At the close of the NSW state election there is a debate that needs to be reinvigorated within NSW Young Labor – the question of democracy.
For some time now NSW Young Labor Left has championed the democratic restructuring of NSW Young Labor. The Reform NSW Young Labor campaign calls for a ‘one member, one vote’ system in order to allow young members of the labour movement to be active participants in making Young Labor policy and electing its officials.
The debate between maintaining status quo and reforming was one of the very first debates I encountered as I became involved in NSW Young Labor as a young university student, recently moved up to Sydney from the small town of Cootamundra.
The current system sees a gerrymandered conference choose the president and executive and determine all policy. In effect, the senior party's officers in Sussex Street handpick the leaders of Young Labor and pick and choose policies that they agree with.
Despite young people (and even Young Labor's membership) being overwhelmingly in support of refugee rights, marriage equality and the end of abortion as a criminal offence, the Young Right consistently uses the gerrymandered conference to override the membership's wishes and rubber stamp its right-wing policy agenda.
Every other state branch of Young Labor has rejected 'Young Labor by machine politics.' The basic principle of 'one-member, one vote' is the new normal in every other state or territory and by all accounts it has revitalised these organisations.
The Right have a number of ludicrous reasons why NSW should buck the wave toward democracy.
One of the most frequently repeated arguments against democracy is that moving to a ‘one member, one vote’ system marginalises the voice of rural and regional Young Labor members, as they can exert more influence through their Young Labor Association delegates than they can through a direct vote.
If democracy was introduced, the Right say, the organisation would be run out of the cafes of Newtown and Glebe, where latte-sipping lefties would use their overwhelming numbers to win postal ballots and unilaterally ignore the good people of the country.
I would make the case that this argument is hokey. If, in practice, all rural and regional Young Labor members could engage with their Young Labor Associations (YLAs) easily, and there was robust and thorough discussion and a fair ballot for delegate spots, it might be true. However, this is not the case.
I never had the opportunity to be involved in Young Labor when I was growing up in Cootamundra, and that was not without trying!
Rural and regional YLAs cover vast areas. Greater Western NSW YLA, in which Cootamundra is a part, stretches all the way from Broken Hill to Orange, and from Cootamundra all the way to the Queensland border. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that a kid in high school or doing an apprenticeship can't afford to catch a plane to attend a Young Labor meeting in a town hundreds of kilometres away.
Traveling hours via private transport and back isn’t as easy as jumping on the Inner West line, voting in your AGM, ducking out to dumplings afterward and making it home by 11.30 p.m. It is almost impossible for ordinary rural or regional Young Labor members to have any say whatsoever in our Young Labor Association.
To speak a little from experience, my hometown is small, isolated and on the southwest slopes. As far as I know there has never been a YLA meeting in Cootamundra. I joined the ALP in 2013 in my final year of high school. On one occasion I was given a phone call informing me about the Greater Western NSW YLA AGM and was invited to come along.
However, as it was held in Orange, which is over two hundred kilometres away from where I live, the chances of me coming were exactly zero. Not particularly accessible for someone doing their HSC and working part time. However, it would’ve been very accessible for me to participate in directly electing the Young Labor President or voting on policy through a postal ballot being sent to my house, which I could then mail off at my convenience.
The only way to genuinely engage rural and regional Young Labor members in NSW is by offering them the exact same vote as every other member - and thanks to Australia Post for giving the good citizens of Cootamundra the same access to the postal system as people from the inner city.
Candidates running for statewide executive positions will have to have a discussion with those Young Labor members on their experience and ideas in order to win their vote, rather than easily relying on the votes of overtly factional delegates that win their positions each year because they have the luxury of the time and money to attend an out of the way YLA AGM.
Imagine a young party member telling their mates at high school that they were given a call by candidates running for NSW Young Labor president, who took seriously their policy concerns and wanted to have a chat about what they believe in – it would make us look like an organisation which you can join and make a real difference, not just stand by and have decisions made for you. New members will join in droves.
My money is that direct democracy will also mean that we get the best NSW Young Labor executive possible. I’d wager that someone who won off the back of a campaign that genuinely engaged with our membership, rather than coasting in off a gerrymandered rort, probably wouldn’t be a troglodyte who opposes rights for refugees.
There is no progressive argument against democracy. NSW Young Labor is completely alone in not having direct election. The NSW Young Labor executive members against reform (entirely members of the Right) owe rural and regional kids better than screwing them over and then disingenuously pretending that they’re defending their interests. They also owe their organisation better by making themselves accountable.
Which scenario do you believe is more likely? That the Right genuinely believes rural Young Labor members will lose their voice under a direct election system, or that they are running scared of democracy because they know they have nothing to gain and everything to lose?