The next ALP National Conference will for the first time include delegates directly elected by the party’s grassroots.

But the exact number is yet to be set and Prime Minister Julia Gillard has referred the Bracks/Carr/Faulkner recommendations to an “implementation committee” for further discussion, rather than enforce details of the shift immediately.

Left delegates have slammed the lack of action, branding the PM and the Right’s decision to “squib” with baby steps instead of giant strides “a disgrace”.

During an extended conference soul searching session to discuss party reform, delegates broadly agreed that Labor was broken and in need of mass rejuvenation. However Left and Right differed on how far to go in opening up the party to the rank and file.

The Left had wanted 50% of national conference delegates directly elected, while Kevin Rudd has pushed for a more ambitious 100% figure. However the PM declined to put a number to her amendment, seconded by ambitious Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes.

The Prime Minister has requested the party deliver her 8,000 new members by the end of next year.

Mark Butler, from the South Australian Left, expressed his disappointment at not reaching agreement on a workable model. There was also disagreement over the Right’s position to deny party president Jenny McAllister and her two vice presidents a vote on Labor’s national executive. The amendment went to a vote but was defeated.

The Right had proposed a more democratic National Policy Forum replace the current National Policy Committee and also a national online policy branch, reduced membership fees, limited preselection primaries and so-called political action caucuses.

The Right are eager to limit popular elections because Labor’s regular (non-stacked) members are dominated by the Left. This was illustrated in the recent election for president, with McAllister elected with a massive majority despite the Right’s candidate Tony Sheldon garnering weeks of prime time TV exposure during the Qantas IR dispute.

AMWU NSW state secretary Tim Ayres mocked Right wing NSW general secretary Sam Dastyari’s height before alerting delegates to the “absolute crisis” once confronted by the trade union movement that had now engulfed the ALP.

Introducing the debate alongside his review report co-authors, former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks warned conference that if no action was taken, branches would close en masse and remaining members would be drawn almost exclusively from pensioners or people receiving superannuation benefits.

Faulkner, reprising his rousing style witnessed earlier during the gay marriage stoush, agreed that Labor was on the precipice.

“Our review process has by no means been the first opportunity for real substantial party reform in recent decades but many of those previous opportunities have been wasted and the situation is now dire.

“Our party is in decline, our membership is small and getting smaller, our membership is old and getting older, members and supporters told us they had lost their faith and they believe that the party has lost its way. Our support at all levels has plumbed new depths, depths not seen before in Labor’s darkest days.

“Our party has been around for 100 years, what is at stake is how to ensure we’re around for another 100 years.”

It took United Voice secretary Louise Tarrant to get at the nub of the problem. Rather than just change the party architecture, the social movements that feed Labor would have to re-energised. “Form follows function,” the organising model devotee noted.

A proposal from the Left for the creation of an Organising Plan in the mould of the UK Labour Party’s ‘Movement for Change’ and the US Democrat’s ‘Organizing for America’ was not supported by the Right and was defeated.

Tasmanian left delegate Adam Clarke called the decision to “squib” the BCF reforms as an “absolute disgrace”.

Another Left delegate, Mike Griffith, said the Dastyari and Feeney amendments were a start but was “not enough to deeply renew our structures and our membership.”

Left co-convener Doug “Doog” Cameron said he was “somewhat underwhelmed” by today’s outcome and was immediately ribbed by David Feeney-loyalist Stephen Donnelly, who had earlier lampooned Senator Cameron’s Scots accent.

As the clock ticked past 7pm with delegates gagging for a beer, Sheldon, by then chairing, implored interjectors from the public gallery to “keep their mouths shut” — perhaps a fitting summation of his faction’s approach to popular democracy.

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Peter Fray
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