The NSW ALP's five biggest challenges

Damian O'Connor

The five biggest challenges facing the NSW ALP (and a few suggestions on how to solve them)

The NSW ALP has some serious organisational challenges as it looks ahead. I don't suggest that our failure to meet these challenges caused us to lose the 2001 federal election, or to do so badly in NSW. In truth, the direct reasons for our loss rest more in the arena of policy and leadership. What I suggest is that a continued failure to address these challenges is causing, and will continue to cause, the decline of the ALP as a positive force for change, which is our basic strength and reason for being.

There is a window of opportunity to raise these issues now, as NSW is election-free this year and there are two inquiries underway that are properly focused on the party's future. For those processes, and to hopefully spark some debate within the party, following is my list of the five biggest challenges facing the NSW ALP, with a few ideas on what should happen thrown in.

These are the glaring organisational issues that we've got to confront. We just received a federal primary vote in NSW that was the worst since 1903. We need to regroup and rebuild, under good parliamentary leadership and direction. And the NSW ALP needs to get its house in order. Taking the following steps will help do that.

The key challenge: Being clear on what we represent, & what we don't

There is a struggle clarifying within the ALP. It can be less characterised as a Left-Right conflict and more as value-free Labor versus traditional Labor; as a struggle between those who see Labor as a floating set of 'flavour of the month' plans, and those who see our values anchored in working Australia and expanding outwards; between those who see our traditional link to organised labour as a liability, and those who don't.

This struggle can be seen in several forms: in arguments to reduce the internal role of the union movement; in calls for the admission of those who won't join their union; and in proposals to source Labor's candidates from those who wouldn't choose to be a mere ALP member. It can also be seen in the treatment of election contests as mere advertising campaigns, with all the substance and passion of a sales battle between OMO and Cold Power.

Our union link provides the context for defining who the party represents - not just union members but workers as a whole, for when the union movement campaigns on behalf of its members, it's a reality that all workers get the benefits, union members or not. We should not lack the fortitude to stand up for what we believe in and who we represent. If we are weak and tentative enough to believe the Howard-Abbott rhetoric that our union link is a liability, then it will be. Fiddling with percentages of union votes won't stop Howard and Abbott; it will encourage them. This is where leadership counts. It's extraordinary that we sit back and take heat over our overt link to working Australia, while the Liberals pocket as yet undisclosed tens of millions exclusively from the corporate sector, with barely a scratch from us.

Defining whom we represent is the first and key challenge - the other challenges flow from that.

Challenge 2: Expanding our membership

The NSW ALP's membership is approximately 21,000 - down from over 22,000 in 1996. As a percentage of the NSW population, the decline is more pronounced. We are ahead of the Liberals but we lag behind overseas comparisons in population percentage terms. Despite having set a target of 50,000 members by 2005, the NSW ALP has made little progress. The proposal for large fee increases in 2003 can only make the target even more difficult to achieve.

Despite rumours to the contrary, barely 40 per cent of us are union members, and only 18 per cent are members of affiliate unions. We have about 9000 unionists in a State of about one million (i.e. less than one per cent). Only thirty-six per cent of us are women. Almost two-thirds of us are over 40, making us much older than the State over-14 average. Young Labor is ineffective. It fails to organise the over 2500 members under the age of 27 we already have, let alone attract new members.

Most branches have declining attendances and at least 40 are technically defunct. Branch stacking remains un-addressed in several areas of the State. The base of voters in preselections is low, with rarely more than 200 voters in a federal ballot for a seat of 90,000 electors - in the last preselection round, there were 62 voters in Page branch, 91 in Richmond, 112 in Macquarie, 118 in Charlton, 143 in Hughes and 172 in Robertson. Newcastle had 345. The principle that candidates in a seat should be selected by the party members in that seat is very sound, and has demonstrably served the party well, but action needs to be taken to expand the base. Other States should look closely at the benefits of local selection.

With the support of the unions, the party should make a concerted recruitment effort to target and attract more union members into the ALP. For members of affiliates, there should be large initial discounts for joining, in return for direct debiting to the member's account. All financial members should have a minimum package of rights and benefits that can be promoted (see challenge 3). The party should also consider free associate membership for non-affiliated unions and appropriate community organisations, as a means of developing closer relationships with pro-labour organisations. Young Labor and party branches would both benefit from a return to branch delegations forming the basis of Young Labor conferences. This can inject badly-needed new blood into the branches. Labor Women should also be revived, and the ALP should join almost every other mass-based organisation in acknowledging the recruitment benefits of separate women's organisations.

Challenge 3: Involving our membership

If we are to retain and increase membership, we must strive for better forms of involvement. We urgently need to turn around the sense of disengagement among our members.

Every ALP member should have a minimum package of rights and benefits that comes with financial membership (some of which already apply) - Labor Times, annual lectures and forums, training and, after a period, the right to vote in local preselections and for senior party positions. Where on the Net, there should be access to 'members only' parts of the site and email access to policy committee information, and so on. Financial members would hopefully take their membership further and join a local branch, where they can move motions for State conference and become active in electorate councils (i.e. all the current benefits of branch membership), and - per the existing two-year/four meeting rule - speed up their preselection rights.

Policy committees have been overhauled, but there remains a sense at committee, branch and membership level that the actions of Labor governments and oppositions happen with little reference to their views. This feeling also increasingly applies to State conference, where the State government completely ignored party platform when it sold FreightCorp and avoided conference resolutions regarding WorkCover reform, to name but two transgressions. It is demoralising for party and union members to see State conference decisions by-passed, just as it is difficult to constrain Labor governments for twelve months on fast-moving policy areas. The party should trial issue interaction with branches by including in each monthly political briefing an 'Issue of the Month', on which branches would be asked their views, with a report the following month on the response. This would allow rapid, sought-after feedback, add a focus for discussion at branch meetings, and would encourage resolutions for electorate councils and conference.

The party office needs to devote more resources and a senior official to building the link between ministers and their policy committees. The conference needs to adopt a broad directions attitude to the parliamentary party, with exceptions only where the matters are strongly felt. If the existing platform or policy needs to be revisited before the next scheduled conference, then a special conference should be called to determine the matter. Ministers should be required to report to each conference on action taken over decisions from previous conferences.

Most unions have their federal and State officials subject to election by the membership at large. There's no good reason for the ALP to be any different, and it would help to open up the party to new approaches and ideas and give greater value to membership. An innovative, though little used, existing rule is State rule B30c, which permits an electorate-wide ballot of branch members for State conference delegates. It is already in the hands of State electoral councils (SECs) and federal electoral councils (FECs) to put this method in place for their area, allowing a greater sense of participation in elections to the NSW ALP's supreme policy-making body.

At a time when campaigns are becoming more and more focused on local issues and approaches, it's reasonable to ask whether the goal of centralised campaign templates has been over-reached. Central offices may have to cede campaign approaches more to better-trained local campaigners, moving away from the one-size-fits-all concept.

The creeping tendency of the party to avoid rank-and-file preselection must be reversed. Quality candidates can't be expected to commit to an uncertain process that can be aborted at any time, and party members can't be expected to promote an unpopular candidate imposed upon them. Preselection broadening could occur by - in addition to the existing two year/four meeting branch rule - giving all party members of a minimum period of membership (at least four years) a vote in their local preselection irrespective of branch attendance. This would expand the existing preselection base significantly overnight and make credentialing easier. A few changes would be absolutely essential prior to implementing such a reform, including:

  • better and independent scrutiny of applicants to the party and branch stacking at the administrative committee level;
  • introducing a minimum period of living in the electorate; and
  • weeding out of the remaining stacks.

Such a change would not affect branch membership, but would immediately require new ways of engaging with non-branch attenders (e.g. electorate assemblies, doorknocking). Branches would not be significantly adversely affected either, as few genuine members attend branches for the sole reason of obtaining a preselection vote, and branch members would continue to run the branch.

Challenge 4: Overcoming our growing reliance on corporate money

The sharply rising cost of funding election campaigns is making the ALP more and more reliant on large donations from the corporate sector. This compromises our ability to develop and implement policy that may offend the corporate sector much more than it does the Liberal Party, who proclaim the sector as their natural constituency. It's interesting that those who want a value-free ALP have little problem with corporate donations.

To be clear, the ALP needs to develop relationships with the corporate sector along with all other sectors of the community. But no non-party relationship should be characterized by dependence. It is becoming the case that the ALP literally cannot afford to lose a significant number of large corporate donations, and this must play on the minds of our key decision-makers.

From the 1995 to 1999 State elections, campaign spending by all participants blew out from $13 million to $23 million, and the gap between costs and public funding more than doubled from $6 million to $13 million. This gap is only funded by private means. The ALP increased its TV advertising alone from $1.4 million to $4.5 million. Some of this money is still raised by a lot of people paying modest amounts. But more and more is raised in large donations of $10,000 or more. The NSW ALP took 78 different donations of this size for the 1999 election, with donations from the corporate sector outweighing union donations by a factor of six-to-one. We took over $900,000 from developers and construction companies, over $300,000 from the finance sector and $73,000 from the tobacco industry, to name a few, in a total of over $3 million.

To its credit, the Hawke government legislated to substantially cut the cost of election campaigns, but the High Court knocked the law over on technical grounds. British Labour has recently legislated to cap election costs. Gough Whitlam has spoken out recently. Last year, Paul Keating called for developers' donations to be banned because of their eventual effect on the urban environment. Paul Keating knows how the wheels really turn in politics. Bob Carr said he'd look into it. We're still waiting.

It's not in the interest of a party of reform or our political system for this addiction to continue growing to US levels. It affects the integrity of the political system, and fosters disengagement with the wider party and the electorate. We urgently need to revisit this matter as a federal-State policy issue and the Carr government must look at options, including limiting election costs, the size of donations to all parties and, possibly, increases in public funding (which was introduced, after all, to stop private influence over the political system).

Challenge 5: Keeping the courts out of our affairs

The 1999 Clarke case in South Australia has highlighted for all parties the need to follow rules and afford natural justice in internal party matters. Increasingly, courts have shown their preparedness to intervene in the affairs of parties where due process has not been followed. Yet the ALP continues to process many matters in flagrant violation of the intention in the rules (e.g. preselection processes) and to predetermine the outcome of disciplinary and credentials hearings. The NSW ALP, for instance, completely dropped the ball over the Robertson preselection a year ago, and was only saved from its own lack of integrity by the national executive. The Cowper preselection went to court but was settled, and others like Lindsay very nearly went to court.

The factional system works where there are ideas to coalesce around. It can't work in disciplinary or credentials matters where findings about what actually happened must be inquired into. The party needs an independent disputes tribunal made up of people chosen by consensus from the thousands of party members in this State who are at arms-length from factional influence and have the integrity to enforce the rules properly (e.g. credentialing) and give all disputants a fair go. Possible mechanisms include unanimous agreement to tribunal members by conference, administrative committee or party officers, or a requirement for unanimous or near unanimous tribunal decisions. Only when this happens will we be able to guarantee that the courts won't become involved in our affairs.

In summary: Key points

The five challenges for the NSW ALP are: 1) being clear on what we represent, and what we don't; 2) expanding our membership; 3) involving our membership; 4) overcoming our growing reliance on corporate money; and 5) keeping the courts out of our affairs. To meet these challenges we must:

  • Be clear that we represent working Australia, through our link to the union movement;
  • Encourage more unionists to join the ALP directly;
  • Restructure Young Labor and re-introduce Labor Women;
  • Clean up branch stacking and then broaden our preselection base;
  • Develop a minimum package of rights and benefits for financial membership, and create new ways of involvement;
  • Reassert the primacy of rank-and-file preselections by actions not just words;
  • Give members a direct vote for senior party positions;
  • Seek monthly feedback from branches on relevant issues;
  • Improve party support for policy committees;
  • Ensure conference decisions are not flouted by the parliamentary party;
  • Have ministers report to the annual conference on action taken over prior conference decisions;
  • Develop a policy to rein in election campaign costs and the size of corporate donations;
  • Create an independent disputes tribunal to fairly determine disputes and credentials matters.

Damian O'Connor is an Assistant General Secretary within the Australian Labor Party (NSW Branch) and a member of the Evatt Foundation. This is a draft discussion paper, and Damian welcomes feedback to: 6/39 Laura St, Newtown, 2042; phone: (02)92072000 or 1800 503 035 (work) or 0413 055 183 (mobile); or email: solidarityforever@hotmail.com.


Read letters in response:

  • It's time for new ideas, writes David Horlock (Damian O'Connor replies)
  • I hope this reaches someone, somehow, writes Wagdy Samir