Last month, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) ended twelve years of conservative Coalition government in New South Wales (NSW), the nation’s most-populous state. The election result firmly repudiated the former government’s record of corruption, mass privatization, and public sector wage suppression. Nonetheless, one question remains: will the incoming Labor premier, Chris Minns, lead a progressive center-left government, or embrace the Blairite program of his federal Labor counterparts?
Minns’s rise to power, election campaign, and postelection maneuverings indicate that the government will embrace the latter option. Minns’s new government is already suggesting that budget cuts are inevitable in the context of mounting public debt and inflation. And although Australia’s cost-of-living and rental crises are profit driven, NSW Labor has dismissed policies that would limit corporate price gouging and extortionate rent increases. Instead, NSW’s new treasurer has foreshadowed spending cuts in the upcoming budget.
Indeed, in opposition, Minns’s leadership was always characterized by Labor’s fixation with neoliberal economics. After orchestrating a coup in May 2021 against NSW Labor’s former leader, Jodi McKay, Minns and his supporters swiftly dragged Labor to the right — for example, ditching key spending commitments including mandated nurse-to-patient ratios.
Behind Minns’s hegemony over NSW Labor is a powerful machine operation of party insiders. Minns’s cross-factional praetorian guard jointly controls NSW Labor’s infamous Sussex Street headquarters, the ALP’s all-powerful National Executive, and a swathe of pivotal trade unions. The consolidation of this alliance informs the present direction of the NSW government.
The alliance consists of two tranches that coalesced around Minns’s campaign to destabilize and ultimately replace McKay. The first is the factional machinery of the NSW Right faction, and the second is the “Hard Left” sub-faction, aligned with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Minns’s consolidation of the first tranche hinged on the support of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA). The AWU played its part by leaking polling that blamed McKay for a collapse in Labor’s primary vote. Meanwhile, the SDA marshaled its support in the parliamentary caucus to whip votes for Minns. A well-timed public resignation by SDA-aligned shadow treasurer Walt Secord also exacted a serious toll on McKay’s leadership.
Nonetheless, Minns could not have prevailed over McKay with the AWU and SDA alone; he needed support from the party’s left. Minns might have enjoyed the support of most right-faction MPs and head-office apparatchiks, but that didn’t mean he could count on every right-aligned MP to vote against McKay in a leadership ballot. Worse still, a disgruntled left opposition could undermine Minns’s attempts to shift Labor to the right.
An existing alliance between the NSW Right and the Hard Left addressed both potential vulnerabilities. Despite the historic hegemony of the Right in NSW, the Hard Left punches well above its weight at a national level. As the dominant power in the national left faction, the Hard Left effectively exercises a majority on the ALP National Executive, an all-powerful committee that can deselect dissenting MPs at will.
The Hard Left also offered Minns a unique strategic benefit. Incorporating the group into NSW Labor’s inner sanctum gave Minns the ability to neutralize critics of his neoliberal pivot. This is because the Hard Left’s domination of the state faction offered a way for Minns to keep progressive unions and branch members in line or — at the very least — deprive them of a platform to mount an effective opposition.
The Hard Left’s price was power. Specifically, the faction demanded shadow cabinet appointments and Minns’s support against members of the “Soft Left” that rallied around McKay. Minns was happy to oblige both elements of the quid pro quo.
After clinching party leadership, Minns doled out rewards to his supporters. As opposition leader, he demoted McKay loyalists in his first cabinet reshuffle. Daniel Mookhey, Penny Sharpe, John Graham, Rose Jackson, and Jo Haylen received promotions. McKay’s supporters, however, were mostly relegated to the backbench.
Minns in Opposition
As opposition leader, Minns imitated Albanese’s electorally successful small-target strategy. NSW Labor shied away from bold progressive reform in favor of narrow cost-of-living rhetoric. Minns’s decision to turn the Coalition’s traditional “debt-and-deficit” narrative against the government contrasted starkly with McKay’s call for increased social spending.
Despite broadly leading NSW Labor to the right, Minns also ran a strong campaign against the most regressive facets of the Coalition government’s agenda. A strategic focus on marginal Western Sydney electorates saw Minns hone Labor’s critique of the government’s 2.5 percent public sector wage cap, the rising cost of road tolls, and the privatization of public assets. Labor also offered some modest improvements to renters’ rights and the casualization of public-school teachers.
Thankfully for Minns, the alliance between his left and right shadow cabinet members allowed him to easily rebuff Coalition attempts to wedge Labor to the right. When the government proposed two-year prison sentences for peaceful protesters, for example, Labor didn’t hesitate to offer its support. Minns understood that the combined power of his backers would mute opposition on both sides of the debate, giving him license to pivot Labor to the right without fear of reprisal.
Indeed, Hard Left shadow ministers made impassioned speeches in favor of criminal penalties for protesters. In one contribution, newly minted NSW minister for homes Rose Jackson criticized nonviolent climate protests, remarking that they are “why the left cannot have nice things.” Minister for roads John Graham went so far as to falsely claim that Blockade Australia had organized “violent economic blockades.” Without an internal opposition to the NSW Right, the party scarcely registered the dissent of left-aligned unions and branch members.
The anti-protest law debate was not a flash in the pan — it’s a case study showing the factional accord underlying NSW Labor’s Blairite pivot. So long as Minns satisfies his allies in the Right and Hard Left, his prioritization of neoliberalism over social democracy is likely to continue unhindered. The resilience — or otherwise — of this dynamic will determine the direction of the NSW Labor government.
Trouble on the Horizon?
It remains to be seen how Minns’s alliance will manage the obvious contradiction between Labor’s increasingly neoliberal agenda and the nominally socialist politics of the NSW Left. To date, the Left factional leadership has justified its cozy relationship with the Right as simple electoral pragmatism. With the exception of the Hard Left, the plausibility of the NSW Left’s argument is waning rapidly.
Ultimately, to have a stake in the party, the Left relies on sympathetic unions and branch members choosing to align themselves with the Left’s factional ticket in inner-party debates and decision-making. But if the Left and Right are in lockstep, then what incentive is there to join the minority group?
Unsurprisingly, this contradiction ignited a fierce internal struggle within the Left faction. The anti-protest laws in particular provoked a period of sustained sub-factional volatility, culminating in a breakaway legislative-council ticket at the 2022 NSW Labor conference.
Dissident Left delegates coalesced around an outsider candidate, Cameron Murphy, who ran on a platform criticizing NSW Left leaders for their silent obedience in the face of Labor’s Blairite turn. Murphy — a human-rights lawyer and former president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties — appealed to progressive Left delegates who opposed the anti-protest laws and the leadership’s general pattern of collusion with the NSW Right.
Murphy narrowly lost a factional preselection ballot against the leadership after the Hard Left NSW Labor assistant general secretary, George Simon, disenfranchised swathes of Left-aligned delegates. This was met with protest — after Simon announced that their votes would not be counted, the Murphy-aligned Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union Construction Division ultimately left the faction. Similarly, following allegations of ballot fixing, large sections of the Left defected from the factional ticket at the NSW Labor conference.
Ultimately, Murphy received 116 votes, the third-highest count of any candidate, guaranteeing him a spot in the NSW Legislative Council. The official Left ticket, however, recorded its lowest vote since the foundation of the faction in 1956.
This, however, could come back to undermine Minns’s government. Volatility within the Left poses a threat to the factional compact underlying NSW Labor. To hold up its end of the bargain, the Hard Left needs to maintain total control over the NSW Left and National Executive. Without these articles of institutional power, left-aligned ministers will struggle to quell critics of Minns’s Blairite pivot.
Murphy’s success and Labor victories in Western Sydney have exacerbated this vulnerability. The 2023 election has increased the proportion of dissident MPs in the NSW parliamentary Left caucus. Having snubbed Jodi McKay’s former supporters and Soft Left MPs in his postelection reshuffle, the premier must now contend with a growing list of disgruntled unions, branch members, and backbenchers.
A Rank-and-File Strategy
The broad Left cannot stake its future on the dull machinery of NSW Labor. To challenge Labor’s resurgent neoliberal agenda, genuine Labor socialists need to fundamentally alter the politics of the trade-union movement. That starts with holding union leaders to basic democratic standards.
It’s beyond the pale that Labor apparatchiks parachuting directly from student politics into senior positions in the union movement command the votes of hundreds of union delegates, without any participation by rank-and-file members. Indeed, most people who join unions affiliated with the ALP are structurally excluded from the forms of executive power that determine Labor candidates and policies. To the seasoned factional apparatchiks, rank-and-file unionists are just numbers on a spreadsheet. The more members a union has, the more delegates it sends to conferences.
Ultimately, this must be challenged from the ground up, by a rank-and-file revitalization of union democracy. Australian socialists should familiarize themselves with the rules that govern the internal democracy of their unions, establish workplace committees, and run tickets against the apparatchiks that sell out union members. In the long term, the Left should prioritize reform agendas that promote direct democratic decision-making and mass participation in union affairs. Until we implement an Australian rank-and-file strategy, many unions will remain in the hands of the ALP’s factional horse traders.