The Australian Labor Party will formally endorse candidates at the next Ballarat council elections in October in a significant break with its past policy.
The Courier understands a limited shortlist of preferred candidates is now sitting with the party's Victorian branch administrative committee for approval.
It is part of a state-wide Labor party attempt to engage more directly with local politics and reclaim territory it has lost to other parties - including Greens and Liberals - at a grassroots level.
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The move is unprecedented for the Labor Party in Ballarat since amalgamation in 1994 and is likely to prompt debate about the role of party politics at a local government level.
While the Labor Party has dominated at state and federal levels in Ballarat for the past two decades, it is much less strongly represented in town hall.
The Party will actively engage in local government to.. improve, shape, influence and contribute to effective decision-making at the local levelALP Victorian branch rules
Currently there are two councillors - Des Hudson and Daniel Moloney - who belong to the Labor Party. They are outnumbered by three Liberal Party councillors, including the current mayor Ben Taylor, former mayor Samantha McIntosh, and Cr Amy Johnson.
The deputy mayor Belinda Coates is the sole Greens Party representative on council, while there are three independents: Crs Mark Harris, Jim Rinaldi and Grant Tillett.
Both Crs Rinaldi and Tillett have staunchly supported Samantha McIntosh in previous mayoral elections.
The move confirms a path outlined in amended Labor Party rules published in May 2018, which declared an intent to "improve, shape, influence and contribute to effective decision-making at the local level."
All ALP members in Ballarat were invited to vote on the prospect of endorsing candidates.
One observer described it as a "hotly contested and debated" process, which ultimately ended up in favour of endorsement.
The nominees for pre-selection have been submitted to the ALP Victoria branch administrative committee. Details on how-to-vote cards, which would be distributed prior to the postal ballot, are also being considered.
Both Crs Moloney and Hudson confirmed to The Courier they had put their hands up to be approved candidates. The current list of nominees is not thought to include any potential candidates for the central ward.
Cr Moloney told The Courier he was expecting some criticism over the perceived politicisation of councillors' roles. However, he said he did not expect any party pressure to vote a particular way, apart from being required to conduct a caucus on mayoral leadership votes, a process he said was already highly politicised.
He added: "It's important we are more transparent than we have been in the past - that goes across all political parties."
Previous local council candidates have not always declared political allegiances, or have declared them late.
His words were echoed by Ian Tulloch, an honorary associate in politics at La Trobe University, who said the move would remove the "dodgy" practice of hiding political allegiances.
"It takes a lot of the hypocrisy out of the process," he said. "Councils are about allocating funds for all sorts of different projects, and politics is an inherent part of that."
Cr Moloney said he hoped the move would allow more Labor members to enter local politics: "Labor has not done well at local election level as it has not supported candidates, whereas the Liberal Party has and it has been very successful in doing that."
An internal Labor Party review after the 2016 local elections found a lack of support for candidates was cited as the main reason the party had lost ground.
It is not clear whether the Labor Party support of its members would include a financial element, or if it mostly would take the form of greater campaigning and logistical back-up.
While Labor members within the Ballarat area took the step to endorse candidates, other surrounding areas have taken a different approach.
READ THE AMENDED LABOR PARTY RULES (SEE PAGE 54)
Party members within the Hepburn and Moorabool Shire municipalities have opted not to formally endorse candidates, a Labor spokesperson confirmed.
As a further complication, under the new local government act single councillor wards are deemed the preferred system. The City of Ballarat currently has three wards - north, south and central - each with three councillors.
However, it is widely understood among politicians of all hues in Ballarat that the existing electoral system will remain in place for the elections this year.
Borders would have to be significantly redrawn, with time running out to do so before votes need to be cast. A spokesperson for the Victorian Election Commission could not confirm any timelines for the changes as the act is going through state parliament.
Described by one politician as having "one of the most exhaustive engagement processes of any piece of legislation in government", the act is due to go before the upper house once parliament returns after summer.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party said there were no plans for the party to formally endorse candidates at a council level for this year's elections.
The Greens Party has formally endorsed councillor candidates at a local level at least since the 2008 elections.
The local party elections will be held statewide on October 24, with Ballarat councillors elected by proportional representation through a postal ballot.
An estimated 4.5 million ballot packs will be sent across Victoria, each of which will contain strictly regulated candidate statements and a ballot paper.