Over the past few years there has been a growing push to change how the ALP-union link operates. The union bloc vote has been the target of many who seek to change the link. Their criticism is that it centralises power, particularly over pre-selections, in a handful of union secretaries rather than giving individual members of affiliated unions a say.
Rather than let union appointed delegates cast votes in pre-selections, a common proposal has been to give individual members of affiliated unions (who are not necessarily party members) a vote as part of an electoral college. It is an idea that has gained significant traction across the party with union leaders, former MPs and even pressure groups like Local Labor supporting the idea. What is mentioned far less, however, is that this is not a new idea.
Individual members of affiliated unions (who were not party members) who were on the electoral roll used to be able to vote in local ALP preselections along side rank-and-file members. The practice existed in Queensland until 1980, in NSW until 1954 and in Victoria until the Split in 1955. These “closed primaries” were widely advertised, this newspaper article about a Victorian ALP preselection from 1954 clearly stating that all ALP members and financial members of affiliated unions could vote and stating when and where the ballot was taking place.
One of the reasons that the practice was ended was because it was used to rort pre-selections. A piece published by the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History gave one such example:
Bob Holt, a former Minister for Lands in Victoria, claimed that when he was the local member for Portland, which he held from 1945-47 and again from 1950-55, local Liberal employers urged their workers who were members of affiliated trade unions to vote for him, regardless of whether they were ALP voters or not. These employers wanted a man from Warrnambool, where Holt lived, as their parliamentarian, and not a resident of Port Fairy, another town within the electorate.
Bradley Bowen provides a description of how the “closed primary” which was manipulated by unions, such as the ETU, in Queensland:
Before pre-selections, blank “certificate books,” which entitled each barer to a vote were given to trusted officials who used them to ensure the victory of favoured candidates.
It unlikely that these practices would occur if affiliated union members were given a vote today. Firstly, few, if any, are suggesting a return to one supporter one vote “closed primary” model. The experience of community preselections in NSW shows that the fear of organised entryism is overstated. The level of public scrutiny and likely backlash would also means that if any organised manipulation were to occur and be exposed, the results would be quickly overturned by the state Administrative Committee or National Executive.
But what this does highlight is that many of the debates about the party’s structure that are not new and neither are the reform proposals. It suggests that we should revisit the history of our party to have a greater awareness of past proposals and practices. Unless we do so, we are likely to be reinventing the wheel and overlook lessons the party has learnt in the past.