The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Reform Hopes Dashed at ALP National Conference

The 2015 ALP National Conference will be remembered for historic decisions on affirmative action and marriage equality, for an intelligent and at times moving debate on asylum seekers, and for the Labor Environment Action Network's well run grassroots campaign that influenced the party's decision to set a target of 50 per cent of power being sourced from renewables by 2030. The commitments that 50 per cent of Labor MPs will be women by 2025 -- with sanctions to back it up -- and that a Shorten Government would introduce a bill for marriage equality within 100 days of taking office also underscored the effectiveness of well-organised campaigns for change inside the party. EMILY’s List has fought for more than 20 years for yesterday’s decision; its activists richly deserved their moment of triumph

The 2015 ALP National Conference will be remembered for historic decisions on affirmative action and marriage equality, for an intelligent and at times moving debate on asylum seekers, and for the Labor Environment Action Network's well run grassroots campaign that influenced the party's decision to set a target of 50 per cent of power being sourced from renewables by 2030. The commitments that 50 per cent of Labor MPs will be women by 2025 -- with sanctions to back it up -- and that a Shorten Government would introduce a bill for marriage equality within 100 days of taking office also underscored the effectiveness of well-organised campaigns for change inside the party. EMILY’s List has fought for more than 20 years for yesterday’s decision; its activists richly deserved their moment of triumph.

But alongside these signs of a party open to pressure from its members, the debate on internal democratic reforms was mostly a depressing failure. 

The Conference adopted one significant change: ordinary members will now directly elect at least 150 delegates, the equivalent of one for every federal electorate, and a little more than one in three of all Conference delegates. States can go further if they choose: it is open to next year’s Victorian conference, for example, to adopt a motion giving ordinary members 50 per cent of votes for National Conference delegates.

Yet Conference overwhelmingly voted down a motion to give local members at least 50 per cent of votes for Senate preselections. Another, to increase the vote of ordinary members in preselections for House of Representatives seats by 20 percentage points was put up, then withdrawn, and not revisited by the time Conference finished.

A motion from former NSW Minister John della Bosca to create a members charter of rights, including recourse to the justice system when they feel the party's National Executive has infringed these rights, was shunted off to a committee for further analysis. There it will probably stay until the next National Conference in three years time. 

The motion on Senate preselections was moved and seconded by Victorian Independents Eric Dearricott and Sandra Willis alongside a Left motion to give members 50 per cent of votes for Senate preselections and the other 50 per cent to nominated representatives of affiliated trade unions. Once the Left motion was defeated by the votes of the Right and independent delegates, Left and Right united to vote down the Dearricott motion. Why?
 
It was only on Friday that a senior Left figure, National President Mark Butler, opened the Conference by calling for ordinary members to be finally given 50 per cent of the vote in Senate preselections. Ultimately, Left delegates did not like a model that did not guarantee 50 per cent of the vote going to trade unions  -- a proposal that would be worth considering if those votes were cast in a democratic way by the union rank and file rather than by factionally-aligned union leaders on their behalf. 

The Right’s decision is even more baffling, given that Labor leader Bill Shorten, of the Right, promised on a number of occasions that party reform would be a vital element of the 2015 Conference and that “we will be setting a new standard for selecting Labor senators.” He also promised to instruct the National Secretary to work with the National Executive to recommend the best ways to give members more say in preselections for both houses.

Leaving the Melbourne Convention Centre it was hard not to feel disappointed. Mark Butler had called on the party to hear the “clamour for change” among Labor members and supporters. It did not. Bill Shorten said last year that “if we are to renew and rebuild the Labor party, we must rebuild as a membership-based party, not a faction-based one.” There was little sign of that – and even less sign of Bill, who was absent from the hall during the party reform debate, only entering once it was completed.

Yet all is not lost. The delegates not aligned to a faction – a tiny platoon of six or seven in a room of more than 400 – nevertheless provided a glimpse of a future Conference that is far more open to more voices and democratic debate. The Victorian Independents say that for the first time the factions consulted them on every motion and amendment – because for the first time they potentially held the balance of power. Imagine the influence a larger share of independently-minded delegates might wield, and how much more democratic, open and lively conference might be. It’s time to get organised.

James Button is a member of the Operating Group of Open Labor.