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May 19, 2008

NSW ALP ignoring an ever-angrier rank and file

Despite the dictates of those who rule the party, the rank and file of the NSW ALP are not going to give up on electricity without a fight, writes Ben Aveling.

Being a rank and file member of the Labor Party has always meant spending a lot of time not getting your own way. First you have to persuade your own branch of the merits of your case. Then your branch’s delegates to the local State Electoral Council have to persuade it to support the motion. Then, up to a year later, Annual Conference might decide to support your motion. Generally, they don’t. But if your motion is passed, it becomes policy and all members are required by the rules to support it.

Quite often, that support is half hearted – democratic socialisation of industry anyone? The customary position is for the government to pay lip service, negotiate a little, and do what it can in a lukewarm sort of way. But now, Morris Iemma and Michael Costa have announced that they make the decisions, no correspondence to be entered into.

The Alexandria branch is a small branch, a couple of private sector employees, some public sector employees, a few small business owners. None of our regulars is a “staffer” and, like most similar branches, we are not factionally aligned. We don’t expect to dictate policy, but we do have a right to stand up and be counted.

We first tried to do this through our local State Electoral Council. Our motion against electricity privatisation passed, as did stronger motions from other branches. But in violation of two rules, the meeting had been postponed, moving it past the cutoff date for conference submissions and none of the motions reached conference. Nor was this the only attempt to manipulate the decision of conference.

In frustration, we turned to the rulebook and found that we could ask the Administrative Committee to consider the behaviour of Iemma and Costa, which we did. John Della Bosca’s response was that it is “unacceptable” for rank and file members to expect senior ministers to be bound by party rules.

Iemma has gone further: if any MP obeys the rules and supports a policy in defiance of “cabinet solidarity”, Iemma will seek to have that MP thrown out of the party. Michael Egan has made his own contribution to doublespeak: Labor governments should not listen to outside forces like the Labor annual conference; as if Iemma and his supporters could have been elected without the word Labor after their names on the ballot papers.

Make no mistake, the rank and file are angry. There is a small group of people, with no grassroots support, who are trying to hijack the Party and the state. Our collective opinion was heard loud and clear at State Conference and will not be silenced by bully boy tactics from a Premier and Treasurer who seem happy to split the Party for a policy rightly regarded with deep suspicion by the electorate. We have always negotiated and compromised. Now we are being told to walk away completely. We will not.

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30 thoughts on “NSW ALP ignoring an ever-angrier rank and file

  1. Ben Aveling

    Hi Nic, Thanks for your very welcome comments – they raise important aspects of this debate that haven’t yet been aired. In response to the first point, joining the Labor party is an option that is available to any member of the community; we would welcome you. Regarding the second point, the public should not have to care about the details of internal party processes, they know we have them, and they have a right to expect us to follow them. Regarding the last point, David does not have to speak for anyone other than himself. He gave me the opportunity to explain whose views I represent, so I felt it fair to give him the same opportunity. Regards, Ben

  2. Ben Aveling

    Yes David, you said that. Let me revisit your “mandate to govern”. Civics 101: A mandate is a claimed ‘right’ to pass some piece of legislation that has been explained prior to the election and thus endorsed by the voters. It has no legal standing but it is sometimes agreed that if the voters voted for it, it would be wrong to block it. (Where wrong can either be interpreted as morally wrong, or as politically suicidal.) No opposition ever acknowledges a universal “mandate to govern” because that would cover everything. Mandates only exists for specific things, promised prior to the election. In this case, the government promised not to privatise power, so it’s hard to claim a mandate to privatise. More generally, all MPs promised to follow party rules, so it’s hard to claim a mandate to do the opposite there either. Regards, Ben. PS: Hi Kay!

  3. Ben Aveling

    Di, I suggest you ring your local member, Labor, Liberal, National or other, and tell them how you feel. You can find their number at

    David, I represent my branch. I saw my local SEC pass stronger motions than ours. I know the decision of conference, and the margin. I know what the opinon polls are saying. And I have had feedback from other branches, and members, including staffers who have been told that they will lose their jobs if they speak out publically. For whom do you speak? Regards, Ben

  4. Kay Rollison

    David, how do you think political decisions are made? By political leaders grasping some sort of popular consensus? People vote for the program a party puts to the people at an election. This program is influenced by many things, including polling on what is popular, the input of various pressure groups and think tanks and no doubt the individual preferences of party heavyweights. But at its core, it must reflect the values and policies of the party as expressed through its platform. It is irrelevant to the voter how this platform has been arrived at. They exercise their democratic choice by choosing between the programs on offer. But it is not irrelevant to the party, because it has rules which its members have promised to uphold. None of the other groups or individual that have an input into policy are required to be ‘democratic’ – they have no constituency beyond their own interests (eg the welfare lobby, the coal industry lobby, the wheat farmers, the unions or whatever). We can usually assume that a party is more likely to be influenced by some lobby groups rather than others, but we can only make such decisions based on the values that the party espouses through its platform. And the party’s position on issues is made public and is subject to debate – which is more than one can say for any of the other various pressure groups that influence policy. So while the members of the party are only one group among others whose interests are reflected in the party’s program, their views ought to shape the general thrust of the party, and this is what the party has actually agreed should happen. The opposite of which is happening in this case.

  5. Dave Liberts

    David Sanderson, it’s an interesting point about who has bigger numbers, Iemma or ALP branches, but let’s not forget that Iemma would have never had a career had it not been for the public’s faith in the ALP in the first place. Say what you will about the public’s opinion of political parties, the fact is they vote for candidates representing major parties in far greater numbers than they vote for independents or minor parties. The public voted for Iemma last year based on a sense that he was at least less bad than the other bloke, but also because they know the ALP brand, have some faith in its internal processes and feel that the party is connected to the real world, at least compared to the current state of the NSW Libs. It’s a chicken or egg arguement, but there is a case in favour of the ALP rank-and-file in this debate. As for your suggestion that the public just ‘wants good government’, three words: Jeffery Gibb Kennett. Great Premier, electoral disaster.

  6. Tom McLoughlin

    David, let me show why that is wrong: 1. There is legal precedent that publicly funded political parties eg. ALP must follow their own party rules, or be subject to legal challenge on administrative law grounds for say bias, improper purpose, consideration of irrelevant factors/failure to consider relevant ones and so it goes. In fact judicial review. This flows from their PUBLIC funding which implies PUBLIC accountability by the membership. True this was based on contested pre-selections in South Australia, but the law is quite sound as precedent and caused a big stir a few years back. Step on up Mr Aveling et al. Look at the Ralph Clarke cases discussed here Rodney Cavalier is quoted “sees the most valuable outcome of the Clarke cases as being ‘the proof to the ALP in the rest of Australia that the law does apply to the processes of the ALP’. Start getting scared spiv Labor.

  7. Ben Aveling

    David, you have a point. It would be easier to hear if it wasn’t wrapped in anger, but you are half right about power moving from the rank and file to the centre. Decision making, including preselections, has indeed increasingly been captured by the centre. But you are also half wrong, because the process is still a work in progress. What you describe, where we elect a single man to make all the decisions and then accept whatever he decides for the next few years, might be seen as a logical destination, given the trajectory we have been taking. But we haven’t yet arrived at that point. If what Iemma was doing was sensible, and popular inside and outside the party, then I’d be happy to say, OK, this works. But I look at the decisions he’s making, and they’re bad decisions, made for the wrong reasons, by the wrong people, in the wrong way. And the party knows it. And the public knows it. The old way was better. We don’t want to make all the decisions. But we do want to make this one. Regards, Ben

  8. David Sanderson

    Tom, I am not interested in your incoherent rants. However, I would like to see Ben address the issues his article raises but which he is persistently avoiding.

  9. Tom McLoughlin#2

    2. The policy concerns remain from 1997. Back then amongst many others I lobbied on this (probably blacklisted by the Carr machine ever since?): I copied academic Claire Gerson’s analysis of UK privatisation especially impact on the poor, in a magazine called Third Opinion over 2 parts, and slotted them under ever MPs door in Macquarie St. This casual practise was officially banned soon after (!). The equivalent this morning was broadcast emailing to state MPs the graphic and link to ‘Enron: Smartest guys in the room’ which Google Video have in admirable public spirit provided absolutely free on the net, all 109 minutes of it. It talks about deregulated California, one of the biggest economies on the planet screwed mercilessly by Enron traders sabotaging stable supply, ripping out windfall profits, but still not enough to save US 7th biggest corporation bankrupt in 24 days in 2002, pissing a US $65 billion cap up against the wall, including billion$ of retirement funds. Endgame?

  10. David Sanderson

    The idea that governments can only do what they have a specific mandate for is a very odd one and would soon leave any Labor government incapable of dealing with the challenges that government brings. Thus any government, Labor or otherwise, has a mandate to govern. As I pointed out earlier it is no revelation that Labor government’s carry out reforms that were not mentioned before the election but will nevertheless need the approval of the voters at the following election. The example I gave were the the great Keating economic reforms that were not announced prior to the election, in part went against Labor policy and were totally against the economically regulatory ‘frame of mind’ of the party membership at the time. The days of the party membership trying to control the parliamentary party finished in the late ’60s and they are never going to return despite your fantasies. At least back then the party membership was sizeable and had some claim to be representative and that cannot be said of the current much diminished membership. I really think we are done here. You have completely failed to make a case for party members having some control over Labor government policy despite my repeated urgings that you do so.Your fantasies of leading a members revolt against the government will die an unnoticed death on the rock of political and democratic reality.

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