After its poor result on Saturday, NSW Labor is now looking at its longest stretch in the wilderness since the Second World War. For a party that has ruled NSW for nearly as long as the Swedish social democrats have governed Sweden, it finds itself in a position it is not used to.
There will be plenty of analysis about the impact of the last week of the campaign but undoubtedly, there were a range of factors at play. The overshadowing of state politics by federal politics has played a role, Labor changing leaders with less than six months before an election and inheriting a small target election platform all did not help.
In contrast to federal Labor, NSW Labor went for a small target strategy that emphasised how the Government was arrogantly ignoring the public’s wishes, symbolised by spending on stadiums. Beyond abandoning its previous pro-privatisation stance and some ambitious policies on climate change and industrial relations, it felt like a grab bag of smaller hip-pocket focused announcements and a handful of good individual policies championed by trade unions like nurse to patient ratios, not really tied into a broader narrative that resonated with the public.
Labor’s inability to answer the question of how it would pay for things has hampered the ambition of its agenda, forcing it to rely on cancellations to fund promises. Federally, rolling back tax concessions has played that role whereas at a state level, it has not articulated a credible alternative to the Coalition’s agenda of privatisation to fund infrastructure.
With a NSW Labor leadership election after the federal election seeming likely, many of these issues will come to the forefront, particularly as Labor made almost no ground since 2015.
Even though NSW Labor adopted a direct election model for party leader in 2014, there has not been a party wide ballot for leader despite two leadership changes since then. This was because the NSW rules deemed that a caucus-only ballot happens if it is within 6 months of an upcoming state election, a clause that does not exist in any other state Labor rules. The failure to have any broader contests meant no deeper reflection on Labor’s direction across the party or opportunity to scrutinise potential leaders in a contest.
Michael Daley has indicated he wants to continue as leader but there is speculation as to who else may contest. Jodi McKay and Chris Minns are most frequently cited as alternative candidates, Minns having challenged Daley in a caucus-only ballot that he lost 33-12 last November.
With the federal election due in May, the ballot will be delayed until after the federal election as it would take around five weeks to run and divert considerable resources. The NSW Labor rules allows the Administrative Committee to determine how and when voting for the rank-and-file component of the leadership ballot, which is how the delay may occur.
It would be the first direct election ballot held by any state Labor branch and first since the 2013 ballot that elected Bill Shorten so there are a lot of logistics that are still up in the air and precedents that have not been set.
One thing that could be done, if a contest occurs, is allowing those who join the Labor Party before the federal election, the opportunity to vote. It is normal for political parties in Britain and Canada to use direct elections as an opportunity to turn potential supporters into party members to build up the party.
Rather than retreating into its shell, an open contest that allows new members to vote might force the entirety of NSW Labor to reflect on its last eight years in Opposition, outside the stage managed confines of Conference, start engaging beyond what remains of its rusted-on party membership and get out of its comfort zone.