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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9501


Mrs IRWIN (9:44 PM) —Tonight I wish to inform the House that I will not be seeking the endorsement of the Labor Party to contest the next federal election. This is not intended to be a valedictory speech. I hope that, given the time and the indulgence of my whip, I will get the opportunity to say some nice things about the people I have shared my parliamentary experiences with over the past 11 years. But tonight I would like to reflect on the path that brought me to this place and, for my successor, suggest where that path should lead into the future.

Having joined the ALP 43 years ago, I find it hard to describe the great differences between the Labor Party today and the one of 1966. For the growing number of women representing Labor in this and other parliaments, much of the change has been for the good. But, despite the broader representation of women and a more outward-looking party agenda, Labor, at least in the parts of Western Sydney that I am familiar with, can no longer claim to be a party with a strong grassroots organisation. For the whole of my four terms in this place, the Fowler electorate has been a factional battleground. Branch stacking in the late 1990s saw membership surge to over 3,500 members—more than the total membership of the Western Australian branch. But at each of my four elections half of the Fowler branches provided little or no support in the campaign.

The Unsworth inquiry documented the extent of ethnic branch stacking in Fowler and led to measures that have limited the benefit of the practice, but the real impact of ethnic branch stacking has been the decline of dedicated branch members and the destruction of effective local branches. In this climate, the new Labor candidate in Fowler will face many challenges. While the seat itself is likely to be one of the safest Labor seats in the country if the proposed redistribution is accepted, it is crucial for the future of the ALP in Fowler that its next ALP member has the support of all Labor Party members in the area.

While some retiring members have hoped to anoint a successor, I can say that I have no wish to do so. But if I could influence the selection, it would be to favour a candidate who shares my passion for the electorate of Fowler and for the Western Sydney region in general. It would be to favour a candidate who, guided by Labor principles, would place the interests of their community above the wishes of a state or federal Labor government. And it would be to favour a candidate who would be dedicated to mending the factional rift in Fowler branches and rebuilding the party with genuine Labor Party members. Such a person would unfortunately find their talents in demand at higher levels of government, and the task of rebuilding may be left to another factional warlord, someone to keep up the numbers in the branches and to continue the cold war stand-off. Having spent the first 25 years of my membership in the left faction, and the last 18 years in the right, I can honestly say that in policy terms there is no difference between them. Factions exist and thrive as the sources of power for individuals. While they can simplify dispute resolution, they can be a destructive force at ALP branch level. They are, however, as far as I can see, here to stay.

While party politics has changed over the last 40-odd years, some things have remained constant. The principles of Labor have been stretched and bent but they are still there for this and future generations of Labor parliamentary representatives to follow. I like to think that the light on the hill described by Ben Chifley is not a distant beacon but a torch passed on from one generation to the next. I ask only that I be remembered as one who nurtured that flame and passed it on stronger and brighter to the next generation. To my staff past and present: thank you for your support and loyalty. To my beloved family, especially my husband and best friend, Geoff, my father, Alan, who passed away in July 2006, and my mentor, my mother, Lois Welsh: you are and always will be my light on the hill.