ALP presidential candidates sympathetic to giving unionists automatic party membership

Federal Labor frontbencher Mark Butler is one of the candidates who support a move to give affiliated unionists automatic membership and a vote in preselections. AAP/Lukas Coch

A survey of candidates for the ALP national presidency has found broad support for granting members of affiliated unions automatic party membership and voting rights.

The quid pro quo would be an end to bloc union votes.

Labor sources said last night the idea – which would be a dramatic change - is contentious within the party. They said the aim would be to enhance the power of individual unionists in the ALP but reduce the clout of union officials, who at present often direct their members in Labor votes.

The five candidates for president are federal frontbencher Mark Butler, former senator Louse Pratt, Victorian minister Jane Garrett - all from the left - barrister Tim Hammond, from the right, and Henry Pinskier, a businessman, who is factionally unaligned.

The president, who will take over at the July national conference, is being chosen by a national postal ballot of the rank and file.

The survey of the candidates’ attitudes has been done by two grass roots groups which are promoting party reform – Local Labor and Open Labor, both based in Victoria.

The aspirants were asked their attitude to “a systematic program to enable members of affiliated unions voluntary automatic access to join the ALP and enfranchise them to vote in preselection ballots as individuals but not as blocs”.

Three candidates including Butler backed the change for unionists while Pratt gave it in principle support and Hammond said he was “open to exploring the idea, but it is not an automatic yes”.

Such a move would require a change to the rules in the states rather to national rules.

There was near universal support for a greater say for members in votes for parliamentary candidates, and national and state conference delegates.

All candidates said the party rules should be amended to provide for direct election of a major component of national and state conference delegates by the party’s rank and file.

Backing was general for allowing members at least 50% of the vote for Senate and state upper house candidates, and disallowing central intervention to prevent this.

There was support with some qualifications for opening community-based preselection ballots to Labor members, registered Labor supporters and resident affiliated union members in all states and territories for non-Labor held seats.

Butler said that he believed community preselections had a role in Labor’s process “and I am a supporter of examining ways to allow rank and file members of unions to participate in the ballot processes, as is happening in British Labour. This requires further examination and debate”.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has been under pressure to back some democratic reform at the national conference, especially a move to give the rank and file a say in electing a portion of conference delegates.

But Shorten will be anxious to avoid a stoush over party reform overshadowing a conference that has a number of contentious issues before it – whether there should be a binding vote on gay marriage, recognition of Palestine, and the party’s stand on turning back boats.

One senior Labor source said there did not seem an appetite to make this a conference about party reform.

Party reformers, however, will be looking to Shorten to say something solid on reform when he addresses a Whitlam commemoration dinner titled “Gough Whitlam – Labor reformer” in Melbourne on June 9 sponsored by Local Labor.

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