Submission to the Lavarch Review into the Governance and Culture of the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party.
Penny Sharpe – member since 1990
22 October 2019
I have been a member of the NSW Labor Party for twenty-nine years. I joined at nineteen because I wanted to stop talking about changing the world and instead wanted to be part of the change to a fairer, more sustainable, economically robust, innovative and creative Australia. Joining Labor was (and is) about being able to be part of change that can be delivered through the election of Labor governments.
I choose Labor because I want to be part of a movement that sees Australia as the lucky country, an inclusive and dynamic place where everyone, no matter where you come from or what your circumstances, can find a way to a good life.
For the past thirty years I have participated at every level of the Labor Party. I have been a member, a branch official and a delegate to state and national conferences. I have been a local government councillor. For the past 14 years I have had the great privilege of being a Labor Member of the NSW Legislative Council. I have briefly been the state leader of our great party.
I am a member of the Left faction of the Labor Party and I am currently the Senior Vice President of the NSW Left. This submission is provided in a personal capacity.
In 29 years, there have been eight General Secretaries and ten state Labor leaders. I have witnessed former MP’s and influential party members go to gaol or be forced to resign in disgrace as ICAC referrals, electoral commission investigations, illegal activity and sordid personal behaviour have revealed that there is something fundamentally wrong with the party I love.
In that same time, Labor in NSW has not won an election since 2007 and federally since 2010.
Like other party members, I have participated in previous reviews. There have been many. Nothing has changed, indeed the churn in general secretaries and state Labor leaders has increased, the ICAC investigations keep coming and elections continue to be lost.
I was heartbroken to see our hard working and incredible local candidates put their lives on hold and themselves into personal debt and unemployment as they worked themselves into the ground, were hounded to raise money, work harder and do more while our own head office sat on $100,000 of illegal donations.
Our party members put in time, effort and money into campaigning for a better NSW only see their work destroyed by a culture that puts factions and personal ambition above the party. We are lucky they stay to fight another day. We owe them so much more.
For this review to be different to the many that have gone before there has to be honesty about the culture, the governance and democratic deficits in NSW Labor. After the “real talk” ultimately there needs to be those willing to make the changes needed to rebuild a party fit for the 2020’s and beyond.
Before this review has even put pen to paper, my greatest concern is that NSW Labor is already getting ready to return to business as usual. With millions of dollars in legal fees to be paid, the possibility of gaol time for party members and ex MP’s, the dominant faction has already chosen the next general secretary who is acting in the role and will no doubt be installed as soon as the review is over.
This is not a comment on the proposed individual but a deep concern that we are not asking the basic question, if NSW Labor keeps making decisions in the same way we always have, how can we expect a different result in the future?
NSW Labor’s culture is based on a winner takes all mentality that comes from our structure controlled by the factions, most significantly the right faction. This culture is celebrated, mythologised and rewarded in every party unit except our local branches where the factions are known but remain largely hidden in plain sight of the average branch member.
Books are written about the culture, consulting and media careers are built on it and all the while NSW Labor continues to lose elections and struggles to maintain membership.
The culture is derived from the exercise of power. Power in Labor is held and wielded by those that can form a majority at the state Labor conference. The state conference of 800+ delegates is made up of 50% unions delegates (each union is factionally aligned to either the right of the left), the remaining 50% is made up of delegates from state and federal electorate councils (the vast majority of these delegates are also formally members of the right or the left factions), elected state and federal MP’s (all factionally aligned) plus a range of others from policy committees (again all factionally aligned) and Young Labor (also factionally aligned)
The reality of NSW Labor is that the factional system is so entrenched that the numbers at state conferences change little conference to conference with the right controlling between 65-70% of the numbers and the left 30-35%. Even though most party members are not members of factions, the state conference has only a handful of delegates who are non-aligned.
All elected positions are decided by conference: the General Secretary, the President, the Vice Presidents, the Administrative Committee, the Country Organiser, the State Organisers and the Policy Committees. With the numbers set it means that one faction has had control of the branch in perpetuity. Once elected, officials are in place for as long as their faction wants them there.
Experience, aptitude, diversity, qualifications, campaign skills and the ability to work with people are not the main considerations when these positions are filled. The faction someone comes from is the most significant part of being able to win a position.
There have always been clever, experienced and principled people from both factions who have held positions in the NSW state branch but the culture means that even good people trying to do the right thing have been casualties to the culture of winner takes all and faction above party.
With the exception of election campaigns, working together is rarely rewarded, the culture mostly frowns upon collaboration, innovation and teamwork.
Our structure and the dominance of one faction has led to a culture of secrecy, blame shifting, lack of trust and an emphasis on the exercise of factional power rather than transparent, democratic, accountable organisational power.
Our culture has promoted and often rewarded behaviour that would not be tolerated in any private or public company or organisation. Every decision is made through a factional filter and even if it is not, the motivations of others are always seen this way regardless of the decision made.
What will it take to change the culture of secrecy and mistrust and to put a stop to ICAC investigations and illegal activities that bring the entire party and our membership into disrepute?
What will it take to regain the trust of the general community who no longer can bring themselves to vote Labor?
Governance of the NSW branch has been shown to be seriously problematic for decades.
To give just one but important recent example of the lack of trust in governance of the NSW Branch, the leadership ballot to decide the leader of the state parliamentary party was conducted by an outside company largely because there was lack of confidence that the branch could run a fair ballot on its own.
ICAC investigations, electoral commission inquiries, breaches of privacy, leaking information to hurt political opponents and abuse of the membership lists are more familiar examples.
Similarly, when it comes to the rules of the party, these should be followed and adjudicated on in good faith and in an impartial and transparent manner. This is the exception rather than the rule.
It should not be that difficult. Labor must hold itself to the highest standards of integrity and transparency and be accountable for making the most basic but uncompromising commitment to our members and to the community. Labor will follow our rules and we will follow the law.
When it comes to public funding, fund raising and elections, the NSW Branch from the General Secretary down must understand and follow the law. Their job is to ensure that all party units and members understand and follow the law.
The allocation of resources within the state branch should be commensurate with the task that is required to get the job done, staff should be appointed with the requisite skills (not the factional allegiances) to make sure the job is done.
There needs to be proper IT systems in place that provide complete transparency, privacy and accountability for donations and membership records. There has been some progress on this in recent times but more needs to be done.
All officers and staff must be empowered and required to formally report any concerns they have about processes and procedures that they believe do not follow the law or party rules.
For this to have real effect, the requirement for disclosure must be to an appropriate governance body that is not derived from factional numbers but that contains people with governance, legal, financial and other relevant experience. Reporting issues of concern to that body must be direct not via the party officers. The governance body must be empowered to refer breaches of the law to the appropriate authority (Police, the Electoral Commission, ICAC et al) and be able to apply sanctions to anyone who does the wrong thing. Those who report such concerns must also have proper protections in place for making such disclosures.
The General Secretary should be accountable to and responsible to the whole party not just the dominant faction. To give this effect the way the General Secretary is elected must change. The options include a direct election of all members or a super majority of the state conference.
The current administrative committee is too big and does little to manage the day to day operations of the branch. Similarly, the party officer’s forum is relied on too frequently and too factionally to do the bidding of the General Secretary and the decisions made by the dominant faction to resolve issues within the branch. This must stop.
There needs to be a governing committee to which all party officers are required to report to and work with to resolve issues. Party officers’ meetings should be the exception not the norm. There have previously been recommendations about changing the admin committee, it is worth revisiting those reviews.
All party officers should have clear roles and responsibilities and clear lines of delegation. The emphasis should be on joint responsibility for all decision making based on fair, transparent rules and the law. This also includes equal access to information for the Party Officers including, legal advice and campaign research. Just stopping the petty factional plays and instead focussing on building a strong Labor Party able to run campaigns and win elections would make a huge difference.
The young woman who joined the Labor Party in 1990 is still as passionate about making Australia a better place in 2019. Like all party members, I know it is Labor Governments who can deliver the fairer, more sustainable, economically strong, innovative and creative nation Australia can be.
This review is another in a long list of previous reviews. It has never been more urgent to make the changes we need. Failure to change the way NSW Labor operates means that the very difficult job that social democratic parties must do to win the trust and support of the community so we can win government to implement our policy agenda will become impossible.
At the end of this review, the key question remains, what will the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party being doing differently to what is has done in the past?