The rise and fall of the house of Caesar

John Graham is Assistant General Secretary of NSW Labor

I spent some time over Christmas reading Tom Holland’s outstanding new book dynasty – the rise and fall of the house of Caesar. It details the imperial dynasty from Augustus through Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and, finally, Nero.

I still had that faint holiday feeling in January, when I received the call to say that another General Secretary of NSW Labor
would be tapped on the shoulder later that day. I put the book aside and drove in to the office.

The parallels were hard to ignore – the position of General Secretary of the NSW branch is as close to a modern-day Caesar as Australian politics produces. The role comes with the extreme centralised power, the cult of personality and the bitter court
politics that characterised Imperial Roman politics.

The central organisational position in Labor is from another political age. In the current crisis, an opportunity presents itself. It has
dawned on the NSW Labor Party that our culture, much as we love it, needs to change. It is simply out of date in the 21st century.

That is because politics is changing. Politics in the social media age is more transparent, democratic and mobile. The parties
that adapt to this new culture will be the ones that prosper.

It is also because change is coming. Publicly-legislated standards for political parties in NSW will be implemented following the Schott review. NSW political parties receive too much public money, and their scandals are too common, for it to be any other way.

Let’s spare a thought for our opponents, for example, who were caught out after blatantly ignoring campaign finance restrictions on developers. It was the greatest act of civil disobedience since the 1960s, by a party that simply refused to acknowledge such a
law had been passed. 


We can produce a Labor Party that is more professional, with stronger governance and with a culture more welcoming of women.

We have thrown the doors open to ask for help from outside of Sussex Street in this period.

Five key reviews were completed in 2015. Together they have set a roadmap for improving the Labor Party. They were:

  • The Whelan/Farrar review – which looked at the management of Sussex St and contains key recommendations for a more professional culture
  • The Needham review – which aims to strengthen the party’s tribunals and increase the role of women in the Party
  • The Tarrant and Tierney review – which strived to strengthen Labor’s governance, establishing a stronger Finance Committee and a smaller Administrative Committee
  • The Tarrant review of our membership systems – which followed voting irregularities in the Federal Leader ballot in Auburn, and recommended greater transparency over the membership system
  • The review of the Finance Risk 

    and Audit Committee – which 

    looked at financial and other 

    risks to the NSW Branch.

From that work we now have close to a consensus on what a more modern Labor Party operation might look like.


A more professional Labor Party might include:

  • A new senior office manager – a senior non-political role in the office to provide continuity and focus on governance
  • A shift to advertising, interview and merit selection for jobs in Sussex Street 
  • An equal allocation of campaign and Party duties between the two Assistant General Secretaries, regardless of faction, and
  • Keeping the Young Labor culture out of Sussex Street.


  • A stronger Finance Committee and a smaller Administrative Committee, with formal training for all members about their obligations and duties
  • Authorise the Electoral Commission to conduct and ensure the integrity of our biggest ballots
  • Ensure the transparency of Labor’s membership records
  • Move to a new role for the General Returning Officer
  • A review of the role and powers of the General Secretary.


  • We want to continue building on Labor’s success in electing women to public office. Across all parliaments Labor is electing women at twice the rate of the Coalition – 42 percent compared to 21 percent 
  • The NSW Left has played a particularly strong role in this result, with 64 percent of the State Caucus and an expected 58 percent of our federal-held and target-seat candidates being women
  • It is now time to turn our attention to the Party itself. This Conference will adopt measures to achieve equality between men and women in our electorate councils and Branches.

It is a shame to be talking about ourselves again. The only thing that would be more of a shame would be a failure to act on this
consensus at our Conference. 

The stage is set for Conference to act. We must deal with these urgent issues and then move on to fight a tough federal election.


Three things stand out as the test of the Conference:

Firstly, bringing in the Electoral Commission to conduct our ballots would be a big step forward. This reform will allow
members to be sure that our biggest ballots, especially the election of our leaders, are conducted impartially and fairly.

You don’t have to look too far into the history of the NSW Branch to find examples where this has not been the case. There is a cost, but the cost to the party of not doing it might prove higher.

Secondly, a stronger Administrative Committee structure. The current 48 members of the Committee don’t feel able to adequately participate in the governance of the Party. We need a smaller committee, with greater support and training, as the Party’s disclosure obligations mount.

Finally, the Labor Party must make an unequivocal statement – at this Conference – that we are an organisation that rejects
bullying and harassment. That is certainly the view and intention of its members, but at no stage in the last six months has the Party made that statement about its values. It is overdue.

The dynastic politics of NSW Labor, with their echo of an earlier imperial concentration of power more akin to Ancient Rome, are
out of step with the times.

As we appoint our seventh General Secretary in 12 years, it begs the question – is the dynasty coming to an end?

Whatever the answer, Labor has to make the adjustment to a more transparent, responsive and democratic age – the era of social
media politics.

If we don’t, it will be our political opponents that prosper.

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