Report from NSW Open Labor July event

The Open Labor NSW event held at the Toxteth Hotel in Glebe on Wednesday 27 July provided participants with both information and conversation. It's the way we hope to conduct ourselves, always.

Thirty one Party members and supporters assembled to hear Tom Bentley review Labor's progress since the 2013 election debacle, and the issues and challenges for the current Parliament. Tom was deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and from 1998 to 2006 he was director of DEMOS - described by The Economist as ‘Britain's most influential think tank'.

Tom commenced by noting that the 2014 Budget was a galvanising moment for both the Party and unions. There was a coherent response from both. From the Party the response was policy rich, emphasising the visceral community response to the Budget consequently resonating with the electorate.

A lesson learnt from minority government was the need for a disciplined, collaborative approach.

Early introduction of policy pitched to long term priorities, avoiding the small target strategy, worked to make Labor competitive. Stagnation in wages, the electorate’s commitment to policies such as Gonski and NDIS, an ageing population, recognition of rising inequality, concerns about unsustainable climate policies fitted Labor’s strategies.

These and other issues have been bubbling to the surface calling for renewal of progressive politics and commitment to ethical and ideological principles. The campaign was disciplined, mobilised members and unions and combined grass roots and social media.

Following questions to Tom, those attending were invited to converse on issues of interest with a focus on pre-selections and the role of unions in the Party. There was a constant hubbub of conversation and, even after the event was would up discussion continued for some time. Discussion was carried on around the four tables with about 8 participants to each table. Their thoughts were expressed by the groups on butcher's paper.

Group 1 began their discussion by looking at underlying threats and opportunities to be found in issues such as climate change, globalisation and geopolitical tensions. Associated with these were human rights issues expressed in income inequality. By taking up these issues we would be challenging neo-liberal ideology.

The group saw potential policy responses in re-establishing the concept of, and pursuing, a social wage. This could be done through protecting and improving Medicare, education and welfare services, and engaging with particular and pressing issues such as combating domestic violence.

They discussed responses to be made through industry policy. Opportunities were to be found in the field of alternative energy, in start-ups and in supporting and encouraging small business. They saw other possible responses in industrial law and taxation.

They concluded by considering party reform. This would involve restructuring various party forums, broadening branch life, establishing and strengthening networks and ensuring that the Party in its publicly espoused policies and in its internal processes was committed to a genuine form of democracy.

Group 2 focussed on three issues requiring action: the lack of young people in the Party; the influence of the unions in the Party; and lacklustre leadership.

Younger people are not interested. They have no big block of influence in the Party. We need to recruit young people, renewing the Party branch by branch. We should recruit youth by visiting schools and youth clubs, and engaging in and promoting community activities.

The Party should preserve union affiliation. Unions are well organised bodies and the Party needs their support. But there is the question of their influence. They have 50% of the say but represent afar smaller percentage of the workforce.

The leadership needs to improve its relationship with members. They should ensure that democratic principle and practices inform all Party activities, so that, for example, Senate candidates would be elected by members.

Group 3 engaged in a blunt assessment of the Party. The Party’s language is a turn-off. The leaders of factions and other power brokers look like a bunch of bullies. The Party has lost its local roots. At times there seems to be zero differentiation between Labor and the Liberals. Only 17% of the workforce is unionised, yet the unions have what amounts to a controlling influence in the affairs of the Party.

The group asked: “How do you build a relationship with the politically moderate?” and proposed engaging people through social media or webinar forums. This way the Party could reach single parents, young people, shift workers and people living in remote communities. The Party needs to confront and take on board issues that are of importance to the general population. These issues include the environment, the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, and putting a price on carbon. Social justice should be pursued by providing universal health-care, well-funded public education, child-care, parental leave for both parents, and the funding of the arts.