Once seen as the Australian Labor Party (ALP)’s most successful state, New South Wales (NSW) is now experiencing its longest period under a Liberal Party–led state government since World War II. Little remains of NSW Labor’s political hegemony despite having governed the state in the postwar era for nearly as long as the Social Democrats governed Sweden.
Since its landslide loss in 2011 — its worst result in a century — NSW Labor has struggled to regain its dominance at a state level. The problematic nature of NSW Labor is well documented and repeated national interventions into the state branch further demonstrated the need to overhaul the party. The party machine, colloquially known as Sussex Street, after the address of the party headquarters, has been identified as the source of many of its problems.
Campaigners for party democracy are rightfully vocal about the need to change Sussex Street. However, many advocates for party reform focus single-mindedly on reducing the influence of Labor-affiliated trade unions. This strategy is misguided and alienates potential allies in affiliated unions. Rather it is the gerrymandered rank-and-file component of the party’s state conference that should be the immediate focus of party democracy campaigners in NSW.
What few party members understand is that the Centre Unity (Labor Right) faction maintains its control of the party machine thanks to malapportioned and gerrymandered rank-and-file elections to the NSW Labor state conference. It is a degree of political manipulation that would make the late ultraconservative former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen proud.
The Conference Gerrymander
The supreme governing body of NSW Labor, the state conference, meets annually at the Sydney Town Hall and comprises nearly nine hundred delegates. Those delegates are elected via a byzantine set of rules distinct from those that govern other state Labor branches. The rules reinforce a closed, rigid, top-down, hierarchical structure that is inimical to building a modern political movement representing the interests and aspirations of workers and an increasingly diverse, wider community.
The national rules of the ALP outline that state conferences are to be 50 percent affiliated union delegates and 50 percent rank-and-file delegates. Despite this, nearly one in five so-called “rank-and-file” delegates are chosen by the NSW state conference itself. These include, for example, policy committee chairs and Administrative Committee members. It is a practice that no other Labor state branch uses so extensively.
The unique NSW rules deliver a swathe of “rank-and-file” delegates to sections of the party that are not represented in conferences of other state Labor branches. NSW Young Labor, for example, sends sixteen “rank-and-file” delegates to the conference, as many as the state or federal parliamentary parties. To make matters worse, NSW Young Labor itself is gerrymandered to within an inch of its life. The result is that no NSW Young Labor state conference delegates are directly elected by Young Labor members, to say nothing of office bearers such as president. Again, no other state Labor branch gives so many delegates to Young Labor. Nor does any other state conference give the state or federal parliamentary party so many “rank-and-file” delegates.
Those delegates who do represent rank-and-file members are not even directly elected by those members. Instead, they are indirectly chosen by State Electorate Councils (SECs) and Federal Electorate Councils (FECs).
Each SEC gets two delegates and each FEC gets three delegates, the same number regardless of the number of party members in an electorate. The electorate councils are made up of delegates from branches, their number determined by their branch membership. This indirect setup creates an incentive to have more paper members on the books. This allows faction leaders to gain more delegates to electorate councils, bolstering their control over state conference delegate spots.
Once more, no other state Labor branch operates in this manner. Every other state and territory directly elects rank-and-file state conference delegates, whether from branches or electorates. The number delegates elected are linked to membership numbers. For all Victorian Labor’s faults and problems, its members at least got to directly vote for their state conference delegates who were allocated to electorates on a proportional basis.
The Corrosive Impact of the Gerrymander
NSW Labor’s rules have a corrosive impact on the party’s internal culture because they make it difficult to contest any position with meaningful influence without navigating a complex hierarchical pyramid. An average rank-and-file member, isolated in their own branch, is unlikely to know who the conference delegates are representing them. It is even less likely that they would be given a genuine opportunity to stand for election themselves. It encourages a party culture focused on inward-looking internal machinations, dominated by a small group of hyperactive members. Most elections are uncontested because the likely results are already known.
Internal malapportionment also strengthens the Right majority’s position when electing members of the Administrative Committee, the powerful state executive that governs the party between conferences. The same problem plagues elections of other party officials and preselection of candidates for NSW Legislative Council and Senate tickets. Thanks to a lack of direct elections for rank-and-file conference delegates, the result is a majority that cannot be fairly contested.
The alternative is to directly elect rank-and-file conference delegates, and this would mean genuinely competitive elections. This could also lead to a much more representative and democratic conference composition. Recent NSW state conference results have given Centre Unity around two-thirds of delegates, leaving NSW Socialist Left (Labor Left) with approximately the remaining third. However, when the party has polled rank-and-file members statewide on the basis of “one member, one vote,” the results are different. For example, ballots for the State and National Policy Forums and national president did not give Labor Right an automatic majority.
The impact of malapportionment extends far beyond NSW Labor. Party reforms adopted at the 2015 ALP national conference required state branches to directly elect some of its national conference delegates. In NSW, each federal electorate elects a single delegate to the national conference. Again, no other state does this. Other state parties elect national conference delegates either on a statewide basis or by electing multiple delegates for a region, allowing for proportional representation. Thanks to malapportionment of national delegates in NSW, the NSW Right has an oversized influence nationally.
The party culture created by this malapportionment and gerrymandering has big consequences. Without genuine contestability, it means the ability to persuade and organize more widely is not rewarded. How can a political party expect its members to develop the skills to convince people to support Labor when they are not even used to convincing undecided people to change their minds within their own party?
Moving Beyond the Machine
The world has changed since the factional grouping that became Centre Unity first took control of NSW Labor over half a century ago. The Cold War is over, and NSW Labor no longer has the hegemony over state politics it once enjoyed. There is a need to change with the times, to allow a more open, decentralized, and democratic approach that would enable rank-and-file members to rebuild Labor’s electoral base, decimated in part thanks to NSW Labor’s legacy of corruption. Even a decade on, the public reminders of that corrupt past continue, with criminal charges recently laid against former NSW Labor ministers for their conduct.
NSW Labor’s weakened position has made it much harder to fight an incumbent conservative state government that practices a big-tent brokerage model of party politics. While addicted to privatization, the NSW Coalition government has tried to sure up its long-term dominance and neutralize any electorally salient issues by creating a perception of being “centrist,” for example, by taking a more proactive stance on climate change than the previous federal Coalition government.
With an upcoming state election in March 2023 and growing doubts about the incumbent NSW Coalition government after scandals and public infighting, NSW Labor urgently needs to reform. To win the ten seats it needs for a majority, NSW Labor will need to convince the public that it can be trusted once again. This means demonstrating that the party has genuinely learned its lesson during the last decade in the wilderness of opposition. Given widespread distrust for the major parties and polling that places NSW Labor’s vote in the low 30s, a clean break with the past is necessary.
Previous national interventions have dealt with governance but not the underlying institutional dynamics within the party that encourage a poor party culture. By now, it has become clear that meaningful party reform means bringing NSW Labor’s rules into line with other state branches and ending the gerrymandering and malapportionment of the state conference. All rank-and-file state conference delegates should be directly elected through a system of proportional representation, as should directly elected national conference delegates.
The ALP has undergone recomposition before, and today, it would be a powerful symbolic act. It would demonstrate the machine-driven Sussex Street party culture is gone for good, and it is a prerequisite for regaining government in NSW. But it remains to be seen whether NSW Labor — and the ALP as a whole — has come to this realization.