The ALP in New South Wales; who controls it and how?

By Jim Bright, Narooma Branch Secretary

Purpose of this paper

In this paper I will endeavour to explain

(a) how the current constitution of the NSW Branch of the ALP gives control of the Annual Conference (i.e. the Branch’s supreme governing body) to the affiliated unions,

(b) how the officials of those unions currently ‘manage’ those constitutional arrangements in a way that maximises the officials’ individual power and influence within the Party, and

(c) how the power and influence of those union officials underpins the current factional control of the Party.

Preliminary comments

As some of you will know, for a number of years I’ve been a very strong supporter of the push for major democratic reform of the ALP.

Although, over the last couple of years, there have been some steps taken (mostly begrudgingly) by the Party apparatchiks and power-brokers towards providing the thousands of rank & file ALP members with a say in some Party decisions, the real (and virtually absolute) control that has been exerted for some time by a relatively small clique of members remains substantially unchanged.

However, with the federal election now out of the way, many rank & file members and groups within our Party are properly turning their attention once again to the question of internal Party reform. I passionately believe that major democratic reform of the ALP is an essential component of what is needed for the long-term viability and success of the ALP as a progressive political entity and consequently, and more importantly, what is also needed in the best interests of the future health and efficacy of the Australian democratic system as a whole.

Obviously, when it comes to reforming some of the key major elements of Australia’s political landscape, there is usually not a lot that we, as individual citizens, can effectively contribute in a substantive way towards that goal. For example, the current appalling state of journalistic and editorial standards in the majority of the media, and the parlous state of morality and ethics (as well as internal democracy) that exists on the conservative side of Australian politics, are not things that we, as individuals, can easily influence in a direct way. However, when it comes to reforming the Labor Party, we (as members of that Party) are better placed to come together to effectively support and contribute to any internal push for the reform and improvement of our particular part of the political system.

The reasons why our Party is in need of fair dinkum democratic reform and the consequences of not pursuing that goal have, in recent years, been the subject of numerous books, journalistic commentary, published opinion pieces and academic commentary. On the other hand, publicly aired arguments in support of the retention of the Party’s existing oligarchic governance arrangements have been very difficult to find. (My fairly extensive collection of literature on this topic contains only two or three examples of any attempt to publicly argue for the retention of the current system – although, of course, there could be other examples that I’ve not yet come across.) On that basis alone, I think that it would be highly likely that any rational, independent and objective observer of the situation would be reasonably likely to conclude that the case for genuine Party democratisation is overwhelming. But, of course, as is the situation for example with the very strong case for the existence of, and for action on, anthropogenic climate change – powerful vested interests can often successfully defeat or delay the acceptance and implementation of rational and appropriate reform measures – no matter how strong the arguments are for such measures.

However, in this paper, I’m not wishing to canvass in detail the case for reform nor am I wishing to outline what alternate model or models could be considered. Instead, my main objective in this paper is to explain the key matters around who currently controls the Party and what constitutional provisions and what practices underpin that control. I am of the opinion that an improved understanding of these key matters is an essential first step to be taken on the path towards proper and informed membership discussions and decisions on the reform/democratisation issue.


There are eight State and Territory branches of the ALP as well as the Party’s national body.

Although each of the State and Territory branches has its separate constitution or ‘rules’, each set of rules contains some very similar key features that are pertinent to the question of who controls that branch and how that control is achieved and maintained. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the existing arrangements within the NSW branch.

So what are the key relevant provisions under the Party’s rules?

Annual NSW State Conference

Under the NSW branch’s rules (Rule B.2), the Annual Conference is the supreme policy making and governing body of the Party in New South Wales”. It is the Annual Conference that has the power under the rules “to alter or change the Rules and Platform (policies) of the Party” and to elect all the key branch officials such as the General Secretary, the Assistant General Secretaries and the members of the Administrative Committee (commonly referred to as the Admin Committee). The Annual Conference also elects delegates from NSW to the National Conference.

Importantly, the rules also give the NSW Annual Conference delegates the power to pre-select the Party’s (upper house) candidates for any up-coming Legislative Council and Australian Senate elections.

Admin Committee

Obviously, the Annual Conference (ie the supreme governing body of the NSW Branch of the ALP) convenes for a period of only a few days each year (and, in some years, not at all).

Therefore, under the rules (Rule D.1), the Admin Committee is charged with the responsibility “for the management and administration of the Party between Annual Conferences”.

(At present the Admin Committee consists of 25 members who are elected at the Annual Conference as well as the seven NSW Party Officers and two members representing the federal and state parliamentary leaders.)

In addition to this general day-to-day management function, the rules also give the Admin Committee a large number of specific powers in relation to a wide range of NSW branch matters. I won’t detail all those powers in this paper. However it is vital to appreciate that the rules (as they stand at this time) effectively give the members of the Admin Committee (who, as indicated above, are elected by the delegates at the Annual Conference) the ultimate say on who will or won’t be endorsed as the Party’s candidate for any of the lower-house seats in the NSW parliament and for the (NSW) lower-house seats in the Federal parliament.

The current rules also give the Admin Committee absolute power to decide who will fill any casual ALP vacancies that might arise from time to time in the two upper-houses. As casual vacancies in those houses (which can arise due to the resignations of Senators and Legislative Councillors during their elected terms) are now quite common, the usual way these days for someone to be chosen to enter one of the ALP’s upper-house positions is via the (often secretive) processes of the Admin Committee.

So clearly, under the ‘rules’ governing the activities of the ALP in NSW, key decisions such as

(i) who will be endorsed as candidates in safe seats,

(ii) who will get the top spots on upper house ‘tickets’ and

(iii) who will get to fill casual upper house vacancies

are determined either by a majority of delegates to the Annual Conference or by the members of the Admin Committee (who are elected at the Annual Conference).

Of course, none of the above should necessarily be a problem if the Annual Conference delegates (and the Admin Committee members whom they elect) were to be ultimately responsible and accountable to the general membership, and if their decisions and actions were to reasonably reflect the views and attitudes of the majority of the Party’s members. But, as we will see later in this paper, only a minority of Conference delegates and usually none of members of the Admin Committee are at present answerable (in any way) to the membership in general.

So who are the Annual Conference delegates?

Under the ALP’s Rules, each Federal and State electorate in NSW has an ‘Electorate Council’ (which consists of elected delegates from each of the local ALP branches within that electorate). Each year at the ‘FEC’ and ‘SEC’ annual general meetings, those local branch delegates get to elect their Councils’ delegates to the Party’s Annual Conference. For each FEC, there are three conference delegates elected and for each SEC, there are two conference delegates elected. So, in the example of this part of NSW, a total of seven conference delegates (i.e. three from the Eden-Monaro FEC, two from the Bega SEC and two from the Monaro SEC) are indirectly elected by our local rank & file members to be their voting delegates at the NSW Annual Conference.

From a democratic perspective – so far, so good.

But these rank & file delegates (that is, the FEC/SEC delegates) aren’t the only ‘delegates’ at the Conference and, as I will explain later, they amount to only about 37% of the total number of voting delegates. (That is, only a bit more than a third of those who get to participate in the NSW Branch’s supreme governing body are actually elected by and therefore accountable to the ALP’s general membership!) This is because the Rules also give conference voting rights to a range of other officials and groups such as the Party Officers, Young Labor officials, the Admin Committee members, convenors of various committees, representatives of the Federal and State parliamentary caucuses, etc., and (most crucially) a very large number of delegates from the Party’s affiliated trade unions.

In fact, Rule B.20 specifies that the total number of conference delegates allocated to the affiliated unions must always be not less than the total of all the other Conference delegates (excluding the Admin Committee). This arrangement applies regardless of how many (or how few) unions are affiliated with the ALP at any point in time and also applies regardless of how many (or how few) people in total are members of those affiliated unions. (This is the so-called ’50/50′ rule – and, contrary to what many people might have innocently assumed, neither “50” in fact represents the general membership’s percentage share of the total conference delegates!)

To put all of this into better perspective, the following delegate numbers from the 2008 Annual Conference will give you an idea of how this pans out in practice.

FEC & SEC delegates 333
Parliamentary caucus reps. 32
Young Labor 16
Others 45
sub total 426
Union delegates 427
Admin Committee & Party Officers 34
Total delegates 887


On the surface at least, a scenario involving the attendance at the ALP’s Annual Conference of some hundreds of trade union delegates representing the views of (and being directly accountable to) their fellow workers could well be an acceptable arrangement. However the reality is far from this.

How many conference delegates does each union get?

The number of delegates that each affiliated union gets to send to the ALP’s Annual Conference is determined on a proportional basis according to the number of union members that it has relative to the other affiliated unions. The bigger the union, the bigger the share it gets of the 400+ union delegates at each Conference.

There are about twenty unions affiliated with the ALP in NSW. (About half of Australia’s registered trade unions are currently affiliated.) The biggest affiliated union is the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (the SDA) and it gets to send around 70+ delegates to the Conference. At the other end of the spectrum, the smaller unions have only a handful of delegates. (In fact, the five biggest unions get to provide more than half of all the union delegates.)

How are these union conference delegates selected and to whom are they accountable?

A crucial factor in the explanation of who controls the NSW Branch (and how that control is achieved and maintained) is to be found in the manner in which the affiliated unions go about choosing and managing their conference delegates.

Surprisingly, even though this particular group of delegates is by far the largest single component of the Branch’s supreme ruling body (i.e. the Annual Conference), the Party’s rules don’t stipulate anything about how these union delegates should be chosen, appointed or dismissed. Nor do the rules stipulate anything about where those delegates’ responsibilities and accountabilities should lie. In fact, Rule B.22(g) decrees that this is to be a completely ‘no go’ area for the Party by specifying that “is the right of each union to determine the criteria and procedures for the selection of its delegates”. (The only thing stipulated in the ALP’s rules in relation to the union delegates is that any such delegate must be a member of the union and a member of the ALP.)

Once again, this doesn’t immediately jump out as a major potential problem until you ‘drill down’ into the registered rules (and into the actual practices) of each of the affiliated unions in order to establish just what that union’s “criteria and procedures” might be for the “selection of its delegates”.

Such drilling down reveals little evidence of the members of the affiliated unions having any real say about who should represent them at the ALP’s Annual Conferences (and that is certainly the overwhelming anecdotal information that is available to us). So far, none of the official union rules that I have examined, or enquired about, contains anything that most people might regard to be acceptable processes or procedures for the selection of these delegates. Typically, the situation is that a union’s rules effectively provide its officials with unfettered power to choose (and dismiss) that union’s conference delegates. For example, in the case of the biggest (and therefore arguably the most powerful) affiliated union in NSW (i.e. the NSW branch of the SDA), the relevant provision in its official registered rules is as follows.


The Branch Council may from time to time appoint and remove representatives of the Branch on any Committee or body with which the Branch is affiliated or on which it is entitled to representation.”

The Health Services Union (another of the big affiliated unions) has the following relevant provision in its rules.


The HSU East Branch may from time to time appoint and remove delegates to the bodies to which the Branch is affiliated. The General Secretary shall exercise that power in relation to bodies in New South Wales and the ACT and the Executive President shall exercise such powers in relation to bodies in Victoria.”

As you can see, there is very little in the way of ‘due process’, transparency or membership involvement in the above-mentioned “criteria and procedures”! That is, the union delegates, who effectively dominate our Party’s supreme governing body, are able to be (and usually are) simply appointed and dismissed at the whim of the relevant officials of the affiliated unions.

What ‘arrangements’ apply to how union delegates vote at the Conference?

The very high degree of control that union officials are able to (and do) exercise over the appointment of conference delegates also extends to the manner in which those delegates then vote at Conference.

Many of the matters (such as party policy, rule changes, etc.,) that are determined at Annual Conference are decided by a public ‘show of hands’ of all the conference delegates. (One can probably safely assume, given the high degree of ‘flexibility’ that exists under union rules in relation to a union delegate’s appointment and dismissal, that any delegate displaying a pattern of non compliance with the voting directions of their union’s officials is likely to be dealt with in short order.)

In relation to the crucial Conference ballots for positions such as General Secretary, Assistant General Secretary, National Conference delegate, Admin Committee member, etc., additional ‘quality control’ procedures have been put in place by the unions to ensure that these ballot outcomes are 100% in accordance with their officials’ inter and intra factional commitments and agreements. These particular procedures are often referred to as the “show and tell” or “buddy system” techniques. This involves the union delegates being required to show their completed ballot papers to other union delegates to ensure that those papers have been completed strictly in accordance with the instructions of their union’s officials.

Obviously, the combined effect of (i) the dominance of the Annual Conference by union delegates, (ii) the absence of any transparency or accountability around the selection of those delegates and (iii) the rigid control that is exercised over the voting of those delegates, creates a situation of enormous power and influence within the Party for the key officials of the affiliated unions.


It is this extraordinary level of control that the affiliated union officials are able to exert over the key outcomes of the Annual Conference (particularly the election of the Party Officers and the members of the Admin Committee and, through them, the control of the candidate pre-selection process) that is at the core of the power of the Party’s factions.

It is also important to understand that (as one prominent commentator recently pointed out) the reality is that the ALP’s factions are merely expressions of union blocks. The factions don’t have some type of existence that is independent of those blocks. The major factional bosses and power-brokers are largely the top officials of the ALP’s affiliated unions and, in that respect, the NSW Right’s current predominance within the Party is the direct consequence of the fact that the biggest unions such as the SDA, the TWU and the HSU are presently attached to that particular faction.

Should we have factions within the Party?

My view is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having ‘factions’ within a political party. The existence within a large organisation of different groups of people with similar objectives and ideological views is quite normal and understandable. (Having said that, it is difficult for me to imagine that any rational and objective examination of the ALP’s current factional arrangements and activities could reasonably conclude that they are appropriate in the context of general health of our Party .)

In this regard, Senator John Faulkner, party ‘elder’ and prominent advocate for major fundamental democratic Party reform, made the following comments in his ‘Wran Lecture’ speech in 2011.

“I have said so often before, and I say again now, there is nothing wrong with people who have the same goals working together to achieve them. Factions are older than political parties – they were found in the Roman Senate and at the court of Queen Elizabeth the First. However, when factions become mutual support associations divorced from ideas and devoted purely to securing promotion, they are toxic.”

In that same speech, Faulkner also quoted Neville Wran’s earlier comments that the factions are now focussed on “internal power rather than policy development”. In relation to Wran, Faulkner went on to observe that he could “think of nothing more telling of the state of the Party today than the fact that, in Neville’s own assessment and the assessment of others, he (Wran) could never get preselected in today’s Labor Party because of the role and the influence of the factions, and the way that influenced is exercised”.

How do the factions/unions achieve control of the Admin Committee?

A fundamental problem is that, over time, the power-brokers in the Party’s various unions, factions and sub-factions have developed (between themselves) a co-operative ‘business model’ which fully exploits the capacity under the Party’s rules for them to ‘corral’ and control the votes of all the union conference delegates (and, as explained earlier in this paper, Rule B.20 guarantees that those union delegates will always be the dominant group at the Conference).

When it comes to dividing up the ‘spoils’ between the factions (or union blocks), almost nothing has been left to chance. Crucial to this has been an arrangement that the factions collectively developed to ensure that it would be the factions who got to determine who would be the 25 members elected at Conference to the all-powerful Admin Committee.

This arrangement has involved the factions agreeing, prior to Conference, to the proportion of the available 25 Admin Committee positions that each faction should control. (The agreed proportions seem usually to have been about 15 for the Right and 10 for the Left.) The factions then each nominated their agreed contingent of candidates (no more/no less) and directed their respective union delegates and any other ‘factionalised’ conference delegates to preference those 25 candidates over any other candidates.

This particular arrangement, combined with

(a) the guaranteed majority of total conference delegates that the rules give to the unions/factions,

(b) the ‘show and tell’/’buddy system’ of balloting that the unions/factions impose on those delegates and

(c) the particular voting arrangements that apply under the Party’s rules at the Annual Conference

has, in recent times, effectively ensured that only the 25 members nominated by the factions have been elected to the Admin Committee regardless of how much support there might be amongst our FEC/SEC delegates for other candidates.

Control by the factions over who gets elected to the key position of General Secretary and to the two positions of Assistant General Secretary has been achieved in a similar manner.

(It should be noted that the NSW branch rules have recently been changed. The modified rules provide that in future there will thirty-six elected members (up from twenty-five) on the Admin Committee. Eighteen of these will be elected by the union conference delegates and eighteen will be elected by the other conference delegates. Given that the FEC/SEC conference delegates represent only a portion of the “other conference delegates”, it is difficult to see that the ‘new’ Admin Committee won’t still remain very much under the tight control of the factions/unions.)


There is arguably nothing intrinsically wrong with an arrangement involving affiliated unions having special or additional influence within the Party’s supreme governing body. (Similarly there is nothing intrinsically wrong with other groups, such as the Parliamentary caucuses, being given some special recognition and influence.) However the problems arise when (as is the current situation) special representational arrangements are written into the Party rules in a manner that creates a capacity for a relatively small number of members to manipulate these arrangements in order to totally dominate and control the Party.

So what can we conclude from all of this about exactly who it is that controls the ALP in NSW?

Well, from outside the ‘blackbox’ of the machinations and intrigues of the ALP’s faction and union power-brokers, it’s probably difficult to be precise about that at any point in time. Therefore it’s probably easier to address this question from the other direction. That is – who doesn’t control the ALP in NSW?

The answer is that control of the Party is definitely not in the hands of the thousands of ordinary members like you and me – and even if there were to be thousands more of us, under the current rules this answer would still be the same! At the moment, it would probably be more accurate to describe ourselves as ‘associate’ or non-voting members rather than full members. Although we technically do get a vote at the Annual Conference (through our FEC/SEC conference delegates), even if all of our 300+ delegates were to vote unanimously on an issue, a small group of union/faction leaders effectively has the direct and indirect command of 500+ votes with which to over-rule us.

Although this might be a ‘healthy’ outcome from the perspective of that group and those other individual members who are (or expect to be) the beneficiaries of the group’s patronage, it is very difficult to believe that this situation is in the best interest of the general health of our Party. Personally, I also doubt that, on balance, it is in the best interests of those workers who are members of the unions that are affiliated. (When reflecting on these issues, it’s difficult not to see the pertinence of Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.)

It is Rule B.20 (which guarantees majority control of the Annual Conference to the leaders of the affiliated unions) that is the corner-stone of the set of practices and arrangements that presently give absolute power within our Party to the union/faction power-brokers. (We should all clearly understand that Rule B.20 also empowers that small ruling clique to reverse, at any time of its choosing, any or all of the recent concessions that the rank & file members have been granted.)

It is clear to me therefore that any membership deliberations on the question of fair dinkum reform and democratisation must be focussed on this particular provision of the Party rules – that is, on the (so called) ’50/50′ rule.