20 July 2020: Open Labor’s initial response to Bracks and Macklin’s request for input on Victorian Labor reform priorities, rule changes, operational and cultural changes, factions and Party leadership.
Q.1 As a matter of principle, what should be the reform priority for the Administrators?
Open Labor seeks to work with ALP members and supporters to create a Labor Party that is more powerful because it is more open, inclusive and democratic. Open Labor believes that the first priorities of the Administrators should be:
1. to take decisive steps to stamp out the branch-stacking and wider forms of corruption that have been exposed in recent times (see our answer to question
2. to provide candid, unflinching advice to National Executive about how to create, in the words of the Administrators, “an open, transparent and democratic” party in Victoria – advice that could serve as a model for party reform across Australia.
While the first priority is vital, it is not enough. Without substantial action to on the second priority, reform is unlikely to succeed long term.
We divide proposed reforms on the second priority into five categories:
- give ordinary members more say in selection of candidates – starting with at least 50% of the vote for selection of Senate candidates;
- create a culture of transparency within the party, so that members know what ALP membership means and how they can be effective;
- professionalise the party organisation;
- build a training capacity for prospective Labor MPs and party office holders;
- establish a dedicated focus on membership growth within the party, including ways to involve supporters and trade unionists.
Space prevents us from addressing these issues in full (as our second submission will do). Instead, we offer brief recommendations on what these changes should be.
We seek a party that is organisationally transparent, and not afraid to have big debates in public, so that Australians know what the party stands for.
A party that provides effective professional development for prospective Labor candidates for positions in federal and state parliaments and in local government, as well as within the ALP.
A party that attracts ordinary Labor supporters – people who have no desire to run for office — because their party membership gives them a chance to work with other members to shape their community, state and nation.
Finally, we believe it is critical that party leaders endorse an ambitious reform program. Australia faces hard times ahead, and Labor has a huge role to play in holding society together. But the current party is poorly suited to the task.
Open Labor believes that it is only by understanding what is at stake will party powerbrokers be motivated to work with ordinary members to build the support, strategy and sense of moral purpose that Labor needs.
The Administrators cannot wave a magic wand to achieve these changes. But their advice to the National Executive can begin to put in place the rules and culture changes that will set the party on the path to greater organisational integrity, effectiveness and electability.
Q.2 What are the critical rule changes that you think are needed to guarantee integrity and probity in our Party’s operations?
The Administrators have asked ALP members to suggest both rules and culture changes to the party’s operations. It is difficult to disentangle the two. Moreover, restoring the party’s integrity needs to be built on creating a more capable and transparent party committed to membership growth.
With that in mind, our answers to questions two and three should be taken as one set of intertwined recommendations.
To ban branch stacking and take steps towards a more open, inclusive party:
- establish not only an immediate external audit of membership but an ongoing audit program to examine membership, party donations and expenditure and disputes handling;
- create a new position of party Ombudsman (as recommended by the 1998 Dreyfus Report into reform of the Victorian branch) with powers to examine and make determinations about allegations of party misconduct. This person might be a retired judge or party elder;
- produce a simple, clear definition of legitimate membership based on the requirement that all members pay their membership fee themselves, via traceable means, if they wish to vote in party elections;
- ensure that renewal payments fall due on the anniversary of each member’s initial joining, not on a pre-set date for everyone. This will help to prevent bulk renewals;
- require all new members to attend an induction session, to learn about the party, membership benefits, and how they can contribute to the ALP;
- ensure that all party elections are conducted by secret ballot, with proper external supervision by the Victorian or Australian Electoral Commission;
- require all MPs and party office holders to sign an annual statutory declaration pledging that they have not engaged in branch-stacking over the past year.
Begin the process of creating a culture of transparency by recommending that the Victorian party:
- follows standard organisational practice and holds an annual general meeting open to all members;
- hosts non-binding policy conferences on key topics for all members and perhaps supporters;
- invites ministers to host regular policy forums for members, thereby increasing the appeal of party membership;
- develops a membership and communications strategy that includes:
– a document welcoming new members and telling them how to be involved in party activities;
– use of the party website and emails to communicate to members all significant decisions taken by the party in clear and compelling language.
Q.3 What are the key operational and cultural changes required to support these rule changes?
1. The party as training school
The ALP should commit to identifying promising candidates for public office. Potential MPs and councillors should be trained in how to argue, debate, negotiate, and understand policy and finance.
Time spent in local government should be rewarded as valuable preparation for parliament. The party should run public debates on key policy issues and reward or require participation by potential candidates.
The party should invest in the Labor Academy to produce material, run briefings and train both aspirants to elected office and ordinary members seeking to take part in party operations or campaigns.
2. A new way to think about party reform
The party has to create a capacity to develop difficult reform proposals outside the arenas of National and State Conference.
At present, good ideas get no chance to be debated, let alone adopted, before they are killed in the crossfire of factional conflicts. The shelving of proposals at Conference is sometimes understandable. For example, the trade-off between opening the party by setting a low bar to entry and preventing branch-stacking is complicated and cannot be resolved easily on the conference floor.
At the 2018 National Conference Open Labor and the Independents proposed creating a Forum for Party Growth and Democracy – a body of elected members, affiliated trade unionists and a few MPs that would be empowered to focus on ideas for how to grow the party and open it to a wider membership.
These ideas might include:
- exploring how to give more say to members to preselect candidates while ensuring that the party centre retains some role in preselections (giving members 50 per cent of the vote for Senate candidates is a first step);
- exploring ideas for rebuilding the party’s ties to working-class and disadvantaged communities;
- exploring proposals to give ordinary union members a vote in ALP forums in return for an end to bloc votes wielded by union secretaries.
The Forum would produce recommendations and seek cross-party support for change.
3. A new role for factions and non-aligned members
Open Labor does not oppose factions in principle. It is sensible for people to get together to try to build support for shared positions.
But the flaws of the current system seriously weaken the party’s electability. The factions no longer coalesce around ideas. Their recently expired non-compete clause – the Stability Pact – stifled healthy competition of ideas within the party and made it almost impossible for non-factional members – a substantial share of the membership – to have any influence.
Critically, the system produces weaker MPs. It makes seats in parliament a reward for factional work rather than talent, and it encourages a party culture that champions deal-making behind closed doors rather than the ability to make a public case.
The ALP needs to restore its capacity for public debate, and to establish both the factions and non-aligned groups as centres for competing ideas and positions.
4. Party leadership
If party leaders and the National Executive do not support a substantial program of party reform – and delegate serving leaders or respected party elders to drive change through the party over time – reform will fail.
Are party leaders more interested in the health, strength and electability of the party or in their own power bases? The choice is theirs.
The Administrators cannot make this point strongly enough in their final report.
Q.4 How should the Victorian Branch of the Party operate while Administrators are in place?
The party should immediately move branch and public meetings onto Zoom or another platform. In time, public meetings will again be possible but Zoom provides many advantages, including the opportunity to record meetings for people who cannot attend, and to annul distance, so that someone in Mildura can attend the same meeting as someone in Melbourne.
The Administrators should recommend that the Party restores voting rights for members as soon as the audit of members is complete, ideally next year. The vast proportion of ordinary members are not responsible for the recent branch-stacking and 2023 is far too late for restoration of their rights. An absence of democracy is not solved by even less democracy.
We thank the Administrators for taking on this difficult but potentially transformative task, and welcome the opportunity to discuss the substance of this submission with them at any time.