Opposition and factional leader Bill Shorten comes from the Right faction of the ALP but also has links with the Australian Workers Union. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Opposition Leader Bill Shorten addresses Labor Caucus in the Opposition Party Room, at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
What exactly is a Labor faction – and just how many are there?
Factions exist in some shape in most major political parties, but they are most defined – and active – within the ALP.
In basic terms, they are blocs of MPs and party officials who vote together, and work towards progressing certain policies and interests.
Being involved with a faction can begin quite early in a person’s political career and be critical when seeking preselection.
While they are often mentioned derisively in public debate, many view them as critical in such a large organisation. In the words of one senior strategist, “it helps to herd cats”.
The ALP can broadly be divided into two factions – the Left and Right. But there are plenty of sub-factions within each. And sub-factional group alliances are constantly shifting.
The factions are usually linked to a union or, in some cases, personalities. For example, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is from the Right – often known in Victoria as Labor Unity. He is also from the Australian Workers Union, which forms a major bloc within the Right.
How did the system get started?
The current alignment in Victoria has its roots in the Labor split of 1955, when anti-Communist groups left the rest of the party. The split lasted until the 1980s.
The Socialist Left formed in the 1970s out of the remnants of unions close to the Communist Party of Australia. It generally represented industrial and lower-class workers. The Right formed a more moderate part of the ALP. The Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association, known as the SDA or the “Shoppies”, formed the religious right of Labor. The Shoppies have at various times been part of Labor Unity or the Centre Right faction, or out on their own.
We’re hearing a bit about sub-factions – what are they?
Sub-factions are small groupings within the Left and Right factions. They often develop around points of tension over preselections and jostling for party positions.
In Victoria, the Right has been plagued for years by sub-factional battles. Recently, there has been a re-alignment in the Right, with the Shoppies sub-faction splitting in two. Half joined a new Centre Unity group, while the rest remained loyal to the union.
Sub-factions are usually strongest in state branches, and often based around personalities and tied to unions. Recent examples include the Short-Cons – an alliance between Bill Shorten’s AWU group and Stephen Conroy’s Transport Workers Union grouping.
Do you have to belong to a faction to be in the ALP?
No. Local branch members certainly do not have to be in a faction, and there is also an independent movement in the ALP, who deny they are actually a faction.
Factions play a greater role when people want to run for Parliament or party positions.
Although the vast majority of MPs belong to factions there are a minority who are classed as independent.
And there have been some prominent independents – former prime minister Kevin Rudd and premiers John Cain and Steve Bracks (although Bracks eventually joined the Right).
How much power do they actually have?
Factions have a major role in determining the make up of key positions, sometimes to the detriment of genuinely talented people.
While the party leader usually can have a say with some captain’s picks, the factional make-up of cabinet usually reflects that within caucus.
The groups also play an important role in getting delegates elected to state and national party conferences where important policy platform decisions are made.
Faction bosses command power because they can control votes in caucus or at special meetings. As many sub-factions and factions vote together on caucus policy issues, the bigger groupings can sometimes quash controversial policy.
How is it played out?
Factional power takes shape in many ways.
The coup against Kevin Rudd was orchestrated by factional power brokers, but their work is usually less public. Factional deals over preselection, cabinet posts and on controversial policy positions are made behind closed doors.
Recently, Labor factions have been battling over same-sex marriage has been opposed by the Shoppies, led by socially conservative warrior Joe de Bruyn, and some other factions, while more recently some in the Left have agitated for Labor MPs to have a binding vote supporting marriage equality.
Factions and unions. What’s the connection?
Unions are usually aligned with particular factions and sub-factions. For example, the Rail Tram and Bus Union and Australian Services Union are part of the Victorian left, while the AWU and the Transport Workers Union bloc are part of the Victorian Right.
Union numbers = power in the ALP. True or false?
Somewhat true, but insiders say the influence has been waning for some time. They also point out there is no one rule for factions and unions.
Some people have risen off the back off strong union backing within a faction. The most obvious example at the moment is Shorten and the AWU.
But Premier Daniel Andrews goes against that mould. Though a key figure in the Socialist Left movement for years, Andrews built up a reputation as a leader within the broader Socialist Left to rise as leader after John Brumby’s defeat without backing from a major union.
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