Sept 2020 – This is the response submitted from Benalla branch to the Victorian ALP Reform review. The branch writes: “It is generally supportive of the Open Labor/Independents proposals while also emphasising the need for a community organising approach to building the Party and achieving labour movement goals. Thanks for providing leadership on these matters.”
1. How do we respect the various motivations people have to join the ALP
In our experience most people join the ALP because they believe in its values and want to be part of a like-minded group who can achieve social change. This is particularly important in regional areas where conservative voters may be in the majority. ALP members may never have lived in a Labor held seat – but they still want to meaningfully support the party and wider social justice goals of the labour movement
People obviously want to support the party at election time to win government and defeat the conservatives. However most engaged members also want to be involved in meaningful activity in between elections. This activity may be around a local issue or wider social justice or union campaign. In our view this on-going activity is essential to building and sustaining member interest and sense of purpose.Members may or may not want to be involved in the wider decision making structures of the party. However, it is important that the structures and means to be involved are transparent and clearly explained to members and branches.
The party organisation needs to better respect the motivations of people by clearly communicating with branches and individual members about party structures, campaigns and goals. The motivation and activity of members needs to be recognised and encouraged, not ignored until required for the next election cycle.
1.2 Requirements for membership
Some adjustments may be required to prevent branch stacking. However, in general terms, it should be easy and straightforward to join the Labour Party and become involved in branch life. Our branch has grown membership in recent years by being active in the community and campaigns and attracting genuine people on that basis.
A number of members have reported that it has been difficult to join the Party, especially if they attempted to join Central branch. This is the obvious first step if you go online and seek to join Labor. They have recounted lengthy delays and lack of communication about application status. This is not a good introduction the party and likely deters many potential new members.
There needs to be publicly available information and contact details for local ALP branches published on the party website. It is currently very difficult for people to even find out where to go and join the Party. How can people find out if there is a Labor Party branch in their area if this information is not available?
The Labor Party needs to present and act like an organisation which is actually seeking new members and to valuing the contribution of all members.
1.3 How adequately does the Party fulfil the expectations of members?
What is required to close the gap between expectations and delivery?
In our experience the Party organisation does not fulfil the expectation of members. There is a general view that the Party ignores members except at election time when they expect us to be foot soldiers. There is a big disconnect between the centralised party and its branches and members.
There is little meaningful communication between the Party and branches or members. Correspondence is not answered in a timely fashion. Ministers visit the town but do not inform the branch and will generally not attend branch functions. Party structures like the FEA and SECC seem to serve no useful purpose. Thy do not function or communicate with branches, except briefly and at the last minute when an election approaches.
This has led our branch to ‘do our own thing’ to a certain extent and with modest success. We meet regularly and convene discussions on key issues (e.g., climate change, worker’s rights, welfare). The branch supports related campaigns at a local level and attracts new members on this basis.
However, this work occurs autonomously without any real connection to the Party as a whole.
We suggest the following to close the gap between expectations and delivery:
- Welcome new members to the Party by providing accessible information about the Party; its history, goals and democratic structures, the means to be involved and some tokens of membership.
- Provide new and existing members the opportunity to participate in a 1-2 hr welcome/ induction program conducted by local branch members and supported by Party materials.
- Members receive regular and engaging communication from the Party about current campaigns, initiatives and events. The more recent Members Update emails are a step in the right direction.
- Branches and branch executives receive regular communication from central party about current matters AND key organisational information. This includes updated membership lists, financial matters, means to nominate or be involved in wider structures or forums etc. This is currently lacking and causes much frustration.
- Enable Branches to co-operate within electorates by providing branch executives with contact details for local FEA and SECC members and other branches in the electorate or area. This is currently lacking and contributes to a sense of isolation and dysfunction.
- Require elected politicians to visit and speak with branches and union members in their electorate or upper house region. It seems obvious but doesn’t occur much in our area.
- Improve the accountability of elected politicians to the platform and policies determined by the Party at State Conference. When this doesn’t occur, for example in relation to core policies areas like public ownership vs. privatisation/outsourcing it causes considerable disillusionment among Party members.
1.4 What are the preconditions to attract and retain members of the Party?
In our view the Preconditions to attract and retain members of the Party are that it;
- Is active in local communities engaging around issues which matter to people. Politics needs to be taken out of the realm of remote institutions and connected with people’s lived experience and agency.
- Relates especially to the interests and concerns of its social base and seeks to effect real change in their interests.
- Is active in the Parliamentary and Electoral spheres but also in Society and Social Movements independent of electoral cycles.
- Has structures to encourage and foster membership growth and capacity.
- Communicates with its members and seeks to provide them with leadership about key initiatives or goals to achieve.
- Co-ordinates and communicates with its own structures including branches and electorate assemblies or committees.
- Provides members with actual democratic decision making powers in matters of program, policy, pre-selections and leadership.
- Is transparent and communicates about how it operates and the groupings within. Factions will exist but they should operate as public platforms – which make their existence and general positions publically known for the consideration of members.
- Ensures that elected Parliamentary leaders are accountable to members and union affiliates for implementing platform/policy determined through democratic structures of State Conference.
- Encourages an open, friendly and inclusive culture which seeks to build dialogue across members, sectors and generations, to share experiences and ideas and truly value the contribution of people.
2.1 How ensure integrity when new members join ALP?
People should attend branch meetings, understand the membership requirements and pay for their own membership by traceable means.
2.2 Those not on AEC roll, under 18, permanent residents.
People under 18 and permanent residents should be able to be a members of the Party with the same requirements as everyone else.
3.1 is the current branch structure fit for purpose in 2020 and beyond? Are there viable alternatives?
Local branches can potentially be an important means for the Party to engage meaningfully with local communities, individuals and union members. This has been our experience in Benalla branch. We meet regularly and take initiatives to build connections and communicate with sections of the community.
For example, in the past few years we have;
- hosted forums to discuss current issues and invited guest speakers from local organisations or unions. Topics have included; Climate Change, Worker’s Rights and Social Housing.
- initiated a local campaign to support increasing the rate of Newstart/JobSeeker. We built a coalition with social service providers and union members, held a successful local public meeting of thirty people and campaigned at the local market.
- supported the formation of a We Are Union campaign committee.
- co-ordinated electoral work for much of southern Indi and Euroa electorates including campaign stalls at local markets and on polling stations.
We think it would be a great shame to do away with local branches like Benalla. It would be very difficult in regional areas for people to travel for meetings. Zoom meetings might be useful for wider gatherings like FEA and SECC, but camaraderie would be lost in rural towns without face to face contact and social gatherings.
However, the actual functioning of branches needs to be examined and a truly inclusive and democratic culture encouraged. Training in how to hold meetings in an effective but also open and engaging manner may be useful in many circumstances. There are methods of involving members in discussion and decision making which are more engaging than the overly formal approaches often used in branches.
3.2 Are there elements of social movements, unions and other large membership based organisations that can be adapted to enliven branches and local activity?
Yes, certainly. Our branch functions best when meetings are issues based, and when we work cooperatively with other local organisations, often addressing local issues. That is also often the key feature of social movements too – having a cause that people feel passionately about. The things that unite ALP members are values and principles – they can be applied to different specific issues.
The key thing is providing some direction for member and branch activity between elections. This could involve community campaigning in support of Labor values or reforms in key areas such as Climate Change, Secure Job Creation, Worker’s Rights, Aged Care, Social Housing, Aboriginal Recognition/Justice or other matters of importance at a Regional/State level.
An orientation to active campaigning would enable the Party to build genuine connections and support in communities, attract new members and supporters and be better prepared to campaign for candidates and win Parliamentary majorities.
4.1 Membership renewals
Changes should be made to ensure that renewals are made by the actual member at 12-month interval from joining.
5.1 Administrative Committee
We would support changes to ensure this body operates effectively and is responsive to the needs of building whole Party, not sectional interests. Benalla branch supports the general proposals being made by Eric Dearricott, the Independents and Open Labor.
5.2 Governance changes
We would support changes to make Party governance more democratic, transparent and competent.
Benalla branch supports the general proposals being made by Open Labor and the Independents.
6.1 Wider changes to undermine branch stacking
Benalla branch supports the general proposals being made by Open Labor and the Independents.
We support the proposal to cap the number of State Conference delegates each FEA can elect as a means to undermine the incentive to stack branches.
6.2 Local votes for pre-selections
Benalla branch believes there should be a substantial extension of democratic rights to members, branches and members of affiliate unions. This would undermine the institutional role of factions and officials in dominating the Party and alienating members and supporters in the process.
This extension of Party democracy should include;
- Members should have at least a 50% vote in Senate pre-selections.
- The Public Office Committee preselection vote should be reduced to below 50%. Party members in local branches and members of affiliate unions should have the majority vote in Pre-selections.
- Members of affiliate unions should have the right to vote in pre-selections and for State Conference delegates if they reside in the relevant electorate. This would connect the Party to its working class social base and undermine factional deal making by officials.
- Candidates for all positions should declare any factional allegiance or otherwise. This would encourage factions to operate as public platforms, with stated ideas or policy positions, not as the seemingly secret societies they currently are.
- Do not remove local pre-selection rights except when there is proven corruption of the process.
- Restore democratic rights to the Victorian branch as soon as possible. We can’t build a democratic reformed party without democratic rights.
7.1 Dispute Tribunal
We support an independent Disputes Tribunal composed of people of the highest calibre, professional expertise and proven commitment to the Labour Movement.
7.2 Party Ombudsman
We support the establishment of a Party Ombudsman who is a person of the highest calibre, professional expertise and proven commitment to the Labour Movement.
8.1 Successful recruitment of genuine members
The Party should establish a Membership and Branches Co-ordination Committee with a small paid staff to encourage the recruitment and retention of genuine members, provide relevant training and support to local branches and implement training and mentorship programs.
9.1 Party priorities
The Party should prioritise efforts to build a well-functioning Organisation which supports the organising and campaign work of Branches and Electoral Committees/Assemblies and supports Membership growth and retention.
This will provide a stronger basis for contesting elections and achieving Labor policies in practise.
9.2 Membership fees
Membership fee levels need to reviewed and changed. They should be set to a more progressive scale than currently exists.
Currently the $220 fee for incomes over $70,000 is a serious barrier to people with median incomes joining the Party. Most working people would baulk at paying this figure and these are exactly the people we need to join and get involved!
However, this fee level should be retained for people who do earn well above the median income.
Concessional and lower income membership fees must be retained at a lower cost. For someone on Job Seeker or Youth allowance $30 is still a considerable amount.
Options for members to make regular monthly membership payments should also be considered. For example, a monthly deduction of $25 may be perceived as being more affordable to a potential member than a lump sum payment of $300.