A New Standard is Barely a Standard

NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson has tried to make a splash with A New Standard, a policy and internal process document designed to address the Obeid/MacDonald/Roozendaal and other assorted stinks hovering over NSW Labor.

Assessment: some useful suggested political reforms and token internal process reforms. Traction to reinvigorate NSW Labor brand? Zero.

Key points on internal process are that:

  • faction positions are not to be binding in the caucus decision-making process (Yeah, right)
  • people found to be corrupt will be expelled from the party (Woo-hoo, that’s telling them)
  • candidates will have to disclose personal, financial and political history (What? The ‘professional’ ALP don’t do that basic risk management as a matter of course? The Liberals have had Nomination Review Committees in place for years)
  • a trial of five community preselection plebiscites in winnable electorates (Good)
  • a Labor Policy Forum will bring MP, unionists and rank and file together on key policy areas (With no binding power over a Labor government. Yeah, right. The Liberals have tried similar concepts and they have all failed).

Man with cash smallerTo the experienced organisation cynic, these look reasonably ineffective at driving real cultural change. To the political cynic, the only item that will have any real traction is the plebiscite preselection. Players will be able to work around all the others.

Above all, the faction story is just token. There may not be a faction meeting (as Sam Dastyari requested two years ago, which was studiously ignored), it may not be ‘binding’ but key players will be on the phones. It’ll be sorted. Factions are still the pathway to entry and advancement, and banning formal faction meetings and ‘binding’ will do nothing. And note the quibble:

Members will be free to meet and  debate issues with like minded  individuals.

The only sub-group of the caucus that  can bind members is a meeting of the  Cabinet (and Shadow Cabinet).

Sean Nicholls of the SMH is way too credulous with this claim:

The announcement by John Robertson that Labor’s factions will be banned from ”binding” their MPs to vote in a particular way in caucus is a significant step towards democratising the party.

It should destroy the ability of one group of MPs to dictate the position of the entire parliamentary Labor Party simply because that group has a few more members than the other lot.

How? A majority is a majority whether it has a name or meets formally, or has some formal ‘binding’ requirement. The only reason ‘binding’ requirements bind is because factions and faction leaders can punish, protect or promote. If they have the numbers, they still can. And the ambitious always fall into line with those that can indulge their ambition. Coffees, phone calls and more frequent negotiations merely make the process less efficient. Mr Nicholls, I fear, is making a sale.

OK, the Terrigals levered their influence through layers of small binding majorities; but the basic point remains. ‘Binding’ only has teeth if the faction or leader can deliver something. If they can still deliver, they can still control.

To be fair, the half-dozen political process reforms listed, including improved MP and family disclosures and banning secondary employment are good. Diarising lobbyist engagements is what the current NSW government is already doing, but formalising it would be a good thing. Premier BOF is right though, not to pre-empt ICAC on parliamentary standards and formal institutions.

It is no surprise that there was Labor MP  pushback on secondary employment, leading to a leak. A lifetime in politics is not a pathway to earning big bucks. That is part of the problem. On both sides of politics (now – not in the previous Labor government) for staffers, backbenchers and minor Ministers  the capacity to earn emerges after their political engagement. Roles in government relations departments of major corporates, lobbying gigs, directorships, NGO leadership, political consulting and direct investment all rely on legal influence peddling. To shut down existing income streams for MPs – professional or business – is a big ask for someone who doesn’t want to go down that path in later life.

But it is appropriate. A part-time MP just is not on. And the perception of conflict of interest is strong and should be addressed.

The Liberal Fallout

Plebiscites remain an issue for many in the Liberal party. If Labor get out in front on this – and they already are after the Sydney Mayoral plebiscite – pressure will remain. Use of head office powers to parachute preselections is, as is well documented in two cases on the central coast, very controversial and has caused internal ructions, and this reinforces demands for plebiscites.

The one area that is a comparative issue for NSW Liberals is perception of conflict of interest. Currently the NSW Liberals have a cleanskin advantage. ICAC hearings reinforce that. But. There are, for anyone committed to classical liberal institutions, legitimate bases for concern over conflict of interest in the party organisation. The Liberals need to sort them; the cleanskin advantage is too great an advantage to lose. Besides, it’d be the right thing to do.

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