The resignation of John Robertson months before the state election has thrown a spanner into the works for NSW Labor. Few expect Labor to win in March and even fewer expected Robertson to continue as leader post-election but a 2PP swing of 10% and the return of 15 seats seemed likely. Labor would have new MPs, elect a new leader and be competitive for 2019. All that is now up in the air.
While NSW Labor now directly elects its party leader, the new rules adopted ensured that it would only occur after the 2015 election and if there was more than six months until a state election. This Caucus only ballot will occur on January 5. Until the ballot, Deputy Leader Linda Burney will be the Acting Leader of the Opposition.
To date, two contenders have declared their candidacy: Michael Daley and Steve Whan. Both are from the Right and have been touted as potential leaders in the past. Linda Burney has also been suggested as a candidate. The main contender who has not declared his candidacy yet is Upper House leader Luke Foley.
The main barriers to Luke Foley becoming the leader have been the lack of a Lower House seat and his membership of the Left. With Robertson’s resignation and the need to quickly get a new leader, these barriers are disappearing courtesy of Head Office.
The emergence of a deal to let him take the state seat of Auburn through a National Executive intervention addresses the lack of a Lower House seat. The pre-selection there has not been finalised and it would be a solution to the reports of branch stacking that have dogged the Auburn pre-selection process.
Being part of the Left faction means being in the Caucus minority. Of Labor’s current Caucus, 14 MPs are from the Left, 22 are from the Right and one is unaligned. To gain a majority and become leader, Foley would need support for an additional five MPs, mainly from the Right. Who could those five be? The Right’s Walt Secord is on the record as a Foley supporter and with Head Office’s backing, it seems likely he will get at least four others if he decides to run.
While Luke Foley would be the best option, he does have baggage. He is a machine man, having been a union secretary and also been the NSW Labor Assistant General Secretary. There has also been a lot of controversy over his socially conservative views on marriage equality, however, he is clearly Labor’s most effective Shadow Minister. He cuts through and scored multiple hits on the Government in the environment portfolio. The same cannot be said of the other contenders.
If Foley does become leader, it seems unlikely that he would accept unless Head Office backed him in a the ballot post-election. It also might mean that the expected post-election direct election does not occur. More concerning is it may mean that leaders are torn down six months before an election to avoid a direct election.
Whatever does happen, the new leader needs to ensure Labor articulate a clear vision and plan for New South Wales. It has not outlined an alternative to the Liberal’s plan to fund infrastructure through privatisation which is a major weakness. There is only so much that a new face can do for Labor, the party needs a credible agenda. Opposition to privatisation will not be enough as the public remembers Labor’s attempts to privatise electricity. Whoever is elected Labor’s leader must show leadership and ensure that credible agenda for Government is developed and campaigned for over the next two elections.
UPDATE 28/12/14: Luke Foley has announced he will contest the NSW Labor leadership but will run in a rank-and-file preselection for Auburn.
UPDATE 30/12/14: Michael Daley has pulled out leaving Luke Foley as the only candidate for leader.