Rose Jackson is the NSW Labor Assistant General Secretary
In a world fraught with unprecedented economic and political uncertainty, the Sydney Town Hall might seem a long way from the serious action in Europe or the USA.
But there is an opportunity, as we gather on a cold July weekend, to use our dialogue and our debates to contribute to something much bigger. The big, game-changing ideas that are going to form the social democratic response to our changing world need a genesis. Australian Labor has often showed the world how it can be done. After all, we were the first Labor Party to form a government in 1899. We should honour Labor’s legacy and see this Conference as part of that history of beginnings – a conference of ideas and vision at a time of crisis for the forces of the left in a world with widening inequality.
Alternatively, it can be a waste of everyone’s time. Speaker after speaker in furious agreement about the settled elements of Labor’s agenda. While there is much we agree on, a two day echo chamber of self-congratulatory speeches will be a missed opportunity. Or where we do disagree, we could revisit old and tired debates, playing out the highly choreographed kabuki conflicts where everyone knows the ending before the show begins. This Conference can, and must, be more than this.
Our Conference can establish a bold, positive and progressive policy agenda. Debates can, and should, be thoughtful and meaningful. Disagreement can be on substance, focussed not on cheap shots but on collectively refining and determining our agenda for government. Here are just a few starters:
• What is the plan to arrest the growth in inequality? What’s the next chapter in Labor’s historic mission to make this country more equal, in income and wealth distribution, for Indigenous peoples, for women, LGBTI and younger Australians?
• What’s the plan for the yawning intergenerational gulf that is access to housing in this state? What are we doing about housing affordability generally, and what are we doing about the rights of people renting who represent a growing chunk of the property market?
• What’s the revenue plan? Beyond the rivers of stamp duty, beyond the privatisation agenda, what’s our plan to raise the funds for the services the community needs? In a time of widening social inequity we need a plan that places the burden of contributing to our social capital fairly on those who can afford it.
These questions represent but a fraction of the issues which Labor must tackle. We must act now to get ahead of a potential social and economic disaster in the form of a grossly unequal society with entrenched privilege and disadvantage. To do otherwise would dishonour the great social democratic gains that our party has made for our country. It would be immoral to fritter the Conference away basking in past glories and re-running choreographed debates.
And how do we build a culture in which we can have this discussion sensibly and constructively? Surely it starts by making sure the real policy substance is not shuffled off the agenda. In all of the conferences since 2006, Social Justice policy has only been debated twice. For a party with a proud history of championing these issues, this is unacceptable. Too much of the conference is spent on long presentations and snazzy videos that squeeze time for policy discussion, with whole chapters invariably getting canned.
Of course, we can have all the great ideas in the world but they’ll never see the light of day unless we win Government. Campaigning to win is important. Our group in the Party has a long tradition of winning elections for NSW Labor.
From councils in Newcastle, Liverpool, Byron Bay and even Broken Hill and more, state electorates like Swansea, Summer Hill, Granville, Blue Mountains, Charlestown and more, federal electorates like Parramatta, Barton, Macquarie, Grayndler, Werriwa and more – the NSW Left has continued to lead on winning campaigns, and we’re keen to get campaign ready again.
We support a Campaign Ready agenda for NSW Labor which includes employing a full-time training director, running advanced Campaign Insight Course for campaign directors, engaging Field Directors now for at least target federal seats and employing a full-time Data and Targeting Director. These are the building blocks for a modern, data-driven campaign, powered by people at the grassroots.
Part of our Campaign Ready agenda also needs to include supporting regional members and campaigns. Future state and federal Labor Governments will be won or lost in regional NSW. Country Labor needs to be more than a brand to win delegates to conference; Country Labor campaigns deserve minimum funding and proper organisational support.
This all requires resources. Membership fees are historically low and I know many members feel a small $5 per month contribution into a Campaign Ready fund would be a small price to pay to ensure we never again have to rely on opaque donations from questionable sources.
As we move away from the donation scandals of the past, we must continue to build alternative sources of revenue. NSW Labor should support a Federal ICAC, and should support the NSW funding and disclosure laws becoming model federal laws. Until this happens, any federal donations over $1000 should be reported monthly to the Administrative Committee.
We must also continue the governance reforms of NSW Labor Party, we must not let them stall. We have made progress, but the NSW Party Office remains a long way from organisation best practise and places too much emphasis on prioritising and protecting factional power.
Historically at least considerable improvements have been made, but the Party Office is still not a place where appointments are made on merit. It is not a place characterised by transparency or openness. It is not a place characterised by creativity or an open contest of ideas.
We know that structural changes in NSW Labor are necessary to build the mass based party we need to win elections and have a movement capable of backing in Labor’s agenda for government.
NSW Labor should represent an open and dynamic organisation that speaks to our commitment to democracy. Further rules changes are necessary to ensure the next chapter for NSW Labor is a successful one.
The Rules Report contains some elements that move us forward. Improvements to Affirmative Action principles include clarifying applicability to local government elections and how electorate councils should interpret the rules. Ensuring the Internal Appeals Tribunal and Review Tribunal function properly, maintaining their independence and practical decisionmaking. More rigorous governance arrangements for the Labor Action Committees, requiring financial and branch returns and annual general meetings.
Unfortunately, the majority on the Rules Committee resisted a number of sensible and essential structural changes. NSW Labor should have a directly elected State Branch President. We have one nationally, most other state branches have this practice, and there simply isn’t a good reason why this honorary, largely symbolic role should not represent all members. Sensible ideas to reform the Administrative Committee were also rejected. The current Administrative Committee is almost 60 people, far too large to offer functional oversight or act as a meaningful governing board.
At this Annual Conference the NSW Left will be once again challenging the Party - with our ideas, energy, and dedication to sound policy debate, and for further party reform and democracy.
By any objective measure, the status quo of the last ten years for NSW Labor is a sad story. We need to write a new story, a new chapter, a tale not of loss, of scandals, bad headlines and unfulfilled promise, but of the next generation of party members and political leaders who stand and fight on principle – and win.