ALP Federal Executive to intervene in NSW Labor- an opportunity not to be wasted
Overnight, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian reported that PM Kevin Rudd and NSW General Secretary Sam Dastyari have come to an agreement on Federal Executive intervention into the NSW ALP. I will reserve judgement on this until I see the full details, but there is good reason to believe that what has been reported is accurate, particularly this response from Sam Dastyari to my query on Twitter.
It appears that the Murdoch press is trying to say that reform of NSW Labor is primarily about banning property developers from running for office, and expelling people accused of corruption. These may or may not be worthwhile, but they are in many respects problematic, if not outright red herrings. Murdoch’s mob are also very keen to praise Sam Dastyari, characterising his changes over the past two years as ‘reform’, something that is debatable. I would argue that so far much of what has happened in NSW has been window dressing specifically designed to prevent real reform.
NSW ALP reform should be about growth, inclusion and democratic accountability- the best remedies to corruption. It should not just be about banning developers from running for office, good though that may be (although I suspect it may be difficult to actually determine and enforce).
The corruption which has rightly ‘revolted’ Rudd and ‘disgusted’ John Robertson is not a case of a few ‘bad apples’. It is the result of a system of factional control, where there was no democratic accountability. Nobody in the ALP was looking over the shoulder of these people, forcing them to account for their actions, other than the general public. And when the general public are your only accountability mechanism, they throw everyone out, not just the corrupt, but nearly the whole Labor Party, as they did in 2011. The ALP must have its own mechanisms of democratic accountability.
It is the entire system that must be tackled, not just the actions of certain MPs. John Robertson’s disclosure rules and increased vetting requirements on MPs and candidates (announced in early June) would not necessarily have prevented Obeid and Macdonald doing what they allegedly did. If all that Dastyari proposes to do with his ‘absolute power’ (as the DT puts it) is ban developers from running for office and promise to expel people brought before ICAC, he will have done nothing substantial to address the systemic problems that beset the NSW ALP.
There is an alternative, a plan that can be implemented to address corruption, and at the same time address the related and contributing problem of having a small party getting smaller, run by smaller and smaller power cliques.
The alternative is to go for growth, inclusion and democratic accountability.
Firstly the Party’s powerbrokers, the General Secretary and the Administrative Committee must be directly accountable to the Party members. If you are an ALP member you should get a vote on who spends your money and represents the Party. The General Secretary is the face of the Party in the media, makes decisions on election strategy, who is employed, which seats and candidates receive support. He (it’s always been a man, another reason why it should be opened up to a ballot) is incredibly powerful, and like the appointees to the Upper House that he often hand-picks, he is essentially unaccountable. He needs to be elected, along with the other Party Officers and the Administrative Committee, by the membership of the Party.
Secondly, we need to recognise that the antidote to corrupt power cliques is a mass party. To grow the Party to the size it needs to be, to win elections AND to be too big to be the plaything of a few factional bosses, we need to adopt an organising approach. And we need to invest in it and set targets. The ALP should aim to have one active Party member for every 100 voters in every State and Federal seat. That equates to about 45,000 active members in NSW. Based on voting figures for the three open ballots we’ve had in NSW recently, there are about 4000 active members in NSW. We need to tap in to the organising expertise and strength of the broader labour movement to bring this up to 45,000 members. And we need to devote a solid proportion of our funds to it, millions not thousands, of dollars.
To build and sustain a movement of tens of thousands of activists we need a massively increased training and capacity building operation (like UK Labour and the US Democrats are doing). The best way to recruit, retain and activate people in politics is to teach them the skills required to do it. That’s why I fly around the country as a trainer for (not-for-profit training org) Campaign Action, sometimes paid, but mostly volunteer, training people in how to run campaigns, but also how to think about election campaigns as an organising opportunity for base-building. Now, I should say that as a sometime employee of Campaign Action, obviously I may gain some benefit from this recommendation being adopted. However, whilst I believe that the Queensland, NT, SA and Tasmanian ALP Branches are right to engage Campaign Action to do their capacity building and political training, I am not saying that NSW Labor shouldn’t consider other options to do this work as well. NSW Labor’s organising efforts at the moment are praiseworthy, but they are simply not on a scale that will make the difference, and when unaccompanied by reform to the Party rules and structure, will always fail. These two recommendations are dependent on each other, we need both reform and an organising approach.
Reform that is squarely aimed at growth, inclusion and democratic accountability can transform NSW Labor, and in doing so, give the people of NSW a Party to vote for that will fight for equality and fairness, that can win Government and actually improve the lives of the average citizen. If we don’t reform comprehensively we are in real danger (despite the welcome jump in our Federal polling) of a long-term decline into irrelevance. Too many people depend on the Labor Party being strong and representative, big and inclusive and successful, to let that happen. If we don’t grasp the nettle, cut the Gordian knot, however you want to express it, we face the very real and very scary prospect of Federal Governments run by people like Abbott coupled with State Governments run by people like Campbell Newman and Barry O’Farrell, steadily destroying the hopes of an egalitarian, fair and sustainable Australia.