Ethnic branch stacking has a long and storied history within the once-proud structures of the Victorian ALP — for years, as grass roots membership plummeted, warlords cultivated cosy relationships with community leaders in an attempt to get mates installed in safe seats. The jousting in Melbourne’s northern suburbs became the stuff of legend with hostilities often resembling the best A-League soccer stoushes.

But an upcoming meeting of the State Administrative Committee threatens to shine the spotlight on an altogether new kind of branch — one oriented not around ethnicity, but sexuality.

In December, the committee gave in-principle approval to what organisers have dubbed the first unofficial “gay-friendly branch” of the ALP, located in Melbourne’s trendy borough of South Yarra. The branch, one of five in the federal electorate of Higgins, is a breakaway grouping of around 20 party members, led by president and one time Robert Ray staffer Steve Perryman.

According to Perryman, the branch was conceived as a response to Mark Dreyfus’ 1998 report into branch stacking which argued (among other things) that the 100-year idea of geographically-based branches didn’t reflect contemporary levels of cultural diversity. If ALP members wanted to organise along other lines (such as a university or workplace) then they were encouraged to do so. However, whether this means creating brand new branches is questionable — the ALP’s revised organisational principles call for the consolidation, rather than the expansion, of local branches.

The branch has met with criticism from factional rivals who claim it has more to do with internal Higgins power-plays than a real commitment to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community. Some say Admin Committee members opposed to the branch on procedural grounds were accused of homophobia by Perryman’s factional brethren, a serious allegation indeed.

In the lead up to October’s admin committee meeting, Perryman issued the following statement:

The proposal to form a new South Yarra Branch is gathering pace Race Mathew’s [sic] report welcomes new ways of implementing the Dreyfus and Tanner reports and encourages a diversity of approaches to branch meetings and structures. I understand that the South Yarra Branch will now be approved by the Admin Committee in mid October. This is great news for these enthusiastic members.

The backdrop in Higgins is an interesting one. The usual reason to stack branches or create new ones — pre-selection influence — doesn’t apply with Peter Costello sitting on a comfortable 7% margin. For years, the Higgins FEA has been the site of intense factional warfare between the Socialist Left faction, headed by Diane Anderson, and Labor Unity, piloted by Perryman and elder statesman Mathews. At one stage, the factions were even issuing rival newsletters, in the best tradition of student politics. (Perryman’s Higgins ALP Voice is here while Anderson’s Higgins News — hilariously annotated by her factional rivals — is here). Some claim the South Yarra branch may be simply an attempt to create a new powerbase for internal party purposes.

Perryman told Crikey that he “wanted another branch in the Prahran area that was prepared to work hard in the heart of Higgins”. He cites a flexible meeting structure and a desire to breakaway from the staid policy debates that had infected branch meetings elsewhere. But he also said the GLBT community required a statewide organisational focus and didn’t want the branch to be the sole lightning rod for activists.

Interestingly, the shell of a such a statewide body may already exist. Rainbow Labor, which has been trying for years to get official recognition at state level in Victoria, will again take its bid for official status to the Administration Committee on Thursday. So far Rainbow Labor has been consistently rejected by members of Perryman’s right wing faction — the same members who agitated for the setup of the South Yarra branch.

In New South Wales, Rainbow Labor acts as a gathering point for gender issues and law reform efforts. It claims to erode informal discriminatory barriers and provide political space and a visible presence for GLBT activism, in the mould of the Labor Women’s Network.

Sarah Cole, Rainbow Labor’s representative in Victoria, told Crikey that it was fantastic Perryman’s branch could advertise itself as being friendly to the local GLBT community but that it shouldn’t be replacement for a formal statewide network.

“It’s a sad thing if this kind of factionalism can get in the way of the framework to address broader policy areas”, Cole said.

If its bid for official status is approved on Thursday, Rainbow Labor will take its fight to the ALP’s national conference in July.

But it may all come too late — if the move to approve Rainbow Labor is delayed again, then GLBT activists, already suspicious of the ALP, may have every reason to sidestep the internecine bickering and abandon the party for good.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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