Published in Young Labor, Sydney, August 1978, no pagination, but equivalent of pp. 3-5.
The National Committee of Inquiry has been receiving submissions from party members and supporters for nearly 6 months. In all nearly 300 submissions have been received and these range over a diverse field. The Committee itself has divided into two sub-committees, one to investigate a restructuring of the Party and the other will consider economic and social aspects of change in Australia. It is proposed to concentrate in this review on the proposals for reform of the federal party and, in particular, the Federal Conference. In a future article I will discuss the field covered by the sub-committee on economic and social matters.
The most obvious fault that has occurred in the deliberations of this committee, so far, has been the reluctance to tackle the most difficult issues relevant to democratic reform of the party. The First discussion paper that was recently issued by the committee is a good example of a pious proclamation stating the need for a larger and more democratic Federal Conference without detailed consideration as to how this is to come about. I shall devote most of this article to a consideration of restructuring Federal Conference and the Federal Party’s Policy Committees.
One matter that has been thus far avoided is the practicality of introducing a uniform pre-selection system for the selection of all ALP candidates for Federal Parliament. It is extraordinary that there should be such a diverse range of pre-selection procedures. In Queensland, for example, all union members of affiliated unions within an electorate have a right to vote in a plebiscite to select an ALP candidate for that electorate. Under this system non-ALP members and even anti-Labor union members have a right to decide who will be their local Labor candidate. Unfortunately, the case for reform in this area has been placed in the ‘too hard’ basket.
A. The Role of Federal Platform Committees:
Federal Platform Committees are the bodies responsible for constructing party policies on the full range of issues which confront the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. They should also function as alternative sources of advice for Ministers and Shadow Ministers.
At present the Committees are not properly fulfilling those roles. There is a major communication gap between Federal and State Policy Committees and the party’s rank-and-file. As a result, expertise contained in State Policy Committees and ordinary party members is not being most efficiently utilised.
A further problem is that the Reports of the various Federal Committees are not circulated to delegates and State Branches prior to Federal Conference so that comments, critiques and amendments can be prepared. In the light of those problems the following measures are suggested:
A.1 Federal Platform Committees be required to have their Reports circulated to delegates no later than eight (8) weeks prior to Federal Conference.
A.2 Federal Policy Committee Reports should not be finalised until Interim Reports have been referred to all State Branches. The Interim Report must be circulated to Branches at a period prior to Federal Conference such that State Policy Committees and rank-and-file members can consider the Report and make recommendations on it to each Branch’s State Conference or Council. The State Branches would then convey its official comments to the relevant Federal Policy Committee to assist preparation of a final Report.
A.3. That Interim Policy Committee Reports, during the policy development process, be referred to the relevant bureaucracies through the Parliamentary Spokesperson, if possible, in order that the Policy Committee may consider bureaucratic reaction to the policy.
A.4. The Federal Spokesperson or accredited representative must attend at least one meeting of each Branch’s Policy Committee per year. In addition, other Federal Committee members should be encouraged to attend State Policy Committee meetings as often as possible.
A.5. The Federal and State Policy Committees must report to each other at regular intervals, say, every three (3) months in order that each may follow and comment on the work in which the other is engaged. State Policy Committees should also be encouraged to correspond with each other for similar reasons.
B. Restructure of Federal Conference
Objective: To increase rank-and-file involvement in Federal policy-making.
Constraints: 1. The ALP is a federally organised body with the Branches in the States and Territories being partially autonomous bodies.
2. The State Branches have a natural constituency which are its members. The Federal organisation’s constituency is in the State Branches.
Implementation of Objectives:
The following are ways in which the size and democratic nature of Federal Conference may be increased.
B.1 Direct election of delegates by State Conference under proportional representation. The numbers of delegates could be based on one or more of the following:
B.1. Direct election of delegates by State Conference under proportional representation. The numbers of delegates could be based on one or more of the following:
B.1.1. The number of Federal Electorates in each State.
B.1.2. Number of Federal Labor MPs in each State.
B.1.3. Proportional to ALP members in each State.
B.1.4. Proportional to ALP and affiliated union members.
B.1.5. Equal numbers of delegates from each State – instead of the current six, ten, fifteen, twenty, etc., could be elected.
The most appealing of these options are from B.1.1. to B.1.4.. The common advantage of these four options are:
- Would not conflict with the role and authority of State Branches.
- Represents Union/Party balance in the State.
- Representative of various total State membership.
- Accurate reflection of the strengths of groupings within the Party in each State.
- Easy to elect.
In addition, each of these options has advantages which may not be shared by the others:
- B.1.1. would reflect the size of the electorate in each State and would thus be representative of all voters in that State.
- B.1.2. relects the absolute and relative sizes of the Labor constituency in each State as evidenced by the number of Labor MPs which each State returns;
- B.1.3. removes the current inequity whereby States with huge differences in Party membership are represented by the same number of delegates at Federal Conferences. The ageless Labor principle of “one person, one vote” would be upheld by this option.
- B.1.4. would indicate the size and strength of various State Branches whilst including provision for the party’s backbone, the trade union movement, to be fully represented. Again, the principle of “one person, one vote” is incorporated in this option.
B.2 Each State Council to meet jointly as the Federal Conference. Under this proposal Federal Conference would consist of over 1,000 delegates representative of State and Federal electorates and affiliated unions. Its chief disadvantage would be the cost of transporting and accommodating delegates. Its advantages are as follows:
i.) Does not require separate election.
ii) Is indicative of the size of the electorate in each State.
iii) Enables all unions affiliated to State Branches to be represented according to their respective strengths at Federal Conference.
iv) Maintains the role and authority of State Branches.
v) A large Conference would reflect the mass-base of the ALP in Australia’s largest political party. The party would no longer be open to the charge that a handful of party officials dictate policy to the rank-and-file.
B.3 Each Federal Electorate Council elect its own delegate or delegates. Although this proposal may appeal to some sections of the party, a number of problems immediately emerge. The major one is that of union representation. If our objective is to increase rank-and-file involvement in Federal policy-making, then the party’s trade-union base must be fully represented.
The only means by which unions could be properly represented is if each State-affiliated union was able to send delegates in proportion to the relative size of their membership in each State. To talk of allowing Federal unions to send delegates but not State bodies is unrealistic in light of the stated intention of re-organising Federal Conference along more democratic lines.
A further consideration which has to be accounted for is that there are often many more ALP members in one electorate than in another, so that a delegate from FEC “A” might represent 50 members, but a second delegate from FEC “B” may represent 500 members. The party would then be in the embarrassing position of having a system of representation at Federal Conference which clearly conflicts with its further belief that House of Representative constituencies should be as close as possible in numbers of electors to avoid the situation where one person’s vote is worth more than another person’s. If each FEC elected its own delegate to Federal Conference then this would surely be the case.
Cook YLA [Young Labor Association]
This was a modest account of political changes in the organisation of the ALP. Originally, I intended to follow up this summary of proposed changes with a more analytical discussion of merits, implications, and possible unintended consequences. But I never wrote the complementary article.
An interesting account over the last 55 years of reviews and changes to Federal ALP policies and platform, usually occurring after electoral defeat, is Michael Thompson’s book Labor’s “Forgotten People”. The Triumph of Identity Politics, Connor Court, Redland’s Bay (Queensland, Australia), 2019.