Former NSW ALP Minister Jack Hallam

A senior NSW Labor figure has criticised the selection of election candidates from the political class and rewarding them with parliamentary seats. He called for candidates to be selected from a wider range of professional working backgrounds and from rural and regional locations.

In a wide-ranging submission to the NSW legislative council’s oral history project released today, former cabinet minister of the Wran and Unsworth governments Jack Hallam has unloaded on the ALP’s preselection process.

The young farmer from the Riverina was politicised by the Vietnam War and joined the ALP after meeting then-opposition leader Gough Whitlam in Griffith in 1969.

Hallam, who entered the legislative council in 1973, aged 30, became agriculture minister for eight years, Labor leader of the upper house from 1986 to 1988 and was opposition leader in the upper house until his resignation in 1991.

He said the upper house was a part-time body when he first arrived and “had that 19th-century establishment feel”, adding:

“It was not a high tempo house and issues were dealt with in a fairly formal manner. Clyde Packer [the late Kerry Packer’s brother] did not seem to participate enormously as a parliamentarian, for example, yet he was an interesting person. He was a libertarian.

“The House was discouraged from being a House of review. Amendments [to Government legislation] were discouraged by the powerbrokers, Askin and Wran. [Liberal Premier Robert Askin and Labor Premier Neville Wran].

“If they had political control of the Legislative Council, it was legislation by instruction rather than review.”

Hallam said the upper house power game changed when Wran won a 1978 referendum for direct elections of MLCs to the legislative council on a system of optional preferential voting.

He named his most important legacy as protecting the rural community as agriculture minister. He said Wran gave him the portfolio saying: “Keep the fucking farmers out my hair.”

“All ministers were under constant attack from the Treasury,” he said.

“Accrual accounting had been brought it, which meant the beginning of the cuts. It was my job to protect the Department of Agriculture as best I could and preserve a whole range of services.

“I upheld those areas and was their champion. That is my legacy.”

To be fair, Wran was dedicated to keeping the ALP alive in regional NSW and toured whenever time allowed. He also stiff-armed cabinet into opposing many of Treasury’s rural cuts.

Hallam, who joined the right-wing faction when he entered Parliament, recalled that the upper house began to review legislation more conscientiously after its democratic makeover.

“When [then-premier] Nick Greiner introduced the Independent Commission Against Corruption legislation … there were sections within the Labor Party that were pushing for the legislation to be watered down.

“I am sure they were being led by Graham Richardson, who was the general secretary.

“Bob Carr, the leader of the opposition, was in Hobart when the upper house was sitting. I received a phone call from Carr in Hobart instructing me to allow the legislation to go through unamended. So that is what happened. I think it was a wise decision.”

In his final days in government in March 1988, Hallam signed two dozen Aboriginal land rights proclamations. Greiner, the incoming premier, criticised Hallam for signing the proclamations during the pre-election caretaker period when major government decisions are traditionally halted or suspended.

“I apologised to Nick Greiner for that,” Hallam said, “and he did not take it any further.”

Although he supported the optional preferential voting system for upper house seats, he believes it has led to unintended consequences.

He explained: “Members will get elected on very small quotas with singular issues — minority groups. A big game hunter can influence executive decisions.

“Government is very, very hard, and I do not think it is in the interests of efficient government. The states are under a lot of pressure, you do not need sectional interests muddying the waters.”

He said the Labor Party should adopt a policy of “bringing in talented people” to enhance its parliamentary presence.

“The legislative council could be made more effective by the major parties taking great care to select members with skills which could be used by the House and the executive.

“I think there should be consideration of looking at regions to give the members some sort of geographical responsibility.”

He also had advice for budding politicians: “You can disagree without being disagreeable. If you are yelling and screaming every day, nobody is going to listen to you.”

*Hallam, 73, now lives near Murwillumbah on the far north coast. He was interviewed for the LC’s oral history project by former parliamentary historian Dr David Clune and Clerk of the House, David Blunt.