What next for Labor?

Author: John Graham is the Assistant General Secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party

Each Australian Federal election campaign seems more presidential than the last, but I doubt we have ever seen a Federal campaign where
Labor’s leader was so central to the contest…

…his removal, his return and his programme.

I want to tell the other story of Labor’s campaign though: the massive grassroots effort to put Labor’s story directly to voters.
Labor supporters made more than 1,000,000 calls in the campaign.

Labor talked publicly about that massive calling effort as we sought to draw new volunteers into our campaign.

It worked – we estimate that 60% of volunteers had never been involved in a Labor campaign before.

So tonight I wanted to set aside the focus on the leaders that dominates every election campaign, and talk from the perspective of the broader
Labor movement – from the perspective of some of those people who made those 1,000,000 calls for Labor.

Who better to understand that perspective than the Fabian Society?

The Fabians are an organisation that not only claims to be Australia’s oldest think-tank…

…but that is also understandably proud of its history as a democratic organisation, as a part of the progressive and labor movements.

I am pleased however, that the Australian Fabian society doesn’t run candidates for election in its own right – as its British counterpart did in times past.

Had the Fabians run as a micro-party for the Australian Senate this last week, they might just have succeeded.

Stranger things have happened.

This election may result in a total of eight crossbench Senators in the Australian Senate.

Strange results shaped by strange alliances. None stranger than the likely result of two Greens senators being elected by coal baron Clive Palmer’s preferences, and in return a Palmer Senator being elected on Green preferences in Christine Milne’s home state.

It’s the ultimate pragmatic alliance between the climate crusader and the climate catastrophe. I am sure it would come as a shock to voters from both parties.

I wanted firstly to review this election campaign, and then to talk about two important decisions for Labor – to fight for its values, and to continue to reform.

Labor decisively lost this election.

It is no use glossing over the loss.

Labor is predicted to hold just 57 seats.

In NSW, it is the first time that both state and federal government have been held by the conservatives since 1976.

Labor's primary vote of 33.8% was far lower than 1996 when it was 38.8%. Our vote is lower even than in and 1977 when it was 39.6%. 

Even worse, put aside those lost MPs lost in the electoral process; in the last six years through accident or misadventure, we lost a talented generation of Labor identities– I am thinking of ministers such as Bob Debus, Stephen Smith, Greg Combet, and Peter Garrett.

Labor legends lost, not at the ballot box, but presumed exhausted, by the culture we created.

All serious parliamentarians and good people.

You’d trade ten Julie Bishop’s, or perhaps fifteen Christopher Pyne’s - for any single one of them.

It is only by acknowledging the seriousness of this result that can we rebuild.

Could it have been worse?

It is true the election could have been worse.

At one point in Sydney, Labor’s NSW campaign feared losing the seats of Blaxland and Chifley, seats on more than 12% margins.

Despite the crushing loss….

…we have kept many of our new generation MPs...

…for that reason Labor can fight back.

Campaign

There were many observations about the military discipline of the Coalition campaign.

It was a strength; perhaps a natural strength for a conservative party, keen to preserve the status quo.

It would be a mistake for Labor to merely replicate the military discipline of the coalition campaign…

…although we clearly have some room to improve.

We need to understand the strengths of each side of politics – especially Labor’s strength as a movement that can inspire and engage people.

Labor has dual goals, not just to win government, but to win change.

I simply don’t believe we could win and hold support for the sort of programme that a Rudd Government, or a Gillard Government, advocated for while in power, without campaigning as a movement in the community.

Think of the interests that the Government took on at times: powerful media interests, tobacco, alcohol and gambling interests, health
interests and mining interests.

Each of those fights was in the public interest.

In only some of those fights did we mobilise the public.

Both the Rudd Government and the Gillard Government were good governments.

If Labor is to win government and to win change though, we have to see ourselves as a movement…

… campaign as a movement …

…and govern as a movement …

…even if at times that is messier and more public than the conservatives.

Chaos and disunity

There is no question that the chaos and disunity that was seen to characterise this government cost us the election.

That was clear from the public feedback, and both the public and our private polling.

One of the mysteries of this period of government is that a talented collection of individuals – members of parliament that Labor party members are incredibly proud to support - were collectively so incapable of forming trusting relationships.

This is the real tragedy of Labor in government.

I have been pleased to see in the days after the election prominent Labor figures come and rule out the sort of chaos and dysfunction in future.

What exactly are we not going to do?

It is worth asking tonight though what that means? What does it mean to put an end to chaos and instability?

Does it mean Labor works as a team? Does it mean that the backgrounding and undermining that became routine in the leadership battles of the past six years is over?

It should.

Does it mean we won’t change leader overnight?

I think the answer is yes to that, provided we retain the new system of electing a leader.

Crucially, does it mean being prepared to stand and fight for Labor’s programme? Being prepared to put aside the opinion polling, to
persuade the electorate?

It must.

At the core of the perception of chaos in the Government was our inability to stay the course at key moments of decision.

I hope we don’t mainly oppose chaos and disunity because it is the number one issue in our exit polling.

That would not be good enough.

That would not be sustained.

The discipline and purpose we require will only come from a deep belief in Labor’s cause.

All politics starts from belief.

We saw that in Government, when we fought for DisabilityCare, and Tony Abbott folded.

When we fought for the better schools programme – the artist formerly known as Gonski – and won.

Labor can learn this lesson.

We have been through this experience before, when Labor post-Whitlam had to learn the lessons of that dramatic period of Government.

The lesson was this, to quote Bill Hayden at Labor’s 1979 National Conference in Adelaide:

“We cannot achieve social reform unless we competently manage the economy”.

The next Labor Government will only be formed when we show we have learnt the lessons of this period. Perhaps Hayden might have summarised our more recent lesson in this way:

“We cannot achieve social reform unless we competently manage.”

What do we do from here? Firstly, we should fight for our values while in opposition.

There should be no backtracking, no compromise on four important issues of the future, on carbon pricing, on education, the NBN and
industrial relations.

Abbott having given no quarter, should be given no quarter by Labor.

We should assert our view, in the Parliament, including in the Senate and in the community.

On key issues - Labor is on the right side of history:

On climate change – as the science becomes unequivocal, as nations act…

On the NBN – where a future government will at some point have to finish the job of getting fibre to the home for Australian families to fully
participate in the 21st century…

On education – where without settling the divisive issue of the relative funding of private and public schooling – this debate will now roll on.

On fair work – a fundamental issue for Labor.

We should stay the course on these issues.

We didn’t always get it right, but on these fundamental questions for Labor and the future of the country, we should stand our ground.

Reform

Labor should select its leader under the new election system adopted by the caucus.

Australian Labor is last to move on this front. Each of our English speaking, Westminster sister-parties have adopted a broad election
system for their leader.

In fact we are eagerly waiting to hear the result of the leadership contest in the NZ labour party. It’s due next week and at this stage too close to
call.

That is the sort of energising campaign I hope to see at some point for the Australian Labor leadership.

I have noted some comments that we should retain the old system of electing our leader, returning it to the caucus.

I reject that view.

This new election measure is a significant step.

It is a sign that Labor understands it needs to open the party up…

…A sign that leaders once elected will be supported.

…A sign that Labor can reform.

Having been adopted, party members won’t accept it being taken away.

In the contest for our leadership, I think members would accept a parliamentary party consensus in favour of one contender or another.

If there is a consensus, on the leadership and direction of the parliamentary Labor party, that’s to be commended.

If there is not a consensus, on either the leader or on the direction, then we should not fear a ballot.

At this point in the electoral cycle it offers a chance to forge such a consensus in the course of such a ballot.

A consensus forged in debate, not in the backroom.

A consensus which is then able to be sustained.

Reform

Labor’s reform debate sometimes seems endless.

That is for one reason: there is not yet agreement about reform in the Labor party.

Not about the final destination, nor about the path.

Not after our last national conference failed to act.

Until there is the debate will continue.

An agreed path for reform for Labor in its next period would be based on the following principles:

Labor would address its governance issues, and ensure it remains free of corruption and has candidates of the highest standard.

This is agreed, and the Federal intervention helped secure this in NSW.

Now we need to work in practice to implement this approach.

Secondly, we need a dramatically more democratic Labor party based on this simple principle - more people have a say in our affairs.

That should be applied to the selection of our leaders, to the use of community preselections including for Federal preselections, just as it should be applied to the election of positions like the one I hold in the Labor Party. 

Thirdly, we need to strengthen Labor’s national institutions.

I say that at the risk of offending almost all my state branch colleagues.

Power in the Labor party resides too heavily in its state branches.

Things have improved since Gough Whitlam declared in 1957:

"The Australian Labor Party is a confederation of six state Labor parties.”

They improved in no small part because of Gough’s actions as a reforming Labor leader.

If we are keep a strong national focus in Labor…

…and to win national government more often…

…I believe we need to further strengthen Labor nationally.

We have begun this process with the establishment of the National Policy forum.

However our last national conference rejected an attempt to strengthen and democratise our future national conferences.

It was a massive failure, an historic abrogation of responsibility.

The party’s National Executive has failed to act since, as promised.

The NSW branch of the Labor party intends to send delegates, directly elected from their local federal electorates to the next National
Conference.

We will do so even if the Labor party nationally fails to act…

…even if the current rules restrict our ability to do so.

When we do, the first decision of that conference may be whether to seat a NSW delegation that breaches Labor’s rules, but honours the
spirit of the 2010 National Review.

The NSW Branch is simply not prepared to wait for Labor to reform itself.

The Fabians are noted for their support of gradual change, notably set out in that first Fabian pamphlet:

"For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays"

On the matter of reform in the Labor party though, I would argue we need to lean heavily on the second part of that maxim, which read:

“but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless."

I know the Fabians have debated over many years whether General Fabius ever did act… but Labor must.

The time has come to act on these issues for Labor.

The path forward for labor is to fight proudly for its programme and to continue to reform. 

If we meet those challenges we can look forward to a bright future.