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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 http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/members.nsf/V3ListCurrentLAMembers

    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 http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rp/2001-02/02rp21.htm 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.

  11. Di Cook

    I’ve never been a trade union member nor a member of any political party but I support Ben Aveling 100% in opposing the sale of our electricity system. This is an essential service and should remain in public ownership. If the state government had reinvested some of the dividends they have been taking from electricity over recent years we would have a more efficient system now. My parents and grandparents built up most of the infrastructure we have in Australia today but my generation is selling all the family silver – only problem is what do you sell when there’s nothing left? We have to help NSW – how do we get rid of Iemma, Costa, Sartor, Della Bosca and Tripodi?

  12. David Sanderson

    The trouble is that the ‘rank and file’ (what a gorgeously antique term) do not represent anything in particular – certainly not the broader community. That is not the fault of the rank and file as the party’s leadership has created the conditions for the decay of the party’s ‘mass base’. However, it does mesn that people like Aveling cannot really claim to represent anything of significance. His call to the barricades is mere grandstanding and quite meaningless

  13. Matt Harvey

    As a fellow ALP Rank & Filer from Victoria, I can’t believe what’s happening in NSW. Looks like you’re going to need a whole new set of politicians! This total disregard of party policy and sentiment is a disgrace.

  14. David Sanderson

    Ben, your article focused on the right of the rank and file to reverse Labor government policy. I argued that the branch system was so decayed and the membership numbers so reduced (and stacked) that the membership had no democratic basis, no mass party base, on which to try and reverse government policy. I have prompted you twice to respond to these issues and you have not done so. Is that because you have no viable arguments to put forward?

  15. Ben Aveling

    Ah. I think I see now. Yes, some people voted Labor because they wanted Iemma – and not all of them have changed their minds. Equally, some people voted for Iemma because they wanted Labor. Others voted for their local candidate, whoever that was, or for Anyone-But-Debnam. And for lots of other reasons. What they got were 50 or so individuals who are all members of the Labor party, and who have all made certain pledges, including a pledge to obey the party rules. If they break this pledge, there isn’t much that can be done – except expel them from the party. (Tom has a different view on this; until someone tries, I guess we won’t really know.) Those 50 or so people have to decide what they will do, and if some of them insist on breaking party rules, then the party needs to decide what to do with them. Whatever decision is made or not made, the party will suffer. There might be reasons to let Iemma do whatever he wants, but don’t pretend that he has a popular mandate. Regards, Ben

  16. Sponge Boy

    Ben – how about the Dilemma Costalot Party for your collective noun?

  17. David Sanderson

    As you know Ben I’m not asking any of those questions you put below. You obviously see yourself as something of a politician – the kind of politician who answers Dorothy Dixers made up in his head rather than the questions actually being asked. Perhaps you have learnt more in this regard from Iemma government ministers than you are prepared to admit. I am asking the questions I asked below that centre on the decayed party branch structure, the much reduced, declining and stacked membership and its consequent lack of any mass base democratic legitimacy in terms of attempting to overturn the decisions of a Labor government, which can at least point to its electoral legitimacy. Prevarication and word games wiill not not really suffice. You obviously believe the membership has the democratic legitimacy to be able to overturn, or at least significantly modify, government decisions so why not attempt to justify your belief?

  18. Ben Aveling

    David, help me here. You say that shrinking branch size is a bad thing because it makes the party less representative of the wider population – and your response to this is to move decision making away from the rank and file to the even smaller and, by your argument, less representative parliamentary wing of the party. But surely the measure of the representativeness of a party is the size of the vote that it attracts – or maybe where this is where we disagree. You said that Iemma received millions of votes. Now, in his own electorate he received, what, 32000 votes? So at the risk of trying to guess what you’re saying, are you counting all votes cast for all ALP candidates as votes for Iemma and his stated positions? Yes? No? I gather that you don’t like discussing your own position, but if we’re to discuss this meaningfully, we need to be sure that we’re not using the same word to mean something different. So your help would help. Regards, Ben

  19. David Sanderson

    Of course the parliamentary wing is considerably smaller than the membership. That means very little as the parliamentarians have a very different status – they are elected by the people while members are elected by nobody, they are simply people who are motivated to join for whatever reason. I think it is admirable that they do want to participate in the political process but being unelected they have no right to try and collectively force their views upon parliamentarians. If the ALP was a true mass party that truly represented the ‘ALP electorate’ then a case could be mounted for the membership having some power. But that is not the reality and never will be. As we both know Iemma was the focus of the last election campaign and so it it is perfectly valid to state that he gained millions of votes and it is disingenuous to claim that you don’t know what I am saying. I have made my position clear but you are still not giving any argument for member power over the parliamentary party.

  20. David Sanderson

    Ben does not address the issue I raised about the decay of the Labor branch system. He knows as well as I do how far membership numbers have fallen and therefore how unrepresentative the branches are. He also knows that many of the members are simply willing dupes for stacking operations. He says himself that the Alexandria branch is tiny and therefore totally unrepresentative of that suburb. Where is the genuine democratic base in all that?

  21. Ben Aveling

    David, I agree that Iemma and Costa et al have an obligation to the state. They also have an obligation to the party. And there is no conflict between the two, not on this issue. The privatisation proposal is bad for the state, bad for the party. Most of the party knows this, as does most of the wider electorate. They don’t think of electricity privatisation at any price as good government. On the contrary – they believe that they will pay more and get less. Iemma, Costa et al (we need a collective noun for them) promised to represent the party and to obey its rules. And they promised not to privatise electricity. Now they’re breaking all of those commitments. Regards, Ben

  22. Tom McLoughlin

    Give up the sophistry sanderson. He’s answered you, you’re badgering, being argumentative, and wrong. Fact is poll after poll shows the branches are backed by the public. 2nd it’s naive and sly to argue democracy has not been diluted in at all levels – especially the Parliamentary Party cutting deals with developers in systemic trashing of planning regulations in a glorified protection racket for business donations. You sanderson prefer to focus on branch integrity. We in NSW, meaning minor parties, ngo sector, big press, are focused on the arrogance and spiv insider manipulations of the Parliamentary Party. Get used to it. And in terms of democractic platform of union delegates to their conference – freeloaders enjoying award coverage are passive endorsees of unions, aren’t they. They’re not paying their financial benefits back to the employer are they? Lastly have a look in the mirror mate. It’s the law of the land transcending arguments over democratic mandates. The LAW.

  23. Matt Hardin

    Ben represents the people in Alexandria who are committed enough to the policies of the ALP to spend their own time and often their own money to get people elected to parliament that represent the views of the same party. Why, after spending this time, money and effort shouldn’t he be pissed off that the people selected by the ALP to represent the policies of the ALP who campaigned on the policies of the ALP who were elected democratically by the voters of NSW on those same policies suddenly ignore him and his fellow branch members. If you want to know why membership in political parties has fallen look no further than idiots who suggest that the rank and file exist only to staff booths at election time. If being a member of a party means having absolutely zero influence on the policy of that party then there is no point in being a member.

  24. David Sanderson

    Ben, nobody elected you other than the tiny membership of your hopelessly unrepresentative branch. Iemma and the parliamentary Labor have garnered millions of votes and an election win. It does not particularly matter why people voted for Iemma/Labor – any election win is a mandate to govern. That win was achieved with very little regard for what the ordinary members favoured either individually or collectively. It was gained by focusing on what the potential Labor electorate was thought to want. It is the electorate that will decide if they have delivered to them or not. It is a certainty that they will not re-elect a government that is seen to be taking its instructions from either a hopelessly depleted and unrepresentative party membership or the unions. You find your lack of power very frustrating but you, and other members, have no valid claim to exercise power over any Labor government. Your claims to exercise this power are anti-democratic and, if implemented, electorally disastrous for Labor.

  25. Ben Aveling

    David, before I can answer your question, I need to know if you are talking about the specific case of electricity privatisation, where what the party wants is what the public wants, which is also what the Premier promised prior to the last election, but is not what the Premier wants now? Or are you talking about some hypothetical case where the party wants something that public and the Premier don’t want? Regards, Ben

  26. mike smith

    Would the parliamentary party exist if only the branch members voted for them? The branch has the right to select the candidates representing the party, once the voters elect them, they represent the voters, *NOT* the party. Dumping coal stations whilst you can get something for them is a good idea. Keeping distribution infrastructure in government hands is a good idea. Same should have gone for Telstra privatisation, but too late for that now.

  27. Wbetts

    Finally someone stateing what I always thought was obvious but not so to many posters here and the autocrats of NSW. The Labour party is, and always should be, a democratic party, part of a democratic system. The purpose of haveing democratic mechanisims in partys such as the labour party is to prevent exactly what is happining in NSW, an old word many have forgotin but I think needs a revival, Despotism!

  28. Nic


    The point that David is making is that the wider community should not really care about the internal political processes of your political party. The fact that a small group of people are trying to influence policy outcome for the State by pressuring cabinet ministers in a way that is not available to the community as a whole concerns a lot of people. Whether the policy is right or wrong, this is what people object to. Why should David have to speak for anyone but himself?

  29. Tom McLoughlin

    Well, I must concede using ‘sly and naive’ in the one sentence was over the top. But just to clarify with Ben on one thing. It’s not just my view about orthodox administrative law applying to Party processes and legally enforceable (based on a huge component of public money being the financial blood in their veins). If you note carefully it is also the opinion of, and quoting, Rodney Cavalier. And as Ben well knows Cavalier is the unofficial NSW ALP Party historian and a former NSW MP if memory serves. ‘Until someone tries’ is a good practical question from Ben. I would bet my litigation law degree out of tens of thousands of energy workers and their unions there is indeed someone who will so try and quite possibly seek a mandatory injunction up front. Who possibly believes otherwise? As one wit said back in 1997 it’s a battle of spiv Labor versus traditional Labor. And that’s about right. If the spivs had good motives and not just personal enrichment there might have been some more trust. Anyone who watches Enron doco will only want to exercise extreme caution to avoid the thrashing California’s economy and little people suffered. I refer critics to ‘We’ll stop power sale, Nat tells workers’ SMH 21/5/08 p5, with growing cross party defiance referred to there.

  30. David Sanderson

    I can easily understand that it is frustrating to be a member of a party and have no real influence over government policy. However, that does not mean party members should have much influence over government policy if their numbers are so small that they do not represent, even in a highly diluted form,
    the ALP voting electorate. Ben indicates that there may be a dozen members in his branch despite the fact that Alexandria (and surrounding surounding suburbs – not every suburb has its own branch) has thousands of voters. On the other hand the Iemma (love him or hate him – I admit it is hard to do the former) can point to millions of votes he has collected. Who then has the greater legitimacy? There is absolutely no contest. It is also no revelation that governments do things that were not announced before the polls. Keating’s great economic reforms were not put to the electorate except after the fact. The electorate wants good government and does not care what the membership thinks.

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