The ALP is leading in the federal polls, but internally it is a different story.
The party continues to incur significant reputational damage from the irresponsible and damaging conduct of its factions, and the disgraced appointees on whom in some instances they have conferred advancement.
Hopes that this year would prove to be the most important in the history of ALP reform and renewal since the intervention spearheaded by Gough Whitlam in 1970 that cleared the way for the election of the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments have so far largely been disappointed.
Many of the party’s problems and the solutions to them have been identified in the reports of successive post-election reviews. Bill Shorten has committed to specific reforms in the course of the leadership contest and subsequent statements, but the outcome remains in doubt.
In the aftermath of the party’s recent Federal conference, stark choices have still to be faced.
The party may choose to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of members and supporters committed to party democratisation and renewal. Or it may acquiesce in the continued control of its affairs by tiny coteries of self-serving factional bosses, who owe their power to a blatant and shameless disregard for the secret ballot provisions of the party rules that enables them to predetermine the results.
Rampant trashing and subversion of the requirement for secret ballots has become a cancer, rotting the foundations of the party’s democracy and entrenching in its place a resurgent ‘democratic centralism’ reminiscent of that which rendered the party unelectable from the middle 1950s until 1972 federally and until 1982 in Victoria.
A familiar sight at the party’s state and federal conferences is factional operatives requiring delegates to show one another their completed ballot papers in order to ensure that they have voted in accordance with factional instructions.
Alternatively, delegates are required to hand over their blank ballot papers to be completed by the operatives on their behalf.
Also to be seen at the early stages of conferences is queuing up by nominal delegates who attend for the sole purpose of receiving ballot papers, which they then turn over for completion by the operatives before leaving the venue and taking no further part in the proceedings. A common complaint by delegates is that they have been coerced by factions into voting for candidates other than those of their choice.
Behaviours of so abusive a character are compounded by the use of mobile phones, which enable factional bosses absent from voting places to convey instructions to the operatives, and directly constrain members in the exercise of their secret ballot entitlement.
The surrender of ballot papers in circumstances where plainly it is not voluntary defeats the whole point and purpose of a secret ballot, which is to make sure that the person entitled to vote can do so without fear of consequences if they vote in a way which is not agreeable to another person.
Such interference would not be tolerated in the conduct of any parliamentary election. Any parliamentary election Returning Officer shown to have failed to intervene would be sacked. Likewise it is a flagrant breech of both the letter and intention of requirements such as of the Victorian Branch’s Rule 4.3, which reads: “Election’ means election by secret ballot using the optional preferential system of proportional representation provided in Schedule D”.
No ‘ifs’. No ‘buts’. No ambiguity.
Factions are entitled to seek compliance by their members with their directives through their internal processes. There is no right on their part to do so at the expense of the party’s integrity and adherence to the secrecy requirements to which its balloting rules so plainly give expression.
The party would be ill-advised to sit on its hands collectively, in the hope or expectation that it will be delivered from its present predicament by a new Whitlam, as occurred with the intervention by the Federal Executive in 1970, that paved the way for the election of the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments.
The secret ballot is a hard-won right and crowning achievement, secured through untiring and frequently embittered struggle by successive generations of Labour Movement activists. Its adoption in Australia ahead of all but a handful of other countries has caused it to be known widely as ‘the Australian ballot’. It remains for the current generation of ALP members to secure its reinstatement within the party and ensure that it is passed on unimpaired to those who come after us.
Meanwhile, rules changes seeking to target on a case-by-case basis the infringements through which the secrecy of party ballots is rorted and subverted were submitted for debate at the Victorian ALP’s Special Rules Conference on 28 March.
That the item was not reached is a sad commentary on the cynical and self-serving factional ploy of limiting of the conference proceedings to a single day, when at least two and ideally three days were necessary to properly complete the agenda. Half the single day’s proceedings were devoted to matters other than the proposed changes, and the rules debate was cut short prematurely on the grounds that the statutory majority required for the adoption of them was no longer present.
Factions have a legitimate role to play in the Party – so long as they remain ‘on tap but not on top’.
Race Mathews joined the ALP in 1956 and is a life member of fifty-nine years standing, former Chief of Staff to Labor Leaders including Gough Whitlam, municipal councillor, Federal MP, State MP and Minister and academic,