Few party officials effortlessly wield as much power as seen at last weekend’s NSW ALP conference. It was Luke Foley’s conference. The Left assistant secretary dominated everything — from tactics, timing, to outflanking his enemies left and right. The Premier’s actions — banning developer donations, obtaining exclusive “hire and fire” control of the ministry, afterwards expelling Right power-broker Tripodi and dissident Left-winger MacDonald from the ministry and cabinet — happened with Foley’s nod.
This is truly game-changing stuff.
This was more than just a display of factional influence and even trampling of dissent. A different kind of horsepower was on display — intellectual horsepower. Foley deserved his day, his victory — as did the Left, so often excluded from the action in the NSW ALP. Foley outsmarted them all.
Cast our minds back 12 months. Recent events are the consequence of the unleashing of demons within the party at the 2008 annual conference, when the Iemma government decided that it would ignore an express resolution of the conference saying that the government should not introduce Bills on the privatisation of electricity. The Right divided. The Left promoted Nathan Rees. He won election by Caucus as Premier.
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Rees became an MP due to Luke Foley, who stared down ageing Left warlord Laurie Ferguson in a messy 2006 pre-selection.
After John Watkins resigned, exhausted, from the position, Foley engineered Carmel Tebbut into the deputy Premier’s position — claiming that it was a Left position. Then Iemma fell over. Rees was the unity candidate. Never before has the NSW ALP had a Left party officer this good. Not ever has the NSW Left had Premier and deputy Premier. Though, of course, Rees is now officially “non-aligned”.
The “troubles of 2008” cemented an alliance of former NSW ALP secretary Senator Mark Arbib, his successor now federal secretary Karl Bitar, and Foley in calling the shots in NSW. The former are smart, principled and not hidebound by party tradition and factional paranoia. They work well with Foley because he is the guy in the room who usually makes the most sense.
During the “Rules Debate” on the Saturday morning, there was a momentary lapse — and a display of skill by Foley. He thanked outgoing Right assistant secretary Rob Allen for his work in the position. Until then, no one had said a word about this well liked, though hapless figure. It was bad manners and a demonstration of the inferior skills of the present senior leadership of the NSW Right. They don’t even know how to bury their dead.
Momentarily, Foley remarked on the putative Right assistant secretary, a humourless operator by the name of Sam Dastyari, strutting about like Road Runner with a clipboard: clueless, but in a hurry. It was a dismissive remark, meant to cut. Then Foley noted the need for working together constructively. This was a speech loaded with a sad remark about a fallen Right comrade, a speech wielding the dagger followed by unity-speak rhetoric camouflaging it all. It was almost textbook perfect. Except for an uncharacteristic boast that he wrote all the resolutions and held the hands of the then inexperienced Bitar in getting the party through last year’s crisis. Best that it not look so obvious!
After the 2008 uproar and Bitar’s departure for greener federal pastures, Matt Thistlethwaite took over as NSW party secretary. Coming from the unions, he has a lot to learn. He shows signs of becoming a good campaigner. He is sincere, basically not interested in factions or throwing his weight around. Thus, the party relies on Foley more than ever for strategic leadership.
Which returns us to Saturday’s conference. After the bleak and dull Rules Debate, the Premier arrived to a standing ovation. Rees spoke knowing that NSW ALP president Bernie Riordan, Thistlethwaite and all his MPs on stage were clueless about what he was about to announce — sweeping reforms to the rules and thereby the culture of the party. The Premier’s speech and the machinations thereafter, culminating in several public ministerial executions, instantly changed NSW politics, for Rees, for the contest at the next state elections — due in March 2011, for the NSW ALP and the dynamics of the factions in NSW. The NSW Left, hitherto derided across the country as weak and ineffective, has had its proudest moment in 70 years in NSW. The real momentum in the party is with the responsible Left, ably generalled by Foley. NSW Labor has returned to the mainstream of the Labor Party across the country.
Foley wielded the knife, the charm, the sheer cunning in ways no ALP official has achieved since the Right’s Ducker/Richardson combination in the 1970s. Or so it seems. Certainly, in the experience of this correspondent, having attended conferences over the past 15 years, no one has done better.
The Left put their stamp on everything. The Right, apart from Arbib, totally involved in the weekend’s events, were irrelevant. It was almost painful to see how far they’ve fallen. But they have no one to blame but themselves.
Expect a big bounce for Rees in the polls. Undoubtedly, there’s always a problem with a long-term government looking smug and complacent. But it’s now goodbye to Della, Tripodi, Sartor, Obeid and MacDonald. The Premier now looks like a leader, in control. It’s about time.