NSW Labor breaks with worst of its past


[Tomorrow] morning NSW Labor’s Administrative Committee will gather at its Sussex Street headquarters following the Prime Minister’s announcement that the National Executive is intervening in the NSW Branch.

Perhaps surprisingly, the move is likely to be welcomed around the table.

This announcement is good news for Labor Party members. We know how big the challenge is to rebuild Labor in NSW.

The last Federal intervention into the NSW branch of the Labor Party was triggered in 1971, by a report authored by Tom Burns, Labor’s Federal President at the time.

Only a short 15 pages long, the Burns report ‘into the Administration of the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party’ sent shockwaves through Labor. It recorded a turbulent period in the NSW Branch’s history.

A copy can now be found in the National Library, figuratively filed in the catalogue under both ‘political parties’ and ‘mismanagement’.

Forty two years later the Prime Minister Rudd has announced that Labor’s National Executive will again intervene in the NSW Branch of the Labor Party. The National Executive will take control of the NSW Branch to clean it up over the next thirty days.

So it should.

The reports that the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption will shortly hand down, are expected to dwarf the Burns Report in their scale and impact.

That’s why ordinary members of the Labor Party in NSW will welcome national intervention. It represents a chance to break with our recent past.

John Robertson has made a start on the reform challenge, strengthening financial disclosure for Members of Parliament, vetting new candidates and pushing a tough line on corruption. The NSW Party office has started to reform its own processes – holding community ‘primary’ preselections, and developing a new, more inclusive way of developing policy.

We know there is more to do.

The problem has been clear. The lawlessness that characterised Labor’s internal culture spread from Sussex St, first to Macquarie St, and then to the nation’s capital.

For decades the guiding motto of the NSW Branch was ‘Whatever it takes’. In the end it almost seemed to become ‘Whatever you can take’.

I hope this intervention spells an end to that era.

Rudd’s announcement contains a tough set of measures: property developers ruled out as candidates, zero tolerance of corruption and opening up Labor’s processes to the rule of law.

It abolishes NSW Labor’s notorious factional party tribunals - its Disputes and Credentials Committees. Previously the scene of many a fix, they will be replaced by an Independent Appeals Tribunal.

The measures also strengthen Labor’s hand to ward off the legal threats NSW Labor has been subjected to as we have taken disciplinary action against some of our former members. As a Party official on the receiving end of a blizzard of lawyers’ letters, I can say it is a welcome development.

This package is necessary for NSW Labor. However by itself, it won’t be enough. We need to go further, and adopt reforms that give members more say.

A good start would be holding more community ‘primary’ preselections, changing how we elect our parliamentary leader, and allowing membership ballots for key party positions.

We will still need to tackle directly the democratic deficit that exists in Labor.

After the Prime Minister’s actions yesterday, I am optimistic that will be possible.

Kevin Rudd has been on the record supporting measures that give members more say.

At the time of Labor’s last national conference in 2011 he called for ALP members to be given the power to directly elect the party's national secretary, national executive and delegates to the national conference.

Senior Ministers in the new cabinet such as Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen are supporters of strengthening Labor’s democratic traditions.

"Caucus members always will and should have a key role in electing the leader. But we also need to examine the arguments for involving the broader party membership as well," Chris Bowen wrote last year.

Labor shouldn’t be doing these things for its own sake. We need to keep up. Twenty first century political parties are finding new ways to allow their supporters to join, participate and engage.

The nation’s conservative parties don’t tend to worry so much about these things. Labor, like any progressive political party, relies on optimism and dynamism to successfully win and hold government.

Labor’s structures were ground breaking in their day – in the nineteenth century. They represented a radical way for ordinary voters to participate for the first time in politics. Politics at the time remained the preserve of the landed gentry and the well-to-do.

Labor’s structures helped change that, but they now need to change for the twenty first century.

There will be time for that debate. In the meantime, we have an election to win against Tony Abbott. Kevin Rudd’s actions strengthen Labor’s hand in that fight.

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