Workers Online
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Workers Online
  Issue No 33 Official Organ of LaborNet 01 October 1999  

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Interview

The Boys

Interviews with Peter Lewis

Labor Party heavyweights Eric Roozendaal and Damian O'Connor will lock horns this weekend. They fire their first shots.

On the Right - Eric

What are you hoping to get out of the discussion on the Party Branch structure?

Well, it's part of opening up the Party for greater participation and a bigger flow of ideas from the rank and file. It's an opportunity for any delegate to get up and just talk about where they see the future direction of the Party. I imagine we are going to get a whole different lot of contributions and I'm not really sure what people will say What I hope to get out if is is a lively debate and perhaps some good ideas on future debates for the officers to take up where we should go with the Party in the next century.

What are your views on some of those directions?

Well, as the Party Secretary I've got a number of items that are high on my agenda. A lot of those are really basic to the survival of the Party.

The first is a rejuvenation, re-opening up of the policy development areas of the Party, so we have now reformed the policy committees with a new structure. We've made them larger and we are really trying to break out of the factional mould and allow rank and file to participate on committees. Already we have had over 500 expressions of interest to go onto the committees, which shows there is keenness out there.

I think it is very important to promote training and actually skill up the membership and skill up our candidates and skill up the Party parliamentarians. We've embarked on the most ambitious training program probably in the last 10 years of the Party - training for new members of Parliament; media training; data base training for those who have to do data base work in campaigns; local Government campaigning training. We intend to do even more.

To what purpose?

I think you have to skill people up so that they can develop their own interests, whether it be policy or participation or both. We are a very broad political organisation and there's all sorts of way you can contribute. Some people just don't know how to get involved. They really do need a bit of training to be able to participate and make a good contribution. By increasing our training programme across the whole party we equip people so they can choose to become involved.

In terms of the activity in the branches, what sort of movements in branch membership have there been over recent times?

Well the Party membership's interesting. We are fairly static at the moment - between 23,000 and 25,000 members. I guess the problem is that we have a big churning of members. We get a lot of new members in a year but we lose a lot of members. And our biggest problem as an organisation is retaining members within the first two years. So if we can get them in, get them involved, get them interested we are halfway there to retaining them as longterm members, and that's really what the Party should be about. We have set a goal at the Administrative Committee to generate 50,000 members by 2005, which I think is achievable if we can get the mix right inside the Party.

Of course it's a question of the quality of member as well - whether it's someone who actually wants to be a member someone who's in there because of the stack?

Oh sure. Look, the issue of branch stacking is a really vexed one for the Party and has been for a long time. Realistically, NSW has taken some really strong action on branch stacking. We have the strongest anti-branch stacking rules in the country. Our model of anti branch stacking rules are being looked at by the Party nationally. It is much harder to actually qualify for preselection in NSW than any other State, and the truth is we have acted to really send the message to branch stackers. In the last couple of years we have refused or withdrawn the charter of six or seven branches on the issue of branch stacking. There are over 512 members in the Illawarra that had their membership refused at the local branches because of branch stacking. But it's an ongoing battle.

On policy, there is a feeling that no matter what resolutions are passed by Conference, the State Government will keep doing what it's been doing. Given that sort of set up when a Government is in power, how can you get a Conference that has any meaning?

Well, it's always hard to balance the Party structure against the Parliamentary structure. Because, now the fact is the Labor Party has a great structure for being in Opposition. When you are in Government things move a lot quicker than that and the Government needs to be responsive.

The key to the Conference is to make sure they set clear agenda issues and clear policy directions. Where the Government goes with those directions is really for the Parliamentary party to determine.

But before you were saying that policy was the hook to get new members into the Party. If it has no effect when you are in government what's the point of wasting the time, energy and formulating it?

Well, I don't accept that. If a resolution is passed at a conference and the government doesn't agree to it immediately, it doesn't mean that they won't agree to it in time. And it really becomes a task for the Party as an organisation, for the Party office to move Governments towards positions. People don't just dig in and lock into positions. Government is very dynamic and policy is dynamic, and often positions that a government may or may not accept initially, ultimately can be achieved in time.

What's your view of the weighting that unions have on the Conference floor?

There's some comment about the issue of 60/40. I don't really see it as a problem at the moment. It's a long tradition in the NSW branch. Other States have gone to a 50/50. I think in the long term it may be an issue in the NSW Branch. Some people have raised the problem that union membership in the workforce is around 30 per cent at the moment. There are some people in the Party that are questioning whether there should be a type of party membership that allows non-union members to join the Labor Party. Now, that's just something that's been tossed around and I really think there's a lot more discussion before anything seriously along those lines could be considered.

But if, as appears to be happening, unions start acting as a group rather than just factionally, that 60 per cent of the power actually increases ...

Yes and No. I mean, there are going to be traditional issues that unions will work together on - that's understandable. But I wouldn't underestimate the influence that the Labor movement has over the Party. I mean it was the Labor movement that created the Australian Labor Party, so it's only natural that they have a strong influence. But it's very rare that there is unanimous agreement on any issue at the conference.

If the Party was to move away from the union base what replaces it? What else is there that the Labor Party can represent?

I don't actually think you move away from the heritage or your roots. I think that's probably not the way to approach it. The truth is that we are a very different society to what we were 108 years ago, when the Australian Labor Party was created. Demands on society have changed. The pressures have changed. Unions have changed. Issues have changed. I don't think the class analysis of 108 years ago exists today in the way it did then. So, it's a different ball game. But the truth is that the Labor Party, particularly the NSW branch, is the most electorally successful party nationally. Now we have to continue, so we have to be prepared to change along with society. Now, what the future brings is hard to tell, but we do need to extend our membership. Part of our survival would be having a broad based membership, so that the Party's more reflective of society. I thing that's very important. But we will always have a very strong connection with the Labor movement.

Finally, what are your views on defactionalisation that has been promoted by the Labor Council?

I don't think it's really my part to comment on the Labor Council and defactionalisation. I think the issues that NSW Labor Council deals with and the way they operate lends itself in many cases to work across the factions. And really factionalism now is more about the Group you tend to line up with than about power. The Party is a little bit different. It is a very different structure to the Labor Council, and frankly I think that the faction system, with all its inherent problems and warts is really a system that's really allowed the NSW branch to have a very robust debate over a long period of time within an informal structure, which has been beneficial for the Party. The Party has been very successful electorally. Very successful, and you can't help that suspect that part of that is that we really have got internal processes - that allow debate and differences to be worked out in an informal way. And I think in some ways it strengthens the branch. So factions do offer benefits. The problems occur when people get carried away and start stacking branches. We must stop these escesses.

And on the Left - Damian

Monday's Conference has time allocated to a broad discussion of branch structure. What would you hope would come out of this?

This is not just about branch structure, it's about the future direction of the Party. It's a starting point for who we want to recruit to the Party. Who do we want bring into the Party who currently isn't in the Party? And in those areas I think the overriding proviso is everybody who joins the Party have to be supporters of the union movement. If we are recruiting we should be looking to members of unions who aren't in the Party, disillusioned Democrats, young people concerned about the environment, people who support a more tolerant open Australia. I don't subscribe to the view that we automatically gravitate towards small business people, although I wouldn't oppose them joining the Party provided they were pro-union - that is, a member of the union or, it you are an employer or self-employed, within the union that covers your sphere of work.

That's a key underlying point - when you think about recruitment you have to have a very clear idea about who you are targeting. It's no use trying to pitch our message to people in the community who aren't prepared to support the union movement. That's not the sort of Party we want - we want to trawl among those people you might call politically keyed in to our existing values.

What do you think is the single biggest problem the Party faces?

The single biggest problem is the influence of money. On the hand it's very clear to me that the union movement is finding for a combination of reasons - both political and financial - that there is less money out there for the Party. At the same time as the chasing of the corporate dollar is in full swing - I'm concerned that someone like Eric seems to spend more time with the opponents of our affiliates than our actual affiliates. I think that will have a bad long term impact on the Party.

But doesn't the Party need money to fight elections?

There's a need to find a way for a progressive political party that represents people and organisations that are not cashed up to the hilt, or are not profit making to find a way that we can compete successfully in politics without the need to be brought off by the corporate sector. I'm concerned that recent developments show you can buy your position on the Labor Party ticket if you throw enough money into the can. That's a very bad development.

How do you think talk of winding back factions in the industrial wing impacts on the running of the ALP?

It's a bit like Halley's Comet - even if Halley didn't name it or never even noticed it, it would still be there. Things happen whether they are talked about or not. I think factions per se will always exist but what does change over time is the structure and focus of those factions and the interrelationships of those factions. I think that at some early level, there are signs of a better level of co-operation between the factions. An example was the state election. I thought that once we kicked off the campaign that we worked very well and there was not a factional climate around the office. I've got to say that as soon as the election was over it returned and it is wrong to get starry eyed and think that somehow this Party is opening up. Since the state election there's been a number of appointments on the ninth floor, they've all been from this small elite group that represents less than one pre cent of the party. The other 99 per cent of the party can go hang. That's not a good development and there is still a general need for it to open up.

What would be a sign to you that things had changed?

It's the little things. On the surface there is a veneer that things are freer, but the reality is that since Eric has become general secretary he has started the process of Thursday morning right-wing official meetings - which means every official in the office except for me crowds into his office and has an almighty pow-wow about issues they don't want me to know about.

We've moved from the days where we had factional thugs with pencils to factional thugs with computers and we think that because we have a computer we've moved on and become more modern. Eric wants to call himself the "thoroughly modern general secretary" - but the reality is that he's brought in things that Della never did. There's a large part of the computer system that I don't have access to - but that the other assistant secretary and all the organisers do. All the other positions have keys to all the offices on the floor , including my own - but I only have access to my own office - not even a key to the photcopy room. Why is it that Admin Committee members don't get the business papers until actually after the starting time of Admin? In the scheme of things, they are little - but it shows how the office operates.

Finally you are putting up a couple of propositions for State Conference, what are they about?

The Left's putting up a whole heap of propositions at the Conference. I think we have common ground on issues like the Republic and East Timor. You also have the Left and the union movement coming together on a whole range of issues such as competitive tendering and the social audit. So one of the remarkable things about this conference is that there is a whole lot of common ground on important issues - and some of these won't please the government.

Of the more challenging issues, I'd pinpoint a couple - first the need for the social audit to find a source of funding. This is the proposition that recognises the need for fiscal restraint but says that a zero debt strategy is going way too far in the current environment. If that is relaxed then there is a source of funds to fund the social audit. The other one is the notion of Ministerial Accountability which hopefully we'll get common ground on to ensure there is a better cycle of accountability from Conference to Conference, with ministers more systematically required to account for the decisions passed at the previous conference. One of the weaknesses at the moment is things go through and they never get followed up. This actually arose out of a review of the policy committees and of how we make the policy committees more relevant. Hopefully that will really beef it up.


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 33 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: The Boys
Labor Party heavyweights Eric Roozendaal and Damian O'Connor will lock horns this weekend. They fire their first shots.
*
*  Economics: Reasons to Be Cheerful
Can we change the way we look at the economy to better reflect community happiness and well-being?
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*  Unions: Breaking the Wave
ACTU President's submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Workplace Relations Act.
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*  International: The Wisdom of Solomon
A disturbing case from the Pacific where corporate lawyers are playing a deadly game.
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*  History: Groundhog Day
Ghosts of Conferences past: some strangely familiar debates and decisions from previous state ALP conferences
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*  Legal: Bad, Bad Things
Some of Australia's leading industrial lawyers argue that the Workplace Relations Act breaches basic international obligations.
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*  Review: Tailing Out
As the BHP steelworks close in Newcastle a special book chronicles the stories of working live that have just become history.
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*  Satire: Police Cut-Backs Lead To Drop In Organised Crime
An audit of the NSW Police has revealed that they have been seriously cutting back their operating budgets to ensure that they will be able to afford the increased security costs of the Olympics.
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*  Work/Time/Life: It's Official: Aussies Work Harder
Australians continue to work long hours in contrast to a world-wide trend in industrialised countries that has seen hours at work remaining steady or declining in recent years.
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News
»  Station Cuts Derailed - But More Hits for the Scull
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»  Social Audit Backed by Community Groups
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»  Unions Take Common Priorities to State Conference
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»  Simmering Discontent Hits Boiling Point
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»  Public Sector Job Numbers Rubbery
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»  Timor Protest to be Dumped in Reith Wave
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»  Big Lunch Break for Stress-Free Day
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»  Arch Apologises for Youth Wage Debacle
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»  Clean Air Policy Up In Smoke
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»  Child Carers Stretched to the Limit
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»  Building Workers Won’t Settle for Half Pay
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»  Life, Art and Politics
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Columns
»  Guest Report
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Piers Watch
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Letters to the editor
»  More Transport News!
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»  A Meaningful Contribution
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»  Life is Cheap
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»  Short Shots - Richo, Reithy
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