Lavarch review: It's time to fix NSW Labor

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Jodi McKay and Anthony Albanese have appointed Michael Lavarch (centre) to conduct a review of NSW Labor's poor performance (Screenshot via YouTube - edited)

Following a review of the flaws in NSW Labor, Chris Haviland suggests some recommendations in which it could be improved.

THE REVIEW OF NSW LABOR being undertaken by Professor Michael Lavarch was announced by NSW Parliamentary Leader Jodi McKay and Federal Leader Anthony Albanese on 13 October.

More than 650 submissions were received by the 25 October deadline.

In this article, I share some extracts from my submission.

The ALP NSW branch: Time for a complete overhaul

The announcement of the Lavarch review followed damaging media coverage of the hearing at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in relation to allegations about election donations.

This has already led to the suspension and resignation of the party’s General Secretary, Kaila Murnain and serious questions regarding the conduct while in office of the previous General Secretary, Jamie Clements.

However, this review must examine more than just specific incidents in the past few years. The fact that incidents of this nature continue to occur within the party in NSW point to not only systemic administrative failures but an ongoing structural and cultural problem in the NSW branch.

It will be claimed by some that recent problems are a “one-off” caused by a “few bad apples”. This neither identifies nor addresses the real problem.

It has been 65 years since the current regime that controls NSW Labor has been in place. The absolute control of the dominant Right faction over 65 years has led to a succession of scandals and a total lack of accountability, transparency and integrity.

In 1980, a young Left member of the NSW Legislative Council, Peter Baldwin, was brutally bashed within an inch of his life as he returned home after a branch meeting. Nobody has ever been charged with this vicious crime, but it is one of the worst kept secrets in Sydney who was responsible.

In 1991, the party in NSW had the opportunity to select Graham Freudenberg, the eminent speechwriter for Prime Ministers Whitlam and Hawke, for the Legislative Council ticket. However, instead, they chose a character named Eddie Obeid, supported by Graham Richardson.

Richardson also recruited one Joe Tripodi to wrest control of Young Labor from the Left. Richardson employed Tripodi and continued to promote him until he and Obeid were both ministers in the NSW Labor Government. The shame and disgrace inflicted on the party during that period need no elaboration.

Following the disastrous rout of the 2011 State Election, efforts were made to rid the party of the worst elements of corruption. Obeid went to gaol. Others such as Tripodi featured in hearings of the ICAC.

In 2011, at a meeting of angry party members in Sydney, I described the election defeat as being a bit like the Great Fire of London of 1666, which had followed the Great Plague of 1665. The fire had been a disaster which killed many Londoners but cleaned away the stench and the disease from the plague.

Eight years later, we are back at the ICAC with more scandals. So this is not just a few bad apples, it is the result of a toxic culture arising from an undemocratic structure with systemic failures and abuses of power. Indeed, two booklets were produced by concerned party activists, one in 1983 and another in 1993 — both were titled ‘Abuse of Power’.

And, notwithstanding some attempts in the past three years to improve the party’s governance, it is still happening after 65 years.

NSW Labor simply will never win another State or Federal Election unless the organisation is cleaned up.

Historical background

It is important to understand the history of the NSW branch of the ALP. Since the 1950s, during the Great Labor Split, the branch has been controlled by a dominant group referred to as Centre Unity or the Right Faction. This group originally comprised predominately socially conservative Catholics, who were adherents of the Industrial Groups of BA (Bob) Santamaria, known as the National Civic Council (NCC).

The NCC or “Grouper” movement began around the end of World War 2. In Victoria, a number of Labor MPs broke away from the party and stood as “ALP-AC” (anti-communist) candidates and some were elected. These MPs and their supporters later started a political party, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The presence of the DLP, with whom Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies cleverly curried favour, eventually kept the ALP out of office federally for over two decades.

The DLP’s main influence was in Victoria. However, in NSW, most of the Catholic anti-communist elements were persuaded, possibly by the Church, to remain in the ALP. This had the advantage of enabling Labor to retain government in NSW whilst being in perpetual opposition in Canberra. But it also meant that the ALP in NSW was very socially conservative and was ruled by the Groupers as the dominant faction.

This led to the formation in 1954 of the Combined Unions and Branches Steering Committee, which became known as the NSW Left Faction. Its purpose was to counter the Right-wing influence of the Groupers who controlled the party. However, for 65 years, the Right has remained the dominant faction with majorities of between 55 per cent and 65 per cent of delegates at the annual State Conference.

This dominance has continued despite the obvious changes in society and in the make-up of the ALP membership since 1954. In the 20th century, until at least the 1960s, sectarianism was an ever-present feature of Australian society. Today it hardly exists.

Until the 1970s, one of the reasons Catholics tended to join or support either Labor or the DLP was that they weren’t welcome in the Liberal Party. The Liberals under Menzies were a white Anglo-Protestant party. In their 23 years of Government from 1949 to 1972, not one Liberal Minister was a Catholic.

Compare that to the present time, as the hard-Right socially conservative Catholics are becoming quite dominant in the Liberal Party. Two examples are obviously Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews. It is instructive that Abbott has said publicly that one of his most important mentors was Bob Santamaria.

This has led to a change in the nature of the people who make up the NSW Right. No longer is it dominated by hard-line Catholics.

The Left, too, has changed markedly. Since the 1960s, with the various protest movements around peace and equality and particularly since the Whitlam Government introduced free tertiary education, many university-educated professionals with a social conscience have joined the Labor Party.

To a large extent, the ideological differences between the factions in NSW have diminished. But the numerical dominance at the annual Conference and in positions of power still remains. This is a function, not of ideology but of power and the desire to cling to power.

A quick look at the NSW Labor Rules will show that factions don’t exist in the rules.

However, the reality is that when one group continually dominates a party to this extent, it leads to systemic problems. The old saying “power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies. The dominant faction becomes so used to power that it becomes autocratic, unaccountable and resists any change that might threaten its hold on power.

NSW is the only state where one group has had such a large and long-lasting dominance at the State Conference and therefore at Head Office level. Unsurprisingly, NSW is also the only state which doesn’t have any direct election of delegates to the annual Conference. As the Right have clear control under the current Conference structure, they have repeatedly pushed back against any moves to democratise or reform the party to give members more say.

John Faulkner, a highly-regarded senator, produced a raft of proposals in 2014. Faulkner had been one of three eminent party figures, along with former Premiers Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, who had presented a review of the 2010 Federal Election campaign with a number of recommendations for reform and democratisation of the party. Most of these have never been implemented.

Faulkner’s 2014 proposals received huge support from party units, particularly those relating to direct elections of party officers and Upper House positions. However, the ruling faction, with some help from unions in both factions, would not embrace any change.

Just as Bill Shorten found to his cost at the 2015 National Conference, once a group has power, it is almost impossible to make them agree to any change that might jeopardise or reduce that power. So change has to be forced upon them.


Here are some of the key recommendations included in my submission:

  • that the General Secretary no longer be an elected position, but an appointed CEO-style position appointed by and responsible to a Board of Management;
  • that a new management team, reporting to the General Secretary, be appointed by merit selection. The team will include a Compliance/Governance Officer, a Finance Officer, a Fundraising Officer and a HR/Training Officer;
  • that the NSW Presidential Officers be directly elected by membership ballot of all party members in NSW;
  • that all NSW Annual Conference Delegates be directly elected by membership ballot within their constituency;
  • that the rules be amended to provide for a greater representation of rank and file delegates at the NSW Annual Conference;
  • that a Board of Management is established, comprising 13 members elected by the Annual Conference; and
  • that the Administrative Committee continue to exist, meeting quarterly and focus on strategic political direction, campaigning and policy matters within the party.

Chris Haviland is a former Federal MP. He is a 40-year member of the ALP and a 25-year member of the Sydney Swans.

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