Labor stalwart John Faulkner knows his call to empower party members will send the NSW state conference into chaos and splinter his own Left faction. He also knows it’s essential. By Sophie Morris.

Faulkner expects state conference defeat on party reform

"Father of the Senate", Labor's John Faulkner.
Credit: Sally Tsoutas, University of Western Sydney
John Faulkner is used to glorious defeat at Labor conferences. It’s the lot of those on the left in New South Wales.

But when the veteran senator rises to call for party reform at the state Labor conference next weekend, he will be taking on not just the powerful right wing of the party but also chiefs in his own faction.

“I’ll be trying to move these rule changes, to include a commitment to an expectation of integrity and to reform preselection processes for the NSW legislative council and the federal senate,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “But I fully understand and expect they will be resoundingly defeated.”

Faulkner’s proposal to cut union bosses and factional chiefs out of upper house preselections will not be dismissed without a bunfight. The opening rounds are already playing out. Anthony Albanese, who last year won the rank-and-file ballot to be interim Labor leader, has broken his silence on party reform to endorse Faulkner’s proposal, which goes beyond what Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has advocated.

Faulkner wants party members – rather than powerbrokers – to decide candidates for the senate and legislative council.

Asked whether he supports Faulkner’s model, Albanese says, “Yes, I do. It will be canvassed at conference. I have consistently argued we need to empower the membership to give it more authority than simply handing out how-to votes. 

“If it’s the case we’re giving party members a direct say in the most important decision of who the national leader of the party is,” he says, “I think it’s hard to argue that the membership isn’t capable of having a say in less significant decisions.”

For Faulkner, it is a vital anti-corruption measure to restore trust in the damaged party. After experiencing its worst defeat in a century, in 2011, the ALP in NSW faces a state election next March.

Faulkner believes the stranglehold a small coterie of powerbrokers has over the party led to the promotion of corrupt individuals, including disgraced former state ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald. “Our present system rewards intrigue, trading favours and doing deals,” Faulkner wrote to ALP members in April.

But his proposal seems doomed to fail. Not only has it been kiboshed by the dominant right wing of the state party, notably secretary Jamie Clements, it is also being resisted by left-wing union chiefs.

The Left faction is set to split on the issue on the floor of the conference, ensuring a feisty debate.

A chief opponent of Faulkner’s reform on the left is Tim Ayres, who is a member of the ALP’s national executive and the NSW secretary of the metalworkers’ union. The metalworkers supported Macdonald, who was secretary of the NSW Left faction for more than a decade.  

Ayres acknowledges the need to push back against “hyper-factionalism” and says Faulkner’s proposal is “well motivated” but will amount to a damaging rupture with the union movement.

“If we are entirely internally focused as a party, and shift away from the institutions that represent hundreds of thousands of people, that’s a problem for us,” Ayres says.

Even if Faulkner is defeated, as he expects, his argument will resonate beyond NSW as the party prepares for a federal conference in mid-2015.

When Shorten outlined his gradual approach to party reform in April, he said the rancour over senate preselections in Western Australia, when union chief Joe Bullock was installed above the then sitting senator Louise Pratt, showed members must have some say. Following the controversy, the ALP secured just 21 per cent of the vote at the Western Australia senate election rerun . Pratt lost her seat.

Shorten asked the WA party to work on a model for increasing rank-and-file input while retaining a say for party chiefs. At its state conference this month, the party adopted modest changes, giving members a limited say, of 25 per cent, in some upper house preselections.  

Bullock, who took up his senate spot this month, says it was legitimate to debate extra rank-and-file involvement. But he adds that for upper house candidates, where there is less local engagement, there is a good argument for party and union chiefs – who have better knowledge of the candidates and the party – to retain a deciding say. 

“I think it’s vital to have union influence in all levels of the Labor Party,” he says. “It’s what makes the Labor Party the Labor Party.”

1 . A welcome distraction 

The renewed debate about party reform comes as the federal opposition risks being eclipsed by crossbench senators, who now wield the power to block government legislation.

In the first sitting fortnight of the new senate, Clive Palmer has repeatedly toyed with the government. He extracted complicated conditions on the carbon tax repeal and the government’s changes to the Future of Financial Advice reforms before agreeing to support them. 

The chaos in the senate and the attention on the boisterous crossbench is not necessarily a bad thing for Labor at this stage of the electoral cycle, less than a year after the election. 

The opposition’s tactic so far has been to present itself as taking a methodical approach, in contrast with the government’s attempts to respond to the unpredictable antics of Palmer.

Labor has already had some success in dealing with the crossbench, rallying support to dramatically amend the government’s $5 billion asset recycling fund. It has also had a win on Qantas foreign ownership, with the government adopting Labor’s preferred position. Both items fall in Albanese’s bailiwick, as Labor’s transport and infrastructure spokesman.

On Wednesday, Labor teamed up with the Greens and the Palmer United Party, dealing a blow to the government by disallowing a visa regime making it easier for foreigners to work on oil rigs.

For Shorten, who has often struggled to be heard as leader, the new senate may be a welcome distraction, allowing him to consolidate the party’s stance on key policies and take a longer view, beyond the daily news cycle.

As the government moved towards finally repealing the carbon price, there was nothing Labor could do to stop it. But Shorten marked the occasion with a speech in the House of Representatives that was lauded even by Labor MPs who are normally critical of his somewhat wooden style.  

“Only one party in Australia has a serious, substantial and credible climate change policy,” he said. “The Australian Labor Party.”

He admitted Labor’s mistakes in not pushing harder for an emissions trading scheme in 2009 and 2010. After the senate vote, he vowed Labor would take an ETS to the next election.

2 . One last stand

Albanese has long advocated further democratisation of the party but has until now refrained from the recent debate on the issue – an attempt to avoid being seen to undermine or upstage Shorten.

Shorten will speak at the NSW Labor conference, which is likely to adopt some of his reform proposals, including giving members a 50 per cent say in electing state leaders and abolishing the requirement that ALP members join a union.

As far back as 1991, Albanese – then assistant general secretary of the NSW ALP – was calling for internal party reforms. A mugshot of a fresh-faced Albanese, sporting a bonzer mullet, stares from the pages of the NSW Socialist Left Challenge magazine, in which he urged further democratisation of the party. 

He argued for broad reform: “Branch members should have a direct say in selecting candidates for public office, for branch executives, delegates to the electorate councils, state and national ALP conferences and party officials.”

Now he wants debate on giving members more input across a range of fronts. “Issues of policy development could also be something people engage with online in an active process,” he says.

Faulkner outlined his proposals in the strongly worded letter to ALP members in April, warning the party must prove it has changed and will never again foster corruption.

“Putting preselection for senators and MLCs into the hands of the members will bring transparency and democracy to a process that is sadly deficient in both qualities,” he wrote.

He wants to enshrine a commitment to ethical behaviour in party rules, but warns that doing this while “leaving power within the NSW branch concentrated in a tiny number of factional leaders would be nothing but window-dressing – hanging new curtains while behind the curtains the house is burning”.

Now Faulkner, who will retire from parliament when his term ends in 2017, is determined to take one last stand. The resistance from factional chiefs on both the left and the right has done nothing to dissuade him.

If anything, it has cemented his resolve.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 19, 2014 as "Rebel with a lost cause".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.