“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass
There is a lot of discussion at the moment about reforming the ALP, especially the NSW Branch. Momentum has picked up since ICAC began investigating a number of Ministers in the former NSW Government, however it’s been going on since Labor lost power Federally in 1996, with at least three reviews in the past ten or so years. Most of the recommendations of those reviews have been ignored or cherry picked so as not to fundamentally change the power relations in the ALP. The same group of people and institutions that held power in 1996, in fact in 1976, still effectively control the ALP. None of the review recommendations that have been adopted change that. Why would anyone give up this power voluntarily? Especially when the rewards of power over the NSW ALP are so obvious- seats in Parliament, Ministries, the office of Premier and Prime Minister, not to mention dozens of private and public sector jobs that open up to those who hold the reins at Sussex St.
John Faulkner yesterday suggested some changes that he sees as vital to save Labor from being dominated by self-serving cliques typified by current and former ICAC attendees Obeid, Roozendaal, Macdonald and Tripodi.
These changes, to me, do not go the crux of the problem. Many would be well worth doing, some are more debatable. Mostly however, they are not going to solve the major problems that the ALP has to deal with to make sure it is corruption-resistant and electorally palatable. I will explain why below, but first here are the ideas from Faulkner’s speech (full speech here):
- ALP Rules be subject to the courts
- the Rules are binding on all
- every member has the right to seek redress under the Rules
- all decisions are justiciable
- abolish all machinery committees and replace them with a quasi-judicial tribunal
- preselections by the state membership for the Senate and Legislative Council
Further to this Joel Fitzgibbon, the Convenor of the NSW Right, at which many of these reform suggestions are directed, has chimed in to say that Labor should abandon the binding caucus principle for all Parliamentary votes, not just for internal party ballots (which leads to the cascading caucus effect, or Russian Doll Caucus as Faulkner calls it).
This suggestion is for me simply a classic NSW Labor Right red herring, an exercise in distracting from the real problems in the ALP. It will do absolutely nothing to address the problems that have arisen in NSW, both in the corruption in the NSW Parliament, or in the ruthless factionalism seen in removing two Premiers and a Prime Minister in the space of three years.
Fitzgibbon’s red herring should be dismissed out of hand. Labor is distinguished from the Greens and other socially liberal parties by its adherence to a binding Caucus and a binding Party Platform. It is an accountability measure that gives ordinary ALP and union members some power over the MPs elected by our votes, our volunteering, our money and by espousing our values- or in the modern parlance by using ‘our brand’. It has absolutely nothing to do with the performance of Obeid, Roozendaal, Tripodi and Macdonald. They never proposed legislation, then used their control of their sub-faction to control their faction, then control the full caucus and then control the Parliament in order to have it passed. Their power would not have been diminished by some group of Labor MPs then crossing the floor to vote against this non-existent legislation. This is a non-problem. It is a problem in search of a solution. Fitzgibbon’s proposal is a classic NSW Labor Right tactic- when under pressure, dissemble. Throw up a smokescreen until the pressure eases, and then continue controlling the NSW ALP. Perhaps throw out a little bone to the reformers- an election here or there, a new tribunal, or most commonly, a review.
Faulkner’s suggestions also fail to meet the challenge. Now, don’t get me wrong, I support most of what Faulkner has proposed, but his ideas aren’t sufficient to change things for the better.
The real power in the ALP lies in the office of General Secretary and with the Administrative Committee. The Gen Sec is chosen by the leadership of the NSW Right, usually from a field of one, maybe two, assistant secretaries who have been groomed for a few years as a successor to the sitting Gen Sec. They are formally elected by the State Conference, but the same people who decide who the Gen Sec should be control the votes at the State Conference. This is because 50% of the State Conference consists of delegates from Unions that are appointed by union secretaries and vote exactly how the union secretary commands. The other half of the Conference is made up of delegates from Party units called Federal Electorate Councils (FECs) and SECs, or State Electorate Councils (as well as a few from the State and Federal Parliament and some Party committees, all of whom are factionally aligned). These delegates are themselves elected by delegates from Party Branches. So to get elected to Conference you need the support of local factional warlords or a union secretary. This is not really a problem if you’re in a faction- I’m in the Left, so I can go from my local Bennelong FEC or Ryde SEC, which are controlled by the Left. If the Left lost control of Bennelong or Ryde, I could probably get on a delegation from a Left Union, who would know that I would vote for the Left ticket at Conference. The same goes for members of the Right. And it’s not even that competitive for these spots, provided you’re in the faction. You don’t need to be capable or smart, you just need to vote for the factional ticket. The only people who don’t get a look in to Conference are those who the faction leaders can’t be sure of, they are the most dangerous of all, and factions will often do deals to make sure they don’t get a delegate spot as it’s better for everyone if there are no loose cannons.
So the Gen Sec is nominally elected by the Conference, as is his governing body, the Admin Committee, but the election is a sham- everyone knows that the NSW Right’s nominee will win because they control around 60-66% of the Conference, and have done so effectively since Jack Lang split the ALP in the 1930s.
Now this causes enormous problems, because the Gen Sec is incredibly powerful. He (it’s never been a woman) and his clique, usually consisting of no more than a handful of people, essentially controls where campaign funds are directed, who gets preselected, who goes on overseas ‘research’ trips, who goes to Conference as a delegate, who works at Head Office, the ALP’s campaign strategy and narrative, and now, as current secretary Sam Dastyari has said, where the Party Offices will be. He also has a huge influence on public perceptions of the Party, and of course, who will become a Minister and even the Premier or PM. Although formally these posts are meant to be decided by their fellow MPs, the Gen Sec can withdraw an MP’s endorsement as a Labor candidate and therefore end their Parliamentary career. In the recent past, if you didn’t vote for Obeid or Roozendaal to become a Minister, you didn’t get endorsed as a Labor candidate, or you didn’t get any campaign funds, or you didn’t become a Minister yourself.
So you see Faulkner’s suggestions don’t do anything to address the inordinate and unaccountable power of the Gen Sec and his Admin majority. Even if internal factions were barred from meeting or binding MPs to how they vote in leadership or Ministerial ballots (which have now been taken away from MPs and handed to the Leader anyway), MPs that did not support the Gen Sec’s candidate would find themselves booted from their seats very quickly. Even if all ALP decisions were subject to the courts, as Faulkner suggests, or if the decisions of its bodies were scrupulously fair, the Gen Sec and his Admin Committee majority have the power to withdraw endorsement from any candidate they wish. It’d be great to have ethics advice and charter of member’s rights, but in the end politics is about power, and while these things may assist in developing a culture of member empowerment, they will not enforce it. The UN Charter of Human Rights is a truly inspiring document, but it means very little without the means to back it up.
So what to do?
The first thing is to truly empower the ALP membership. Faulkner is on the right track with giving ALP members the right to preselect the Senate and NSW Upper House ticket, but he’s missed the mark just slightly. The real target should be the NSW ALP General Secretary (and the other Party officers, the President, VPs and Assistant Secretaries) and the Administrative Committee and, if it is retained, the Rules Committee.
All these positions should be elected by a ballot of Labor Party members who have been members for 12 months. This is how the ALP’s National and NSW Policy Forums have been elected. It is probably how the NSW Labor Leader will eventually be elected. Our sister party in Canada, the NDP, use a ‘one member, one vote’ system to elect their leader, and in doing so garnered around 50,000 new members of their Party. If it is good enough to elect the leader of the Parliamentary Party, why is not good enough to elect the General Secretary and Admin Committee of the Party?
The election of the person who holds so much sway over preselections, campaign strategy and spending, over MPs and Party members and the good name of the Party generally, should be in the hands of the Party members, not just the previous Gen Sec, and the proverbial Chinese restaurant table-full of factional hacks, nearly all of whom are the Secretaries from the big right-wing unions.
This change will go much further towards empowering members and creating a culture of democracy and grassroots engagement in the Party than Faulkner’s mostly legalistic suggestions. Unlike Fitzgibbon’s red herring, it would actually break the power of factional voting blocs. A candidate for Gen Sec would have to show campaigning ability by helping candidates win elections. They would have to show an interest in helping Party members join and stay involved. They would have to ask real Labor people for their vote instead of simply sucking up to the previous holder of the position. They may have to reach across to Party members in different areas of NSW or to people of differing ideologies, instead of gathering around themselves smaller and smaller cliques of trusted Myrmidons. An elected Gen Sec and Admin Committee would not be able to ignore with impunity the wishes of local members who want to select their own candidates, as Roozendaal was particularly famous for doing.
So who would oppose such a method? For one, the NSW Right. Their control of the NSW Branch of the ALP has brought them power and riches beyond their ability and benefit to the community. They will employ the argument that electing the Gen Sec will take away the power of unions to decide who the Gen Sec is because they currently do this through the NSW Labor Conference. This is, to be frank, bullshit. I am not one of these neo-liberal right wingers who blame unions for everything that’s wrong with the ALP, and who happily spout it on anti-Labor, anti-union News Ltd or Fairfax media as soon as anyone will provide a platform to do so. I am in favour of more, not less, union involvement in the ALP. Ordinary union members, delegates and organisers have no say at all over who the Gen Sec or the Admin Committee of the ALP. The tiny percentage (calculated at 1 delegate for every 1000 members) who go in to represent their unions as delegates to State conference are simply automatons, told exactly what to do by their union secretary. Even your ballot paper is checked by someone to make sure you voted the right way, according to your union secretary’s wishes.
Theoretically, you could organise to run against your union secretary in an internal union election, win the ballot and then change how your union’s delegates voted at State Conference. But no union affiliated to the ALP has changed factional hands in decades, and no ordinary union member would ever have the time, skills and power, let alone tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of volunteer labour, to launch such a challenge. So your vote is determined by the union secretary, who is either a factional boss himself, or the nominee of one. There is no democracy in that system. If the Gen Sec was directly elected, the average union member would simply have to pay the ALP joining fee of $30 for affiliated union members, be a member for 12 months, and then they get a say. A union secretary who was interested in influencing such a vote could encourage their union’s members to join the ALP and to vote a certain way. But they wouldn’t be able to simply wield a bloc of votes and sell them for a sinecure or a spot on a Super Board or a seat in Parliament.
The second argument that the NSW Right will use is that this is unfair to rural and regional members of the ALP because they are fewer in number and it is hard to campaign from the bush. Delegates to conference from rural FECs and SECs also represent fewer Party members, but get the same number of votes at conference. Again, this is codswallop. In the digital age, connecting with people across distance is far easier than when the ALP’s rules were written. And furthermore, getting someone to join the ALP in the bush to support your campaign to become Gen Sec or get on the Admin Committee is just as hard in an unfriendly and alienated city as the more conservative rural areas. The current system does no better at giving someone from the bush a say in who their Gen Sec is, because the votes of rural delegates are swamped by the votes controlled by factionally controlled union blocs. For instance, just one union, the retail workers’ SDA, controls 70 delegates. Each FEC based on a Federal Electorate sends 3. Each SEC (based on a State seat) sends 2. To match the SDA’s voting power, a rural person would need to get every delegate from every rural and regional seat from the Tweed to Bega to back their candidate. Which, as discussed earlier, is nigh on impossible anyway, because every delegate from every SEC and FEC is decided by local factional players, in consultation with their contacts at Head Office. It’d be much easier for them to get people in their own area who support their vision for the ALP to join and to support their preferred candidate in an open ballot.
The last argument that will be arrayed against direct election of the Gen Sec is more likely to come from those in the Left. Left faction leaders would lose out under an open ballot system because the Left gets one of the Assistant Secretaries by virtue of its control of one third or more of the Conference delegates. This gives the Left an organiser and a say at Head Office, as well as its own form of control over MPs and Ministerial appointments, although this is always dependent on what the majority Right will put up with. It is likely that some in the Left would be nervous about going to the Party members in an open ballot because they would be concerned about losing, either legitimately or through ballot rigging, to the Right. This is a legitimate concern. One way of overcoming it would be for the election to be run by the independent NSW Electoral Commission or the AEC, as union elections are. If some in the Left are concerned that Party members would find their vision unattractive, I say: tough. Either get organised and get people to vote for you, or get out of the game. Democratic politics is about one person, one vote. If the Left can’t get the support of a significant number of people in the ALP, to at least get people elected to the Admin Committee, if not to positions such as the Assistant Secretary (which would only require one third of the vote under the existing proportional representation rules), then that is its own fault. It has to become an organising and inspiring organisation. True, up until now, due to the stranglehold of ‘guided democracy’ and factionalism described above, the Left hasn’t had a strong incentive to actually go out and speak with Party and community members. But under a new system of open ballots for important, powerful positions, that incentive would exist. There would be genuine competition and dialogue in the ALP. People with organising and political skills would get to practice them and be rewarded for them, unlike the current system that rewards patronage and brainless factional loyalty.
Above all, internal ALP democracy would allow Party members to go to the community, to voters and say: We had corrupt and self-serving crooks in our Party. We changed the way we run the Party so that anyone who wants to be in charge has to be voted in and be accountable to me, the average member. If someone’s corrupt, we throw them out at the ballot box, just like you did to the NSW ALP in 2011. We learned our lesson, we learned it from you, our neighbours and our friends. All power derives from the people, expressed through the ballot box. Never again will a clique run the Labor Party, the greatest, largest, oldest and most successful Party in NSW history. It will be run on democratic lines, just as our society should be. It is run for the benefit of the constituents, just as the NSW Government should be.
A story like that may take some time to tell, but it will be an honest and compelling one. Telling voters that we’ve made the ALP rules judiciable/justiciable/judicable (the dictionary can’t even make up its mind which one is correct, so I’m not sure how a voter will know what it’s about) will not have that same effect. Adopting Fitzgibbon’s idea and saying to the voter: “In response to our MPs going rogue and using their positions to enrich themselves and others, we’ve decided to allow them to vote however they want on any matter” is laughable.
And simply saying ‘we’ve abolished factions’ is rubbish. Political parties will always have people who are attracted to each other and work together based on their ideology or self-interest or their geography. You can’t ban people talking to each other and agreeing to vote for someone or something, even if you ban them meeting officially. Factions are already voluntary organisations, anyone could have left Obeid’s sub-faction, or voted against it. But they didn’t because of the system of control that evolved around the ALP’s Head Office and its control over MP preselection, campaign finances, Ministries and eventually, the Parliamentary leadership.
That’s where the focus must be, on who runs and controls the ALP, because that is where the power resides. If that group of people is accountable, their election is transparent and open, then the ALP and its members can hold their heads high again. If we tinker with caucus rules or how internal tribunals are run, the ALP will decline and working people, the labour movement, and ultimately the hope of an equal and fair Australia will die with it.