Lost opportunity for Labor
ON January 5, a new state Labor leader will be elected in NSW. Had rank-and-file members had a vote, deputy leader Linda Burney would almost certainly have run and, in my opinion, would have walked it in.
Unfortunately the Labor caucus alone will decide the NSW leadership, because a plebiscite cannot be held within six months of a state election.
The ALP introduced a vote for members in the election of its national parliamentary leader. Burney’s mentor, the Labor Left’s national leader Anthony Albanese, trounced Bill Shorten by a margin of nearly two to one, but Shorten won because of the huge weighting given to caucus votes.
One of the frontrunners in NSW is upper house member Luke Foley, notionally a member of the Labor Left, who is known to hold deeply conservative views. As with many Labor functionaries, Foley worked in the backroom Labor machine for decades.
If elected NSW Labor leader, Foley would almost certainly have to gain a seat in the lower house. In this, he would be like Neville Wran’s successor as premier, Barry Unsworth, who in 1986 moved from the NSW upper House to the Legislative Assembly. But Unsworth was hardly a raging political success.
The second leadership contender is opposition treasury spokesman Michael Daley, a former lawyer and state finance minister. A member of the Labor Right, Daley is virtually unknown in NSW. This means voters are in no position to know if he has the qualities to be an effective leader.
Then there is the opposition police spokesman Steve Whan — who hails from southeast of NSW. After losing his marginal lower house seat of Monaro in the last state election, Whan became a member of the upper house by the means of a casual vacancy.
In a plebiscite with these three relatively nondescript men, the highly talented Burney could well have won the state leadership.
In his forthcoming biography, ‘Linda: Unfinished Journey’, Noel Beddoe traces Burney’s story from the time when her unmarried white mother in a small Riverina township in NSW walked out of hospital, leaving behind the child of a short-term Aboriginal lover. He traces her struggles to be educated and then her success as a schoolteacher in the disadvantaged Sydney suburb of Lethbridge Park.
Beddoe also documents how Burney became a leader of the reconciliation movement via her presidency of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. This culminated in her leadership of the Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000.
Under the guidance of Albanese, Burney entered NSW parliament as its first identifying Aboriginal member. She has served as deputy state Labor leader for four years, having been a notably successful minister for community services. Burney brought to that difficult role not only the administrative acumen she developed as director-general of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs but also an unflinching compassion that her life experiences had taught her. Burney also demonstrated these qualities as chairwoman of the NSW Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, a role in which she succeeded former NSW governor Marie Bashir.
As IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m quoted as saying on the cover of Beddoe’s book, published next month, Burney has “had experiences which would have destroyed many people. She has not survived, she has triumphed.
As a result of the six-month rule, on January 5 ALP members will not have a chance to vote for Burney. The decision about John Robertson’s successor will consequently be made by the party’s small parliamentary membership, sooled along by backroom powerbrokers.
Burney’s biographer is regularly invited to speak about his books. Beddoe explains: “Whenever IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve mentioned the upcoming Linda book, people have told me that they wish Linda were party leader.
As well as being a strong media performer, Burney combines finely honed administrative skills in a variety of roles with extraordinary life experience. This is why, if there were a membersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ ballot and she stood, Burney would have been a shoo-in.
It’s certainly a shame the ALP rank and file won’t be involved in electing its new leader in NSW.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University.
The Australian, December 29, 2014, Commentary, p 10