Labor’s national president, Mark Butler, is gearing up for a bruising fight with the right faction of the ALP and with some elements of the left, telling supporters he will submit a rule change democratising Senate preselections to be debated at the party’s national conference.
Butler, who is running for a second term as ALP president on a platform of party reform, uploaded a video to Facebook on Sunday evening declaring the national conference, now scheduled for mid-December, had to crash through on this issue.
The leftwing frontbencher said recent events had underscored the need for grassroots mobilisation on party reform against a blocking manoeuvre by factional powerbrokers.
“You might have heard that last weekend a majority of the Victorian state conference blocked changes that would have given members for the first time in that state a say in choosing who represents the party in the Senate,” Butler says in his new video.
“Unfortunately I expect the upcoming New South Wales state conference will also choose machine politics over party democracy.
“It’s now clear that the only way we are going to deliver the real reform that will ensure members have a say in selecting Senate candidates is if the national conference chooses to back in the 50,000 party members, instead of factional leaders who want the choice to remain theirs alone.
“That’s why over the coming days I will be filing for a rule change to be debated at the national conference to give all members that fundamental right no matter what state they live in.
“This conference must choose party democracy, it must demonstrate that our party is a party of the many, not a party of the few.”
Butler’s democratisation sortie has infuriated Bill Shorten’s right faction. The right has already prepared a rule change that would prohibit serving frontbenchers being the party president.
The proposed rule change currently in circulation is payback for Butler’s perceived provocations in the presidential contest. The right traditionally opposes democratisation proposals in the belief increasing grassroots participation boosts the power of the left in party forums.
Last weekend, the industrial left teamed up with the Labor right to close the Victorian state conference, shutting down urgency motions on live exports, gender inequality in superannuation, closure of offshore detention centres, the right to strike, the rate of Newstart and recognition of Palestine.
The same grouping also combined to vote against senators being preselected by an equal vote of rank-and-file members and affiliated union delegates to state conference.
Shorten is hoping to manage controversial fights at the national conference either by the right faction having a slim majority on the floor – which is possible – or with assistance from elements of the industrial left, particularly the CFMEU delegation.
The Labor leader was able to manage a politically challenging debate about asylum policy at the last federal conference in 2015 because of support from the CFMEU delegation.
On Sunday, the shadow workplace minister, Brendan O’Connor, told the ABC the issues that were closed off at the recent Victorian conference were more appropriately debated at the national event.
O’Connor also predicted the December conference would not change Labor’s position on refugee policy despite a push on from inside his own left faction.
“I’m confident that the national conference we hold will reaffirm the position that was determined in 2015,” he said.
Butler is running for president against the former Rudd and Gillard government treasurer Wayne Swan from the Queensland right.
Union official Mich-Elle Myers has also nominated. Some left figures claim she is in the field, backed by the influential national secretary of the CFMEU, Michael O’Connor, to peel votes away from Butler.
The left generally outperforms the right in grassroots ballots, like the vote for the national presidency, but some party strategists believe Swan has a good chance of winning the coming election because of his outspoken campaigning on the need to make Labor’s economic policy more progressive.
Some believe Swan’s pitch will be popular with left-leaning grassroots members.
Labor was forced to postpone the national conference until mid-December because of the scheduling of the “super Saturday” byelection contests on 28 July – the original date for the ALP gathering in Adelaide.
The event will now take place on 16 December through 18.