventually lead. And if there was a certain West Wing timbre to Chalmers’ “jobs of the future” speech, it may be no coincidence. This generation of Labor MPs matured watching Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced White House drama – its combination of snappy dialogue, idealism, pragmatism and progressive politics.

Some cast their first vote in the 1996 election, when John Howard defeated Paul Keating. Chalmers turned 18 that day and joined the ALP soon after, inspired by Keating’s “bold, progressive and exciting” vision.

They are interested in ideas, this crew. That’s just as well, really, because fresh ideas are desperately needed and plotting has lost its currency in the caucus since Kevin Rudd changed party rules to make it more difficult to dump the leader.

Along with others in his cohort, Chalmers has tasted power, working as a ministerial adviser in the Rudd and Gillard governments.

Before he won preselection to Craig Emerson’s old seat of Rankin in Queensland, Chalmers had many senior roles in the ALP, including as chief of staff to then treasurer Wayne Swan and an adviser to Kim Beazley when he was opposition leader. He is influential in the party’s national Right faction and was immediately appointed parliamentary secretary to opposition leader Bill Shorten.

Tim Watts, in Nicola Roxon’s old seat of Gellibrand, worked for Stephen Conroy, followed by a stint at Telstra. He won a hard-fought preselection contest with the backing of the Victorian Right. In New South Wales, Pat Conroy now holds the seat of Charlton, vacated by his former boss Greg Combet. They secured preselection with the patronage of powerbrokers and are talked about as up-and-comers, along with Harvard-educated former mayor Clare O’Neil in Simon Crean’s old seat of Hotham and lawyer Terri Butler, who held on to Kevin Rudd’s seat of Griffith at a byelection.

Chalmers stresses that the 14 Labor MPs and senators who joined parliament in the past year are a diverse group. Eight are female, two were born overseas, one is indigenous, seven are under the age of 40. But half worked as staffers, and it is this half whose names tend to be mentioned by frontbenchers as rising stars.

It will be years before they emerge from the wilderness of opposition and have a chance at securing a ministerial suite of their own. For now, they are part of a much-depleted party that is still, six months after the election loss, raking over the entrails and bickering over internal reforms.

Call for reform

As if last year’s election loss was not bad enough for Labor, the senate election in WA last week suggests things might yet get worse. Former WA Labor premier Geoff Gallop summed it up: “The party is in serious existential crisis; major reform is needed.”

It is a sentiment shared by party elder in NSW Senator John Faulkner, who argues that revelations of corruption in the former state Labor government have tainted the party and demonstrate the need for an overhaul of its culture and upper house preselections.

Despite these dramas, Bill Shorten’s leadership is safe for the foreseeable future. Rudd’s rule change has ensured he does not face the daily destabilisation that plagued his predecessors for the past decade.

He need not fear that a bad Newspoll, like Tuesday’s, will unleash
a new round of damaging stories. There is an expectation he has two years to prove himself and will only face serious rumblings if things are still dire a year out from the next election.

But with this freedom comes responsibility. The leadership narrative has long framed the discourse about Labor and the party’s internal dynamic – now the party needs to present another story.

Pat Conroy says Rudd’s change to the leadership rules puts Shorten in a “very strong position”. “He doesn’t need to be cautious. He can get on and implement what he thinks is necessary so we can win the next election.”

To be fair, some of the current round of cathartic navel-gazing is happening now because it was deferred by the leadership contest that immediately followed last September’s election loss.

Rank-and-file members had a say for the first time in choosing the leader, under Rudd’s new rules. The members chose Anthony Albanese, but the caucus chose Shorten by a margin sufficient to give the former union chief the job.

“It was a really strange feeling,” says Tim Watts. “The election loss was bitterly disappointing for all Labor members but we woke up the next morning and had a really energising leadership contest.”

This past week, Shorten was planning to kickstart a debate about party reforms to broaden and re-engage the membership, including removing the rule that still exists in some branches that members must belong to a union.

Instead, he is mourning the death of his mother. But the need for party reform has still been the main story for Labor in the past week – dogged as it is by the woeful WA result, the ongoing ICAC inquiry in NSW and the first hearings of the government’s royal commission into unions.

Watts thinks it’s important the party overhaul its membership structures. He argues that the way to do this is through introducing cheap and accessible online membership, with limited voting rights, alongside more traditional branch membership. “The concept of a one-size-fits-all notion of party membership needs to end,” he says.

This clashes with calls for members to be given more say in electing leaders and senate candidates but Watts believes that broadening the membership will fundamentally change the party and solve some of the problems arising from
a narrow base.

Alongside the talk of internal reforms, Labor is also reviewing its policies. This hasn’t happened soon enough for those in WA, who would have liked Shorten to jettison the mining tax before last week’s election.

But among the new Labor MPs who previously served as staffers, there is a reluctance to abandon everything that Labor stood for in government.

“That’s a problem with what we did last time we were in opposition,” says Watts. “We were too quick to distance ourselves from the Hawke-Keating legacy.”

Back in opposition after government years blighted by leadership turmoil, Labor now hopes to reclaim that legacy and the voters who believed in it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "The twinkling on the hill". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.