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Root out and reform the branches

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 18 March 2011


It's clear that the long-suffering NSW electorate is waiting, not with a baseball bat but a weapon of mass destruction, for its State "government" to face the March poll. And who can blame them? Personally I'm not any kind of conservative and have never voted right-of-centre in my 40 years on the rolls, but if I lived in NSW I too would be voting Liberal in March. (Fortunately I live in the ACT, an island of sanity in the NSW ocean of incompetence, and am spared this unpalatable choice). I won't bother giving my reasons, as anyone who has any interest in NSW government and politics knows them anyway: if you live there, you suffer the consequences daily. Ideology is all very fine, but the first requirement for a government is surely that it be competent. At the next election, one party will manifestly not be able to claim that, and so it must go.

The Labor Party is Australia's oldest political party by far. It has survived a string of serious splits and major setbacks over more than a century, and it would be a foolish person indeed who drafted its obituary today. Nevertheless, every so often in liberal democracies there are seismic shifts. The post-World War I collapse of the British Liberal Party, the Conservatives' main rival for power in Britain for well over a century prior to the 1920s, when it was replaced by British Labour, is one example. In Australia in 1943 the main conservative party, the United Australia Party, was smashed at an election and it took Robert Menzies years of work to re-invent conservatism here as the so-called "Liberal" Party. The virtual destruction of the illogically named "Progressive Conservative" Party in Canada in the 1990s – from majority Government in one Parliament with 169 seats out of 295 it lost 167 seats, holding just two (2) in the next – is yet another example.

Whether the ALP rump ends up with 10 or 20 seats in the new Assembly hardly matters. What's important is the future of the NSW Branch of the Labor Party. For historical reasons going back to the great split of the 1950s, the right wing of the party became entrenched as the ruling faction, just as the left did in Victoria at the same time. Left dominance in Victoria made the ALP unelectable at the state level for decades and was a ball-and-chain on Federal Labor prospects as well.

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Fortunately, in 1970 the Labor Party as a whole acted to "clean up" the Victorian Branch: a Federal intervention there broke the old paradigm, reformed party rules and procedures and made the Victorian branch electorally credible. I do not claim that the Victorian ALP of today is without flaws and problems - it narrowly lost government there recently because of some of those - but it remains a credible Opposition and if the Liberals stumble, has every prospect of returning to office in due course.

But NSW Labor has never undergone anything like a similar reconstruction, only tokenistic changes. Its upcoming rout, however, opens a window of opportunity for extensive reform. This will need to be imposed from outside, because the branch is clearly incapable of reforming itself. The electorate will do its bit by purging the Parliamentary Party, but this won't touch the internal cancer and may even cost the party some of its better MPs, lost in the carnage. But the cancer in the machine has to be cut out. The question is: does the will exist for the necessary surgery?

You might think that a record electoral rout would provide the motivation, and maybe it will. But I worry about the continuing power of NSW Labor Right apparatchiks in the Federal machine and party (ask Kevin Rudd if you doubt this). It's all too possible that some sort of sham "reform" process will be undertaken for public consumption. Federal Labor's suppression of the important parts of its recent post-mortem on the 2010 election shows that internal party reform remains a difficult challenge. The recent resignation of National Secretary Karl Bitar (a former State Secretary of the NSW Branch), however, does suggest that some sort of internal power shift may be underway.

The most relevant aspect of the 1970 reforms in Victoria was the willingness of Left power-brokers outside the state, notably the formidable Clyde Cameron, to support a Federal takeover of the left-dominated branch for the overall good of the party. The plight of the NSW Branch today requires a similar willingness from Right faction people around the country to "gang up" on their failed factional colleagues in Sydney. The question is: is the Right faction as a whole prepared to place the Labor Party's interests above its own narrow short-term factional interests? Has the Australian Labor Party degenerated to the point where faction matters more than party, where priorities lie with preservation of internal influence over nice jobs and pre-selections rather than with the restructure so obviously needed if "Labor" is not to be a dirty word in NSW for the foreseeable future?

Voters in NSW, as in Australia, will always be roughly evenly split between so-called "progressives" and "conservatives". But there is no law of nature that requires party structures and brands on either side to remain immutable. Labor already faces some pressure from the Greens, and now needs them federally to pass legislation in both Houses. I don't believe that the Greens are going to succeed the Labor Party as the main "progressive" party anytime soon, if ever, because the Greens still suffer from serious policy deficiencies which disqualify them as an alternative government (their foreign and defence policies, for example, are a mixture of motherhood platitudes and pure bunkum: they have not grasped the nettle and recognised in any practical sense that governments do sometimes have to employ deadly force).

Nevertheless, while on this occasion in NSW unhappy Labor voters will vote in droves against the state party that has so badly let them down, in the long run they aren't going to become conservatives of the Abbott-Howard stamp. In future they will want to "come home", but there has to be a home for them to return to. That is one reason why radical reform of the NSW Branch is an urgent necessity.

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A second reason is that an unreformed NSW could easily be the ball-and-chain which brings down the Federal Labor Government in 2013. Victoria under mindless left dominance kept Federal Labor out of office from 1955 to 1972; NSW under the self-serving right could do the same today. Only Tony Abbott and his mates will benefit.

Once the state election is over, the Federal Labor authorities need to take over the entire NSW Branch, overturning all present structures and authorities. They need to do in NSW what was done in Victoria in 1970-71, and rebuild the branch from the ground up. They need to ensure that no faction can ever again achieve the kind of long-term dominance the right presently has. And they need to move quickly, or NSW could destroy the only Federal Government prepared to do anything meaningful about our long-term future in the face of increasing challenges from the changing global climate.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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