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New South Wales: Labor's civil war: the Cunningham by-election.

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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.


It may not have been checked against the b roadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.


For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.






Thursday 17 October 2002

Labor’s Civil War


This weekend Simon Crean will face his first real test at the ballot box as Labor leader. All eyes will be on the seat of Cunningham, on the NSW South Coast. Insight first reported on Labor shenanigans in Cunningham earlier this year. Soon after the federal member resigned and a by-election was called. Cunningham is traditionally Labor, but the ongoing branch stacking and factional warfare may deliver the seat to an Independent or a Green. Alan Sunderland reports.


REPORTER: Alan Sunderland


PETER WILSON, INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE FOR CUNNINGHAM: Four of us bought a place down here, I think it was back in 1980. Since then, I've actually moved to this area permanently. We moved down here in 1989 and I've been here since, permanently. I guess then, I salivate over the notion that one day I'll be able to build beautiful furniture so in the interim I just read magazines about building beautiful furniture.


Until very recently, Peter Wilson had his life pretty well sorted out. As an organiser with the Teachers' Union, he'd managed to combine his work with his love of nature and the outdoors by setting up home on the beautiful strip of coastline that runs south from Sydney to Wollongong.


PETER WILSON: Just to be able to walk out into this area and look at where we live, is just, it just creates this huge joy in terms of life and what pleasures there are.


But in the past couple of weeks, Peter Wilson's quiet life has been radically transformed. His beautiful piece of coastline is in the middle of the federal electorate of Cunningham, where the Labor Party is battling to win a crucial by-election. And Peter Wilson has thrown himself into the middle of this battle by nominating for the seat as an Independent.


PETER WILSON: We're a safe seat, so the ALP takes us for granted. The Liberal Party's had the view in the past that, as far as they're concerned, they'll never win down here so what's the point in actually putting any money down here. So the outcome of that is the Illawarra gets nothing. In terms of respect for this area, in terms of what they are prepared to invest in this area, things are not good enough and something's got to change. Enough is enough. It's time for us to take a stand.


Peter Wilson's stand is threatening to unseat the Labor Party in its traditional heartland because, apart from being a Teachers’ Union organiser and a prominent figure in the local community, Peter Wilson is also the President of the South Coast Labor Council. His campaign is being backed by a strong local union movement convinced that Labor no longer deserves its support. It's just after 9:30 and the construction workers on a site near the Port Kembla steelworks are stopping for their morning break.


MARK PALOFF, PETER WILSON'S CAMPAIGN MANAGER: That’s Peter Wilson, he’s the trade union candidate for Cunningham, and it's about giving the ALP a kick in the arse.


At a federal level, the ALP has been battling with the unions over the so-called 60-40 rule, which used to give 60% of the seats at policy conferences to the union movement. But here in the Illawarra, the battle is not about that - it's about local unions and local party members being ignored and sidelined by the factional heavyweights in the Sydney head office. The local construction union organiser, Dave Kelly, has been a Party member for years, but this time around, like the rest of his union, he's throwing his weight behind Peter Wilson.


DAVE KELLY, CFMEU ORGANISER: It's very hard to take that plunge and when your hand goes to tick the box, you know, I'm sure there'll be a lot of Labor people shaking a bit because old habits die hard, but it's got to be done. The concern, I think, the Labo r Party have got is that once someone takes the plunge, then they become renegades, don't they, and they're willing to do it more often.


DAVE KELLY: We're here to talk about politics in the region. Union movement's got a bit of a problem, because who do we support? Who can we support? We've only got the Labor Party. That's it. So what we've been doing, our union's been doing, is going around and trying to encourage trade unionists to stand against the Labor Party. And for that reason, we've got Peter Wilson down here, he is a trade unionist from the Teachers’ Federation, who's going to make a stab at the local area in the Cunningham by-election. So I'll hand you over to Pete.


PETER WILSON: It's a pretty amazing thing when the President of the South Coast Labor Council and a person who's voted Labor all my life is prepared to stand up in a public way and say the Labor Party's gone too far. Now, we have to take a stand and tell the Labor Party that we will no longer be taken for granted. The Labor Party was created by the trade union movement in the 1890s, and now, what, 112 years later, we've now got a situation in the Illawarra where the labour movement is saying to the Labor Party, "You no longer represent our interests."


Peter Wilson's campaign in Cunningham is attacking Labor's traditional support base, but it's by no means the only serious threat the party faces if it wants to retain what's always been one of its safest seats.


GREENS TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT: Next Saturday, send Cunningham's most vital voice to Canberra. For employment, the environment, education and no war in Iraq.


For the first time ever in a by-election, the Greens have paid for television advertisements for their candidate. It's a sign of how seriously they rate their chances of winning, not just because of Labor's problems, but because of a local issue that's lifted their support to record levels. Sandon Point is one of the last undeveloped sites on the Wollongong coast, but it won't stay that way for long. With the approval of the formerly Labor-dominated local council and the State Government, a major developer has begun a housing project at Sandon Point, over the strong objections of local activists, conservationists and the Aboriginal community. It's an issue that's tailor-made for the Greens.


ABORIGINAL PROTESTER SPEAKING TO BOB BROWN: The local council actually endorsed a full independent comprehensive study of this site in December 2000, then they done a backflip in February two months later and granted the development application for the site.


A few weeks ago, Greens Leader Bob Brown led a delegation to the site. With him was Michael Organ, the local Green who surprised everyone by polling an extraordinary 15% of the vote in the recent council election. On the back of that support, Michael Organ is now running for Cunningham.


SENATOR BOB BROWN, GREENS LEADER: It is very important that we think of winning Cunningham, because we can win Cunningham, the same as any other party might do so.


MICHAEL ORGAN, GREENS CANDIDATE FOR CUNNINGHAM: We've had the Labor Party representing us at all levels of government over the last few decades, and there's a lot of disenchantment with that, people are looking for a choice, it's time for a change, I think. The choice is now clear in regards to the Cunningham election on 19 October - more of the same with Labor, or a fresh start with the Greens.


The Greens are running hard in Cunningham on policies of sustainable development, local jobs, and opposition to the war in Iraq. Like Peter Wilson, they're drawing important primary votes from disenchanted Labor voters, and then directing their preferences away from the ALP as well.


MICHAEL ORGAN: A lot of traditional Labor voters, a lot of Labor Party members are disenchanted with Labor over the last four or five years, and so they've slowly - that disenchantment - they've either voted against Labor and now that the Greens have come along, there's some real alternatives out there for them.


The twin threat to Labor from the Greens and the union-backed Independent couldn't come at a worse time. In the Illawarra, the party's reputation is at an all-time low. Three months ago, Insight reported on the branch stacking, factional warfare and inter nal party wrangling that has turned the Labor Party in the Illawarra into something of a laughing stock. Left-wing MPs have been targeted by right-wing branch stackers, right-wing party members have turned on each other in a series of internal power plays, and other party members have thrown their hands up in disgust. Since then, matters seem to have become worse, if that's possible. The disgraced former Labor mayor, George Harrison, who was involved in some of the most notorious branch-stacking allegations, has resigned facing bankruptcy, and the people of Wollongong have turned on Labor, electing an Independent to take his place. Meanwhile, the mayor's biggest supporter, Nick Manias, from the controversial Mount Keira branch where allegations of stacking were rife, was suspended from the ALP for three months for bringing the party into disrepute. Concern about branch-stacking and head office interference in the area is as strong today as it's ever been.


PETER WILSON: I think that the problem is that there's a small group of people who have phenomenal power within the Labor Party, they are so disconnected from rank and file, they are disconnected from the electorate.


In the midst of all this angst, local federal member Stephen Martin retired only nine months after winning his seat at the federal election. Suddenly, Labor was thrown into a by-election, where its biggest threat was from disgruntled supporters within its own ranks. For the party leader Simon Crean, this was a chance to prove to an angry rank and file that things were changing, that the ALP knew it had to start listening to its own supporters in local communities. After all, that's exactly what Simon Crean promised to do when he assigned Bob Hawke and Neville Wran to review the ALP's structure to make it more open and democratic. So, would the rank and file in the troubled Illawarra be able to choose their candidate for Cunningham? Not on your life.


SHARON BIRD, ALP CANDIDATE FOR CUNNINGHAM: To put you to work, Simon, could I ask you to officially open the Cunningham campaign office?


SIMON CREAN, ALP LEADER: Thanks very much, Sharon. A great office for a great candidate - the new representative for Cunningham.


Sharon Bird is Labor's candidate for the seat. She's lived and worked in the Illawarra all her life.


SHARON BIRD: I've been an active member of the Labor Party for 25 years, and I've been involved in some of the policy development at the state level, so for me I'm very proud to be a member of the Labor Party and to have the opportunity to represent it at the parliamentary level is something that I've aspired to for quite a while.


But Sharon Bird's biggest problem is that in an electorate where rank and file members complain about head office interference, she is a candidate imposed by head office. If there had been a normal preselection process, local members would have had a choice between the right-wing Sharon Bird, left-wing union official Chris Christodoulou and probably several other hopefuls. But head office wouldn't let them choose.


ANDY GILLESPIE, AUSTRALIAN WORKERS UNION: There's been the absence of the rank and file, the rank and file have been totally ignored, there's been candidates just simply N40'd, placed in, and rather than the rank and file choosing their candidates in their branches through the democratic process, they're simply arbitrarily being done by Sussex Street.


Andy Gillespie is a local official with the powerful Australian Workers Union in Wollongong. He recently resigned from the Labor Party over its use of what's called N40 preselections. That's where local rank-and-file voters are ignored, and head office controls the decision. The Illawarra has seen several of them in recent years, at state and federal level. Sharon Bird is just the latest.


ANDY GILLESPIE: I mean, Sharon Bird was put in on an N40 vote, I mean, simply, that was the way the party determined she was going to be put in, didn't go back to the rank and file to choose their candidate after Martin resigned, had plenty of time to do that and had plenty of time to go back to the rank and file and seek a choice of their candidate.


Labor says it had no choice but to bypass the rank and file when it preselected Sharon Bird, because there was no time to do anything else. That's what the party's been telling its local critics.


SIMON CREAN: The circumstances of a by-election are always different. This by-election came on us very suddenly. The rules of the Labor Party enable a speedy process in those circumstances. That's what was invoked. The N40 was always there to deal with by-elections.


SHARON BIRD: If people have internal party processes that they're not happy about, then we should have that discussion. They understand that the N40 rule was put in place for emergencies, where a by-election is caused by a death or resignation, or there's a snap election, for example, and that that's exactly what we face.


But there is evidence that casts doubt on the official party line. Insight has obtained internal Labor Party emails which show that a draft timetable was circulated that clearly allowed for a full rank- and-file preselection in Cu nningham. A few days later, the party changed its mind and decided to go with an N40. Officials at Labor's Sussex Street head office say the draft timetable had to be abandoned because it would have taken too long. But critics say the change of mind occurred when it became clear the preferred right-wing candidate might not get up.


ANDY GILLESPIE: Sussex Street is one faction, and they're simply heavy-handedly putting people into all the seats, they're removing all the left-wing candidates or all the candidates who have a liaison that the unions have some trust and rely on to work on their behalf.


SHARON BIRD: I've heard that cynicism expressed and, you know, that's part of the dialogue about the decision. I didn't make the decision, wasn't in a position to influence the decision, certainly wasn't on the receiving end of emails, so I don't know. All I can say is that, at the end of the day, that's a debate that people can have, but we do have a by-election we have to face.


Sharon Bird has her own personal history to deal with when it comes to head-office-imposed N40 preselections. 18 months ago, Labor's Jennie George won the neighbouring seat of Throsby under an N40 after head office ignored local calls for a rank-and-file preselection. Her local opponent back then was none other than Sharon Bird, who loudly and publicly proclaimed that Jennie George should refuse to accept an N40, because rank-and-file votes were the only way to go.


SHARON BIRD: But that was 18 months before the election. That was 18 months before the election and the argument we were putting at that point in time was that the N40 rule is meant to apply in by-elections and it wasn't a by-election.


REPORTER: But you could understand why some people in the party, and some who've spoken to me, would see your actions as opportunistic, that when an N40 helps you get a seat in parliament you will support it, when it doesn't you won't.


SHARON BIRD: Yeah, well, I mean, they will make their call anyway, on that decision, and I suspect that it wouldn't have mattered what decision I made, they would still be critical of my position.


Sharon Bird is also under attack inside her own party for switching factions. A couple of years ago, she was a dedicated member of Labor's left wing, working in the office of former Cunningham member Colin Hollis. But after a serious falling out, she defected to the right.


SHARON BIRD: It was made around a decision about my personal relationships within the party and some frustrations and some support from other people, so at the end of the day that was a decision about my relationship, about my position within the party. It's not been raised by a single voter in Cunningham, and you may also be aware that many people, and some of them not even in the party who've known me for a long time in this area, know that that position does not in any way relate to the things I feel passionate about, the things I'm committed to, and the arguments that I'll put up on my position on policy.


REPORTER: But, you see, that's the very point that critics of the factional system will raise most often - they will say, "Look, factions are no longer about principles and policies, they're about organisational structures and deals and relationships between members of the party." Is that not a problem?


SHARON BIRD: Well, you know, it's an issue that we'll be debating on the weekend, I'm sure, but the other side of it is that I join the milk club at the local school and the same thing happens. It is also human nature for people to form support groups. In the ALP they're very formalised and maybe that's the issue that people feel should be addressed, and I wouldn't be adverse to a discussion about that.


Ultimately, Labor is hoping that internal arguments about preselection processes, factions and rank-and-file involvement won't matter to the voters of Cunningham.


SHARON BIRD: All I can do is continue to campaign to work hard and to do the best I can and then others will make their judgment of that at the end of the day.


While Sharon keeps campaigning, the Labor Party ranks behind her are starting to look decidedly shaky. At the party's official launch, some prominent branch members were on hand. There was Councillor Kiril Jonovski, a fellow right-winger who's delivered strong support to Labor from the Macedonian community. Vania Harrison, the wife of troubled ex-mayor George Harrison, was there. So was Mount Keira branch member Nick Manias, despite his current suspension from the party, which he's appealing. But there was at least one other member of the Mount Keira branch who wasn't there.


WENDY CARR (READING OUT HER ALP RESIGNATION LETTER): (Reads) Dear Mr Roozendaal. It is with regret that I advise you that I am tendering my resignation from the Australian Labor Party. I have become increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the Labor Party and with the way in which the party has demonstrated its total disregard for members in the Illawarra.


Wendy Carr has supported Labor all her life, and been an active member of the Mount Keira branch for e ight years. That's now over.


WENDY CARR: I just couldn't in all conscience vote or campaign for the Labor Party candidate. I mean, the Illawarra, let's face it, is a hard, is a working class city, and is traditionally Labor. And in the time that I've been a member of the Labor Party, the branch stacking appears to have become more prevalent over the last 10 or 12 years. So, it's that branch stacking, the factionalism within the party, and the imposition of candidates by head office and that particularly concerns me.


On party matters, Wendy Carr is no naive innocent. Two years ago, she ran for council preselection in Wollongong, campaigning alongside the now disgraced Lord Mayor George Harrison. Since then, her concern about factional infighting has become overwhelming. The decision to ignore the rank and file in Cunningham was too much.


WENDY CARR: It was a very hard decision. I've spent, I won't even say weeks, I've spent months thinking about this decision, you know, certain things in our life we get upset and it wanes, but this is something that's been building and it's something that I've been feeling very angry about for quite some time.


Wendy Carr decided to make her resignation from the ALP count for something. Together with her daughter, she went to a public forum organised by the South Coast Labor Council for all Cunningham candidates to talk about the issues. There she caught up with Independent Peter Wilson's campaign manager, and offered her help to the team. She also made a very public attack on Labor.


WENDY CARR: There is a total disregard for the members, we don't have any voice any more, and it is about time that head office stand up and listen to what we are saying down here, and until they do, others, myself and others, there will be more people that leave the party and the party will be left without those members that have spent many years supporting them. So, as a mark of my resignation, I have my card here and I have been handed a pair of scissors, and I intend to cut up my membership ticket.


The card-cutting incident was the just the beginning of a tough night for Labor's Sharon Bird, as she found herself defending her union credentials in front of an audience that, in the past, would have been an important support base.


ARTHUR RORRIS, SECRETARY, SOUTH COAST LABOR COUNCIL: You can't tell workers which way to vote, you wouldn't want to. Because in this region, they'll tell you where to go. What you can do is what we're doing here, and that is invite all the speakers up and they can put their platforms to you, to the delegates of the South Coast Labor Council, and because of the importance of this by-election, we've decided to open it up to the media.


PETER WILSON: I'm the President of the South Coast Labor Council, and I've been an executive member of the Labor Council, I think, since 1989. If I had to summarise in a nutshell why it is that I'm running, and why it is that people are supporting me, it' s because of this - this area will no longer be taken for granted by the Labor Party. We won’t be taken for granted as a community and we won’t be taken for granted as a union movement.


MICHAEL ORGAN: In recent years, we know that the ALP down here has swung to the right, the ALP down here at all levels, local, state and federal, is run by the right wing of the Labor Party, and so a lot of people, a lot of traditional Labor voters and a lot of workers feel disenchanted and disenfranchised by the Labor Party down here.


SHARON BIRD: It means a great deal to me that the trade union movement is something that I hold close to my heart. Despite the outcome of this by-election, can I say to you that will not change. That will never change, because those principles are part of who I am, they're part of how I was brought up, and they're part of the things I value in myself and I value in my friends and I value in our community.


When the meeting called for questions, there was no shortage of union officials lining up to attack Sharon Bird over Labor's neglect, it's factional shenanigans, and her own decision to accept an N40 preselection.


UNION MEMBER: You were on the wrong end of an N40 in Throsby and now you're on the right end of an N40...


SHARON BIRD: I support rank-and-file preselection processes. In this occasion, the N40 rule was applied because it was a by-election. If you want to debate that for the next 2.5 weeks, then you go ahead, I'm not going to do it any more. Yeah, well, mate, can I say to you that I talk to a lot of rank and file members of unions including the CFMEU, of which three of them are my uncles, and I would say to you that if we want to start pulling each other apart by debating those issues, then that would be a very great waste of the next 2.5 weeks.


UNION MEMBER: But you've done that by condoning this exercise.


It was a night that put Labor's internal battles on public display. Sharon Bird was left in no doubt that the forces lining up against her are formidable ones. There are 13 candidates running for the seat of Cunningham this weekend. The smart money is on a three-way battle between Labor, the Greens and Peter Wilson. In the inevitable horse-trading in the lead-up to the poll, Peter Wilson and the Greens have agreed to swap preferences, a crucial deal that they hope will get one of them across the line with the other's help. Labor, on the other hand, has been unable to stitch up a significant preference deal with anyone.


SHARON BIRD: We've had calls in to all the candidates to discuss preferences, and they're not returning the calls, so it's a little bit difficult to cop criticism when they don't talk to you privately, they only want to do it publicly.


REPORTER: It doesn't make you feel a little bit like you against the world, does it?


SHARON BIRD: It does a bit, but, you know, if I can remain calm and reasonable through this process I hope it shows the voters that I'm happy to take criticism on board, I don't run and hide, I face it. I'm confident enough in my own integrity to answer the questions that they were asking, and hopefully they'll see that as a positive aspect to me as a person.


LABOR PARTY TV ADVERTISEMENT: I've lived here all my life, so I know what it will mean if Howard and Costello sell Telstra. We'll be the ones who end up losing out. But not if I have my say.


The Labor Party is throwing everything it can at the Cunningham by-election. It has matched the Greens by running its own local TV ads, and hardly a day has gone by without a senior party celebrity making the trek down the highway to Wollongong. Simon Crean has now made several trips. Whether he likes it or not, the campaign has become a test of his own leadership, and a referendum on his efforts to reform the party.


SIMON CREAN: The concern that's been expressed by people here about branch stacking ought to take considerable heart from what we achieved at the conference on the weekend. We now have strong rules to stamp out the branch stackers, we now have rules that party members who feel aggrieved can take appropriate action, we now have rules that say you can't vote in a preselection unless you're on the electoral roll. If people vote for the Independents and not for the Labor Party, it will simply be a message of comfort for John Howard.


But if Labor does lose Cunningham, or even go close to losing it, the message will be for them, and it will be a strong one.


ANDY GILLESPIE: They're going to have to look in the mirror and say, "We stuffed up, we should have went to the trade union movement, we shouldn't have taken them for granted, we should have tried to have some kind of alliance with them, we should have had some dialogue with them about how do we resolve our issues."