Speech on Labor's future

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John Graham delivered a speech recently saying that the bad elements in our party will go on unless we reform more and open up our party to transparency and democracy.

Speech to the Hunter Regional Assembly

I rise to report on the state of NSW Labor – noting that it’s not the easiest time to give such a report.

When the ICAC was first legislated in NSW, there was debate in Labor’s ranks about its merits.

Serious people, civil libertarians, had their doubts.

Labor went on to support ICAC’s formation.

Labor appointed it’s current Commissioner.

There is no debate now: members of the Labor party welcome the work of the ICAC process.

I have spoken to many party members recently who are feeling distressed and angry at the state of NSW Labor. I share those feelings. I do believe that these events give us a chance to drive a permanent change in the culture of NSW Labor, much in the way that the Shepherdson Inquiry was able to do so in the Queensland branch of the party.

There, three MPs resigned over allegations of electoral misconduct, one a Deputy Premier, and one a former state secretary. Peter Beattie at the time fronted a Government on an electoral knife edge. He chose to lead a campaign to clean up Labor and went on to win Labor’s biggest ever majority in Queensland, holding 66 of 89 seats.

NSW Labor has to take a similar approach to shaping our fortunes in the face of these events.

Self interest vs. the public interest

What has already been described in these proceedings is a rampant culture of self interest. The line was blurred and then crossed, between the public interest and self interest.

The public interest has always been central to Labor’s purpose. We have to reach back to those core values, and reassert the importance of the public interest in everything Labor does.

Labor was never formed as a vehicle for self interest, but like all political parties, we’ve never experienced any shortage of it. Even in our first days we have had to combat it, as our movement elevated men to serve in our Parliaments, who then often left our ranks, or departed our cause. We came to the view at that time that they were better out, that the movement was strengthened by their absence.

121 years later, we were right. We have taken that view again, as Labor has moved to suspend the party memberships of Macdonald, Roozendaal, Obeid, and others. I want to congratulate leader John Robertson for the stand he has taken on this issue.

The Problem

These questions remain – how was this allowed to happen, and how can we prevent it from happening again?

While the ICAC will sift through the legal issues, it is Labor that will need to respond politically. The first point to make is that much of the history of what happened is on the public record. However in the last weeks, two leaders of our party; two former Premiers have revealed more detail about the circumstances in which they served.

One of the things they described was the operation of the Terrigal grouping of the Labor party – a group named after a meeting conducted at Eddie Obeid’s beach house. They have described the method that allowed a small group of MPs to control the caucus. It was a confidence trick that resembled a Russian matryoshka doll.

A set of caucuses all nesting inside each other, each one binding the next to a predetermined decision. The Counsel Assisting summarised it this way:

“because The Terrigals could dominate the Right Wing caucus and because the Right Wing caucus could dominate the whole of the caucus it in effect gave The Terrigals a disproportionate control over the decisions of the parliamentary party.”

That method, having been described, has to be eliminated. We need to acknowledge that this is not the case of a couple of bad individuals, but a problem that developed in the culture of NSW Labor.

We don’t accept in the Federal Parliamentary party that factions, or groups within factions, bind over the leadership. Nor should it be the case in NSW. We can’t accept an attempt to rebuild a low-rent version of the Terrigal model in Macquarie St. Even though that is what is being attempted right now. It has to be stopped.

I believe we need to go further though and dramatically expand the number of people who have a say in how we elect the leader of the NSW Parliamentary Labor party.

Threat to Labor federally

Left unaddressed, we have to be honest and acknowledge these issues threaten Labor’s prospects federally. Of our most marginal seats – those under 5.5% - fully ten of 21 are in NSW.

It is a fact that underlines how seriously we have to take this challenge.

Fear & Silence vs. Courage & Debate

Party members have asked me in recent weeks, why didn’t someone say something about this previously? This culture was exposed, over the years, by party elders such as Faulkner and Cavalier. It had been referred to by party reviews, and their authors, including Watkins and Chisholm.

And I do take the view that the Left of the party in NSW has been on the record about this culture, since 1954. There were many good parliamentary members, left and right, who detested and opposed such a culture.

It is true, however that there was immense pressure not to speak out. Of course some did. Most prominently, the then Premier Nathan Rees on the 3rd of December 2009 said this:

''A malign and disloyal group well known to the NSW community has made the business of government almost impossible. The presence of such a group within the nation's oldest and proudest political party is intolerable. Their treachery and disloyalty can be borne no longer.''

History records that he spoke out, and paid a price. At its worst we developed a culture of fear and silence. In the wake of these events, we need to challenge that culture.

A culture of courage and debate is a necessary step for the rebuilding process. I call on Labor to start that debate.

Decline vs. Participation and Growth

To rebuild Labor we need more people involved in our decisions. That is why we should be encouraged that 4,300 people have chosen to join NSW Labor this year.

Let me be clear: powerbrokers don’t want you to join the Labor party.

The smaller the Labor Party is, the easier it became to operate the system of influence and patronage that existed. It was a model of exclusion and decline. A bigger party isn’t enough though. We need a culture of participation and growth if we are to continue to grow rebuild.

Most importantly, we need to respond by redoubling our efforts to reform the Labor party. Top of that list must be the consideration of changing the way we elect the leader of the NSW Parliamentary Labor party.

This is a now a controversial, but necessary measure. Two former leaders, former Premiers, have revealed the method that allowed a small number of members of parliament to control the fortunes of the state. Without such a measure, this system will always risk being rebuilt. The best way to combat the power of that small number, is by expanding the franchise of those who have a say in electing the leader of the NSW Parliamentary Labor party.

It promises greater stability for future leaders. This broad franchise for the election of the leader is a measure that has been adopted by our sister parties around the world.

Annual Conference established a committee to lead this discussion and consult with the party on this matter. Those consultations will start shortly. It should be discussed, debated, and I believe, adopted, as a part of a package of measures that combat our current problems.

Vetting

I congratulate John Robertson for the call he made at our annual conference to introduce vetting for new state candidates – to ensure they are of the highest calibre. The committee comprised of John Watkins, Kevin Greene, Bob Debus and Marie Andrews will help vet and mentor new candidates. It is a step that recognises we need to attract the best people to Labor’s team.

Reform

Party reform has to continue. We need to adopt the unfinished business of the National Review, and then go beyond this. Including:

-extending the principle of direct election to party positions with real power,

-Making our party tribunals more independent,

-holding more rather than less community preselections, • adopting a consistent and tough one-strike policy for misdemeanours,

-building a more modern relationship with NSW unions that engages with union secretaries, and genuinely with their members.

Back into Government

We need to start to chart now the new policy agenda of transparency that Labor will take back into Government in NSW as we return to power. It should build on the work that Labor initiated in government, further strengthening FOI laws and the lobbyist register.

With transparency over government transactions, the sort of closed door dealings we are hearing about would be much more difficult.

As one example, the British Government now publishes public accounts online so that people can scrutinise them and help to identify overspending. These include all new items of central government spending over £25,000 or contracts and tenders over £10,000. For local government spending and contracts the threshold is just £500.

This is a fundamental new direction for information about public expenditure that Labor in NSW should embrace and drive into government. It is one example of a policy that should be part of a sweeping integrity and transparency policy agenda as Labor returns to Government.

Conclusion

I believe party members want us to tackle these problems. We need a new culture in NSW Labor, characterised:

-By a focus of our values of the public interest rather than self interest

-By courage and debate rather than fear and silence.

-By participation and growth rather than by exclusion and decline.

I call on Labor to start this debate about our culture.

I call on Labor to take the unusual step of holding a conference in a Federal election year, to provide a platform for the Party and the Leader to outline its response to these developments.

I call on Labor to:

-Redouble its efforts to reform

-Debate its integrity agenda for Government.

We should harness the spirit of those early days of Labor. After all, this can’t be any harder than building the Labor party in those difficult first days. We should harness the spirit of Queensland Labor responding to Shepherdson, in its darkest hour, and fight to create a better Labor party.


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