Published in Labor Forum, Vol. 9, No.3, October 1987, pp. 21-27.
There is a large irony about the composition of the Third Hawke Labor government. Although it is sometimes said that the NSW ALP dominates the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, the fact is that NSW enjoys its lowest representation in a Federal Labor ministry since the formation of the Scullin Cabinet in 1929.
As recently as the Whitlam years, NSW ministers consisted of more than forty percent of the ministry. In 1987 after the July election, NSW Labor’s representation in the ministry dropped to less than one-quarter.
This article will speculate about the reasons for this decline, spell out some arguments about the significance of recent trends, and put forward some ideas about the future.
The following table sets out a comparison between the current Hawke ministry and Whitlam’s at the end of 1975. It is interesting to note that the percentage of ministers from New South Wales is now almost half that of November 1975 and that Victorians have more than tripled their representation in the same period.
A. Composition of Whitlam Ministry at Exit, November 1975
|Approximate percentage of total Ministry
B. Composition of the third Hawke Ministry at Exit, from July 1987
|Outer Ministry (13)
|Approximate percentage of total Ministry
The full picture concerning NSW representation in Federal ALP government’s from Watson’s prime ministership to contemporary times is shown in Table 2.
Incidentally, before turning to the table, it might be noted that the significance of factional labels in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party has become much more precise in the 1980s compared to the 1970s. In the period of Whitlam’s Prime Ministership ‘Right’ refers to those who factionally supported Whitlam when he was the Leader of the Opposition) and were not members of the NSW Left’s Combined Branches’ and Unions’ Steering Committee. In 1980 the NSW Labor moderates formed the Centre Unity Group.
New South Wales Representation in Federal Labor Governments
|Number of Ministers
|Number of Ministers from NSW & %2
|Number of Labor MHRs
|Number of Labor MHRs from NSW & % of total
|Number of Labor Senators
|Number of NSW Labor Senators
|Size of Federal ALP Caucus
|% of Caucus from NSW
|27/04/04 to 17/08/04
|13/11/08 to 2/6/09
|29/04/10 to 24/06/13
|17/09/14 to 27/10/15
|27/10/15 to 14/11/16
|22/10/29 to 6/1/32
|7/10/41 to 21/09/43
|21/09/43 to 6/07/45
|6/7/45 to 13/7/45
|13/7/45 to 1/11/46
|1/11/46 to 19/12/49
|Dec’72 to 10/6/74
|10/6/74 to 11/11/75
|March ’83 to Nov ’84
|Nov ’84 to July ’87
Notes to Table Two
1. Ministries are named after the Prime Minister. Unless otherwise stated the composition of the Labor government refers to the beginning of the Ministry.
2. Percentages are rounded to the nearest decimal point.
3. In Watson’s Cabinet, one Minister, H.B. Higgins, was a non-Labor member. Thus, NSW provided two of the seven Labor Party Ministers or 28.6%.
4. Scullin’s government was wracked by internal dissension, resignations and splits. At the end of Scullin’s Prime Ministership, there were five Ministers from New South Wales or 38.5% of the total Ministry.
5. After Curtin’s death, his seat of Fremantle was retained by Labor on 18/8/45. Fremantle is counted here as part of the total number of Labor MHRs.
6. Prime Minister Whitlam and Deputy Prime Minister Barnard after the elections on 2/12/72 formed a two-man Ministry until the Caucus election of the Ministry on 19/12/72.
7. At the end of Whitlam’s Prime Ministership there were twelve ministers from New South Wales or 44.4% of the total Ministry.
As can be seen from Table 2, NSW Labor’s representation as a percentage of Labor MHRs has in the Hawke period been lower than at any time other than Labor’s first Ministry in 1904. As a percentage of the Federal Caucus whilst Labor was in office, the representation by NSW has not been lower since 1916.
In the post-World War II period, New South Wales has particularly played the primary role in creating and leading (in the sense of the composition of the ministries) Labor governments. This has now changed considerably, although NSW still sends more Labor MHRs to Canberra than any other state.
Up until 1987 it was also the case that since the Scullin period, more ministers in a Labor government came from NSW than any other state. In the Third Hawke Ministry there are eleven Victorians – four more than NSW.
Why the turnaround? There are a number of reasons including:
The improvement in Labor representation in Victoria from the 1970s to the present. With the reforms in the Victorian branch of the ALP in the early 1970s, the weakening of the more extremist Left elements, the collapse of the Democratic Labor Party and the election to the leadership of the Victorian Labor Party of a popular parliamentary leader (John Cain in 1981) and the election of a Victorian as Federal Leader (Bob Hawke in 1983) there has been a significant lift in the Victorian ALP’s electoral base.
Only some of the reasons for this have been mentioned, but it is unnecessary to dwell on this for the purpose of this paper. The fact is that Labor’s representation in Victoria grew from sixteen out of a possible thirty-four MHRs in 1974 (47.1%) to twenty-five out of thirty-nine in 1984 (64.1 %). So, the growth in Victorian Labor’s representation in the Federal ALP Caucus, in part, points to why Victoria has increased its representation in the Federal ALP ministry. But this ‘explanation’ does not explain whether the quality of Victorian Labor candidates and members has anything to do with their enhanced representation in the Hawke Labor Ministries.
Demographic trends have altered the number of seats allocated to each state. However, the impact of this combined with the 1984 electoral redistribution has been slight. For example, in 1972 NSW provided 43 members in a House of Representatives of 125 (or 36% of the members). In 1987 it was 51 out of 148 (or 34.4%). In Victoria the corresponding figures are 34 (or 27.2%) in 1972 and 39 (or 26.4%) in 1987.
The fact is that ministers are chosen by Caucus for a host of reasons, including ability. So, one possibility is that the Federal ALP Caucus has chosen those who it believes will make the best ministers. Undoubtedly there are a myriad of reasons, including factional allegiances (which will be discussed below) which determine ministerial selection. Perhaps in Victoria’s case, compared to other states, it could be argued that there is a greater pool of members considered by their peers as suitable for ministerial selection. This points to the issue of the selection of ALP candidates and therefore members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.
The factional arrangements in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party are particularly relevant in an assessment of the selection of the Federal Labor ministry. Thus, an argument against the hypothesis that the quality of NSW Federal MPs has something to do with the selection of Federal Labor ministers; this is the argument that factional considerations provide a better explanation for current trends. To refer to recent experience, after the retirements of Gietzelt and Uren from the Hawke ministry, the NSW Left were unable to secure replacements because they were outvoted by the rest of the Left Caucus of the parliamentary Labor Party in July 1987. Although it is certainly true that the factions are more important than ever in the selection of Labor ministers, talent is also important as will be discussed below.
But whatever the relative merits of those factors may be, there is also the question whether the quality of New South Wales representation has kept pace with the quality of representation in some of the other States.
Undoubtedly the rank and file preselection system – which is now peculiar to the NSW Branch of the ALP – ensures something about the quality of members of parliament. It is arguable whether an alternative system involving a central panel would improve things, but the point is that marginal differences matter.
In the Federal ministry there are some ministers who would not have reached first base in a rank and file preselection. Ministers like Jones, Duffy, Willis, Blewett and arguably Hawke would probably find it difficult to have won a local plebiscite election in New South Wales. To consider each case, Jones and Duffy were able to secure office through their membership of the Independents faction of the Victorian ALP and the central ALP panel used to select candidates. Similarly, Willis, through the Victorian Labor Unity Group, was able to secure preselection in Gellibrand. In each case Jones, Duffy, and Willis did not command a popular, majority rank and file base.
So, the preselection system played a vital role in their selection as members of Parliament. In Blewett’s case, the Professor of Politics at Flinders University was picked as a glamour candidate by the South Australian ALP machine and through a card vote at an ALP conference.
In Hawke’s case, it is sometimes overlooked that he lost the local panel in his selection as the ALP candidate for Wills in 1979. Hawke’s majority on the central panel was enough to get him over the line despite that handicap. In summary, at the point of entry into the Federal Parliament, Jones, Duffy, Willis, Blewett, and Hawke would probably have been defeated in NSW if they lived and sought preselection there.
So, if it is accepted that the quality of NSW Labor MPs has something to do with the likelihood of selection to the Federal ministry and the current low representation of ministers from NSW, there is an argument that the preselection system should be modified. Let’s consider the arguments against what has been put forward.
1. A change in the preselection system in NSW is not on because it would be massively unpopular. In other words, what is, should remain unchanged. This is at worst a reactionary stance. At best it’s an argument that the ALP membership’s views should not be swept aside and because in NSW the rank and file preselection system is overwhelmingly supported it should be retained. This is an interesting argument, but it is not an argument based on the inherent virtues of the rank and file system versus any other.
Other arguments to be considered include whether the best possible ALP candidates are produced by this system and, if not, whether this acts to the disadvantage of Labor supporters and those for whom the Labor Party seeks to represent, protect and promote. Also in any consideration of the rank and file preselection system, it cannot be ignored that this system invites abuses, including branch stacking, and ensures that sometimes candidates are preselected due to their local ALP branch popularity rather than whether they are the best possible ALP candidate.
2. A change to a central panel in New South Wales would unduly favour the dominant Centre Unity Group in NSW and considerably reduce the influence and representation of the Left. Boiled down to essentials, this is a view that it is not in the factional interests of the Left to change the system. However, there are grounds for arguing that the NSW Left is the biggest loser in the current circumstances.
Table 3 shows the decline in NSW’s representation in Federal Labor Ministries since Whitlam’s leadership. The area of the biggest fall is with the NSW Left who had five Ministers at the beginning of Whitlam’s Prime Ministership compared to one today. The immediate prospects for the NSW Left gaining another Federal Ministry are not bright.
Factional Composition of NSW Representatives in Recent Labor Ministries
|Whitlam (from 19/12/72)
|(7) Whitlam McClelland, D. Daly Stewart Grassby Bowen Morrison
|(5) Murphy Uren Jones Connor Johnson
|Whitlam (at exit on 11/11/75)
|(9) Whitlam McClelland, D. McClelland, J. Daly Stewart Bowen Morrison Keating Riordan
|(3) Uren Jones Johnson
|Hawke (from 3/83)
|(5) Bowen Keating Kerin Cohen Brown
|(3) West Uren Gietzelt
|Hawke (from 7/87)
|(5) Bowen Keating Brown Kerin Richardson
Note to Table
- Left, in Table 3 refers to members or supporters the NSW Combined Branches’ and Unions’ Steering Committee. Note that in the 1970s Les Johnson was a member or supporter of the NSW Left.
- Kerin joined the NSW Centre Unity Group on his election to the first Hawke Ministry.
So it is not only the NSW Centre Unity Group which has cause for concern, it is also the case that the NSW Left’s representation in the Labor ministry has declined and the quality of their representatives has not kept pace with the other states. Moreover, those who argue about factional advantages or disadvantages need to consider the question as to what kind of alternative to a rank and file preselection system should be introduced in New South Wales rather than dismissing any alternative as necessarily unfairly and factionally biased.
3. The next argument is that it does not matter whether NSW’s representation in the Federal Labor ministry has declined in recent years. What matters is that the best ministry is selected and that there is no unfairness or blatant bias against New South Wales MPs in the ministerial selection process. This is an argument with a lot going for it, although some of the advocates of this view would also contend that regional, factional, and gender considerations might qualify this argument.
Nonetheless, there are some electoral and other reasons for arguing that the representation of New South Wales ministers in Federal Labor ministries matter. It is important that NSW Labor produces outstanding members who are appealing to the New South Wales electorate. There are a considerable number of marginal seats in New South Wales (e.g., Barton, Phillip, Eden-Monaro, Calare, Robertson and St. George – or over twenty percent of the total number of Labor seats in NSW) and it is arguable that if NSW Labor does not produce its reasonable share of the Federal ministry, this will not assist Labor’s electoral fortunes.
Moreover there is the argument that Federal ministers are influenced by their home town environment (usually innocently in that a member may be more familiar with the industrial and economic concerns and the opinions of union and business leaders in his or her home state) and that this may have some significance in the decision making process. In contemporary times there are many who would argue that Victoria’s industrial interests are well served by having the Ministers for Industrial Relations, Industry and Commerce, Science, Resources and Communications coming from Melbourne. So, there is the argument that the under representation of New South Wales in the Federal Labor ministry may not be in the economic interests of Australia’s largest State.
4. The final objection considered here is that the change in the preselection system would only have the consequence of concentrating more power in the hands of the factional machines. Going together with this argument is the view that this is not a good thing. Admittedly any system involving a central panel is likely to increase the influence of the faction leaders, but the consequences very much depend on the preselection arrangements. And there are the contrary arguments that the good outweighs the bad.
A variant to the Queensland system is one approach that might be considered such that there is equal representation between the central and local panels as follows:
A. Each eligible ALP member in an electorate votes for the candidate of his or her choice. The plebiscite equals 50% of the final result.
B. A central panel is elected under proportional representation at the State ALP Conference and is equal to 50% of the final result.
Say there is an electorate of 200 ALP branch members who vote in a preselection, the final result might be:
An Example of a Preselection with Local and Central Panel
|Local Electorate (200 members)
|50% Local component
|50% Central Panel
|After elimination of Candidate C
|Candidate B declared elected
Table 4 simply describes an example of the kind of preselection that might take place based on this proposal. One of the features of this system is that every eligible ALP branch member would continue to have the right to vote in a preselection. And because the central panel is elected under proportional representation no one faction can swamp the locals with the entirety of the central panel’s votes. This system would seem to be a fair compromise between the NSW and the South Australian systems, between the advocates of only the rank and file having a say and those who put forward the view that only the central panel or a State ALP Conference should have the final say.
If anything, the arguments here understate the problems of New South Wales representation in the current Hawke ministry.
For example, it is conceivable that by the next term several or more of the ministers from NSW will retire. It is possible but unlikely that each one will be replaced by someone from NSW. There are only two ministers from NSW in the Outer Ministry. Thus, in the next Hawke government NSW Labor’s representation may well be even less than it is at present.
Now is surely the time for a debate about how important this is and what might be done to improve the calibre of NSW Labor representatives.
There will be many who will sound the tocsin that there are ulterior or factional reasons alone behind a change from the rank and file system. It will be an avenue to cheap popularity to proclaim undying faith in the wisdom of the rank and file. Some will assert that the quality of most NSW MPs is extremely good and perhaps better overall than the NSW representatives sent in Whitlam’s period. Certainly, the members holding the NSW marginal seats are extremely capable as are many of the other MPs. But this is not the point.
The issue is whether NSW Labor’s selection processes produce the best ALP candidates and whether the overall quality of NSW Labor representatives has kept pace with that in other States. Many would argue that the defects in the local rank and file selection process is the reason for the decline in NSW representation in the current Labor ministry and therefore a reason for changing the selection process.
The hallmark of the Hawke Labor governments has been its preparedness to tackle in a fresh and radical way issues such as financial deregulation, incomes policies, and the question of government ownership. Central to the debates in those areas has been the question of what should be done in the interest of Labor’s objectives and commitment to assist in the development of a fairer society.
Is it not about time the same kind of critical debate occurred in the NSW ALP about its preselection system? With the current review by the ALP Federal Executive concerning the question of Federal rules, the opportunity exists to consider consistent rules between the states concerning a range of matters including preselection processes. Table 5 sets out the wide variation between the states in the rules covering the selection of candidates for the House of Representatives. Hopefully the debate about Federal rules will engulf the NSW ALP and the ALP in other states.
Methods for the Preselection of ALP Candidates for the House of Representatives by state branch of the ALP
NEW SOUTH WALES
Rank and file preselection such that all ALP members residing within a Federal electorate with at least 12 months’ membership and who have attended at least three branch meetings in the preceding 12 months are entitled to vote in the preselection.
The ALP State Convention selects candidates for state & Federal parliament where the total number of delegates are made up of 60% from unions and 40% from Sub-Branches. The voting system is via the card vote where unions votes are counted in proportion to the number of affiliated members union delegate represents. Sub-Branch card votes are determined by a factor which is multiplied by its affiliated numbers.
Central panel with equal weighting to local panel. 100 members of Public Office Selection Committee (POSC) elected by proportional representation every two years at the state ALP Conference. Each vote of the POSC is worth 0.35 points. The local component is that every two years all of the ALP members resident in a particular electorate vote by proportional representation to elect 35 members to the selection panel. Thus, there are 35 local votes and 35 central votes in the preselection of a candidate for the House of Representatives.
The State Executive (currently comprised of 259 delegates) is divided 60% to union representatives and 40% to ALP branch representatives. This body together with 25 members elected by proportional representation by the delegates to the particular electorate Council vote to preselect the local candidate.
A central Electoral College of 42 members is elected by proportional presentation at the state ALP Council. This body together with the ALP members of the local electorate vote to determine the preselection. In the latter case all eligible ALP members vote in a preselection such that this is then converted to an equivalent of a total of 42 votes
The ALP State Council of 206 members is divided 60% to union representatives and 40% to ALP Branch representatives. This body together with the votes of the particular electorate Council determines the preselection. The latter body comprises 1 member for each 15 branch members.
I wanted to stir some action in NSW to change the ALP preselection process. NSW ALP Head Office, however, preferred ad hoc interventions to systematic overhaul of the rules.
The General Secretaries were all past masters at the art of mañana, perhaps out of homage to the nearby Spanish Club on Liverpool Street!
At the time of writing this postscript, the problems of securing the best possible ALP representation from NSW are arguably as great as ever.