Barely a month ago, Labor Party delegates from across New South Wales stood in a sea of self-congratulatory applause to strike a blow for gender equality. The party’s aspirational target for women in Parliament, set two decades ago, had become a hard and fast rule.
The current target of 40% women in parliament was raised to reach 50% by 2025. Within a decade, Labor’s parliamentary team — like the community at large — would be made up of an equal number of men and women.
Opposition Leader Luke Foley reinforced the point, announcing a shadow cabinet containing no fewer than 12 women — more than double the number in Premier Mike Baird’s team.
Labor had made parliamentary diversity, and in particular gender diversity, a central point of difference with the Coalition.
But this week, faced with the first opportunity to put words into action, the Labor Party’s powerful administration committee turned this progress on its head by voting to replace a talented woman in the NSW upper house with another white man from the inner city. As a result of the decision, the proportion of women in Labor’s upper house team will drop to just 25%.
Hidden behind the headline-grabbing promise of gender equality was the fine print: the changes wouldn’t take effect until July 1. This deliberately inserted loophole was to ensure the party’s state assistant general secretary, John Graham, could slip into a safe parliamentary seat before the impediment of possessing a penis blocked his political aspirations.
Graham, while hardly a household name, comes with impeccable political pedigree. A close ally of Labor heavyweight Anthony Albanese and husband to current Senator and former ALP national president Jenny McAllister, he is tightly enmeshed with the Left faction of the party.
His promotion, part of a labyrinthine cross-factional deal, had nothing to do with a lack of alternatives. In fact, it was a deliberate rejection of the huge number of intelligent, talented, experienced and hard-working Labor women willing and able to take on the job.
To make that point, Liverpool City councillor Wendy Waller nominated for the position, despite the factional deal that was meant to get Graham elected unanimously. As the first female popularly elected as mayor of Liverpool, and with 30 years’ experience in the community sector including as CEO of a non-government organisation in Sydney’s south-west working with families where children are at risk, Waller possesses a formidable resume.
She was backed by a band of strong Labor women, including former upper house MP Helen Westwood, whose personal experience of factional dealings had her lose her own spot in Parliament last year.
But the undemocratic way in which upper house vacancies continue to be filled — without any input from rank-and-file ALP members — meant Waller had no chance of success.
With representatives of both the Left and Right factions locked into a vote for Graham, the outcome should have been a clean sweep. The fact that it wasn’t — that one member voted for Waller and another abstained — revealed that not all in the room were willing to put factional allegiance ahead of personal conviction.
To an outsider, the outcome seems absurd.
The upper house spot had to go to a member of the ALP’s Left faction. Waller, like Graham, is from the left. The Labor Party has just announced it wants more women in Parliament. The number of women in the NSW upper house falls well short of those targets. Yet somehow, tasked with the challenge of adding one and one, the ALP managed to come up with three.
Before the vote, Waller was told by the leadership of the left faction said she was welcome to seek endorsement, but only if she went through the faction first. The price: an agreement that if she weren’t successful at winning their support, she would withdraw from the formal nomination process. She refused and was cast adrift.
So when the administration committee met yesterday, every member of the Left was bound to vote for John Graham. Members of the Right faction were similarly required to support him or risk undoing a series of complex factional deals. Despite the personal reservations of many, the outcome was supposed to be unanimous.
For rank-and-file party members like myself, this process is appallingly undemocratic. For all the welcome talk about creating a more diverse party, in practice things remain the same: a handful of factional warlords in a closed room slotting yet another insider into Parliament.
For the Coalition, which a month ago must have been nervous about the broadening gender battleground, NSW Labor’s incredible failure to put words into action must be the most welcome of own goals.
*Tim Vollmer is a rank-and-file ALP member from Penrith, in Sydney’s west. He is a former print journalist who now works as a communications consultant, assisting a range of community and not-for-profit organisations to tell their stories.