The last Labor government in this state, rejected a year ago, was “the worst government NSW has seen”. And, according to Rodney Cavalier, the party that began in Balmain in 1891 has now passed into history.
The former politician was in his element yesterday, proclaiming the death of NSW Labor, one of his favourite topics. Now party historian (and obituarist), the cricket tragic was speaking at the launch of a book about NSW Labor, for which he had written the preface and its first chapter. The book is called From Carr to Keneally, Labor in office in NSW 1995 – 2011, but Cavalier calls it, “From Carr to Oblivion”.
The former education minister in the Wran and Unsworth governments is a man of very firmly held opinions, backed up by a fierce intelligence.
The blame for this parlous state can be laid at the door of one place — party HQ in Sussex Street, he writes in the book. The party secretariat, in particular its dominant faction the NSW Right, has “overwhelmed the established structures of governance”.
Sussex Street’s iron control over the choice of candidates, its rapacious need for ever-larger sums of money and lack of real-world knowledge has ensured that the electorate is no longer interested in joining the party or voting for it, he writes:
“General secretaries in times past had worked for a living before entering the job; however the past six (Dastyari, Thistlethwaite, Bitar, Roozendaal, Della Bosca, Loosely and Richardson) have only ever drawn an income from inside the political class. The party of the workers has a machine leadership that is totally disengaged from the world of work.”
Former party assistant secretary and current MLC Luke Foley, another member of the political class, listened impassively to this public flogging of his colleagues. In the audience, party elder John Faulkner maintained an inscrutable face; as the co-author of a comprehensive review of the 2010 federal election, he is probably used to being told what’s wrong with Labor.
Cavalier writes that things went downhill after 2002-03 when the party machine took control of candidate selection:
“In the space of two elections, caucus independence became a fond memory, as did a parliamentary party capable of scrutiny and self-criticism. The rude democratic culture of the party subsided into a culture of entitlement.”
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Another deciding factor was the extremely high cost of continuous campaigning — including focus groups and qualitative polling — which altered the structure of party politics, he writes. Needing more and more money, Labor was forced to put the hand out to developers, hotels and gambling interests, who either donated directly to the party or attended fund-raising events.
He quotes Frank Sartor, the former minister for planning, on the expectations of the party machine:
“Mate-mate-mate-mate, four or five times. There was an index of mates, always prefaced by ‘we don’t expect you to do anything but we want you to see him, the bureaucrats are mucking things up’.”
This very readable book was commissioned to mark the sesquicentenary of responsible government in NSW. Many of the chapters are written by academics at the University of Sydney, who have been well-served by editors David Clune and Rodney Smith. Not just a fascinating read for political tragics, it is a valuable reference book for anyone interested in politics and power.
In a chapter pithily entitled, “The Results”, the ABC’s election guru Antony Green writes that the 2011 election saw Labor record its worst result in vote share and seats won since 1904:
“In 2011, Labor’s first-preference vote fell to 25.6%, half the Coalition’s 51.2% … The Coalition’s two-party preferred vote of 64.2% and the two-party preferred swing of 16.9% were both postwar Australian records.”
Recovery from this position will be difficult, Green writes. Cavalier is more pessimistic:
“The structures that prevailed over 70 years are no longer serving NSW Labor. Structure is everything. The structure of the ALP has not changed and is not likely to change. Inside that sentence is an estimation of the prospect of NSW Labor becoming electorally competitive any time soon.”
The electors have worked out that the NSW ALP is only interested in power for the sake of it, he writes:
“On March 26, 2011, something quite beautiful happened. The members of the ALP did not turn up. Much of the land mass of NSW had polling booths without a single ALP worker for the whole day. Other booths in former Labor strongholds, which might have hosted a dozen and more workers, this time got by with one or two volunteers stretching themselves. Even members of the Labor Party had abandoned their own government.”