We must change to win

John Graham is Assistant General Secretary of NSW Labor

Labor’s 2011 Conference attempts at reform were the height of farce.

That Conference session should have had subtitles, given many of the 397 voting delegates had little idea of the resolution they were voting on.

Few of the many speakers had any idea either.

When the dust settled it was clear that the key measures proposed in the Carr Bracks Faulkner Review had been sidestepped, sidelined or ignored.

Despite the inaction of that conference, Labor has taken steps to reform.

Trials of community preselections and the introduction of the membership vote for parliamentary leaders are two measures that have proceeded despite the lack of national leadership on these issues at the 2011 Conference.


The number one item of unfinished business from that North Korea-style conference session remains the unfulfilled commitment to introduce directly elected National Conference delegates.

The 2011 Conference passed a resolution supporting direct election, establishing a committee to report within 12 months.

Predictably nothing happened.

In the absence of national leadership both NSW and Tasmania moved to change the way their delegates were elected.

This Conference now needs to act.

The good news is that there is agreement that Labor’s Conference should act on this issue. Two issues however will prove difficult to settle: ensuring a minimum number of delegates to be directly elected, and establishing the method by which they are elected.

The Left proposals to this conference rest on two principles: an equal partnership between affiliated unions and the party membership, and ensuring that membership elections are conducted with the broadest franchise possible.

The Left will call for 50 peercent of each state delegation to be directly elected, and for each of these elections to happen in an all member ballot. The proposal from the Right has no guarantee of a number of delegates to be elected, and no guarantees about how the election will happen.

Without agreement on these key details, this measure will see a small number of directly elected delegates returning to a future National Conference, with the delegates from NSW elected by a small handful of members due to its highly collegiate structure.


The other key area for direct election is preselection for the Australian Senate. This became a priority after Labor in 2013 won only one Senator in two States.

Bill Shorten in his Wheeler Centre speech on reform said:

‘Friends, we need to change our Senate pre-selection process’.

Relying on the principles of an equal partnership and a broad membership franchise, the Left’s proposals for a new Senate preselection method call for a combination of all members and unions voting in equal measure – as is already the case in Queensland.

There is no Right proposal to change the Senate preselection system.


Labor’s parliamentary representation of women across the country is now double that of the Coalition’s. This Conference represents a chance to strengthen that advantage.

The three key issues that have been raised are: increasing the target for the proportion of women in parliament to 50 percent, strengthening enforcement of the rules and driving more change through Labor’s party structures.

The comprehensive report of the Affirmative Action Working Group of the National Executive has laid out a blueprint for action in this area.


Any discussion on reform inevitably turns to Labor’s NSW branch.

This National Conference will consider measures that call for all member ballots to be used in NSW to select State Conference delegations, with the application of proportional representation and affirmative action, and the end of winner takes all balloting. Every other Branch has long adopted these approaches, often at the urging or direct intervention of the national party.

There are also calls to ensure that full time officials have access to all lists of members and officials such as Branch secretaries, so as to fulfil their fiduciary duties, and to ensure that General Returning Officers are selected by a consensus not a majority.


In Labor’s history, reforming the party hasn’t always been a precondition to winning government.

At this moment in our history though, change is necessary because politics itself is changing.

The communication revolution we are living through has dramatically increased the expectations of political party members and supporters as to how interactive and responsive their political parties will be.

Labor’s sister parties around the world are debating and adapting to this challenge. They are examining new ways to communicate and engage their members, and they are reaching out beyond their members to invite their supporters into their processes.

This conference represents Australian Labor’s chance to start to embrace those changes.

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