NSW Labor reform faces internal resistance
By Hagar Cohen for Background Briefing, ABCUpdated February 9, 2013, 3:22 pm
New South Wales Labor reform faces fierce opposition from within, despite support from party boss Sam Dastyari and emerging evidence from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) about the conduct of former senior Labor government figures.
Mr Dastyari has joined the push to change party rules, which would limit the power of factional powerbrokers and give more say to rank-and-file members, but said some of his colleagues did not want to relinquish their power.
“There’s a whole host of reasons why people resist different types of reform,” Mr Dastyari said.
“Some of them are for very genuine reasons of being party traditionalists and having a nostalgic view of how things used to be, and some are because of self-interest.
“Paul Keating used to have that great saying, that self-interest is the only horse that’s trying.
“You have to fight that in a political party.”
Mr Dastyari said he had counselled factional players to look at reform as being in their own interests in the current political climate for NSW Labor.
“My view to the so-called powerbrokers in the Labor Party has always been this: it is much better to be a smaller player in a bigger movement than a giant player in a shrinking organisation, and that requires giving up power.”
However, he dismissed suggestions that if he could not get enough of his colleagues over the line, they would eventually make his position as general secretary untenable.
“No. We are winning the debate internally,” he said.
“Every political movement has a lot of vested interests but the argument that is being won is, reform or die.”
The push for reform has been rushed to prepare the NSW branch for the upcoming federal election.
‘Reform or die’
Labor is suffering major swings in heartland seats in western Sydney. Internal party polling in western and south-western Sydney from last year shows swings of up to 10 per cent against Labor.
Party membership is also declining and the reform project would attempt to encourage new members to campaign on the streets, man polling booths and door knock in marginal seats. Â
However, the ABC’s Background Briefing understands those numbers did not include the seat of Lindsay, which is held by assistant treasurer David Bradbury.
Lindsay is viewed as a certain loss for the party.
“The reality is that half of federal Labor’s marginal seats are in western Sydney,” said Troy Bramston, a former speechwriter for Kevin Rudd and now a columnist with News Limited.
“So the task for Labor is to preserve those seats, which it would find very difficult.”
Labor’s challenge to preserve marginal seats is hampered by its rapidly declining grassroots support.
In the past decade, over 100 Labor branches have closed down.
Labor Mayor of Leichhardt, Darcy Byrne, said members have become disillusioned because the party has not been responsive to their calls for urgent reform.
“We saw for the first time in March 2011 polling booths in Labor held seats that went unmanned because so many of our members and supporters lost faith in the party, and weren’t willing to give their time and energy to helping to re-elect a Labor government,” Mr Byrne said.
“You can’t win elections if you don’t have any members and supporters on the ground.”
Question of control
Mr Byrne said the powerbrokers within the party who resist change should be forced to resign.
“The evidence is that there are a range of people particularly in the NSW right (faction) who will not give power away willingly,” he said.
“The only time that they’re going to act in the best interest of the party is when the party’s members stand up and demand it.”
Among the reform proposals are rank-and-file pre-selections and democratic election of the parliamentary leader.
There is a committee to look into that proposal, of which Mr Byrne is a member.
He said committee members nominated by the right faction, MPs Steve Whan and Noreen Hay, were well known for their opposition to the idea.
“A future parliamentary leader elected by tens of thousands rather than appointed in the back room will be freed from intimidation by powerbrokers,” Mr Byrne said.
“That is why this reform is necessary, [and] it is also why Noreen Hay and others are opposing it behind the scenes.”
Ms Hay told Background Briefing she was unconvinced about the idea and thought MPs were better placed to make those kinds of decisions.
“At this stage my view is that having been elected to Parliament to determine the leader is a way of keeping the actions robust,” Ms Hay said.
Other Labor insiders saw the committee as another stalling tactic to ensure reform did not happen.
Anthony D’Adam, a member of the administrative committee in the party machine, said attempts to reform the party were superficial.
“The core of the reform project is really about the question of control,” Mr D’Adam said.
“Who controls the Labor Party? Do the members control the Labor Party, or is it controlled by a small elite in party office or in the parliamentary party?
“That’s the critical question and I don’t think at this stage that Labor has really addressed that question.
“The reform project has stalled because those who control the Labor Party as it currently stands don’t want to relinquish that control to the rank-and-file.”
Listen to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National, Sunday Feb 10 at 8.05am (AEDT); repeated Tuesday Feb 12 at 2.05pm.