Labor to loosen union links

Bill Shorten to announce plans to reform union relationship on Monday.

Bill Shorten plans to reform Labor’s relationship with unions and overhaul the party’s national conference.

The Labor leader has been meeting and phoning MPs, party officials and union leaders to canvass reforms. He wants to abolish the rule that party members and candidates must be union members, and will announce his plans in Melbourne on Monday.

One of the party’s senior organisational figures, NSW Labor secretary Jamie Clements, is the first official to publicly back the Labor leader on the union membership change.

Writing in The Australian today, Mr Clements says: “Rules which limit participation, such as the requirement that party members produce evidence of union membership before joining, have had their day.

“The Labor Party needs to become bigger and more representative. Labor should seek to speak for more people, not fewer.”

Mr Clements is close to Mr Shorten, and his intervention is believed to be a signal the party organisation is moving to welcome the reform. Party officials in other states told The Australian they will support the reform.

NSW Labor has trialled allowing non-party members to elect state candidates and will allow members to elect the state parliamentary leader and directly elect delegates to the national conference. Mr Shorten supports these reforms. He has called for the party to boost its membership of 44,000 to 100,000 members.

Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said last week union membership should not be necessary for joining the party.

However, some Labor branches enforce the rule requiring party members to be union members. This sees up to one-third of applications to join the party rejected each year. The party is considering centralising membership information nationally and making membership requirements nationally uniform.

A federal Labor shadow minister told The Australian removing the requirement that party members must be union members would be “an important but only symbolic change”. Labor sources say Mr Shorten is addressing the party-union link partly in response to the royal commission into union corruption.

Unions continue to make up 50 per cent of state party conferences, where votes on policy are meant to be binding on MPs and where many upper house pre­selections are determined.

Former NSW Labor secretary Stephen Loosley argued in The Australian this week that decisions at conferences should no longer be binding. Mr Clements rejects that idea. “Labor’s conferences matter precisely because their decisions are binding, and they elect ­people,” Mr Clements writes. “Changing that would silence the voices of affiliated trade union members and severely diminish the role of the annual ­conference.”

Further, Mr Clements does not support diluting union representation at conferences. “Our conferences provide Labor leaders with a forum to argue their case for reform,” he writes.

“Our leaders hone their arguments before representatives of Labor’s rank and file and affiliated union members.”