If Chris Minns wins the ballot to be the New South Wales Opposition leader it will be a good day for the Labor Party and Australia. Minns represents Labor Party modernisation. All Australians of goodwill want our centre-left party of government to be at its best. Even the most partisan Liberal would admit a sub-standard ALP means the Liberals can be policy sloths but still win elections.
The Minns versus Jodi McKay contest is Australia’s first truly significant parliamentary leadership contest in which the party rank and file can vote. The first membership ballot in this country was in 2013 when Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese contested Labor’s federal leadership but that was a dull contest in a shell-shocked party with a preordained result. The contest between Minns and McKay is what a membership ballot for leader should be – a battle of ideas for the party’s soul.
The outcome of this NSW ballot will reverberate. Since before federation, the NSW party has been the powerhouse of the national ALP. The 2019 federal election is recorded as a highwater mark for the Victorian ALP and a low watermark for the NSW ALP. It’s true the Victorian ALP received a higher share of its state’s votes but the NSW ALP still has 24 seats in the House of Representatives – more than half of NSW’s 47 seats. The Victorian ALP has three less with 21. If federal Labor is going to modernise NSW Labor needs to set the pace.
McKay is a former Newcastle newsreader who it’s rumoured flirted with Liberals before Labor mapped out a more feasible path into parliament. She seems perfectly nice and is a proven clean skin but she has a thin resume. In her corner, however, she has what has always been a winning trifecta – Sussex Street, union leadership and the parliamentary caucus.
Minns is fresh, telegenic, smart (Princeton educated) but most of all he’s got guts. The Labor establishment is anti-Minns because he’s been a consistent voice for loosening the control over the party by the trade union movement. In his 2015 inaugural speech, Minns declared, ‘Trade unions are integral to both our success and our heritage, but Labor also needs to represent those who are not in a trade union. That will mean taking steps to reduce union control on the floor of our conference and increasing the representation of ordinary members of our party.”
At face value, it’s pretty lame but given the trade union stranglehold this is the outer boundary of acceptability within Labor. A Meatworkers Union official recently declared, ‘We are not interested in hearing from career politicians who don’t understand the first thing about their own party. We will not recognise or accept Mr Minns as a candidate for the leadership of the NSW Labor Party. The AMIEU has well-honed knife skills for dealing with rogues.” Outrageous, blatant thuggery.
Trade union membership is at a historic low and, what’s more, there’s no bounce in sight. Labor’s raison d’être, however, remains unchanged from the early 1890’s – defend union interests in parliament. It’s a formula for losing elections. It’s one reason why Labor’s won just two of the last nine federal elections.
Last week the ABC reported a lengthy story with the headline, ‘Chris Bowen and Chris Minns in the spotlight over six-figure donation from Beijing-linked association.’
It sounded ominous but the leak to the ABC (definitely not from Sussex Street) boils down to this: in early 2013 private citizen Minns was studying in the US. Polls in Chris Bowen’s seat at the time said he was in danger of losing it … so Bowen invites Minns to return to Australia and be his campaign manager. Minns agrees and the Bowen campaign pays Minns $5,000 to relocate to Australia.
This is a routine professional behaviour. If anything the cost seems low considering Minns had a young family. Bowen had recently received a large donation from a Chinese national which was declared and at the time was routine political behaviour, but regardless Minns wasn’t to know the origin of the money. If this is the ‘Minns dirt-file’ he’s as clean as he looks.
The policies of the Labor Party and the US Democrats are mirror images. But none of the Democrat presidents in this generation (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama) had a trade union background.
The trade union heritage of the ALP prevents someone like Malcolm Turnbull (whose political sympathies were always more left than right) from being accepted into the party he truly belonged to. Had the former partner of Goldman Sachs been born an American he would have sought political high office via the Democratic Party and been welcomed. The ALP closes that door to almost all bar union and party officials. Zali Steggall shouldn’t be an independent. She should be a member of the centre-left party of government. But Steggall wouldn’t know a thing about unions and so doesn’t get a jersey.
When announcing his candidacy Minns declared, ‘the people of Australia are ambitious. They are ambitious for themselves, they are ambitious for their families and they are ambitious for their country – and they can’t believe the Labor Party is antagonistic to that success.”
This is clearly a leader who wants to steer his party back to the centre. There is no public record indicating McKay has given party modernisation a moment’s thought.
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