It’s the great Labor lie. A dazzling piece of sophistry designed to deflect from the true purpose of party reform.
It was reproduced in these pages on Monday when NSW Labor Secretary Jamie Clements argued against Senator John Faulkner’s proposals for democratising the selection of upper house candidates.
Clements insisted that ''more than 350,000 affiliated union members in NSW need to have some say in the selection of our candidates – we don’t want a white-collar-only upper house''.
He was supporting the present system of Labor preselection, the model that gave us Eddie Obeid, Tony Kelly and Ian Macdonald. It operates as a factional oligarchy, whereby right- and left-wing union secretaries control voting blocs at the State Party Conference, giving them the numbers to select upper house candidates (for the NSW Legislative Council and Federal Senate).
In practice, the ''350,000 affiliated union members in NSW'' have no say in this process. A few of them go to State Conference as union delegates, but once there, they vote as a bloc under the instruction of union secretaries. Anyone displaying signs of independence is automatically black-balled from future conferences.
These highly-disciplined union numbers are the backbone of the party’s factional system. They put Mr Clements in his position and keep him there, as long as he doesn’t challenge the authority of the union secretaries. Clements has argued for the status quo not because it’s the best system for Labor, but because it’s the best system for union-sponsored powerbrokers like him.
The case for change is self-evident: during the term of the last state Labor government, the party’s union/factional hierarchy preselected and protected a group of corrupt Legislative Council members. It didn’t generate a blue- or white-collar upper house, it created striped-collar Labor representation – as in the collars worn by criminals.
How did this happen? By its nature, tight factional control gives powerbrokers the feeling they can get away with anything inside the party. Once in government, it’s only a small extra step to carry this ethos of invincibility into ministerial decision-making.
Having run the NSW Right, Obeid thought he could run the NSW government for private financial gain. In this project, he co-opted the assistance of the long-time secretary of the NSW Left, Macdonald – an example of cross-factional corruption.
Instead of arguing for the status quo, Clements and the union secretaries should be apologising for it. They should be repentant about the self-serving excesses of the factional model and acknowledge the need for democratisation.
The underlying weakness in their position is this: the only people in NSW who would think the existing system works well are Clements and the union secretaries. While they have the numbers to prevail in the short term, they lack the legitimacy and strength of argument to prop up their position indefinitely.
Yes, they have the power to hand-pick more Obeids and Macdonalds for the upper house, more union officials, more dopey apparatchiks, more yes-men and women, but that doesn’t make it right. Change will come eventually and when it does, history will pass harsh judgement on Clements and his fellow factional warlords.
Faulkner’s reform plan, to be put to State Conference this weekend, is to allow ALP branch members to select the party’s upper house tickets. Having given rank-and-file members a say in the selection of Labor’s federal and state leaders, why shouldn’t they be empowered to preselect upper house candidates? Why doesn’t Clements trust the True Believers who staff the polling booths, who keep their local branches alive, who fight so passionately for the cause of Labor?
Far from restricting rank-and-file union involvement, democratisation encourages it. It says to union members: don’t allow union secretaries doubling up as factional bosses to make all the big decisions. Join your local ALP branch and have a direct say in how the party is run: in picking federal and state leaders, in selecting Labor’s lower and upper house candidates.
This is what Faulkner is trying to achieve: Labor as a membership-based party, rather than a narrow factional-based clique.
Mark Latham is a former leader of the federal Australian Labor Party.