Thirroul ALP Branch Annual Dinner

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Thirroul Railway Institute Hall 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay respect to their elders.

I want to thank Chris Lacey - for all that you do, Chris.

Eight days ago, the Minister for Finance & Services and Minister for the Illawarra in the O'Farrell Government, Greg Pearce, in a lame attempt to have a shot at me, stood up in the Legislative Council and sought to ridicule this dinner.

In the process he read Chris's mobile phone number on to the public record.

Since then, Chris has had to change his phone number and answer for his ALP activity to his employer. He's had a tough week.

If I make only one commitment tonight, let it be this:

To not let up on Greg Pearce.

I will be unremitting in my hostility towards him.

Thank you to Bob and Anne Bower, and to Lois Hagan, for preparing this wonderful meal.

You honour me with your invitation to address you tonight.

This is a branch that knows, and cares for, its own history.

Today, too many people with positions of responsibility - as staffers, and as ministers and caucus members - inside Labor governments are wilfully ignorant of our Party's history.

Some behave as if the Labor Party began the day they joined it, or perhaps I should say, the day they first scored a job out of it.

Some knowledge of the events of 1916 may well have helped the NSW Labor Government in 2008.

That many people with influence in today's ALP, and that many people with influence inside modern Labor governments, know so little about our party diminishes the Labor Party. 

So many members of the Labor Party know so little of our history.

Once Graham Freudenberg could describe the ranks of the Labor Party as a "collective memory in action".

Not now.

But the Thirroul Branch is different.

I've read a draft of what is intended to become chapter 1of a centenary history of Thirroul ALP.

I look forward to its publication, and hope that I will be here in 2013 to help mark the centenary of the branch.

I think of Jim Hagan.

And I wish here was here tonight.

We miss him.

I once served on a task force with him, looking at demographic change and the long term threats to Labor's primary vote.

Needless to say, Jim and I failed to solve that problem.

We all owe a debt to Jim for his work in preserving so much of the history of the branch, and of the Labor Party and the labour movement, and of the Illawarra, and indeed this building.

And I think of D.H. Lawrence, living in Thirroul in 1922, and writing Kangaroo.

And the passages in that novel that give us a feel for what this place was like almost 90 years ago.

The English couple, Richard and Harriett, confronted by the Diggers and the Labor agitators.

Their train trip from Sydney to Thirroul, or should I say Mullumbimby.

The train jogged on, stopping at every little station. They were near the coast, but for a long time the sea was not in sight. The land grew steeper - far, straight hills like cliffs, masked in sombre trees. And then the first plume of colliery smoke among the trees on the hill-face. But they were little collieries, for the most part, where the men just walked into the face of the hill down a tunnel, and they hardly disfigured the land at all. Then the train came out on the sea - lovely bays with sand and grass and trees, sloping up towards the sudden hills that were like a wall. There were bungalows dotted in most of the bays. Then suddently more collieries, and quite a large settlement of bungalows. From the trains they looked down on many many pale-grey zinc roofs, sprinked about like a great camp, close together, yet none touching, and getting thinner towards the sea. The chimneys were faintly smoking, there was a haze of smoke and a sense of home, home in the wilds. A little way off, among the trees, plumes of white steam betrayed more collieries.

A bunch of schoolboys clambered into the train with their satchels, at home as schoolboys are. And several black colliers, with tin luncheon boxes. Then the trains ran for a mile and a half, to stop at another little settlement. Sometimes they stopped at beautiful bays in a hollow between hills, and no collieries, only bungalows. 

Friends

We gather at a serious and difficult time.

On March 26, 2011, NSW Labor suffered the most crushing defeat in our Party's history.

Losing an election after sixteen years in office is part of the natural cycle of politics.

Receiving our lowest vote since 1904, and winning our lowest number of seats since 1898, is anything but cyclical. 

Our primary vote was 25 per cent.

This was an electoral cataclysm.

The people of this state spoke with a vengeance seven months ago, and transformed the political landscape of NSW.

New South Wales politics, and our party's place in it, has changed utterly.

The voters expressed their fury at the way Labor ran this state for the last four years.

One in three voters who expressly identify themselves as Labor did not vote Labor.

These voters have values that they feel were violated by the fourth term NSW Labor Government.

The State Parliamentary Labor Party conducted its affairs in recent years in a way that destroyed the public's faith in NSW Labor's integrity.

As our new Leader, John Robertson, said in an address to Party members on May 23,

"We have to face up to the reality that, at times the NSW Labor Government in those final four years behaved in a manner that was reprehensible.

"We have to face up to the fact that we are haemorrhaging members and that our party is shrinking.

"If we aren't honest about those facts we will be relegated to Opposition for decades."

Labor will only recover if we are searingly honest about what happened over the last few years.

Many felt that we stopped being a Labor government: that we weren't on the side of the people, but rather hostage to self interest and to special interests.

Labor - the party formed to fight for the outsiders – ultimately became identified as a government for party insiders, property developers and coal mining companies.

Voters look to their state government for communal services: modern schools, state of the art hospitals and community health services, accessible public transport, safe streets, protection of vulnerable children, a flourishing artistic and cultural sector, social housing.

For the past seventy years our social democratic politics have dominated New South Wales, capturing the middle ground and delivering social reform.

Yet the breadth of State Labor's agenda was assaulted by a very small clique inside the government after Bob Carr's retirement.

Let me give one example.

 From the day Carr departed, a powerful few inside the government went out of their way to repudiate Labor's conservation agenda - the agenda of not only Carr, but of Wran and McKell.

Those who argue that Labor's embrace of the environment is some new fangled dalliance, at odds with Labor tradition, are dead wrong.

Protection of our natural environment isan intrinsic part of the Labor tradition.

The very first New South Wales Labor government protected large tracts of the Sydney Harbour foreshore, including what is today the Taronga Park Zoo and Nielsen Park.

Bill McKell, the architect of modern Labor in this state, created Australia's great alpine national park, the Kosciuszko National Park.

There are other examples of the government's retreat from social democratic governance.

So many public transport plans and initiatives were defeated that Labor's reputation as a party of public transport now lies in tatters.

This branch was dominated by railway workers and their families for eight decades.

This institute we gather in tonight was built as a teaching centre and library for railway workers.

Look around and behold a monument to railway - and to Labor - history.

Yet the community is now looking to the Liberal Party - the party that at its core believes in individuals fending for themselves rather than communal provision - to address the underinvestment in public transport.

And the tale of the blind pursuit of electricity privatisation, no matter the cost, has already lent itself to two books.

With 20 seats, Labor is weaker in the Legislative Assembly than at any time since the 19th century.

If we are honest, we must admit that we are as weak in the community today as we are in the new Parliament.

In the past sixteen years more than 130 Labor Party branches shut their doors.

One in four branches closed down, and many of those that remain are on life support.

While Labor governed, the Labor Party was disappearing from the everyday lives of many communities.

A political model of corporate donors funding massive electronic advertising helped deliver election victories in the good times.

When the tough times arrived, the corporate donors were long gone.

The cost of the long neglect of the Party's membership became clear.

 In March 26, Labor was able to staff fewer polling booths than at any election since the 1930s, when the Lang tyranny tore Labor asunder.

That had very real consequences.

Throughout New South Wales, the remaining Party membership is ageing and diminishing.

Most of the stalwarts who keep the Party alive in local electorates are over the age of fifty, many are now in their seventies.

Look forward sixteen years, know the age profile of those who remain today, and understand that the Labor Party will have disappeared as a membership based political party; unless we find the courage to change

The founders of our party came together because they knew they could only achieve decent treatment at work, free schooling, extensions to the franchise and reform of land laws through collective, rather than individual, action.

Yet today our party has ceased to be a campaigning organisation or a movement for change.

Our Leader, John Robertson, said on May 23,

"It is an indictment on all of us that we have allowed our very foundations to decay and disintegrate.

"Party reform is not an esoteric argument...

"Party reform should be driven by a fundamental desire for the party to genuinely connect, communicate with and listen to local communities, workers and families.

"We need to embrace reform that gives a louder voice to Party members and allows more people to participate."

Our party does not have an automatic right to exist, or to be powerful.

Labor has to earn its future.

We must rebuild the Labor Party from the ground up.

Labor's organisation and rules must be overhauled to democratise the party and empower individual members.

The Labor Party must reach out to our supporters in the community.

The road map is there: the 2010 ALP National Review Report delivered by Carr, Bracks and Faulkner.

We need a new campaigning model that is connected to our grassroots and connected to our supporters.

We need community organisers on the ground to prosecute our case and to organise for political change.

Those Labor agitators that D.H. Lawrence wrote about in Kangaroo – they were community organisers, putting Labor's case every day, in 1922.

We can say that the conservatives will get it wrong in government, that they're not as nice as they made out in the campaign and that the mask will slip.

That is true, but it is not enough.

The 2011 election does not spell the end for NSW Labor.

How we respond to the result will determine our party's future.

Our internal governance – our structures, rules and culture – failed us.

In turn, we failed the people of New South Wales.

In the 1930s, Ben Chifley and Bill McKell knew that Labor in this state had to reform before it would ever regain the confidence of the people.

In the 1960s, Gough Whitlam understood that the party had to change in order to become a credible alternative national government.

Once again, in 2011, Labor has to have the courage to change.

As we rebuild, there is a core principle that should guide us along the way – our belief in active government as a force for good.

The conservatives problem is that in their hearts they believe that government is the problem, never the solution.

Since 1891 Labor has stood for a fair go for all and a decent life for everyone.

That first New South Wales Labor Government that I spoke of, Jim McGowen's, took office 101 years ago this week.

Each Labor member knows the promise of Labor politics – to provide opportunities to every child, to remove discrimination, to engage with the world, and to provide better services that only the community can provide.

Those of us who are left as Labor members of the NSW Parliament now carry a very heavy burden: we must redeem the promise of Labor politics.