EDITORIAL: Time for Labor reform

REFORMING the NSW branch of the Australian Labor Party is a task that a lot of people talk about but nobody ever seems able to do.

But two circumstances may now make change possible after all.

The first is the depth to which the party has fallen in the eye of the NSW public. That's thanks in part to revelations from the Independent Commission Against Corruption's inquiry into allegations against some former Labor faction leaders and ministers.

The second is the return of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose felling by party factions in 2010 has left him with a powerful motive to seek a root-and-branch clean-up in NSW.

Mr Rudd's announcement on Thursday of a massive overhaul of the tainted state branch has been welcomed in practically all quarters. But goodwill won't be enough.

Past experience suggests that some of those with their hands on the levers of power in NSW Labor would rather let the organisation continue its death-spiral than give up even a fraction of the privileges and opportunities that their positions give them.

Take the fate of former NSW premier Nathan Rees, for example. When Mr Rees tried to push for party reform, the faction bosses who put him in the top job cut him down without hesitation.

In November 2009 he won overwhelming approval from the ALP state conference to pick his own cabinet, promptly sacking a handful of ministers including Joe Tripodi and Ian Macdonald.

Just over a fortnight later the factions hit back, forcing Mr Rees to face a spill and to declare that: "A malign and disloyal group well known to the NSW community has made the business of government almost impossible. The presence of such a group within the nation's oldest and proudest political party is intolerable. Their treachery and disloyalty can be borne no longer."

It was, and arguably still may be, being borne, despite a groundswell from disaffected rank and file members seeking to re-assert more democracy into the branch.

Cynics have warned that some of the nation's biggest trade unions will fight, to the death if necessary, to maintain their clout in the party. Those unions, however, must be aware of the grave damage done to their movement by allegations against some union leaders, including federal MP Craig Thomson.

As important as unions are, and as important as the close nexus between them and the Labor Party has been in the past, they must recognise the need for change.

A strong, democratic ALP is in everybody's interest, and it's hard to imagine a better time than now for real reform.

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