Labor appears set to take another halting step on its long, slow road to reform when the largest state branch gathers for its annual conference on the weekend. Two proposals will be put forward with a view to shifting the balance of power in the New South Wales branch from the union leadership to the rank and file — of which one is set to pass and the other doomed to fail.

The first proposal follows the federal party’s example in allowing the membership to vote in state leadership contests, with a membership ballot carrying equal weight with the party room vote. The success of the contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese in October, in which the party presented a constructive new face to the electorate after the scorched-earth battles of the Rudd-Gillard years, has made this a hard reform to argue against.

Similar measures were agreed to at the Queensland state conference last November and Western Australia’s conference a fortnight ago, and a membership ballot would have been held after the Tasmanian state election if the diminished party room had not given its unanimous support to Bryan Green.

However, things are looking considerably less promising for Senator John Faulkner’s proposal for state conference to surrender its power to choose upper house candidates to the party membership. Whereas Labor’s state branches typically grant equal say in lower house preselections to local branches and bodies which represent the prevailing balance of union and factional power, the latter alone are left to choose candidates for the upper house, who represent either large regions or states in its entirety. This has in no small part contributed to the perception that Labor’s upper house ranks represent the worst of the party’s tendency to reward factional loyalty over merit, at both federal and state level.

At federal level, the manner in which Senate candidates are chosen was brought into focus by two preselections last year that illustrated, in eerily similar fashion, modern Labor’s uncomfortable coalition between the traditional working class and the progressive Left. In Western Australia and South Australia, top positions on the Senate ticket were allocated to Joe Bullock and Don Farrell, the respective state figureheads of the party’s most socially conservative union — the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. Both relegated to second place incumbents Louise Pratt and Penny Wong — who were younger, female and both openly gay.

The immediate uproar that followed the SA preselection caused Farrell to relinquish his position for Wong, in what would prove to be a fateful move for him. The more junior Pratt did not become a cause celebre until the close of the campaign for the state’s special election in April, when Bullock gave voice to the party’s hidden culture war by proclaiming himself necessary to protect the party from “every weird lefty trend that you can imagine” — not least of which was Pratt’s sexuality.

But whereas Labor’s Queensland and WA branches have since broadened their procedures for choosing upper house members, the Faulkner plan has met decisive resistance not just from the Right — whose weakness in rank-and-file processes was indicated by Albanese’s clear win among party members in the October leadership ballot — but also from the powerful Left faction with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

Presenting the “no” case in The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday was state secretary Jamie Clements, who argued that diluting union power would result in an electorally dangerous bias within the party towards the inner city. While Labor’s mass shedding of members over the decades is sometimes invoked as a loss of faith among the working class it presumes to represent, the experience has been shared by political parties throughout the western world, as a result of sociological forces that are largely beyond their control.

Nonetheless, if a choice between flawed alternatives must be reckoned upon, it is difficult to argue with John Faulkner’s contention that party membership could not do any worse than the state conference’s track record in recent years — or indeed with today’s riposte to Clements from Mark Latham that “the only people in NSW who would think the existing system works well are Clements and the union secretaries”.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off