Note: I originally wrote this post last December but saved it as a draft instead of publishing it- I had to think through whether it was ok to talk about what happened at the first Policy Forum meeting. Would it be revealing the details of a confidential meeting? Would it undermine people’s confidence ahead of the next meetings? On balance I thought that what I’ve written, in that it doesn’t divulge secrets and doesn’t differ from what I’ve told people verbally, is fine to publish, especially if the point of the Policy Forum is to get more people interested in and talking about Labor policies.
So we had our first meeting of the NSW Labor Policy forum on Saturday, and overall it was a good start to the process of creating Labor’s policies for the next State Election.
There were a few problems though, which I will set out right away, not to give the impression that the first meeting was a disappointment, but simply to get them out of the way.
Firstly, there was no agenda given to me before the meeting. Nor was I invited to participate in the formulation of what was being presented and proposed at the first meeting. I believe this is true for all the other rank and file representatives, the union reps and the members of the Shadow Cabinet as well. So we had no notice of any motions, no input into what would happen during the day and no idea what was expected of us. Not a disaster, but not a great start. If you want people to participate meaningfully in any decision making body, they need to have an agenda and the meeting papers beforehand. We have been told that this will happen from now on.
Once we had been given the agenda, I saw that there was no immediately obvious place for members to speak to the Forum as a whole, beyond a very brief introduction that all 54 people there (plus a few staff) were to complete within half an hour.
I had made commitments to a large number of ALP members that I would raise a few important things at the first meeting, and I intended to keep that promise.
So after some speeches were given by Sam Dastyari, John Robertson and Geoff Gallop, I sent an email around to all the members of the Forum.
It said this:
Having now received the agenda, it seems that there won’t be an opportunity to address the group as a whole, beyond our introductions.
In order to fulfill commitments to ALP members who I have spoken to over the past few months, I need to put the following ideas forward at this, the first meeting of the Forum.
1. There should be a full review of the Policy Forum election, so that next time it is an improved process.
I have spoken to many disenfranchised voters and there should be a review of why they were not able to vote.
There is also the issue of unequal access to the eligible voters by the candidates. This is a difficult issue to overcome with the privacy concerns of members, but the time to assess the election is as soon as possible after the election has taken place.
2. The Policy Forum must be part of Party reform, must be part of a program of orienting the party to growth, by remembering the union motto ‘organising in everything we do’.
Policy formulation is not a treasure hunt, where we go out and find the prize, whereby voters and supporters will flock to us.
Policy formulation is a part of three part process of base building and contesting elections.
It is more like building a vessel, that all can be involved in constructing, and all can get on board and that can then withstand right-wing media and political attacks.
As a practical first step, I believe that we should have a process for receiving and responding to party unit motions on policy. The ‘motion tracker’ initiative of a group of branch secretaries, particularly Hornsby’s Nick Car, is a grassroots step in this direction.
3. Finally, if this forum is going to work, I believe the non-shadow cabinet members need equal access to the best economic and budgetary data possible. I was elected on a very straightforward platform of making our party’s policies more left-wing, more genuinely Labor. In order to do that we need to break free of the Egan-Costa model of neo-liberal, right-wing, unpopularism. We need a positive agenda of expanding social services and maintaining democratic control over essential services and natural monopolies. We cannot forever be defending against neoliberal privatisations and cutbacks. In order to do that, everyone here needs to have equal access to the facts of the State’s economic and budgetary position. Anything else is going to result in a coterie of self-appointed finance and treasury spivs being able to set the agenda, as they have done in the past, setting themselves up as final arbiters of the possibilities of what Labor can achieve. That power has to be democratized and that begins by sharing information.
Thank you, I look forward to hearing your views and working with you.”
I got some interesting responses!
After some lunch we were given a presentation by Daniel Mookhey, one of the appointed policy chairs. In his presentation we were given the objectives and proposed structure of the Forum- that it would work by putting us into 6 Policy Commissions of 9 members each.
Carol Berry, a rank and file member from Wollongong, made the point that it would have been good to have the PF members comment on these objectives and structures before presenting them as a fait accompli.
Linda Burney made the point that the Policy Commissions needed to be properly resourced to do their job.
I used this period of discussion to raise what I had written in my email. That before we were sent off to come up with policies for the Labor Party, all members of the Forum should be given a picture of what the State’s Budget and finances looked like. My idea here is two fold- firstly, there is a power imbalance between Shadow Ministers and the rest of us. They have access to information and knowledge that we don’t, and in the past that knowledge has been used to knock over policy proposals on the basis that they are not economically possible. The problem, in my opinion, is that in the past, those Treasurers and their staff, and bureaucrats, haven’t held genuine Labor values. So that we don’t end up doing what we’d done before, and ending up with the same results (26% of the Primrary vote, for example), I believe we need to democratise that budgetary and financial information, so that we all had control over, as well as responsibility for, the economic agenda that Labor takes to the electorate.
Some people on the forum were reactively against the idea, but pretty soon after we broke into groups to discuss the structure that was proposed, the General Secretary was backing the idea and five minutes later there was consensus that we would receive an economic and budgetary briefing as a whole at our next meeting. So I was happy!
We discussed in our four groups how to improve the structure proposed, and I advocated making an explicit commitment in our objectives or structure to openness and and a culture of democratic control, and an acknowledgement of the different amount of power and information that some members of the Forum had behind them. This was received relatively well.
Finally, we retired for a beer and I was accosted by some people who thought I’d been a bit too strident in my remarks. I replied that I’d made commitments to the ALP members who’d voted for me and that I’d continue to be strident in their interests.
As I was leaving I went out onto George St and waited for Victoria and Bobby to pick me up. As I was standing there I noticed two blokes pan-handling with a cardboard sign that read “No bullshit, no lies, just want money for booze and hookers!”. I chuckled to myself and looked out to the street.
I’d forgotten however that in my hand was a folder with ALP written on it quite clearly. A voice called out.
“The Labor Party, eh? When are they gonna stop looking after the big end of town and start looking after the working class again!!”
I turned and said words to the effect that I was trying to achieve just that and he could have been a help- I wished he’d been in the meeting I had been in for the past six hours! We had a laugh and chat- turned out he used to go to the union picnic days with his dad, who was a builder.
As I drove away I thought of the Depression-era story about the investor who got a stock tip from his waiter- and knew right then that it was time to get out of the market. I thought that if the homeless guys in the street can diagnose the Labor Party’s problems so succinctly, it might be time for us to turn the ship around as well!
Postscript: The Policy COmmissions have been announced so if you’d like to know what they are and who is on them, just email or message/fb/comment below.