Monday 12 September 2011

Rally round the PM and banish the NSW disease

A YEAR before the May 1991 NSW election, there was speculation in Labor ranks that then opposition leader Bob Carr could be dumped.

It was mid-term, an election was looming and the polling did not indicate that Labor would make ground on the Greiner government.

Carr's policy interests including a stronger school curriculum, environmental protection and fiscal conservatism were not seen as catchy election winners.

When Carr steered a course, he often risked losing the support of party powerbrokers and caucus colleagues. That was the case when he committed Labor to backing the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which some wrongly feared would be the Liberals' royal commission into the Labor Party.

A handful of MPs and others began the drip of leadership instability stories. A leading Sydney broadsheet paper had deemed him "unelectable". Surely the best thing the party could do was dump the leader and start afresh. Well, not so?

Political leaders succeed because their parties support them, not the other way around. The message from the Labor Party's history is clear. In the middle of implementing difficult and essential reforms which have far-reaching and positive consequences for future generations of Australians, Labor must stand united to promote and defend its reforms. It must focus on defeating its political opponents and their divisive conservative agenda.

Australian politics is hard and competitive and when certain pressures prevail, political parties of all persuasions examine the issue of leadership.

There are examples throughout Australian history where a party's MPs have needed to demonstrate they have lost confidence in a leader and remove them.

I don't envy those who need to make these decisions; they are fraught with criticism and come at a high personal cost.

Changes in party leadership should be rare and infrequent. They should be a last resort when a party has lost its way and can never be allowed to transform into a prevailing culture. I have been a public advocate for major reform within the Labor Party and for a new style of politics.

In NSW we are trialling US-style primary elections to select candidates, a new collegiate way of developing policy and working to end factionalism that has divided our party.

While party modernisation is about forging a new path forward, we must never lose sight of what has been the Labor Party's historical strengths -- an ability, superior to our opponents, to develop good policy and the courage to see our reforms through.

Ideas and not power are the life blood of modern, reformist democratic political movements and parties.

In NSW, naked power-broking and factional deal-making at a parliamentary level, exemplified by a rotation of leaders, disappointed Labor's base and its rank-and-file membership. Good leaders were tarnished by a culture of quick fixes and conditional support.

The notion of short-term leaders is not simply confined to one state or one party, as Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals can attest.

For rank-and-file members and supporters, the Labor Party leadership must be measured through the outcomes delivered for those who rely most on the success of our party.

The truth is that big policy changes are usually hard and often controversial. When you tackle them, you take a hit in the polls. As a former Keating government minister recently reminded me, if they were easy someone would have done them already. But that doesn't mean they are not worth doing -- quite the opposite. If the Labor Party is to continue as a modern centre-left political party it must take action on climate change.

And, over the next two years, Labor must keep reminding Australians of our resolve to tackle this issue.

We must also remind the public of the risks that come with making Tony Abbott prime minister. This is a man who does not believe climate change is real and who will, if elected, immediately return to the worst of Work Choices, stripping away the rights and conditions of millions of working Australian men and women.

While commentators and pundits often have disproportionately loud voices in the Australian media, the voices of Labor's true believers are often silent. They are proud to be part of a movement that is tackling climate change. They are proud to be part of a movement that is implementing economic reform and building Australia's future capacity through the National Broadband Network.

And they are proudest to be part of a movement that will always stand up for the rights of working Australians.

Opinion polls will come and go, but Labor's true believers remain and it is to them that the Labor Party owes it to show the courage of our convictions.

Sam Dastyari is the general secretary of NSW Labor and a member of the national executive.

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