A few weeks ago NSW Labor Assistant General Secretary George Simon spoke at the Left meeting, the first to be held online as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Pictured: George Simon in simpler times
I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are all on and pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging.
It feels strange to be sitting here alone in my dining room addressing this meeting, particular during such a difficult health and economic crisis. Many of us on the left-wing side of politics are natural extroverts. We thrive on interaction and our movement is built on the social connections we make; whether that’s at a rally we attend with comrades, a planning session with organisers, a branch meeting with party activists, or at a conference when we are yelling across the aisle at Centre Unity.
Part of the thinking behind putting on tonight’s event is about attempting to fill that void that has been created by the social isolation of COVID-19.
In an impossible contradiction, the progressive side of politics in this country is isolated at a time when we urgently need to come together to deal with the most difficult economic crisis of our generation. There are big dangers for democratic socialist politics right now and we need to find ways to respond. Our own Osmond Chiu put it best last week when he wrote the following in our publication, Challenge Magazine:
There is a danger in assuming that this pandemic means the end of neoliberalism or a revival of a social democratic consensus.
The politics of the COVID-19 pandemic are uncertain and unpredictable. Certainly the early signs are not great for us in NSW. If you’ve had the chance to look at the most recent Newspoll favourability results for the Prime Minister and State premiers, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at election results in some authoritarian backwater. The advantage of incumbency feels almost overwhelming at this stage. The Labor Premier of WA, with favourability rating of 89%, has figures that would make Kim Jong Un blush.
In an environment where the Prime Minister has left millions of insecure workers behind and the NSW Premier has completely bungled the management of the docking of the Ruby Princess, it’s pretty hard to stomach that the electorate is currently rewarding their management. That said, I think what we are seeing now is people looking for certainty in a time of great uncertainty.
We should also acknowledge that voters are rewarding our leaders for decisions that have been made to save lives and save jobs. Those measures have required Liberals and Nationals to backflip on generations of rhetoric about neo-liberalism and use the levers of government to save millions of people from the consequences of market failure.
Therein lays our opportunity on the left side of politics. The natural tendency of the conservative side of politics will be to unravel the government intervention and continue the trajectory of market liberalisation. We’ve seen it start already. There’s talk of WorkChoices 2.0, there’s talk of dismantling of the compulsory superannuation system, and there’s talk of more business tax cuts.
To do this, our opponents will have to unwind a series of interventionist reforms that they introduced and that the electorate has now had a taste for. Will the electorate tolerate slashing newstart back to half it’s current rate? How will the government explain to parents that they are now ready to end the system of free childcare? Will the government expect tenants to go back to the powerless position they were in before this pandemic?
Much like this pandemic presents opportunities for us in our campaign against the government, it also presents an opportunity for us in our efforts to reform the Labor party.
Back in March, the party made the correct decision to suspend all branch activity. Since then, what has organically emerged is a network of online engagements by party members around a range of common interests; branches, regions, policy groupings, and union affiliation. In many cases, those online engagements have been just as rich as any branch meeting.
Despite the richness of these engagements, they can never be recognised as formal party engagements under the organising principles that party is currently built on. It suddenly feels strange that the NSW Labor party applies a different status to a member who engages in a debate on zoom to one who engages in a debate in a community hall.
Members have embraced online organising during this pandemic. We have an obligation to utilise this opportunity to reimagine how the party is structured and how members are organised. To that end, the NSW Left Executive will spend some time in the coming months brainstorming ideas on how we can change the party structure and rules at future conference to have a party organisation that reflects modern organising practices. We are keen to involve Left members in that discussion and we’ll have opportunities for that in coming weeks.
Before I finish up, I wanted to update members on the project to reform party office. Many of us remain disappointed at the state of the NSW Labor Party following the recent ICAC inquiry. Following the Lavarch Review in December of last year, the National Executive of the Labor party passed a series of sweeping reforms to change the rules of the NSW Labor Party. That meeting of the National Executive in February represents only the third time ever there has been a national intervention into the NSW party. The changes include beefed up oversight over the finance and compliance of the party with a new board of independent directors, contracts of employment and position descriptions for senior leadership, improved oversight on the activities and performance of the full-time officers and delegated and codified responsibilities for the General Secretary and Assistant Secretaries. For the Left, it has the potential to end the culture of our senior officers being shut out of all the substantive functions of the organisation and will allow us to have a stronger say in how the organisation is run and how we fight elections. That’s a long way from the days of Albo being locked out of his office as the Assistant Secretary.
We will have to be vigilant about any signs of regression to the bad old days of NSW Labor and we have to be confident that any reforms can endure through the normal course of political disagreement between the factions.
Of course, these reforms are only a start and I’m disappointed that we still don’t have a directly elected party president. That key reform out of the Lavarch review remains outstanding. We must continue to prosecute it. It is important to have another centre of authority in the party president to act as a bulwark against the powerful position of general secretary and the day to day factional combat. Itis critical to producing a reform agenda that can outlast the personalities of the current leadership team.
This pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of our mission. Morrison and Berejiklian say we are all in this together, but millions have been left behind. This group, the NSW Left, is a critical part of the progressive alliance we need to build to defeat them and build a post-pandemic society that is fairer than the one before it. I’m hopeful the next time I speak to you all, it’ll be in person, over a beer, plotting about that project.
This speech was originally delivered on the 29th of April 2020.
George Simon is the Assistant General Secretary of NSW Labor. Twitter