One of the ALP’s most powerful decision-making bodies last night intervened to allow preselections for next year’s Victorian election that flout party rules on the representation of women — in fact, under the deal women will go backwards. It’s sparked outrage among Labor women.

The local party had done a factional deal, carving up winnable upper house seats for the November 2014 state election — but the deal failed to meet the Labor Party’s rule on affirmative action. Section 10 of the ALP constitution provides that 40% of public office preselection positions must be held by women.

So ALP returning office Tony Lang (a barrister) was forced to return the decision to the ALP national executive on Monday without his usual endorsement.

Last night — on International Human Rights Day — the ALP national executive, the highest decision-making body outside the bi-annual national conference, overruled Lang’s decision, endorsing the original preselection deal. The outrage among women, rank-and-file and senior Labor figures has been swift.

What the result means is that the representation of ALP women in Victoria’s upper house is likely to go backwards at the election. Currently only five out of 16 ALP upper house seats are held by women, and under the new deal Labor will go to the polls in 2014 with only five of 19 winnable seats going to women. Not only will the target not be achieved, the percentage of women will go backwards by 5 percentage points from 31.5% to 26%. This is unacceptable result for women and for a more diverse Labor Party.

The decision is an affront, not just to women who stand to benefit from implementation of the AA rule, but to anyone committed to Labor Party reform. Not only did the national executive abandon the obligation to fulfil the quota, it also failed to allow a rank-and-file vote on the upper house seats.

Long before Open Labor (which seeks to renew the ALP) and Local Labor began working for greater transparency in the party, women were agitating inside and outside the structures of the party to open it up. Women in the labour movement knew the road would be tough.

Changes to the ALP rules to create affirmative action came through the hard work of women across factions. The rule enjoyed broad-based support because it was achieved through women in the Left, Right and centre of the party.

To convince powerful men, many with their own leadership aspirations, that a target for preselecting women could be managed in a way that was practical, transparent and respectful, progressive women agreed to a long implementation timetable. Although 40/40/20 (40% women, 40% men and 20% of either gender) was adopted at a national conference in 2004, women agreed to an eight-year transition period. That ended in 2012, with only a handful of states and territories achieving the target within the timeframe.

Last month, Crikey reported on the performance of the ALP against the affirmative action rule, highlighting the gains and the gaps in achieving the target. While many lower houses across the country can boast achievement of 40% women, in the upper house results are patchy at best. Yet houses of review are as important to winning government as lower houses.

Having sampled democratic participation in the Labor federal leadership ballot in October, many Victorian members now feel cheated by the national executive’s decision to supplant their vote with a factional deal. Likewise, many women who were hoping to commence their political careers with a run in Victoria’s upper house are feeling left out of the race. It remains to be seen whether any of them will be angry enough to challenge the national executive decision in court, as they would be entitled to do.