Issue-based organising in the ALP

One of the common themes in the party reform debate is the creation of a modernised party structure that reflects members. The argument goes that the current branch structure is a product of the 19th century and needs to be updated to reflect political realities.

The argument goes that politics is not necessarily geographically based and often focused on issues rather than a single cause. Many younger members are particularly turned off by branch meetings that can be very procedural and focus on local government issues. To address this, a structure that enables issue-based organising has been suggested as a way to revitalise the party structure.

There are three main proposals for formally incorporating issue-based organising in the ALP are: non-industrial affiliates, Policy Action Caucuses and issue-based branches.

Non-industrial affiliates

Unlike the British Labour, the Australian Labor Party does not have non-industrial affiliates. Part of that is due to the nature of the British Labour Party. It was formed by various affiliates including trade unions, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society and individual membership did not exist until 1918.

In the British Labour Party, there are currently over a dozen affiliated socialist societies (non-industrial affiliates) covering issues such as health, education, Europe, vocations and representing various communities and groups within the party such as Jewish members, LGBTIQ members and progressive Christians. In addition, there are a range of non-affiliated socialist societies

The proposal to allow non-industrial affiliates to the ALP is not new and has been made by various people. For example, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen suggested groups like the Fabians and ACOSS should be allowed to affiliate in his recent book in 2013.

The big challenge with a non-industrial affiliate model is that they are independent organisations in every sense of the word: financially and operationally. Affiliation also entails membership fees and a levy that the organisation pays to the party in return for voting rights. They will need to charge membership fees or raise funds which will makes it them far more difficult to establish.

Policy Action Caucuses

At the 2011 National Conference, the Policy Action Caucus model was proposed by the Labor Right and incorporated into the party rules. The Policy Action Caucus was aimed at allowing formal recognition to party members organising around a common issue but not at the expense of branches.

To become a Policy Action Caucus, a group needed:

  • 30 financial Labor Party members (or some other number as determined by the relevant State or Territory Branch),
  • a patron from both the state and federal parliamentary caucuses, and
  • a statement of its name, objectives and rules, approved by its Administrative Committee

PACs have the right to:

  • promote policy forums in Party publications and bulletins,
  • put motions directly to Party conferences, the National Policy Forum, and State and Territory Branch policy committees, and
  • convene meetings and functions.

While PACs are given administrative support and are listed on application forms for membership, they do not get delegates and are not independent entities.

A number of states have incorporated PACs into their rules. In NSW, they have been branded as Labor Action Committees and include:

  • Chinese Friends of Labor
  • Arabic Friends of Labor
  • Sub-Continent Friends of Labor
  • Hellenic Caucus
  • Italian Friends of Labor
  • Vietnamese Friends of Labor
  • Filipino Friends of Labor
  • Irish Friends of Labor
  • Labor Environment Action Network
  • Labor for Innovation

Others groups that are likely to seek that status in NSW include:

  • Local Labor
  • Labor Lawyers
  • Labor Education and Reform Network (LEARN)
  • Labor for Drug Law Reform
  • Labor for Refugees
  • Labor for an Australian Republic
  • Rainbow Labor
  • Korean Friends of Labor
  • Labor Science Network

There are also a range of other organisations that exist including:

  • Labor Friends of the Kurdish People
  • Australia-Israel Labor Dialogue

My main issue with PAC model is that they do not have benefit of independence that affiliates have, nor do they have the benefits of a branch status. They are a compromise to formalised and incorporate groups that have been informally established and seem to be response to the proposal for non-industrial affiliates in the National Review. I also question whether they will be able to engage and recruit non-party members. I completely agree with Tim Watts who has previously said:

In order to make PACs work, they need to be taken out of the party hierarchy and given the ability to directly achieve outcomes without the fiat of the Party organisation. Both the organisers of PACs and their members need to be given both individual agency to organise in the advancement of their issues and a genuine incentive to do so.

He suggested a subordinate class of Membership is created that allows individuals to join not the ALP proper, but a specific PAC for a nominal fee and that PACs are given the right to move a platform amendment at ALP Conference if they can sign up at least say, 5,000 members to their cause (subordinate or full ALP members) and agree a specific motion within the group.

Personally I think affiliate model would be better suited to achieve these aims as there would be the incentive to organise and they would be able to operate outside the party hierarchy.

Issue-based branches

One other proposal that has floated around for awhile has been allowing the creation of issuesbased branches. A common argument is that many younger members of the party find their local branch meetings boring and the party loses their potential activism as a result.

In Western Australia, where there are no geographical restrictions on branch membership, direct branches can be formed around common interests. It has allowed the formation of vocational branches, a womens branch and Rainbow Labor branch.

The problem I have with issue-based branches is that it prioritises place or cause as the basis of party activism. Both are important to political success. While geography is not as strong as it once way in shaping our lives, formal politics is still organised geographically. Engaging with those who you live amongst but who you may not share common views is important and necessary. An either/or approach creates silos when both issue and geographically based organising is needed.

My own personal preference is allowing non-industrial organisations to affiliate. It allows them the independence to campaign both inside and outside the party and it means that individuals do not have to choose between geography or cause. There are drawbacks with an affiliate model, mainly operating and financing an independent organisation, however, it can be offset with the recognition of non-affiliated groups with the privileges that PACs currently get. The incentive of full rights that come with affiliation, including moving and amending ALP policy would be a good way to encourage potential supporters to join up (and hopefully become Labor members in the long-term).

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