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.


Jeremy Corbyn can inspire us but he was an accident, we can’t duplicate what happened in Labor

Last week the debate about Labor Party reform in the lead-up to ALP National Conference really kicked off after ALP National President (and Shadow Minister) Mark Butler gave a speech to the Victorian Fabians on party democracy. Butler highlighted the lack of Labor Party democracy compared to sister parties and also pointed to the British example of Labour growing significantly after party reform, urging those with power within Labor not to fear it.

Unsurprisingly it resulted in a number of responses. One of the better responses was in the Guardian Australia which published an op-ed by academic Liam Byrne commenting on Butler’s speech. Byrne argued that it is not party reform that will encourage people to join Labor but rather ideas that make people think it is worth participating within Labor.

I agree with him that ideas and a reason to be involved is essential. Many joined Labour because of Corbyn and I have written extensively about the Labor Left’s need to reform its ideas. However, there is a wider problem when trying to compare and contrast British Labour and Australian Labor.

It was the interaction of party reform, Corbyn as a candidate and ideas he represented that underpinned the growth of British Labour. None of it was planned though and it cannot be easily replicated or transplanted. Even the intellectual contours of Corbynism, “the ideas”, right now are quite sketchy and without strong institutional infrastructure. I have previously written about why a Corbyn is unlikely in Australia due to our electoral system and political culture but the extent to which Corbyn’s election was an accident and organic is not grasped by many people. There is a reliance on the benefit of hindsight, especially after the 2017 British election result.

To really understand how British Labour got to where it is, we need to go back to the 2010 Labour leadership election when Ed Miliband was elected leader over his brother by a tiny margin because of his massive victory in the union section of the Electoral College. The left-leaning unions had endorsed and actively supported Ed over David. There was animosity towards the unions from the Blairite wing of the Labour Right over the result.

The following year, the Blairite pressure group Progress started a campaign urging Labour adopt primaries. The seeming success of the Parti Socialiste Presidential primary in 2012 added weight to this belief that it should be adopted. It also followed a number of MPs (including Ed Miliband) suggesting primaries in the lead-up to Labour’s defeat in 2009.

Everything came to a head in 2013 in the parliamentary constituency of Falkirk where the Unite union was accused of “rigging the vote” to get its preferred candidate preselected. In response to this manufactured political crisis, Miliband committed to a range of party reforms including opt-in affiliation and the adoption of a leadership primary and he commissioned the Collins Review to examine how to implement it. The move towards primaries was about distancing Labour from the unions under the guise of “reforming the Labour-union link”. It is worth remembering that Tony Blair was a big supporter of this move.

In 2015, Labour unexpectedly lost the election with the Conservatives winning a majority. Ed Miliband quit as leader and in the leadership election that soon followed, Corbyn barely got enough MPs to nominate him, some “loaned” from the Labour Right to allow a broad church debate. He ran but he did not expect to win. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were the frontrunners.

In the beginning, his campaign struggled though it started to gain support from unions. The surge in support was unexpected. It was organic and it happened around June around when the debate about the benefit cap happened. Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to vote against it.

Corbyn was the beneficiary who tapped into a mood that already existed both within Labour and outside in the extra-parliamentary movements. From that, he built momentum because he seemed genuine, took advantage of the new electoral system and his opponents campaigned badly. One classic example of how bad the opposing campaigns were was that Corbyn was the only candidate to include join and registered supporter links on his website.

Corbyn won in the first round and his campaign list was turned into the organisation Momentum to bring together all the parts of the Left that backed him in a formalised institution. He had difficulties with chaotic Cabinet reshuffles, poor polling and local council losses.

After the shock victory of Brexiteers in the 2016 European Union membership referendum, Labour figures blamed Corbyn for the result and planned to get rid of him. After he sacked Hillary Benn, they attempted to blast him out by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet en mass. When that failed, there was an attempt to hold a new leadership election with Corbyn not automatically included. Again that failed.

The problem is they assumed they should pressure Corbyn out of the leadeership so had not determined which candidate they would fall behind: Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. Smith ended up as candidate but not after an aborted leadership launch by Eagle. Smith ran a Corbyn-lite candidate, focusing less on his agenda but that he would be a better messenger who could work with the rest of the party. Despite new restrictions on participation in the election, Jeremy Corbyn again won.

While there was talk of a split, his critics concluded that they would wait out until the next election, hoping a large defeat would discredit Corbyn and his agenda amongst the party. With Labour infighting and the Conservatives polling well, newly elected Prime Minister Theresa May sought to hold an early election, believing it would result in a landslide victory.

The subsequent campaign was the worst run by an incumbent government in living memory. Labour’s manifesto, which was leaked in an attempt to damage the party, was received positively and Labour surged in the polls as Corbyn embraced a populist rebrand with the now well known slogan “For the many, not the few”. National security was not the electoral liabilities many predicted and there was polarisation with those aged under 45 shifting to Labour. Labour recovered in northern seats where immigration was an issue until the Brexit vote, UKIP’s vote collapsing, and won educated socially liberal constituencies.

The Conservatives lost their majority in a shock result that few expected, leaving Corbyn in a strengthened position and May as well as Corbyn’s internal critics in a weak position. His critics acknowledged he would remain leader with potential challengers like Yvette Cooper, who planned to run for leader, not challenging. He was also able to make ground on the threshold for nominations being lowered, something his opponents previously opposed. Along with the subsequent collapse of Carillion and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it all seemed to symbolise a shifting landscape. What everyone had assumed would occur had been turned upside down with Jeremy Corbyn seemingly now Prime Minister in waiting.

There are a few things that we can conclude from all this.

Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn was accidentally elected off an already existing mood within Labour combined with a surge of radicalised support from outside the party, shaped by years of austerity.  The party which grew under Miliband had already shifted to the left on a range of issues, to the anger of the Blairites. In fact, much of Corbyn’s manifesto could be said to be Milibandism with a different tone.

The broader context is that since 2007, Britain has experienced the second worst real wage growth in the OECD (only Greece was worse), there is endemic low pay and university degree debt is the highest in the English-speaking world. The economic situation in Australia is getting worse but it is not comparable.

Secondly, the Labour Right, the Blairite wing, in particular, made a huge mistake. The Blairites mistakenly thought open primaries would benefit them but instead were wiped out. They continue to misread the mood. Furthermore, what remains of the Labour Right (both old Right and Blairite), bereft of big allied unions, do not know how to recruit and organise. They have no distinctive agenda. Instead they rely on campaigning in the media against the leadership.

It is clear that all of Corbyn’s victories have been because opponents underestimated him and his team. This is not to say that they always had a well oiled machine or fantastic strategy. His opponents were arrogant and failed to understand why people might support him. They all thought he was unelectable or he was not a nice shiny suave politician.

But what happened in Britain cannot be replicated here. It is not a single event or factor but multiple unplanned things that led Britain to its current situation. The path to where we are is full of arrogance and missteps by Corbyn’s opponents. Even if a primary was to be adopted in Australia, the result would not be the same.

That all said, ideas on their own are not enough. It is not an either or proposition. A party structure that is open and flexible is necessary. While it would not cause an upsurge alone, it makes it possible. Party reform is important in this regard but it is not an end in itself.

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.


How 2018 ALP National Conference delegates will be elected

Next year the Australian Labor Party will hold its triennial National Conference in Adelaide from Thursday July 26 until Saturday July 28. It will be the first ALP National Conference in Adelaide since 1979.

There will be 400 delegates to ALP National Conference, comprising of:

(i) three delegates being the National President and National Vice-Presidents
elected under clause 18(a);
(ii) four delegates being the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) and the
Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party in the Senate;
(iii) six delegates elected from and by the FPLP;
(iv) delegations from each state consisting of:
(A) the state Parliamentary Leader,
(B) a base component of 12 persons, and
(C) a supplementary component of a number of persons equal to twice the
number of House of Representatives electorates in that state as at the
previous 31 December;
(v) delegations from each territory consisting of:
(A) the territory Parliamentary Leader,
(B) a base component of 2 persons, and
(C) a supplementary component of a number of persons equal to twice the
number of House of Representatives electorates in that territory as at
the previous 31 December; and
(vi) three delegates from Australian Young Labor

It will be be first ALP National Conference since party rules were amended to mandate the direct election of state and territory delegations to ALP National Conference. Clause 32(b) in the party constitution now states that:

(i) a number of delegates directly elected by the financial members of the state branch that is at least equal to the number of House of Representative electorates in that state as at the previous 31 December; and

(ii) delegates from outside metropolitan areas.

Below is how ALP National Conference delegates will be elected in each state and territory branch, based on available information:


  • Each Federal Electorate Council will elect one delegate.
  • Party Officers (President, Senior Vice-President, Junior Vice-Presidents, General Secretary and Assistant General Secretaries) will be automatically elected.
  • The balance of the National Conference delegation will be elected by Affiliated Union delegates to NSW State Conference.


  • Half of National Conferences delegates and proxy delegates shall be elected by and from a single postal ballot of all party members, including Central Branch members, who have been members of the Party for at least 12 months at the close of nominations for this election.
    • At least two of the National Conference delegates elected must reside in a non-metropolitan area.
  • Half of the National Conference delegates and proxy delegates shall be elected by a ballot of the Affiliated Union delegates at the meeting of State Conference immediately preceding the National Conference.


  • Half of National Conference delegates will be elected by Affiliated Union delegates at QLD State Conference.
  • Half of National Conference delegates will be elected by branch members elected in separate proportional representation ballots consisting of:
    • a Brisbane North zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Brisbane, Lilley, Petrie and Ryan.
    • a Brisbane South zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Bonner, Bowman, Griffith, Moreton, Oxley and Rankin.
    • a South-East Queensland Zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Blair, Dickson, Fadden, Fairfax, Fisher, Forde, Longman, McPherson, Moncrieff, Wide Bay, Wright.
    • a Regional Queensland Zone, consisting of the federal electorates of Capricornia, Dawson, Flynn, Groom, Herbert, Hinkler, Kennedy, Leichhardt, Maranoa.
  • The number of delegates in each zone shall be determined by dividing the number of eligible branch members in Queensland at the time of opening nominations, by the number of delegates to be elected in total.


  • National Conference delegates are currently elected by the State Executive, however, there may be an attempt to change this at the upcoming WA Conference in August.


  • The current party rules only refer to National Conference Rule 6.


  • Half of National Conference delegates shall be directly elected by rank and file members (with eligibility requirements).
  • Half of National Conference delegates shall be elected by and from State Conference in a single ballot.


  • Two delegates will be directly elected by rank and file members.
  • Four delegates will be elected by ACT Branch Conference delegates.


  • Currently all six elected National Conference delegates are elected by NT Conference, however, there may be an attempt to change this to one delegate from each federal electorate with the remainder elected by Conference.

From this quick analysis, it is clear that each state and territory branch has been allowed to interpret the party rules differently. Some have allocated delegates to electorates or geographic areas while other states will have statewide ballots. It also means that while some states adhere to the 50:50 principle, others such as the ACT and Tasmania will not.

Furthermore, the extent of proportionality will vary significantly. New South Wales will have the least proportionate delegation, again reflecting the malapportionment that exists at a state level (to the advantage of the dominant Centre Unity faction). It is something that needs to be addressed to ensure something closer to One Vote One Value in the largest state branch.

It is also likely that the total number of National Conference delegates will need to be amended (or removed) for the following Conference as the House of Representatives will grow to 151, reducing the South Australian delegation by 2 and increasing the ACT and Victorian delegations by 2 per delegation for a total of 402 delegates to the following Conference if the current formula remains.

UPDATE 01/08/2017: It has been pointed out to me that the direct election clause seems to contradict Clause 15(e) in the party rules as no one is holding a single ballot for all delegates. Clause 15(e) states:

All delegates must be elected by a system of proportional representation in a single ballot with affirmative action in accordance with clause 19.

UPDATE 04/08/2017: I have been informed that Tasmania and the ACT comply with both clauses as their delegations are elected in single (college-type) ballots as opposed to electing each rank and file delegate in separate individual ballots like NSW.

Further, I have been told allowing half of National Conference delegates to be elected by union delegates to state Conferences is not based on anything in the party constitution but reliant on a Conference resolution from the previous 2011 National Conference. It is now included in Clause 22 in Chapter 12: Organisational Policies. The relevant section reads:

(g) Support state branches considering direct election.

To make our Party more active, we need to increase participation amongst rank and file members. One proposal for strengthening rank and file involvement is to provide the option of directly electing National Conference delegates in a ballot of financial members in an electorate. Different models for electing delegates to Party conferences are used in different states and territories. Each of these models reflects the unique political environment in that state. National Conference therefore:

(i) recognises that each state branch will approach the election of National Conference delegates differently;

(ii) supports state branches that are considering direct election;

(iii) recognises that the National Principles of Organisation require that state branch conferences comprise 50 per cent trade union representation, and 50 per cent Party constituency representatives;

(iv) reaffirms that this principle of 50/50 representation must continue;

(v) affirms that the local determination of National Conference delegates should not come at the expense of trade union representation; and

(vi) affirms that some of the National Conference delegation should continue to be elected in such a way as to ensure the principle of 50/50 representation is maintained.


Another world is possible, but only if we seize this moment

We are on the precipice of a moment of transformation. The orthodoxy of the last forty years feels as if it is exhausted and on the verge of collapse. What fills the vacuum is yet to be seen.

There is hope. The predictions of a calamity for British Labour did not come to pass. The public is tired of being told their future will be worse than their parents’ generation and they cannot enjoy what past generations took for granted: security, stability, an improvement in their material circumstances.

The British election had a global impact for social democratic movements. Here in Australia, many even asked who our home grown answer to Jeremy Corbyn is. That, however, is the wrong question and lesson. This isn’t about personalities or individuals – for progressives it never is. Rather the lesson of the British election for those on the Left should be to challenge what ideas we think are possible and to put forward a transformative vision for a better future.

The times call for a bold platform for a better future for the many and we must not hedge on it. We need to be unapologetic and hopeful. People are not happy with the status quo and established party systems are being overturned across the world.

The conservative side of politics has no answer to the crisis of housing affordability and the growing precariat, other than mindless appeals to xenophobia and the politics of division. They are in denial about the realities of climate change and comfortable with entrenched inequality.

Within Australia, inequality is growing. It is growing within our capital cities, with those living in rich and poor suburbs experiencing substantially different health and educational outcomes. It is growing as well as between urban and regional communities. It is a challenge that social democratic parties at all levels of government must face head on.

This moment is a time to articulate that another world is possible. Imagining a better future requires a dash of utopianism to consider bold ideas, as well as meticulous attention to the nitty gritty of policy and legislation. The Left in Australia is capable of both – but we must be smart, united and determined.

The alternative is to cede the future to a xenophobic nativism where the majority are pitted against each other, with an increasingly wealthy and disconnected elite making decisions about who is deserving and how to distribute the scraps they are prepared to share. The PASOKification that has torn apart sister parties in Western Europe is the future if Labor does not put the interests of working people front and centre.

It means a vision for better future for the generations to come, rather than the fear of a future in which our lives are worse than those of our forebears.

It means tax settings that fund the public services we need to build a good society that can stop the growth of inequality and ultimately make our society more equal.

None of this will happen naturally or automatically. It will require our ideas and our hard work. We have a better future to create and do not have a second to lose.

Originally appeared in the 2017 NSW Labor Conference edition of Challenge