Yesterday the Victorian ALP conference voted down a motion to give ordinary members of the party 50 per cent of the vote for Senate preselections, a change that Open Labor has campaigned for in partnership with the Independents and Local Labor. The party’s internal alignments and votes are always shifting and opaque but in essence the Left and independent delegates backed the change, the Right opposed it. Expected support for the Left position from the right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association did not materialise, and the Right won the day.
No doubt, the result is a blow for party democracy. An hour or two after Bill Shorten made a speech attacking the trickle-down economic policies of the Turnbull Government, his faction took a trickle-down approach to party reform. As the world shudders and shifts on its axis, threatening social democratic parties everywhere and demanding they take brave steps to reinvent themselves, the Victorian ALP settled for business as usual: deals done behind closed doors, prime positions in parliament doled out as factional favours, one more tick for mediocrity.
The conference also removed the right of central branch members to vote in parliamentary preselections and state conference delegate elections in their electorates – unless they join a local branch. The Left proposed this motion on the ground that it would stop recent and widespread stacking of electorates through central branch. This is a good aim, but the change also disenfranchises the many legitimate members of central branch, and will slow down the growth in party membership, which everyone claims they want to see. About a third of the Victorian party’s 14,000 members belong to central branch; it is the fastest growing membership category.
The conference wasn’t a complete disaster for reform. It reaffirmed the National Conference’s decision ensuring that women make up 50 per cent of public office and internal positions by 2025. It further opened election of National Conference delegates to ordinary members, and it ruled that the party must start preselections for the state Upper House at least 17 months before an election, a change that increases the chance that ordinary members will get 50 per cent of the vote in these preselections (a right they already hold but that has not been granted to them since 2003).
But the reform to Senate voting is vital because, perhaps more than any other on the table at present, it reduces central and factional control. As democracy tends to do, it introduces an unpredictable element, the wishes and views of the voters. It would enable and force Senate preselection candidates to speak directly to the members: to explain what they stand for, and which policies they would pursue. It empowers the members and gives them a greater stake in their own party, a reason to go out year after year and campaign. It would almost certainly ensure a higher calibre of candidate than the party is producing today for the House that should be the home for our best policy minds.
What were the arguments put against the rank and file having a voice? Rosemary Barker and Garth Head, who led the Right’s case against the motion, said that a postal vote of members would be cumbersome and expensive. Barker, who on Saturday energetically moved procedural motions that seemed designed to shut down debate on this issue, said that a statewide vote would favour candidates with money. In the internet age it is hard to see how that argument holds. Last year the party held an election for national president. Candidates made their main pitches to members via email and online; all answered a Local Labor and Open Labor questionnaire on their commitments to democratic reform. Moneywise, this was hardly Clinton versus Trump. A more plausible reason for Right opposition is that on recent history, the faction tends to lose local ballots. Setting loose 50 per cent of the Senate vote may surrender up more power than the faction can bear.
Bill Shorten’s failure to push for democratic reform is puzzling and disappointing. Of course, the national leader has bigger concerns than a vote for democratic reform in one state. But as Open Labor delegate Joel Kennedy pointed out in yesterday’s debate, it was Shorten himself who, in a landmark speech in 2014, not only embraced reform but explicitly called for rank and file members to gain 50 per cent of the vote for the Senate. Shorten based his case on the need to get more good people into the party and into parliament. But when this reform was fiercely debated at National Conference last year, Shorten took no part, walking back onto the conference floor minutes after the debate was done and the motion lost. A year later Shorten has not only maintained his silence on reform, he actively intervened last month to ensure the victory of a Right factional ally, Kimberley Kitching, in one of the murkier Senate preselections of recent memory. Where are all those fine words on democracy and building a party of 100,000 members now?
Reformers should not lose heart. The next State Conference, just six months away, may vote again on Senate preselection reform. In the past few weeks alone, Open Labor, the Independents and Local Labor have signed up 28 city, suburban and country branches (see list on the Open Labor website) to support the reform. The three groups will keep that campaign going – by May we want to have at least 100 branches, and more pro-reform delegates on the conference floor. How long can the wall against party democracy stand?
Voting has begun for Victoria’s four rank and file delegates for Labor’s National Policy Forum. Independent Eric Dearricott has posted the following message: “I have already been contacted by several members seeking advice about the candidates. Tom Cameron, Jamie Gardiner and Michael Wheatland are independent/non-aligned candidates. I know both Tom Cameron and Jamie Gardiner personally. They have outstanding policy development qualifications and experience, are good party members and well and truly worthy of support.”
Report written by James Button, Open Labor operating group member