It has been a tough few years for NSW Labor. Since our crushing defeat in 2011, the party has undertaken painful but necessary soul-searching, leading to significant reforms of our structures, our cultures and our policies.
At our annual conference next weekend, NSW Labor will introduce our most significant reform yet: the direct election of the state parliamentary leader by party members. From March next year, the weight of the serious decision about who will lead Labor’s NSW parliamentary team will be equally shared between the caucus and our membership. It is a measure of how far and how fast our party has come that this deep and radical change, previously the subject of widespread opposition, is now a step many will take for granted.
NSW Labor has led the nation on political party reform. In just more than three years, we have introduced community preselections for lower house candidates and the most rigorous candidate vetting process of any party across Australia. We have spearheaded a zero tolerance approach to corruption which means anyone subject to adverse findings by ICAC will be immediately expelled for life and a new fiercely independent internal appeals process subject to judicial oversight. And we have taken serious steps to ensure our parliamentarians are fully committed to putting the community first, by putting an end to the practice of factions binding caucus members and the toughest integrity standards for MPs of any party, anywhere.
Through years of rapid reform – and in contrast to the period of infighting and destabilisation from 2007 to 2011 – our state caucus has also shown tremendous discipline and unity. The contrast with the Liberal Governments of Barry O’Farrell and Michael Baird could not be clearer.
There is also a proposal being circulated to replace the preselection of Labor’s upper house candidates from the 880 representatives of the rank and file and affiliated trade unions who are delegates to our annual conference, and instead have those decisions made by a popular vote of the entire party membership.
Here is where that proposal fails. NSW Labor stands alone in refusing to allow unions a say in lower house preselections. In every other state, Labor allow unions a minimum 50 per cent say in the preselection of lower house seats. In order for us to be a true Labor Party and not just a social democratic party, the representatives of the more than 350,000 affiliated union members in NSW need to have some say in the selection of our candidates. We don’t want a white-collar-only upper house.
Second, direct elections on a state-wide basis are notorious for selecting candidates from close to the Sydney CDB at the expense of candidates from rural and regional areas. These elections heavily favour people who live in places heavily populated by other ALP members. Recently we experimented with a direct election model and not one person (out of 16) was elected from west of the Great Dividing Range.
A direct election model would unfairly favour incumbent members of Parliament placing an unclimbable barrier to entry for those hoping to represent Labor in the Senate or Legislative Council. NSW Labor has more than 7,000 members and growing. How does a candidate for public office communicate with 17,000 people? Incumbent members of parliament would enjoy a distinct – probably unfair – advantage, with an electoral communication budget, access to lists and the bully pulpit of the parliament and the media. We must not put a locked door on the upper house. If anything, we need more pressure on our incumbents, not less.
The test for any system for selection of candidates for public office is quality. We need a system that picks great candidates and I believe that’s what we have.
In 1989, John Faulkner was a 35-year-old former state ministerial adviser and the NSW Labor assistant general secretary. He was also a candidate for the Senate, a position he won under NSW Labor’s current system for selecting upper house members. In his subsequent 25-year career Senator Faulkner has been a fearless advocate and compassionate fighter for the Labor cause. He has played an invaluable role in helping to clean up and reform NSW Labor over the past four years. I don’t know who would have won a state-wide ballot that year but the odds would have been against young John Faulkner. There’s a lesson in that for all advocates of reform.
Jamie Clements is the secretary of the NSW branch of the Australian Labor Party. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.