Category Archives: Victorian Labor

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.

How has ALP factional influence changed since the 1980s?

In previous posts I have outlined the factional composition of the ALP at a state and national conference level. Those posts have focused on the previous decade. It is, however, worth understanding that the level of factional influence has changed significantly since the days of the early Hawke Government.

While there is a long history of factionalism in NSW, it was not until a series of interventions into state branches between 1970 and 1980 and the imposition of proportional representation that formalised factions truly started to emerge right across the country. In fact branches such as Western Australia and South Australia were largely unfactionalised until the 1980s.

Though the ALP Left had a rudimentary national organisation since the 1950s, there were no self-declared national factions until the 1984 ALP Conference when the National Centre-Left formed. The Labor Right had never organised beyond the state level and did not even have a formalised integrated national strategy by the end of 1986.

The following tables and charts illustrate my point. The first three tables are from a 1987 journal article National Factions and the ALP by Clem Lloyd and Wayne Swan. They provide an estimate of factional voting power at a national and state levels in 1986. Chart 1 is a compilation of publicly available figures from the 1984, 1986, 2002, 2004 and 2011 ALP National Conferences.

Table 1 – ALP National Factions (Voting Power expressed as a percentage)

National Right National Centre Left National Socialist Left National Non-aligned
National Executive before 1986 National Conference 39 28 33
National Executive after 1986 National Conference 43 21 36
National Conference 1984 30 28 41
National Conference 1986 41 19 39
National Parliamentary Labor Party (total) 41 24 27 7
Senate 29 29 38 4
House of Representatives 45 24 23 8

Table 2 – State and Territory Factions (Voting power expressed as a percentage

Centre Unity/Labor Unity Centre Left Socialist Left Centre (Qld) Non-aligned
Queensland 25

[Old Guard]

6 45 29


New South Wales 66 34
Victoria 43 7

[Vic Independents]

Tasmania 22 16 49 13
South Australia 15 40 45
Western Australia 30 30

[Centre Coalition]

36 4
Northern Territory 45 24 23 15
Australian Capital Territory 40 10 47

Table 3 – ALP Ministers (Factional voting power expressed as a percentage)

Centre Unity/Labor Unity Centre Left/Vic Independents Socialist Left Non-aligned
National (Cabinet) 47 41 12
National (Ministry) 41 37 15 7
New South Wales 70 25 5
Victoria 32 21 32 15
South Australia 54 15 31
Western Australia 22 33 11 34

Chart 1 – Breakdown of ALP National Conference delegates by faction (factional voting power expressed as a percentage)


There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from these tables.

Firstly, since the 1980s there has been a massive shift in factional voting power, particularly since the Centre-Left has ceased to exist. The Left has improved its position in Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Tasmania. The Left has lost ground while the Right has gained ground in South Australia and Victoria. Though the Left has gained considerably, the Right gained enough to get an outright majority in the mid-2000s at a national level. The base of that majority has been its control of New South Wales.

Secondly, the sidelining of unaligned party members by factions is not a recent phenomenon at all. Arguably the Centre-Left swallowed up much of what was the unaligned vote in becoming a faction, which in turn has been swallowed up by the Left and Right. Swan and Lloyd (1987) noted that:

At the national level, the unaligned component, which was quite important even five years ago, has diminished in influence. Non-aligned delegates have disappeared from the National Conference and the National Executive.

Since the rise of national factions in the early 1980s, the level of influence by various factions has changed dramatically. Factionalisation and polarisation has spread to the rest of the country from the eastern states. The level of influence each faction will continue to change over the coming years.

The move towards greater direct elections is likely to mean less factional stability as greater contestability is introduced and increased levels of proportionality associated with these direct elections could result in the creation of new groupings. This will all depend on what occurs at the ALP National Conference in July where party reform will be debated.

How are state and territory ALP conferences structured?

The question of party reform is likely to dominate the upcoming ALP National Conference in July. While reform is undoubtedly needed, much of the commentary will be based on inaccurate information, in part because knowledge about party structures is not widespread.

It is important to understand that each state branch of the ALP has its own distinct structure. It can vary wildly from state to state. In some states, unions aren’t actually 50% of conference floor and in others committee members and the parliamentary party get many delegate spots. Furthermore, unions are not guaranteed 50% of the delegates at National Conference, “union delegates” are only elected indirectly through state and territory conferences.

This table from an ALP National Secretariat document provides a good overview of how each state and territory branch structures their conference:

State/Terr Conference/Convention NSW Vic Qld WA SA Tas ACT NT
Annual frequency 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1
Specified timing Oct May, Oct Jun None None Aug Jun/Jul Jun
Union delegates 445 300 211 150 100 100 92 33
— as percentage of total 50.0% 49.5% 50.0% 50.0% 50.0% 46.7% 46.5% 43.4%
FEA/FEC delegates 144 300 194 0 0 100 0 0
— allocation of delegates Fixed: 3/FE Proportional Ratios: 9,7,5/FE n/a n/a Fixed & Prop. n/a n/a
— elected how FE Councils Direct Direct n/a n/a Direct n/a n/a
— elected when Apr, annual Jul/Aug, odd yrs Every 3 yrs n/a n/a May, annual n/a n/a
State/terr electorate delegates 186 0 0 0 92 0 0 0
— allocation of delegates Fixed: 2/FE n/a n/a n/a Prop. Max 4/SE n/a n/a n/a
— elected from SE Councils n/a n/a n/a Direct n/a n/a n/a
Apr, annual n/a n/a n/a Aug, odd yrs n/a n/a n/a
Local branch delegates 0 0 0 148 0 0 92 33
— allocation of delegates n/a n/a n/a Proportional n/a n/a 0.1/member 0.1/member
— elected when n/a n/a n/a  Aug/Sep, annual n/a n/a May, annual < Sep, annual
Delegates elected postal or in person Person Person Person Person Person Postal Person Person
Total geographic member delegates 330 300 194 148 92 100 92 33
— as percentage of total 37.1% 49.5% 46.0% 49.3% 46.0% 46.7% 46.5% 43.4%
FPLP Caucus — elected 16 2 1 1 0 1 3 2
FPLP Caucus — ex officio 0 2 0 0 1 1 0 0
SPLP (or TPLP) Caucus — elected 16 0 0 1 0 1 0 0
SPLP (or TPLP) Caucus — ex officio 0 2 2 0 1 2 8 2
Entire caucus are delegates No No No No No No Yes Fed only
Municipal delegates 0 0 3 0 0 0 0 0
— method n/a n/a 1 Ex off, 2 elect n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Total parliamentary delegates 32 6 6 2 2 5 11 4
— as percentage of total 3.6% 1.0% 1.4% 0.7% 1.0% 2.3% 5.6% 5.3%
Admin/officials 34 0 5 0 2 1 0 0
— method All Admin n/a Ex officio n/a State Sec, Pres State Sec n/a n/a
Policy 27 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
— method Ex officio n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Women’s 3 0 3 0 0 0 0 3
— method Ex officio n/a Direct n/a n/a n/a n/a Elect conf
Young Labor 16 0 3 0 4 2 3 3
— method Elected YL conf n/a Elected YL conf n/a Direct2 Direct postal Elect YL AGM Elect conf
Indigenous 0 0 0 0 0 6 0 0
— method n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a Elect, fixed/FE n/a n/a
Platform Committee 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
— method Ex officio n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Total policy/party delegates 83 0 11 0 6 9 3 6
— as percentage of total 9.3% 0.0% 2.6% 0.0% 3.0% 4.2% 1.5% 7.9%
Total delegates 890 606 422 300 200 214 198 76
Nat Conf delegates 108 86 72 42 34 22 6 6
— per State/Terr conf delegate 8 7 6 7 6 10 33 13
Nat Conf delegates elected how 56/44% SC/FEs 100% Conf 100% Conf 100% State Exec 100% Conv 50/50% SC/DE 100% Conf 100% Conf

1 ‘Person’ includes ballots with a postal provision for regional areas.
2 SA YL treated as a state electorate, 4 is assuming maximum allocation.
3 In some branches, union votes are weighted so the number of delegates present at conference will be less.

One thing that is clear from the table is that NSW has the least rank-and-file input into its conference and those delegates are a) not directly elected and b) the allocation is fixed, not proportional. It is a gerrymander that is out of line with all other states. A change to that structure will have flow on effects nationally.

With a clearer understanding of how the structure of the ALP actually works, it will be easier to identify the real barriers to a democratic party and push a more effective reform agenda.

Changes in Labor’s factional composition

There’s been renewed interest in a piece I wrote a few months ago after an article in The Guardian suggested the Right may lose its majority at the upcoming ALP National Conference. Whether it happens hinges on upcoming delegate elections in NSW and Victoria.

One question I have been asked is what changes have resulted in this situation. While there is some publicly available information about factional breakdowns in the ALP, it is fairly limited. For example, it was widely reported that at the 2011 Conference, the Labor Right had 218 of 400 delegates. There was, however, little information about how the state breakdowns.

The most notable piece on the factional composition within the ALP is Wayne Swan and Clem Lloyd’s journal article ‘National factions and the ALP’. Published in 1987 in the Australian Journal of Political Science, it gave a history of the rise of nationally organised factions and provided a comparative breakdown by state over 1984-1987. It is, however, of limited use today as a guide to factional compositions.

A better starting point to chart the change in ALP factional composition over the past decade is Xandra  Faulkner’s Ph.D. thesis, The Spirit of Accommodation: The Influence of the ALP’s National Factions on Party Policy 1996–2004. The thesis provides a breakdown of delegates from the 2002 Special Rules Conference in Canberra.

The 2002 Conference instituted a number of party reforms including instituting 50/50 at state conferences, directly electing the National President and also expanded National Conference to 400 which had an impact from 2004 onwards. Many of the more far-reaching reforms proposed by the Left were blocked as due to opposition from the Independents Alliance (Centre-Left) and Right.

In table below, I’ve drawn on data from her thesis and added a percentage breakdown:

Table 1. National Factions at the 2002 National Conference

NSW % VIC % QLD % SA % WA % TAS % ACT % NT % Total %
Right 47 73.4% 15 39.5% 12 38.7% 8 38.1% 5 25.0% 5 31.3% 1 25.0% 1 25.0% 97 48.3%
Left 17 26.6% 18 47.4% 13 41.9% 12 57.1% 9 45.0% 9 56.3% 2 50.0% 2 50.0% 82 40.8%
Centre-Left 0 0.0% 5 13.2% 6 19.4% 1 4.8% 6 30.0% 2 12.5% 1 25.0% 1 25.0% 22 10.9%
Total 64 100% 38 100% 31 100% 21 100% 20 100% 16 100% 4 100% 4 100% 201 100%

It seems the big change since 2002 has been the demise of the Centre-Left around the 2004 Conference. Much of their vote seems to have gone to the Left (particularly in WA and Tasmania).

Of note is that the Left has significantly increased its share in NSW. Gains, however, have been offset by losses in Victoria. The Right has gained significant ground in Victoria over the past decade at the expense of both the Left and Centre-Left (particularly as the National Union of Workers has rejoined Labor Unity in Victoria).

While the Left seems to have gained the most from the demise of the Independents Alliance, the Right gained enough to get an outright majority, first on National Executive in 2004 and then at the 2007 ALP National Conference.

Lessons from Victoria

Labor’s victory in Victoria was a watershed. For years, it had been a political truism that Government’s always win a second term. The defeat of the one-term Napthine Government not only shatters that illusion, it gives hope to Labor Oppositions everywhere.

Then we saw the unprecedented results in South Australia’s Fisher byelection and the Queensland polls showing Labor is neck-and-neck with the LNP. We can now truly believe that Labor has turned a corner.

Victoria has blazed a trail for Labor. We now have a proven campaign model for Labor to embrace federally and in other states, a model that we can use to campaign and win.

Campaign tactics received a lot of attention, but the biggest lesson out of Victoria is the embrace of the broader grassroots labour movement by the Party. As Premier Daniel Andrews said:

There are some that wanted to it be all about unions and workers, and that is exactly what it was.

Victorian Trades Hall’s ‘We Are Union’ campaign electrified the election effort. Unions mobilised hundreds of firefighters, nurses, teachers and paramedics across marginal seats. These workers were instrumental in eliminating a one-term Coalition Government. Just as with the Your Rights at Work campaign, when organised workers are front and centre in a united campaign, we will not be defeated.

The other lesson from the Victorian election is the need to communicate a clear policy agenda. Incumbency was not enough to offset a muddled message from the Coalition. Labor, in contrast, made clear election commitments on the East-West Link, improving public transport and restoring TAFE funding.

Federal Labor must likewise present a clear policy agenda or face disillusionment and aimlessness. Rejection of Tony Abbott’s extreme agenda combined with a small target strategy may be appealing – but it will not be enough to win and consolidate power.

Shaun Wilson makes a strong case that the next federal Labor Government will face a new set of challenges more difficult to solve than those faced by its predecessors.

Those challenges will not be met by wallowing in nostalgia. Rather Labor must provide answers to the pressing problems of contemporary life. We must address the growing pressures on the balance between work and caring, and the need to reform our welfare state to reduce growing inequality and improve living standards. We must ensure quality and affordable early childhood education.

Avoiding these tough questions will do Labor no favours in the long run. We must carve out a new agenda consistent with Labor values.

Originally appeared in the Summer 2014-15 edition of Challenge