In Melbourne on Tuesday at a conference on integrity in government, Senator John Faulkner launched a well-aimed fusillade against the forces of corruption in the Labor party. It is just one skirmish in the ongoing war for reform of the ALP that began, in its most recent form, with the 2010 Faulkner-Carr-Bracks report (pdf). But it is an important one, and comes at a time when the depths of venality within the NSW branch are being exposed by ICAC.
If the earlier calls for reform had been taken seriously then it is precisely at this moment, when the ALP is at such low ebb, that the action taken on them would be able to strengthen the party’s standing. Their supporters would be able to point to the changes that had been implemented to show they had used the crisis to fundamentally reshape the party. But this has not happened. So it is now, when even the most strident defenders of the factional system and the status quo have to face the facts that ICAC is unearthing, that the cause for reform must be driven home.
Many are asking whether Faulkner’s broadside will make any difference. Historically, attempts at democratic and transparent improvements to the party’s structures, even when backed by elders like Carr, Bracks and Hawke, have found little success.
Although prominent officials and parliamentary leaders may have spoken in favour of them, when it comes to the crucial point of implementation the ALP machinery becomes mysteriously jammed. Disappointing outcomes from reform programmes at the 2011 national conference in Sydney and the 2012 NSW conference were widely reported in the media; ambitious plans for rule changes and more open processes were blocked by established power players, who held the numbers and saw no incentive to change.
This is often conceived of as a battle between the Left and the Right in the party, with the former fighting for greater transparency and participation, and seeking out people of principle on the other side to take a stand against the old Terrigal warlords. While this has certainly been true of the battles at conference, the Left has had to face the fact that in the latest corruption scandal, one of the key allies of Eddie Obeid and a central player in much of the NSW Labor Government’s activities has been a man who for many years was a member of the Left: Ian Macdonald. While it is true that Nathan Rees, a Left Premier, removed him from Cabinet, and that he was expelled from the Left because of his behaviour, subsequently to join the Right, nevertheless his career as a politician had largely been fostered within the Left of the party.
In the fight for reform in this latest stage, then, the Left’s ability to prosecute the case for change has been limited by the memory of Macdonald within its ranks. At a meeting of rank and file Left members in Sydney on Tuesday night, this issue was raised directly as something that needed to be acknowledged and responded to, rather than just ignored as a problem of the Right. After substantial debate, Senator Faulkner captured the sentiments of the room in moving a motion that the Left take responsibility for Ian Macdonald, including its support for getting him into Parliament, and issue an apology to the public in relation to this. The motion passed unanimously.
This leaves the way open for the Left to pursue the other goal for which it is fighting: a special "ICAC" state conference to be held next year to deal with the consequences of the current inquiry into the activities of Eddie Obeid and his associates, consequences that will affect the parliamentary wings of the party and the way that the NSW branch itself is organised.
It is here that there may be some hope that the stalemate in the reform war can be broken, and the sluggish pace of change be accelerated. For much of the time since the Faulkner-Carr-Bracks proposals were published, the forces of the establishment have used arguments about polling crises, impending elections and the need for a united front to postpone major reforms until later.
With NSW still two years away from its next election, a special conference of the party next year, arranged after a federal election, would allow Labor to confront these issues and do away with the "yes but not yet" arguments. It is the best opportunity for real change that the party has had in recent times.
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