The big debate at the recent ACT Labor Conference in July was over proposed changes to voting rights. Over the past few years, only a third of all members had been able to attend sub-branch meetings, meaning only about 500 of 1,500 ACT Labor members had been eligible to take part in pre-selections or sub-branch AGMS which include standing and voting for Conference delegates. The proposed rule changes sought to expand the size of the selectorate and involve more members.
The ACT is one of the few state and territory Labor branches that has 100% rank and file preselections. Still, members were required to have sub-branch membership, meet attendance requirements as well as have at least a year of membership before they got voting rights. The previous activity test was a scale model of meeting attendance based on length of membership. For those with less than 5 years membership, attendance at 3 meetings was required. Those with 5 to 10 years membership had to attend 2 meetings. Those with more than 10 years membership had to attend one meeting. This activity test meant that preselections for Territory elections could be decided by less than 20 people, an easily stackable number. For example, the quota for Murrumbidgee in 2015 was 19.1 and in Yerrabi it was 11.
Despite suggestions from the Right faction that it was aimed at benefiting the Left faction and would lead to branch stacking, the rule change passed 128-72. The size of the margin showed it clearly won over many independent and non-aligned delegates who understood that it actually made it harder for factional stitch-ups by enfranchising more ALP members who may not heavily be involved in internal party or factional politics.
The rules now only require minimum periods of membership for voting rights. Sub-branch members only have to be a member of a sub-branch for six months before being eligible to vote for sub-branch candidates while anyone who had been an ALP member for a year would be eligible to vote in a preselection. On best guesses, the number of members eligible to vote will most likely double for Territory pre-selections.
As has been pointed out by Amy Knox and Nick Dixon-Wilmshurst, suggestions it could lead to branch stacking are absurd. The 2016 ACT Labor Conference adopted changes that mean membership fees are taken out monthly and must be taken out via traceable means, such as via debit or credit cards in the member’s name.
When you challenge this constantly cited fear of stacking, it is clear some of the opposition is actually based on a flawed idea that members need to earn a right to have a say and that voting rights are a reward for participating in branches. Those who do not go to branch meetings are seen as less invested so should have less of a say. If that is the underlying belief then something is fundamentally wrong with the branch structure and it is out to step with modern expectations of how an organisation should operate. As former Labor Senator John Faulkner has argued, branch attendance should no longer be the basis which we measure someone’s participation in the ALP and:
“…voting in our internal ballots ought not to be regarded as a reward earned only be those able to negotiate arcane rules.”
If we are serious about Labor being a mass movement, we need to recognise that people participate in different ways and not being able to attend a meeting should not make someone a second-class member. The changes adopted by ACT Labor should be considered by other jurisdictions to ensure all members are an equal say in who represents Labor. If all members can vote on the party leader, regardless of an activity test, surely they should also have the right to vote for their local MPs.