NSW election: New beginnings at Sussex Street?

At long last, after all the slightly nutsy talk in the media about “recall elections” and what seems now like an endless litany of scandals, the people of New South Wales have spoken. Save for at the margins, what they had to say wasn’t surprising, but that’s because the performance of the government induced them to scribble down their rightful invective on speech cards several years ago. It is difficult to recall an election campaign in recent Australian political history that has been quite so one-sided, quite so predictable. The obvious conclusion to the election hung heavily in the air during the campaign, with the major players saying their pieces to camera knowingly, like trainers before a horse race agreeably fixed in advance.

Following on from Kim’s initial round-up then, what next, for NSW Labor? Rank and file supporters of the party in New South Wales have been repeatedly slapped around the head by the state parliamentary party during the course of the last few years. We’ve been left on a hiding to nothing, often vainly defending the practically indefensible. Despite the fact that a number of good, hard-working MPs have been unfairly swept away in the carnage, it’s hard not to feel a sense of closure and relief in the election aftermath, as if the gloriously democratic detox that has long been needed has finally arrived. The people’s doctor has arrived in Sussex Street clutching a kit bag full of tennis ball-sized suppositories, and although what has ensued hurts, bloody hell, they sure are needed.

Let’s first consider the state of play. Yes, Labor has been routed in the Legislative Assembly, and stands to hold just 21 of the chamber’s 93 seats at best – around 22% of the house. The good news is that some very talented people have been retained: Linda Burney is safe, and at this stage it seems relatively likely that both Carmel Tebbutt and Verity Firth will keep their seats for the party. John Robertson is a somewhat polarising figure, but there is little doubt that he the kind of person capable of cutting through in his attacks on the O’Farrell Government. Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally, despite their strong association with the problems of the last four years, are clearly capable political operators and the electorate holds no great personal disdain for either of them.

The question of who will lead the party will no doubt dominate the media shortly (it is likely to be Robbo), but strangely enough I don’t think who leads is particularly important. What is important is that the party makes an honest and open effort to reflect on the mistakes that it has made during the last eight years, perhaps through a public consultation process, involving both rank and file members and indeed the general public. The image that many people have of Sussex Street at the moment is a kind of malignant kleptocracy; this image needs to be smashed and remade through a transparent program of reform. If not now, with plenty of time to play with and nothing to lose by embarking on a period of controversial change, then when?

Former Assistant General Secretary Luke Foley MLC and Bob Hawke have already indicated a worthwhile starting point for consideration: the 2010 ALP National Review Report delivered by Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, and John Faulkner. The NSW branch’s very young, worryingly malleable General Secretary, Sam Dastyari, has already hinted that the reform of the party structure in New South Wales is needed, including the factions. All three are on the money, but need to go in quick and hard on internal reform: building a united policy front can wait. Contrary to what Tony Burke has suggested, policy doesn’t matter a fig right now. It is irrelevant. If NSW Labor wants to have any hope at all at even being competitive in 2015, it needs to first make a fist of the hard internal reforms that are long overdue, while the wounds inflicted by the electorate are still fresh and the polls don’t matter.

More broadly, what I would like to see is the party actively asking for the public’s involvement in setting in train its internal reform program. This physician is clearly incapable of healing itself alone. Whoever is eventually anointed as Opposition Leader should extend a hand to the people who have just rejected them, and humbly ask for their help in reforming the party, in rehabilitating a party organisation that is spluttering and wheezing under the myriad pressures being brought to bear on mass political parties in the 21st Century. The membership “amnesty” suggested by Dastyari is hardly going to bring anybody back: the party clearly needs to reach out to new people. It sounds incongruous and unlikely, but as part of a program of “new beginnings”, I think the time could well be ripe for a party membership drive, perhaps with reduced-price memberships and more of an emphasis on having the sorts of candid “by-the-barbie” interactions that this party desperately needs to start having more of with ordinary folks.

In short, there has never been a better time for reform and renewal within the NSW branch of the Labor Party. A rebranding of Sussex Street is only going to work if the product being sold to the people over the next four years is fundamentally different; more of the same “faceless men”, big party miasma just won’t cut it with people anymore.

ELSEWHERE: Shaun Carney rather optimistically heralds the end of “Richo-style” politics and Eddie Obeid has a retrograde crack at defending the indefensible.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.