The mouse that roared may have changed Labor forever
Nathan Rees’s move to ambush the Labor factions and go directly to his Party Conference for the power to appoint his Cabinet was audacious. In my 30 years as an ALP member I can barely recall a gutsier attempt to reclaim the high ground. It will at least temporarily stop the rot for NSW Labor – and if he follows on with more unilateral displays of strength it may actually start turning things around.
By taking control of Cabinet appointments Rees did more than achieve a short term political objective – he made a critically important long-term reform to culture of the ALP in NSW.
For too long factionalism has stunted Labor’s ability to nurture and develop the best talent the Party has to offer.
In recent years the NSW ALP had started looking more like a feudal kingdom than a broadly representative modern Party. The king was answerable to a group of barons who resided both in and out of the Cabinet.
Morris Iemma was installed into the leadership with great hopes from among his factional colleagues that he would maintain their agenda.
When things started going off the rails with his failure to win Party support for the sale of the electricity assets, Iemma’s own right-wing group split. In essence, the industrial right wing and its allies split with sections of the parliamentary right wing. When that happened – and he could no longer deliver for the faction as a whole – Iemma’s days were numbered.
The end came when he attempted to clean out part of the cabinet – citing underperforming ministers. But he only half did the job. Those who handed him the crown simply took it back.
Rees finished the job that Iemma started.
The immediate future probably looks good for Nathan Rees. He should get a bounce in the next couple of polls following his show of strength.
The big question is how he uses the next few months. Having successfully employed a circuit breaker at the State Labor Conference, can he maintain the momentum? Only time will tell – but certainly, just one change to the way Cabinet is appointed will not be enough to re-establish Labor’s fortunes. He will need to do more – much more.
In our parliamentary system election campaigns are essentially “presidential” in style – the focus is on the leader. In fact, when the cabinet is featured in election advertising it’s usually a sign that a weak or new and relatively unknown leader needs bolstering.
Most people don’t change their vote from election to election. So modern campaigning focuses on “swinging” or undecided voters. These people overwhelmingly cast their vote on the strength and appeal of the Party leader. A leader who is constantly undermined by his own Cabinet is therefore doomed. So, Rees has at least given himself a fighting chance of being competitive in the next election.
Of course, all this assumes that there is a healthy caucus from which to draw the strongest ministers. The sad truth is that in recent years the pool from which we draw our parliamentarians has shrunk.
This is the result of a number of factors – branch membership has dwindled to critically low levels. Why go to monthly meetings in a draughty hall when you can spend your evenings in the brave new world of ‘cyberchoice’. The vacuum left by the collapse of an effective rank and file has largely been filled by affiliated unions (which are highly organised) and party loyalists and careerist staffers (who are highly focussed). In circumstances like this, nepotism often prevails over talent. It also ensures a more predictable line of succession and reliable (if unimaginative) base for support within the Party.
For those who doubt this contention, a recent study showed that in 1971 only 24% of federal Labor MPs came from an ALP or union job. By 2005 this had grown to 67%.
So, Nathan Rees’s problems will not be solved entirely by assuming responsibility for appointing his Cabinet – Labor’s long term health can only be guaranteed by more fundamental changes to the Party’s structure. That includes actively seeking to open the parliamentary ranks to people who would not normally be recruited through rank and file pre-selections.
So what can be done to ease this problem?
In the United States at State and federal level the President and Governors appoint their ministers. In that country the Chief Executive appoints to his Cabinet the most talented individuals from across all sectors of society – industry, business, unions, military, professions and trades.
In the United Kingdom talented non-Parliamentarians can be fast-tracked into the ministry through appointment to the House of Lords.
Why can’t we have similar processes here? Why not allow Premiers and Opposition Leaders to appoint a fixed number of ministers and shadow ministers – say 20% of the Cabinet.
Imagine how high the pool would be filled if we had a government which could draw on the talents of millions rather than thousands to form its Cabinet. I cannot see how our democratic institutions would be undermined if the Premier could appoint a few ministers from outside the Party and even outside the Parliament. People with decades of experience in fields such as medicine, law, industry, mining and social services would make a huge difference to political life if their individual and collective knowledge could be harnessed and applied to public service. They could sit in parliament, answer questions, introduce bills, appear before committees - but not vote.
Similarly, if the Leader of the NSW Opposition could appoint experts to his front bench we would not have the appalling dearth of talent we currently see on that side of the politics.
Unfortunately, our Legislative Council has proved spectacularly unsuccessful in being a source for recruiting talent into Parliament. The days when the likes of Neville Wran were recruited via the Legislative Council are long past. The last senior barrister to be elected to the NSW Legislative Council was Jeff Shaw QC in 1990.
In South Australia, Mike Rann has gone further than any other leader. He has appointed two non-MPs to the Executive Committee of Cabinet. This group oversees the South Australian Strategic Plan. The first outside appointments went to a leading South Australian businessman and to the Vicar General of the Roman Catholic Church. In discharging their duties on the committee, both were subject to the same responsibilities, privileges and protections as any minister.
What is needed now, perhaps more than ever before, is a thorough review of the constitutional powers and conventions which underpin governments in Australia – particularly at a State level.
State politics is under strain right across Australia. Governments and Parliaments operate under constitutions which date back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Surely it’s time to have a serious debate about how well we are served under such constraints and whether there is a better way.
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