ALP rank and file push reforms

The Bracks-Macklin Victorian ALP review released its first recommendations in July 2020 – no brainer rules amendments for immediate action to end bulk membership sign-ups and ensure individual members pay for their own membership.

Meanwhile rank and file ALP members and a variety of groups are developing far-reaching proposals of their own including: individuals within branches; coalitions of branches within electorates; members of long-standing Labor-aligned groups such as the Fabians; Jamie Button’s Open Labor group; and, the long-standing indefatigable reform advocate, former Whitlam advisor and Victorian Cabinet Minister, Race Mathews.

Bracks and Macklin submitted a July Scoping Study to the ALP National Executive saying a ban on cash and cash-like membership payments and renewals was a “critical first step in reforming Victorian Labor’s membership arrangements”. Their second recommendation was a short-term mechanism “to ensure branch membership comprises genuine, consenting, and self-funding members, and that members act consistently with the values of the Party”.

They also laid out key principles for reform around accountability, integrity, transparency and democracy and asked for responses to 10 questions around what membership means; joining fundamentals; membership structures ensuring ongoing membership integrity; oversight, governance standards; systematic means of preventing stacking; dispute and oversight mechanisms; and, how to grow the party and enhance its capabilities.

The first two recommendations have been widely endorsed and the Open Labor response is fairly typical of reformers’ views: “Appoint an independent ombudsman to investigate potential serious rules breaches and take warranted charges to a reformed and impartial Disputes Tribunal (which Bracks-Macklin have now moved on); guarantee democratic practices, including the conduct of all elections by secret ballot supported by robust and enforced rules, and the declaration by candidates of their factional and other party affiliations; ensure a real say for members in ballots for candidates for both houses of State and Federal parliaments; prohibit interventions that remove the voting rights of party members in pre-selections except in unusual circumstances; reform the Administrative Committee so it is representative of the membership, operates democratically and reports and explains its decisions to members; and, ensure State Office is competent, and run by officials and staff appointed on their merits, who do not engage in factional activity while performing their formal party role.”

The last is another no brainer – sadly often ignored – in all Australian political parties.

There is also a consistent recognition that the party needs to increase its membership. Just as the UK Tory party membership is a tiny unrepresentative minority of the population, so Australian political parties’ membership have been declining for decades. In Victoria only the Nationals (then Country Party) membership held up for a long period as it came as an add on to insurance policies sold by a party sponsor.

Increasing participation by individual affiliated unionists giving them a direct say in party activities and votes is another consistent reform proposal. Former Victorian MLA Graham Ihlein recommended “extending the representation of working people to include members of all trade unions …. or all working people”. He also recognised the increasing feminisation of trade union membership and the role nurses and others played in campaigning.

He also recommended more direct voting by members for State and National Conferences, the Administrative Committee and pre-selection committees. “The disproportionate weight given to factions and other groups in the selection of candidates and in party processes must be reduced,” he said.

Proposals from local branches were similar putting emphasis on re-setting the party culture to ensure it was democratically run; accountable; attracted diverse and committed members; and, ending iron-clad factional power and control.

Other rank and file proposals included the need for an Ombudsman to have access to all records for independent regular audits and a set of grievance procedures independent of the organisation about which complaints are made.

Outside observers might be surprised by the emphasis that the rank and file put on genuinely secret ballots but it’s to offset the practice of having voters twinned to ensure they vote the ‘right factional way’.

Whistle-blower policy, processes and protections also feature along with proposals that MPs and members sign up to a Code of Conduct.

One potentially interesting proposal is to get rid of the ‘rank and file’ member concept (with its military connotation of officers and other ranks) with all members covered by an exercisable statute of rights.

While branch stacking and more normal party operations are generally the focus of reform there is some push back on the factional and party roles of Ministerial staffers.

A significant problem is the increasingly arrogant ‘professionalisation’ of politics as identikit staffers move up through party ranks, engage in factional warfare and eventually gain pre-selection or some other office. This leads to an obsession with the sort of tactics they learnt as they moved through party circles rather than focus on strategy and policies. Ideology and connections become more important than competence and knowledge.

In response, some branches have suggested that Ministerial staffers should be banned from holding branch or other offices because of the potential conflicts of interest.

Two other areas of focus are training and communication. Almost every commercial and non-commercial organisation has some formal training – even most gig economy workers. In political parties there is little although the ALP does have a Labor Academy, long promoted and supported by Race Mathews.

New members and branch executives currently get some rudimentary training around paperwork responsibilities (and for some in the past how to evade them) but less on party-building marketing; local branch objectives and planning.

Instead the Labor Academy could run induction workshops for all members; ongoing participation in training and engagement; and, provide a platform for news, resources, talks and ideas for discussion and action topics.

….and of course there is near unanimity on the need for much more transparency in all the party’s activities.

Never waste a crisis has become a cliché in politics. In this case it might point to how to get rid of the cliques which have fought over running the party and to Clem Attlee’s 1934 wish that Labour would “not always want to be strangling their friends rather than their enemies”.

Declaration of non-interest: The author is not an ALP member.

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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