NSW labor
NSW Labor's Chris Minns and Jodi McKay (Images: AAP/Joel Carrett and Dean Lewins)

It’s been a bitter few months for the Australian Labor Party.

After going out with a whimper in the New South Wales election, then somehow conspiring to lose the “unloseable” election two weeks ago, the party is desperate for new leadership, new ideas, and an antidote to the fractious infighting and blame games that are an inevitable byproduct to shock election losses.

In NSW, the fight for the party’s future is being played out in a leadership battle between Chris Minns and Jodi McKay. While both are members of the Right faction, their complicated relationships with powerful figures in the party hierarchy mean there is still no clear frontrunner between them.

The Ivy League wunderkind

At first glance, Chris Minns, the member for Kogarah in southern Sydney, looks like a Labor MP straight out of central casting.

A product of the party machine, Minns was Young Labor president before graduating straight into a role at Sussex Street. That led to staffer jobs with ministers Carl Scully and John Robertson, and ultimately the powerful position of assistant general secretary. Minns also served on the Hurstville Council in Sydney’s south, while finding time to complete a Master’s degree in public policy at Princeton University.

The “future leader” whispers started well before Minns entered NSW Parliament in 2015 as a fresh-faced 35-year-old armed with an impeccable CV. His time as opposition water spokesman has allowed him some prominence against the recent backdrop of droughts, fish kills, and mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin, but his attempts to pitch himself as a much-needed dose of new blood instantly ruffled feathers.

In his inaugural speech to parliament, Minns appeared to criticise the influence of trade unions in the party: 

Trade unions are integral to our success and heritage, but Labor also needs to represent those who are not in a trade union. That will mean taking steps to reduce union control on the floor of our conference.

Those comments drew backlash from head office. Party figures and 16 union leaders wrote a letter to Labor MPs condemning Minns’ speech. 

This is his second tilt at the leadership — he threw his hat in the ring late last year when Luke Foley resigned following a sexual harassment scandal, but was comfortably beaten by Michael Daley. Minns then nearly lost his seat at the state election, suffering a 5.1% swing — notably, Michael Daley’s racist comments about Asian immigrants taking jobs did not play well in multicultural Kogarah.

The country kid from Gloucester

While Minns is seen as a party careerist, Jodi McKay has been eager to stress that she is not.

A self-described “country kid from Gloucester”, McKay worked as a TV news presenter before being tapped by then-premier Morris Iemma to run as a star candidate for the seat of Newcastle in the 2007 election. After parachuting in McKay caused some ire among local branch members, leading to mass resignations and causing dumped veteran MP Bryce Gaudry to fight the seat as an independent.

It also led to rumours that she’d been in talks with the Liberals to run in the Hunter region; rumours which continue to this day, despite her firm denial.

McKay won that challenge — just — but was booted out four years later when NSW Labor suffered the biggest anti-government swing in Australian political history at the 2011 state election. In her years out of parliament, a tearful McKay appeared before ICAC hearings where she would discover that corrupt former power-broker Joe Tripodi had taken money from mining magnate Nathan Tinkler to run smear campaigns against her.

The ICAC probe, which exposed so many problems that had been allowed to fester in the ranks of the last NSW Labor government, won McKay plaudits and sympathy. As The Australian noted in a 2014 feature “unlike so many of her parliamentary colleagues, [McKay] came out with her reputation enhanced”.

By 2015, McKay was back in parliament, successfully retaking the inner west Sydney seat of Strathfield. Since then she has served on the frontbench as the shadow minister for transport.

Who supports them?

Many in the union movement still haven’t forgiven Minns for his 2015 speech. Within minutes of announcing his candidacy, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union had expressed a lack of confidence in Minns, with the Newcastle branch of the meatworkers’ union going on to suggest he would “lead a party of out-of-touch elitists”.

More recently, however, Minns has managed to get the Australian Workers’ Union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) and the Health Services Union on side. McKay, meanwhile, has the support of the left-wing Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union.

Despite his long career as a party apparatchik, Minns has struggled to get a clear endorsement from Sussex Street. Crucial to this lack of endorsement is his terse relationship with the party’s powerful NSW general secretary Kaila Murnain, who is said to harbour some resentment towards Minns after he defended Murnain’s predecessor Jamie Clements following sexual harassment allegations that led to Clements’ downfall. Murnain is said to be firmly backing McKay.

McKay also appears to have her nose ahead in the caucus vote, with eight out of the 20 shadow cabinet members backing her. But it’s far from a given that the rest of the Labor hierarchy will rally around McKay. Key unions are still concerned about her support for electricity privatisation in 2008. An email from McKay proudly stressing the fact that, unlike her opponent, she is not a “career politician” and has never been involved in Young Labor, appears to have rubbed some old party hacks the wrong way.

That means that the party’s future in NSW still lies in the hands of the 20,000 rank-and-file members who will also vote on a new leader.

At a debate last night, both candidates made pledges about the need for renewal, to win back migrants, aspirational voters and the regions. After the sore disappointment of the last few months, whoever succeeds will have their work cut out for them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey