NSW Labor takes babysteps towards reform

Yesterday, for the first time since 1970, the ALP National Executive intervened into the NSW Branch of the ALP. The intervention will dismiss the Administrative Committee, place the branch under administration for 30 days and allow the branch rules to be rewritten.

Personally I’m surprised that the intervention into the NSW ALP has happened this quickly. Most assumed it was going to happen after the Federal Election. The return of Rudd and the possibility of victory may have hastened it.

There is no denying that the NSW ALP is electorally toxic and needs fundamental change. What is needed is a Clause IV moment. The reforms announced, however, are not the revolutionary change that is required but rather babysteps towards genuine reform.

What are the reforms?

Five reforms have been announced so far. They are:

  1. A zero tolerance approach to corruption, allowing the Party to immediately expel those found guilty of corrupt conduct;
  2. A ban on property developers from becoming Labor Candidates;
  3. The introduction of judicial oversight on internal Party matters;
  4. Ensure the Administrative Committee is made up of 50% rank-and-file Labor members; and
  5. The establishment of a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities.

Do the reforms go far enough? The quick answer is no.

The first two “reforms” are primarily aimed at perceptions about the tolerance of corruption within the party and how cozy NSW Labor has been with developers.

The third reform will abolish the Disputes and Credentials committees and replace them with an Independent Appeals Tribunal chaired by a retired judge. While it may affect some outcomes and address concerns about “fairness”, it will not tilt the internal balance of power within the party.

The fourth reform is less clearcut. It appears to mean that 50% of Administrative Committee must not be union officials. It is likely to mean more staffers, councillors or former MPs on Administrative Committee rather than genuine rank-and-file representatives. What is really needed is direct election of Administrative Committee members by rank-and-file members.

It is worth noting that most of these reforms were proposed by Senator John Faulkner late last year:

All machinery committees in the NSW Branch should be abolished. They should be replaced with a NSW ALP Appeals Tribunal comprised of eminent, ethical people, independent of the factions, to be the arbiter on internal party disputes.

Such an approach was recommended nationally in the Hawke/Wran Review in 2001, but was watered down by the factions. The existing National Appeals Tribunal is weak and poorly resourced, and ultimately only makes “recommendations” to the National Executive, which is then able to make a final decision on a factional basis.

I propose a NSW ALP Appeals Tribunal of, say, 5 members, chaired by a retired judge, who hear cases as individual members determined by lot, with an appeal right to the “full bench” of the Tribunal if required. After that process has concluded I would favour no right of appeal to the Annual Conference – with decisions only open to review by the courts.

Thirdly, the NSW Branch must establish a “one strike and you’re out” policy for any Labor Party member found guilty of acting corruptly either within or without the party. A culture has developed in the NSW Branch where, for some, being caught out at sharp practices is worn almost as a badge of honour. Our party would be immeasurably better off without such people.

Senator Faulkner also called for a Charter of Rights for members which was the fifth reform:

Fifthly, we must develop a Charter of Rights for members to ensure the integrity of the workings of the ALP. The charter should include:
A clear statement the Rules are binding on all party members

  • Members have a right to equality before the Rules
  • Members have a right to be heard
  • Members have a right to stand for office
  • Members have a right to seek redress of grievance before the NSW ALP Appeals Tribunal
  • Members have a right to be respected by the leadership, elected parliamentarians and Party officials

But aren’t these reforms a good thing?

There is no denying the reforms are a good first step. Fairer processes will help clean up the NSW ALP. What it does not do is challenge the main barriers to cultural change.

The way to change NSW Labor’s corrupt, factionally driven, machine culture is by changing the internal balance of power through greater party democracy and competitive internal elections. The NSW ALP needs democratisation that makes it possible to end of the Right’s absolute majority on Administrative Committee and on Conference floor. Until the Right loses its guaranteed absolute majorities, change will not occur.

It is telling that the two reforms Senator Faulkner proposed that were not included (he proposed seven) were the banning of factional binding and rank-and-file preselection of the Upper House and Senate tickets. These two reforms would have the greatest impact on the balance of power within the party and help break the culture of wheeling and dealing.

Battle for control of the NSW Right

While I agree with Alex Mitchell that the intent of this announcement is to create a perception that Rudd is taking on the NSW ALP and to inoculate him from it, there is something being missed in all the analysis of why this has occurred.

What has been missed is that this appears to be a deal done with the pro-reform part of the NSW Labor Right (Centre Unity) at the expense of more conservative anti-reform elements within their faction. The General Secretary is still in charge and has been given free rein to change the party.

The NSW Labor Right is split on reform. There are some such as the General Secretary and Leader of the Opposition who support reform such as the direct election of leader. They understand NSW Labor must reform or will perpetually be in Opposition. They understand that they can reform on their own terms or have it forced on them. There are others within the Right who oppose reform, though they are far less publicly vocal.

What the intervention does is sideline anti-reform opponents within Centre Unity faction. The General Secretary will not have to negotiate with them to get the changes he wants. It is his way of stamping his authority on his faction. It is also a way of preventing more holistic reform but conceding enough to prevent the control the Right has over the NSW being threatened.

What next?

While the NSW ALP Left has welcomed these changes, it has been clear that it will make a concerted push for more reforms. NSW ALP Assistant Secretary John Graham has been forthright in saying that more democratic reforms are necessary.

There is no denying these reforms are an improvement but it does not go far enough. Party members can only hope that more democratic reforms announced while the NSW Branch is in administration. Only time will tell if the NSW ALP will truly be democratised.

ELSEWHERE: Luke Whitington argues reform must be about growth, inclusion and democratic accountability.

UPDATE: I have been informed that contrary to media reports, the Administrative Committee has not been dissolved.


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