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.


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.

Understanding Labor beyond Sydney and Melbourne

A few years ago, the NSW Socialist Left celebrated its 60th anniversary and got historian Frank Bongiorno contributing a short history of the faction. I re-read the short history a few days ago and it got me thinking about the origins of the Left faction in other states.

While there is often much talk about rumblings within the Left faction, as I have previously written, the reality is that it is a loose coalition of state-based groupings. They are shaped by local factors and histories which mean they often disagree (as shown at the recent ALP National Conference) and even have their own sub-groupings. The state-based nature of the ALP also meant that the various factions did not all form at the same time and are very much creations of certain circumstances and local party cultures, something that is not well understood or analysed.

The NSW Combined Unions and Branches Steering Committee (as the Socialist Left was originally known as) was formed in 1954-55 to fight the Groupers, however, the Victorian Socialist Left was only formed after federal intervention in 1970. Elsewhere around the country, formalised Left factions were formed at later dates. For example, in Queensland, a formalised Socialist Left only established itself in 1978-79 around then Senator George Georges. In Tasmania, party reform in 1976 resulted in dominance by the ‘Broad Left’ from the mid-1970s onwards which became a formal faction in 1983. The ACT Left Caucus was not formed until the early 1980s. In each of these cases, a Left faction was instigated by local circumstances and those local factors meant that they were often ideologically and operationally quite different.

The experience of South Australia and Western Australia is different, in part because factionalism was imported from the other states. Until the 1980s, much of the rest of the party outside the East Coast was not factionalised. Two factors changed this. Firstly, in 1981, ALP National Conference approved the introduction of proportional representation for the remaining state branches. As Clem Lloyd and Wayne Swan pointed out in their 1987 Australian Journal of Political Science article ‘National Factions and the ALP‘:

Because the state machines could no longer control the composition of National Conference and National Executive delegations, a premium was placed on factional representation which transcended state limits.

Prior to then, the Labor Right did not organise beyond the state level and the Left only had a rudimentary national structure at best. Whoever already controlled the branch had complete control and there was limited incentive because it required complete control.

Secondly, it was the formation of proper national factions, instigated ironically by the creation of the National Centre Left in Adelaide on 19 February 1984, that led to factionalisation in states like Western Australia and South Australia. The Centre Left established itself in opposition to the factionalism of Left and Right factions. Lloyd and Swan explained that:

Lacking any prospect for winning power bases in NSW and Victoria, where existing factions honeycombed the ALP structure, the National Centre Left focussed its aspirations on the outer states which were largely unfactionalised.

Reflecting on all this, it becomes clear that whenever Labor’s past is discussed, it only really focuses on either Sydney or Melbourne or the going ons in the Commonwealth Parliament. It overlooks the importance of local factors in shaping distinct party cultures that do have an impact on national decisions. Labor still is a federation of state branches with alliances across state lines. The Labor Party is more than what happens in Sydney, Melbourne and the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. There should be more knowledge and discussion about these local histories such as the origins of local factions and political clashes to understand how and why things are the way they are.


Labor must grasp this opportunity to inspire

Labor’s 2015 National Conference is the most important in a generation. Our party is at a critical juncture. The 47th National Conference must set the path both on policy and on internal reform.

After many false starts, real Party reform is now within reach, Now is the time to guarantee rank-and-file members a direct vote for not just the leader but also for delegates to National Conference and Senate candidates. Just as essential is the continuation of our equal partnership with the union movement, the largest social movement in Australia. This opportunity to inspire must not be squandered.

One critical Conference debate will focus on the need for Labor to build a credible economic agenda. As Tom Skladzien argues, that does not mean slashing spending driven by a ‘surplus fetish’ or the imposition of arbitrary tax-to-GDP ratios. Instead we must ask: how can government best pay for the services Australians need and expect?

A progressive fiscal policy for Labor must address the revenue question. This is an absolute prerequisite to realising the society and public services we want to deliver. Jo Schofield rightly points out: if we accept an ever-shrinking tax base, progressives will end up squabbling over the ever-decreasing pool of revenue.

So how can Labor fund the program as that Australians need? Richard Dennis’s outlines four progressive revenue-raising measures.

Labor cannot lock itself into a low-revenue future and nor allow itself to be cast as a pale imitation of the Coalition. As Nadine Flood points out, the ALP must advocate a positive case for the role of over meant as an essential enabler of future jobs and prosperity.

Conference will feature several other key policy debates that will shape Labor’s approach in government. Asylum seekers, marriage equality, a fairer tax system that tackles corporate tax avoidance, housing affordability and tackling climate change are all high on the Left’s agenda.

Conference will also debate Labor’s core objective. It is a debate that seems to have been mainly conducted in the conservative press. While the case for change has not yet been made, we should always have the confidence to debate Labor’s purpose. In that spirit, we are publishing two competing views on the socialist objective.

The British election proved that even incompetent and hated governments can triump on the back of cynical fear campaigns. Being the least worst option will not lift Labor to government. Neal Lawson offers two lessons from the UK election.

Labor must grasp the vital opportunity offered by th 2015 National Conference. Facing a federal election, we must demonstrate our evolution as a modern, democratic movement with a positive policy vision for the future.

Originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Challenge


The upcoming election of the ALP National President

The next few months will be extremely busy within NSW Labor with elections every month until ALP National Conference in July. After the NSW election at the end of March, there is automatically a ballot for State Parliamentary Labor Party leader in April. This will be followed by the election of a delegate from each Federal Electorate Council to National Conference in May and then there will be the ballot for the ALP National Presidency. Of all these elections, the ALP National President ballot is likely to be the most interesting.

The process

Under the ALP rules, the ALP National President and 2 National Vice-Presidents must be directly elected from and by Party members in the 12 months before each triennial National Conference in a single ballot by proportional representation with affirmative action (meaning at least one must be a woman and one must be a man) The candidate first elected is National President, the candidate second elected is National Senior Vice President, and the candidate third elected is National Junior Vice President.

The term of office for each position starts at the commencement of National Conference, and ends at the commencement of the next triennial National Conference. The ballot will take the form of a postal ballot and all party members who were financial at 31 December 2014 will be eligible to vote. Party units, union or MP resources will not be allowed for campaigning. It won’t be considered campaigning if all candidates are treated equally and given the same opportunity to submit supporting material that is circulated. A roll of voters will not be provided to candidates to try to limit campaigning. In previous National President ballots, candidates required at least 50 nominees, 10 nominees from five different states and territories. It is unclear if this will be a requirement.


Milestone Date
States requested to send National Returning Office membership information Wednesday 31 December
Roll of eligible voters finalised Friday 16 January
Nominations open Monday 30 March
Nominations close Friday 17 April
Voting opens, ballot papers and candidate statements issued Monday 11 May
Voting closes, last day for ballot papers to be returned Friday 12 June
National President takes office at start of National Conference Friday 24 July

What is likely to happen?

The Left has traditionally topped the National Presidency ballot and seems likely to top the ballot again. The last National President ballot resulted in Jenny McAllister (Left) being elected President. Transport Workers Union National Secretary Tony Sheldon (Right) was elected Senior Vice President and Jane Garrett MP (Left) was elected Junior Vice President. An independent candidate came fourth after preferences followed by Senator Claire Moore (Left) and Gai Brodtmann MP (Right).

The Presidency ballot may be used as a mini-referendum on the future direction of the party. It seems likely that candidates for ALP National President from the Left may run on a platform that is the Left’s National Conference agenda, which will go beyond party reform. There may be added pressure as the numbers at National Conference are likely to be the closest that they have been in years. While no one has confirmed they are running, there are rumours about a former Cabinet Minister in the Gillard Government standing and another candidate running on a binding on marriage equality platform. Whatever does happens, the debates that occur during the ALP National President contest are likely to a forerunner to the debates we will see at July’s ALP National Conference in Melbourne.

UPDATE 10/03/15: Mark Butler is a declared Left candidate for National President after Greg Combet pulled out. The ALP Right is backing WA barrister Tim Hammond.

UPDATE 16/06/15: According to Troy Bramston in The Australian, left-wing Cabinet Minister Mark Butler looks set to win the ALP National Presidency with approximately 30.5% of the vote. Tim Hammond (Right) got 24.4%, Jane Garrett (Left) received 19.8%, Louise Pratt (Left) came fourth with 15.4% while Henry Pinskier (Right) was last on 8.9%.


NSW Labor’s leadership contest

The resignation of John Robertson months before the state election has thrown a spanner into the works for NSW Labor. Few expect Labor to win in March and even fewer expected Robertson to continue as leader post-election but a 2PP swing of 10% and the return of 15 seats seemed likely. Labor would have new MPs, elect a new leader and be competitive for 2019. All that is now up in the air.

While NSW Labor now directly elects its party leader, the new rules adopted ensured that it would only occur after the 2015 election and if there was more than six months until a state election. This Caucus only ballot will occur on January 5. Until the ballot, Deputy Leader Linda Burney will be the Acting Leader of the Opposition.

To date, two contenders have declared their candidacy: Michael Daley and Steve Whan. Both are from the Right and have been touted as potential leaders in the past. Linda Burney has also been suggested as a candidate. The main contender who has not declared his candidacy yet is Upper House leader Luke Foley.

The main barriers to Luke Foley becoming the leader have been the lack of a Lower House seat and his membership of the Left. With Robertson’s resignation and the need to quickly get a new leader, these barriers are disappearing courtesy of Head Office.

The emergence of a deal to let him take the state seat of Auburn through a National Executive intervention addresses the lack of a Lower House seat. The pre-selection there has not been finalised and it would be a solution to the reports of branch stacking that have dogged the Auburn pre-selection process.

Being part of the Left faction means being in the Caucus minority. Of Labor’s current Caucus, 14 MPs are from the Left, 22 are from the Right and one is unaligned. To gain a majority and become leader, Foley would need support for an additional five MPs, mainly from the Right. Who could those five be? The Right’s Walt Secord is on the record as a Foley supporter and with Head Office’s backing, it seems likely he will get at least four others if he decides to run.

While Luke Foley would be the best option, he does have baggage. He is a machine man, having been a union secretary and also been the NSW Labor Assistant General Secretary. There has also been a lot of controversy over his socially conservative views on marriage equality, however, he is clearly Labor’s most effective Shadow Minister. He cuts through and scored multiple hits on the Government in the environment portfolio. The same cannot be said of the other contenders.

If Foley does become leader, it seems unlikely that he would accept unless Head Office backed him in a the ballot post-election. It also might mean that the expected post-election direct election does not occur. More concerning is it may mean that leaders are torn down six months before an election to avoid a direct election.

Whatever does happen, the new leader needs to ensure Labor articulate a clear vision and plan for New South Wales. It has not outlined an alternative to the Liberal’s plan to fund infrastructure through privatisation which is a major weakness. There is only so much that a new face can do for Labor, the party needs a credible agenda. Opposition to privatisation will not be enough as the public remembers Labor’s attempts to privatise electricity. Whoever is elected Labor’s leader must show leadership and ensure that credible agenda for Government is developed and campaigned for over the next two elections.

UPDATE 28/12/14: Luke Foley has announced he will contest the NSW Labor leadership but will run in a rank-and-file preselection for Auburn.

UPDATE 29/12/14: Steve Whan has withdrawn from the leadership ballot & Linda Burney has ruled herself out.

UPDATE 30/12/14: Michael Daley has pulled out leaving Luke Foley as the only candidate for leader.


ACT Labor’s coming Senate preselection battle

Earlier this week, Labor Senator Kate Lundy announced that she would be stepping down as a Senator for the ACT after 18 years. It has led to frenzied speculation about who might replace her with no clear successor and competition likely to be fierce.

Unlike most other ALP branches, ACT Labor conducts all preselections by a 100% rank-and-file ballot. While the Left holds a majority on the Conference floor, this is primarily due to the size of union delegations. The largest union in the ACT, the Community and Public Sector Union is affiliated to the Left and larger unions that are traditionally in the Right elsewhere such as the Transport Workers Union are aligned to the Left Caucus or are relatively much smaller (AWU, SDA, NUW).

The recent ballot for ACT President gives an indication of the breakdown of active rank-and-file membership and potentially the results. Approximately 63% of party members participated in the ballot and the Left Caucus’ candidate Louise Crossman topped the poll on primaries with 214 (34%). The Independents faction’s candidate Tom McMahon can second with 195 (31%), the Centre Coalition’s Jennifer Newman received 157 (25%) and non-aligned candidate John Kilcullen received 56 votes (9%). No factional grouping has an outright majority so preferences will matter. For a candidate to be successful, they will need to appeal to the other groupings.

The eligibility to vote will be much tighter for preselection so there will be a smaller pool of voters. Anyone who was a member could vote for President while those voting in preselections will need to be a member for more than 12 months and attended 3 meetings in one year (or 6 over 2 years). The requirements are less strenuous for those who have been a member for a longer period of time with only 2 meetings required for between 5 and 10 years membership and only 1 if a member for 10 years or more.

A big unknown factor will be the timetable and process for preselection. Many inactive members are likely to attend meetings to get preselection rights and whether pre-poll and postal voting is available will affect turnout. For example, half of the voters in the Presidential ballot voted by postal ballot.

Whatever occurs, it is likely to be a vigorous contest between the three groups and the candidate each grouping backs will matter significantly.

UPDATE 5/12/14: Katy Gallagher has announced she will seek preselection for the upcoming Senate vacancy. Given that Bill Shorten and Penny Wong approached her, it’s likely she will have no or minimal opposition.