How the impact of branchstacking in Victorian Labor differs to NSW Labor

With the fallout in Victorian Labor, attention has fallen on the practice of branchstacking. Branchstacking within political parties is not anything new and happens in all parties. The combination of low membership numbers and the closed, privately regulated nature of party preselections in Australia means it occurs but is usually only acted upon when the results go against the ruling grouping unless there is significant public scrutiny.

While other Labor state branches do have a history of branch stacking, the Victorian Labor rules provide particular incentives that do not exist, for example, within the New South Wales Labor rules.

In Victorian Labor, state and federal preselections (other than for the Senate) occur via a combination of a 50% local component from rank-and-file members and 50% votes from the Public Office Selection Committee (POSC). The 100 member POSC is elected by the State Conference which has 600 delegates.

Furthermore, the 300 rank-and-file delegates to State Conference are allocated to each federal electorate on the basis of the number of members in that electorate. The Federal Electorate Assembly (FEA) delegate results from 2019 give an indication of the divergent number of delegates each federal electorate gets, which reflects the likely location of stacking.

FEA Total Socialist Left Right Industrial Left Independents
Aston 3 0 3
Ballarat 7 5 2
Bendigo 6 3 1 2
Bruce 17 8 9
Calwell 16 6 10
Casey 3 1 2
Chisholm 6 1 4 1
Cooper 20 5 12 2 1
Corangamite 5 3 1 1
Corio 5 2 3
Deakin 3 1 2
Dunkley 5 4 1
Flinders 3 1 1 1
Fraser 20 1 19
Gellibrand 8 3 3 1 1
Gippsland 2 1 1
Goldstein 5 1 3 1
Gorton 12 5 7
Higgins 6 1 4 1
Holt 6 3 3
Hotham 11 2 8 1
Indi 2 0 2
Isaacs 6 3 3
Jagajaga 13 4 9
Kooyong 4 2 1 1
La Trobe 4 3 1
Lalor 6 3 3
Mallee 2 2
Maribyrnong 12 2 10
McEwen 5 2 3
Monash 3 1 1 1
Melbourne 14 8 3 1 2
Macnamara 12 4 6 2
Menzies 4 3 1
Nichols 2 0 2
Scullin 19 10 9
Wannon 3 1 2
Wills 20 4 15 1
Total 300 108 168 6 18

The party rules means that stacking in one geographic area has statewide implications for preselections because more State Conference delegates means more spots on the POSC, which can override the local component in preselections even if localised stacking does not result in a majority of the local vote. It results in horsetrading between groupings as a combination of enough of a local vote plus a bloc on the POSC can override the local component.

How does this differ to other states? Well NSW Labor is far from immune from branchstacking with historical examples in the inner city throughout the 1980s, Wollongong, Cabramatta, Liverpool and the Inner West in the 1990s and around Bondi in the mid-2000s. But where stacking occurred, its impact is more localised because of how preselections occur and the fixed number of indirectly-elected delegates from each state and federal electorate to NSW State Conference, regardless of the number of rank-and-file members who reside in an electorate. There is also no equivalent to the POSC, NSW Conference selecting the Upper House and Senate ticket.

The NSW Labor rules also include anti-stacking “tripwire” if five or more members apply to join a branch at one ordinary meeting or more than fifty members apply to join a branch at one formation meeting that freezes this. Some may argue this is more about maintaining existing control top stop challengers but it also makes the scenes in Tarnait less likely.

Though NSW Lower House preselections are notionally 100% rank-and-file votes, there was a previous N40 rule that could be invoked, which allowed a combination of 50% Administrative Committee and 50% delegates to the State or Federal Electorate Council (excluding the additional affirmative action weighting given to female candidates). The N40 rule (now N41) has not been used in recent times due to its extensive abuse by the Terrigal sub-faction of the NSW Right to impose its candidates in Lower House seats.

What it means is NSW Labor has a massively malapportioned delegate system that does not reflect the geographic distribution of membership to the benefit of the NSW Right who hold a majority at State Conference as a result. It also means there is less incentive for factional fragmentation to horsetrade like in Victoria and branchstacking does not have a strong statewide impact on preselections.

It is important to understand how party structures drive particular incentives if we are serious about party reform to tackle branchstacking in parties and to have true mass membership parties, otherwise changes will be ineffective and only ever be superficial.

Who are state MPs supporting for NSW Labor leader?

During June, NSW Labor will be holding a direct election ballot for the state parliamentary leadership. The contest will be between Jodi McKay and Chris Minns, both from the Centre Unity (Labor Right) faction. It will be the first ballot held for a Labor leader in any jurisdiction since the ballot between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten after the 2013 federal election.

The election will be conducted via postal ballot with the rank and file component of the ballot closing on 21st June. The State Parliamentary Labor Party will meet on the 29th to conduct their ballot and a declaration of the result on 30th June.

Under Section P of the NSW Labor rules, 50% of the vote will come from the State Parliamentary Labor Party and 50% will be from rank-and-file members. I do understand there are nomination thresholds for candidates in the State Parliamentary Labor Party rules which are not publicly available.

Estimates of the number of voters range from 15,000 to 20,000. The 74% turnout for the 2013 ballot gives a rough indication though that participation may be less than that, especially due to the lack of excitement about the choices, especially amongst left-wing members of the party.

Given they will constitute half the vote and may override the rank-and-file vote, I have listed the state MPs that have publicly indicated who they will support to date:

Jodi McKay Chris Minns
Lynda Voltz Greg Donnelly
Kate Washington Ron Hoenig
Jenny Aitchison Jihad Dib
Paul Lynch Walt Secord
Adam Searle Steve Kamper
Trish Doyle Tania Mihailuk
Mark Buttigieg Jo Haylen
Julia Finn Rose Jackson
David Harris Anna Watson
Prue Car Shaoquett Moselman
Jodie Harrison Edmond Atalla
Yasmin Catley Guy Zangari
Anthony D’Adam Courtney Houssos
Greg Warren Nick Lalich
Peter Primrose
Stephen Bali
Marjorie O’Neill
Liesl Tesch
Tara Moriarty
Michael Daley
Sophie Cotsis

A range of other endorsements have been made by unions, federal MPs and other organisations which are listed below:

Jodi McKay Chris Minns
MUA (Newcastle) AWU
Justine Elliott MP HSU
AMWU* SDA NSW/ACT
AMIEU* Hellenic Caucus
Mich-Elle Myers, ALP National Vice President Stephen Lawrence, Dubbo Regional Councillor
Mark Greenhill, Blue Mountains Council Mayor Bill Saravinovski, Bayside Council Mayor
CFMMEU Chris Bowen MP
Barrie Unsworth, former NSW Premier Chris Hayes MP
Susan Templeman MP Linda Burney MP
Sue West, former NSW Senator Sharon Grierson, former Labor MP for Newcastle
NSW Senator Doug Cameron John Robertson, former NSW Labor leader
Jenny Dowell, former Mayor of Lismore Doug McClelland, former NSW Senator
Christine Robertson, former NSW MLC
Transport Workers Union

* Did not explicitly endorse McKay but publicly opposed Minns

Some have suggested that this leadership contest is actually a proxy battle for control of Sussex Street within the NSW Centre Unity faction between the current General Secretary Kaila Murnain who is supporting Jodi McKay and those who were more supportive of her predecessor Jamie Clements who are supporting Chris Minns. If that is the case, it reinforces the ambivalent mood that many party members have about this contest.

If there are any corrections or additions that need to be made to these lists, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: Jodi McKay won the ballot with 60.5% of the vote, receiving 63% of the rank-and-file votes and 29 votes from MPs (58%) compared to 21 for Chris Minns. Overall 10,822 rank-and-file members voted, a turnout of around 61.5%.

 

 

Challenge Magazine Editorial – 2018 ALP National Conference

The next year will be a pivotal year for progressive politics. Australia may become the most populated Western country governed by a social-democratic party if Labor wins in the federal election due next year. We have a responsibility to provide leadership at home and abroad and inspire our sister parties by doing what is right.

While Labor has put forward the most economically progressive platform it has in some time, our narrow focus limits the deeper conversation we need to have. Rightly there is a focus on job security, increasing wages, and funding for public services such as health and education but it cannot be at the expense of ignoring deep seated challenges that are only growing. With only a decade to combat climate change and the growing erosion of democratic norms, distrust of our institutions and attacks on pluralism, not only across the region but at home, by illiberal nationalist and conservative forces, Labor urgently needs to sketch out how it will credibly respond to these crises.

Calls for “sensible centrism” misread the public mood. Labor’s landslide victory in Victoria challenges the conventional wisdom that we must choose between our progressive base and suburban swinging voters. The public is ready for a bold progressive offer so long as it also delivers on their every day concerns and provides a credible plan for the future.

This National Conference is our opportunity to show Australians our offer for the next election. We will be judged by future generations if all we are willing to offer is incremental changes that focus on improving immediate material interests of swinging voters in marginal seats and alleviating excessive inequality but do not offer the transformative agenda that is needed to head off the climate crisis, reinforce our democratic institutions or fundamentally shift power relations to ensure economy to ensure it serves the people.

Our offer needs an economic agenda that delivers real change, both at home and abroad. We need a progressive energy policy that tackles climate change equitably and guarantees a just transition that does not leave workers behind.

It calls for a reshaping the social security system to ensure it does not punish and bring shame but rather provides the support that all our citizens deserve.

It demands rebuilding trust and strengthening our democratic institutions with a commitment to doing what is right, not easy, by embracing the Uluru Statement in full before any attempt at becoming a republic, actively working towards an international ban on nuclear weapons and ending the inhumane treatment of refugees which continues to damage the moral fabric of our nation.

It requires confronting and fighting the resentful nativism of One Nation that has infected our body politic and defeating its antipodean Poujadism. Ground zero for this battle against their nasty politics will be Queensland where Labor’s path to victory runs through.

An ambitious agenda that seeks to transform the country cannot be elite-led and decreed from above. It requires a mass democratic party where rank-and-file members and affiliated unions are both valued and have a genuine say. It also means we need a more representative party that reflects the community that we represent. The Left has led on improving the representation of women across society and in our public institutions, but we have much more to do to better represent people of colour if we are truly committed to multiculturalism.

It is up to all of us to take this responsibility seriously and to reject short-termism. We should not expect a honeymoon period and we must not indulge in what the community might see as arrogant, tribal triumphalism. We must not squander this opportunity to deliver what Australia needs to do to achieve good society. The price of failure will be felt by future generations. It is time to get to work.

Published in the 2018 National Conference edition of Challenge Magazine

How have ALP rank-and-file membership numbers changed over time?

I often hear claims about how the British Labour Party is now the largest party in Western Europe with the number of new members cited. The numbers are impressive but also make me wonder how many members of Australian Labor Party are there and how it compares to the past. It is hard to know because membership numbers are a closely guarded secret.

Currently, the only state with available figures is New South Wales. It is only because New South Wales Electoral Commission provides details as part of the electoral disclosure regime. Registered political parties are required to disclose funds raised from membership fees and subscriptions. However, beyond New South Wales, there is no requirement for party membership numbers to be published.

The most recent official source for Australian Labor Party rank-and-file membership numbers is the 2010 National Review.

ALP membership 200210

It provided an overall indication of party membership across Australia between 2002 and 2010 but it did not delve into historical membership figures in the 20th century. Without that data, we do not know how large a decline there has been since the heyday of party membership.

The best available estimate of ALP rank-and-file membership numbers from the 20th century is from Andrew Scott’s 1991 book Fading Loyalties. Based on what fragments of data he could gather, Scott concludes that ALP membership peaked in the decade following the Second World War at around 75,000 and fell to less than 45,000 following the Split and never recovered (though there was some growth until Whitlam). While there was some growth in South Australia and Western Australia afterwards but it could not compensate for declines in New South Wales and Victoria.

ALPmembersandvoters

The problem with national figures, however, is they hide changes in state branches which can be significant over time.

The book Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party provides rank-and-file membership numbers for each state and territory branch in 1980. While an approximation, it shows that even though the Australian population has grown by 67%, overall ALP membership numbers are stagnant.

The most recent publicly available figures, broken down by state branch, are from 2015 (though there is a national figure of 53,550 at the end of 2017). These were leaked to The Australian around the time of the National President ballot.

1980 2015 Change Change %
NSW          20,000          18,304 –       1,696 -8%
VIC          13,000          14,969          1,969 15%
QLD            5,500            9,328          3,828 70%
SA            8,050            3,836 –       4,164 -52%
WA            4,000            4,511            511 13%
TAS            1,730            1,144 –           586 -34%
ACT                800            1,500             700 88%
NT                400                338 –             62 -16%
Total          53,480          53,930             450 1%

From this comparative table, we can see that while national ALP membership has been fairly flat in raw numbers over the past three decades, there have been shifts in membership numbers within each state and territory branch.

It is clear from all these party membership figures that the ALP has never been a mass political party though some state and territory branches such as Queensland and the ACT are doing much better than others like SA and Tasmania. Why is something worth further investigation.

We are better than this

With inequality at a 70 year high and living standards stagnating, millions of Australians cannot afford another Coalition Government and nor can our planet. We urgently need a new direction.

We need to change the rules because they are are broken and rigged against working Australians.

We need an economic system that delivers for all Australians and reduces inequality, not one that just concentrates more wealth in the hands of the lucky few.

We need to reinvest in the essential public services that Australians rely on and halt the privatisation of our social security system that so many rely on.

We need to deliver a just transition to tackle the climate crisis while ensuring workers are not thrown on the scrap heap.

We need a Government that does not use the State to go after its opponents and take from those without power while showering as much public largesse as they can to their mates with little scrutiny.

What we have now at both a state and federal level are Governments run for the interests of the super rich, big banks and corporate Australia. They are Governments by organised capital, for organised capital.

The Coalition Government in New South Wales, shorn of some of the socially conservative extremism of its federal counterpart, shows what the Turnbull Government fundamentally is at its heart.

It is a Government that is addicted to privatising everything it can. A Government happy for the rivers of gold from a once in a generation real estate bubble to be wasted on vanity projects rather than schools and hospitals. A Government that has destroyed TAFE and disability services.

But Labor cannot take any election whether state or federal for granted.

It would be an arrogant betrayal of those who rely on Labor Governments. We should not, however, shy away from the fact that dissatisfaction with the Coalition has not translated into excitement for Labor. People are angry because the future does not look better. There is a yearning for positive ideas and policy proposals that address the everyday challenges they face.

Those on the progressive side of politics need to expand what is possible and show that only political involvement can deliver. That means fighting not for what is convenient but what is right and to fight to the end even if we might lose. It requires a party that is democratic and open to debates. Transactional politics and backroom deals that fuel cynicism will only be to our detriment in the long-run. Only the Left can do this and it is our responsibility to lead by challenging the status quo and making the case for change.

The next NSW state and federal election are choices about what kind of country and what kind of state we want to live in. Labor’s message has to be that Australia is better than this, that New South Wales is better than this. And only Labor Governments can deliver this.

Originally appeared in the 2018 NSW Conference edition of Challenge

2018 ALP National Conference delegate election results

One of the big reforms at the last ALP National Conference was the direct election of delegates to National Conference equal to the number of federal electorates. Each branch was allowed to choose the method of election with NSW being the sole branch to elect each delegate by federal electorate instead of via proportional representation through an at-large state or multi-electorate regional ballots like elsewhere.

Almost all state branches have now held their rank-and-file National Conference delegate elections. The results of these elections are listed below:

New South Wales

In New South Wales, there were contested ballots in 26 out of 47 federal electorates. The electorates with ballots and factional alignment of the winners were:

Banks: Left
Bennelong: Left
Berowra: Left
Blaxland: Left
Bradfield: Left
Calare: Right
Cowper: Right
Eden-Monaro: Right
Farrer: Right
Greenway: Right
Hughes: Right
Hume: Right
Hunter: Right
Lindsay: Right
Lyne: unaligned
Mitchell: Left
New England: Right
North Sydney: Right
Page: Left
Parramatta: Right
Reid: Right
Richmond: Right
Riverina: unaligned
Robertson: Right
Sydney: Left
Warringah: Left
Wentworth: Left

Overall, the rank-and-file delegate split was 28 to the National Right, 17 to the National Left and 2 unaligned. My understanding is the number of Left delegates went down by two in NSW compared to the last ALP National Conference. At the time, NSW required a delegate to be elected per federal electorate but there was no requirement for direct election by members.

Victoria

The Victorian ALP had a turnout of 73% for their rank-and-file National Conference delegate elections with 9,609 members returning their ballots. The results were:

National Left Unaligned National Right
Socialist Left 13 IND 2 Mods 10
Industrial Left 1 AWU 7
Con 5
NUW 2
SDA 2
HWU 1

The Victorian union component of National Conference delegates is still to be elected but the total Victorian Left delegation to National Conference is expected to be the same or one less than last time.

Concerns have, however, been raised about the conduct of the ballots as the Victorian ALP Returning Officer made a ruling that members could email for a replacement ballot and allow someone else collect their ballot. Overall, 1,085 ballots were re-issued with a high level concentrated in a small number of branches and electorates. Some branches had over 40% ask for a re-issue. It is been suggested that about 1,000 votes were picked up by the Mods (Adem Somyurek) for National Conference delegates that way. It might be what leads to a National Right majority.

Queensland

Queensland is holding their delegate elections for both State and National Conference with the Left faction running under the ticket named ‘Local Left Team’. Voting will close on 8 June.

Western Australia

In Western Australia, the split amongst the elected rank-and-file National Conference delegates was 12 Left, 5 CFMMEU and 5 Right. The delegates are:

  • Christy Cain (CFMMEU)
  • Magenta Wilders (Right)
  • Pierre Yang (Left)
  • Carolyn Smith (Left)
  • Matthew Swinbourn (CFMMEU)
  • Josh Wilson (Left)
  • Adrian Evans (CFMMEU)
  • Guy Wroth (Left)
  • Deana Lawver (CFMMEU)
  • Michelle Roberts MLA (Right)
  • Anne Aly (Left)
  • George Gakis (CFMMEU)
  • Matt Keogh (Right)
  • Sally Talbot (Left)
  • Jess Short (Left)
  • Tim Hammond (Right)
  • Patrick Dodson (Right)
  • Dom Rose (Left)
  • Louise Pratt (Left)
  • Stephen Dawson (Left)
  • Helen Tuck (Left)
  • Jessica Shaw (Left)

South Australia

In South Australia, the twelve directly elected National Conference delegates were evenly split between the Left and Right:

South Zone

  • Amanda Rishworth (Right)
  • Kyam Maher (Left)

Central Zone

  • Aemon Bourke (Right)
  • Demi Pnevmatikos (Left)

North West Zone

  • Stephen Mullighan (Right)
  • Karen Grogan (Left)

Regional Zone

  • Eddie Hughes (Left)
  • Clare Scriven (Right)

North Zone

  • Zoe Bettison (Right)
  • Steven May (Left)

North East Zone

  • Dana Wortley (Right)
  • Margot McInnes (Left)

Tasmania

All Tasmanian delegates to ALP National Conference have been elected. The Left will have 19 delegates (including the party leader) while the Right has 4 delegates. This is unchanged from the last National Conference.

Australian Capital Territory

In the Australian Capital Territory, Yvette Berry (Left) and Andrew Leigh (unaligned) were chosen as the directly elected National Conference delegates. The remaining four delegates elected by ACT Labor Conference were split between the CPSU (Left), CFMMEU, SDA (Right) and Gai Brodtmann (Right). The Chief Minister, Andrew Barr (Right), is also a delegate as party leader. The factional split is unchanged from the last National Conference.

Northern Territory

The elected National Conference delegation of six was evenly split between the Left and Right. The Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, sits with the Right faction.

Upcoming State Conferences

There will be three state ALP Conferences in the lead-up to ALP National Conference that will elect some remaining delegates to National Conference (Victoria on 26 May, NSW on 30 June-1 July, Tasmania on 7-8 July). Western Australia, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia will hold their state conferences after ALP National Conference.

If you have any corrections to this post or further information, please send it through.

UPDATE 25/05/18: Reported numbers are that the National Right hold roughly 200 delegates (dependent on whether you include the Queensland “Old Guard”).

UPDATE 13/06/18: Guardian Australia reports that the breakdown is 193 Left, 195 Right, 5 Queensland “Old Guard” and 7 independents.

UPDATE 14/11/18: The Australian reports that the National Right believes it will have at least 201 delegates with the National Left (excluding the Industrial Left) on 171.

The 2018 ALP National Conference might be a watershed moment

The upcoming ALP National Conference this July may herald significant changes to the Labor Party with suggestions that the Left might have the majority at National Conference for the first time since the 1970s, the first since the emergence of the modern factional system in the 1980s.

While it has the potential to be a watershed moment on party reform and a range of other issues, how the numbers ultimately fall and what is achieved will depend on a variety of factors. As I wrote prior to the last National Conference, no Labor Right majority does not guarantee the Left winning.

How the CFMEU-MUA delegates vote will be important and may determine whether the Left has a majority on many votes. In Western Australia, the CFMEU-MUA has split off the Broad Left and joined the Right in a new Progressive Labor faction. In Victoria, they and other unions have split off the Socialist Left to form the Industrial Left to deal with the right-wing Centre Unity faction. There has been an indication that all the CFMEU-MUA aligned delegates plan to caucus with the National Left but what it means in practice is still unclear.

Fragmentation is not only happening on the Left. In October last year, the QLD Labor Unity (old guard) faction withdrew from the National Right and will act independently on a case by case basis. Estimates had their delegates numbers at 6-8 and their votes could be pivotal when it comes to topics like party reform.

Finally, the biggest structural change since the last ALP National Conference is the direct election of delegates. In all, 150 of the 400 Conference delegates will be directly elected by members for the first time. All bar NSW will be elected through a proportional ballot. The direct election of these delegates has commenced with social media feeds clogged with candidates jostling for positions. It is currently unclear what the final result will be but there is the view that the Left will do better out of this process.

There is likely to be a push for further party reform at National Conference and if party Presidents do get a vote on the National Executive, it will make the upcoming National President election even more important. There is also likely to be a pushback from elements of the Labor Right with alternative watered down reforms or potentially attempts to reduce the size of delegations from the Left-dominated Tasmanian branch. Which duelling proposals get up are again unclear as all sides are yet to fully develop their proposals.

Predictions of outcomes would be unwise at this stage. The experience of the last National Conference of deals on a case-by-case basis, most notably when sections of some unions supported Shorten on boat turnbacks, is likely to be repeated. My suggestion is that anyone interested in the future direction of Labor should keep a close eye on what happens over the coming months, particularly at the NSW and Victorian State Conferences where proposals might be debated.

South Australia might herald the breakdown of Australia’s two party system

The South Australian election in March this year has the potential to break the traditional two party system that has existed in some form in Australia since the 1910s. While much of the focus had been One Nation on winning the balance of power in last year’s Queensland election, the Labor majority victory has meant public concern about One Nation’s “breakthrough” has dissipated. South Australia, on the other hand, is far less predictable and it is unclear what will occur.

With Nick Xenophon resigning from the Senate and running for the House of Assembly seat of Hartley, the campaign will be focused on him. Nick Xenophon has skilfully avoided being associated with any major party despite his deal making at a federal level, portraying himself as the anti-establishment choice, and he seems likely to benefit from public dissatisfaction. It is of little surprise that Labor is trying to paint Xenophon as a ‘Liberal in disguise’.

According to some polls Xenophon is preferred Premier and his ‘SA Best’ party is ahead of Labor and the Liberals on primary votes. It seems very possible that Nick Xenophon endorsed candidates will win a swag of House of Assembly seats. His party has already recruit a number of high profile candidates including a former TV journalist and the mayor of Port Augusta. Xenophon candidates have already shown their capacity to win Lower House seats, winning Mayo federally and coming close in Grey at the 2016 federal election.

South Australian Labor has been in power since 2002 and has lots of political baggage but the public does not seem sold on the Liberal Opposition who have a range of their own problems such as former sitting Liberal MPs running as independents and concerns that former party leader, now independent MP and Government Minister, Martin Hamilton Smith, will keep his seat. There is a distinct possibility the South Australian election may result in a genuine three party system where the largest party is allowed to govern in minority but it will not have a majority and there will also be a considerably sized cross-bench.

For the most part, the success of anti-political parties has been mostly confined to Upper Houses but South Australia may be the first site of Australia’s existing political order buckling under public dissatisfaction with the political class. Rather than in Queensland, South Australia may be where the populist revolt truly breaks through and upturns Australia’s two party system.

This period may be the beginning of the regionalisation of Australian party systems. The success of Katter, the Shooters and Fisher, the Greens and Xenophon may herald distinctive state party systems over the next few years as minor parties start to win multiple lower house seats in certain geographic localities.

Where to after the Northcote by-election

The Greens’ victory in Saturday’s Northcote by-election in Melbourne is likely to send shockwaves throughout inner city Labor in Victoria. While some did not expect it after polling showed Labor winning, robopolling has previously failed to accurately predict other contests involving Greens, most notably during the 2015 NSW state election.

Despite a good candidate and substantial resources, Labor lost the seat in a double digit swing. The contest in South Brisbane this Saturday is likely to have some bearing on the discussion as to whether it is just a Melbourne specific phenomenon but either way it seems Victorian Labor may be headed towards a minority government.

Many are yet to fully process the implications of the result but it is likely to shape debate about Labor and the Greens for the next twelve months. There needs to be some deep and reflective thinking by both Victorian Labor and the Greens. Neither are prepared for a minority government situation and their relationship seems poisonous from afar. Majority governments reduced to a minority are almost never re-elected and it has the potential to be worse than the Tasmanian experience.

The danger is the Coalition may get more seats than Labor and neither Labor nor the Greens may be able to work out their differences. If there is a minority Victorian Coalition government after 2018, its path to majority will be by pointing to chaos and instability with Labor and the Greens as the alternative. Another scenario is a loose arrangement between Labor and the Greens where the Greens make a big fuss to differentiate, creating a division and chaos narrative for 2022, leading to a majority Coalition win. Either situation would be bad for progressive politics in Victoria.

The spectre of a minority government will also put a brake on the Andrews Government’s style of wearing its progressive agenda on its sleeve and curtail its ambition on a range of issues. Already the media is being briefed about abandoning the inner city for outer suburbia and the regions with a ‘bread and butter’ agenda, shaped by a view that Greens voters are not a detached part of Labor’s existing base but rather wealthy professionals with more in common demographically with Liberal voters.

The reality is both parties need to figure out how to relate to each other in a manner that does not feed a Coalition narrative of chaos and instability or else the Coalition may slip ahead and win. Both parties also must learn the lesson of the past decade of federal politics, that is the Coalition needs to be comprehensively beaten twice or they will not drop the agenda pushed by the hard right. Whether they will is yet to be seen.

ACT Labor rightly extended voting rights

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.