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Corrupt, Right-Wing Machine Politics Are Crippling the Australian Labor Party

The ALP’s right faction is riddled with corruption and cover-ups that are holding the party back. We can’t rely on the legal system to clean out the ALP’s stables — empowering Labor members through real party democracy is the only way to break the cycle.

Kaila Murnain, former general secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party, resigned amid scandal in 2019 and is now under investigation.

The right faction of Australia’s Labor Party (ALP) is institutionally corrupt, with the ALP branch in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), as the sordid epicenter. Two ministers in the last NSW Labor government, both hailing from the Labor Right, have been imprisoned, and one is currently facing a retrial.

A recent investigative commission found three more NSW Labor ministers to have been engaged in corrupt conduct. The NSW general secretary is the party’s administrative head and the de facto leader of the right-wing faction. Each of the last three politicians to have filled this role has left public life in disgrace.

Sam Dastyari took $44,000 from a private donor to cover his legal bills — and then warned another donor linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that his phone might be bugged by intelligence agencies. Jamie Clements was convicted of improperly accessing electoral data, which a fellow right-winger had suggested was in order to have an opponent beaten up — a long-standing tradition in Labor Right circles.

Today, yet another corruption inquiry into NSW Labor is underway, the sixth in eight years. It is investigating Kaila Murnain, who served as general secretary from 2016 to 2019, and demonstrating yet again how a right-wing party machine can subvert democracy to protect its factional allies. It also shows, however, that we can’t rely on quasi-judicial legal structures to root out corruption in Australian politics.

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

The ALP’s electoral system is notoriously complex and bureaucratic. In the run-up to party conferences, affiliated unions and branches elect delegates who elect delegates who elect bureaucrats who appoint yet more delegates. In practice, an entrenched layer of bureaucrats control Labor, often holding values that set them completely apart from the union and party members they are supposed to represent.

Take, for example, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). It has a membership largely made up of young, socially progressive fast food and retail workers. However, the SDA opposes abortion rights and gay marriage. It also defends agreements with employers that are so bad, some have even been overturned by the Fair Work Commission for undercutting legally mandated minimum standards for pay and conditions.

The SDA boosts its membership by signing collusive deals with bosses who encourage their new employees to join the union upon induction. Despite the SDA’s terrible record and conservative leadership, this gives it enormous and disproportionate influence in the ALP.

The result of such machine politics is that right-wing power blocs largely determine ALP policy and appointments. Former NSW Labor Right general secretary Kaila Murnain is the most recent case in point.

When she was first appointed, the media touted Murnain as a fresh face, akin to Jacinda Ardern. She was supposed to be a figure who could secure the party’s future, marking a clean break with the scandals that have plagued Labor’s head office more or less continuously since 1976. In reality, Murnain had worked in the right-wing machine for more than a decade, including a stint as assistant secretary to the previous ruling clique.

Labor’s rank and file had no real say in Murnain’s appointment. Much like her predecessors, she was appointed through a block vote by right-wing union bureaucrats who meet up in what they call — without irony — their “boardroom.”

Murnain took over from Jamie Clements, a man who, by his own account, drew inspiration from a biography of Chicago’s notoriously corrupt Democratic mayor, Richard “Boss” Daley. Murnain went one better, adopting the bizarre nickname “the Boss Lady of Fortress New South Wales.”

It was only six months before Murnain found herself caught up in a conspiracy of silence to conceal illegal donations made by a property developer with alleged ties to the CCP. Ironically, it was the same donor who had brought down Dastyari, and who kept another of Murnain’s predecessors on his payroll. After consulting with her disgraced former colleague Dastyari, Murnain kept the conspiracy secret for three years before anti-corruption hearings sensationally exposed it to public view in September 2019.

After a concerted campaign — and a “severance package” of $700,000 paid for with members’ money — Murnain finally resigned as general secretary. To the bitter end, she blamed a “nasty culture of sexism” for her downfall, instead of pointing the finger at the more obvious culprit: herself. The ALP commissioned yet another review and replaced a few staff members.

Covering Up the Cover-Up

Labor’s rank-and-file left have been trying to expel Murnain ever since. But the Labor Right’s old tradition of always backing the general secretary will die hard.

A letter from Murnain’s lawyers (forwarded to activists, apparently by mistake) reveals that she and the new regime have entered into a binding legal agreement, seemingly to block her expulsion. This would breach Labor’s rules, which give exclusive power over expulsions to the quasi-judicial Internal Appeals Tribunal. Clearly, the Right’s leadership believes it can sufficiently influence the independent tribunal to keep Murnain in the party.

None of this should come as a surprise. The right-wing machine has argued in court that since the Labor Party does not have a legal existence, it is therefore immune to lawsuits, with none of its rules being legally enforceable. Incidentally, this is the same defense the Catholic Church has used to prevent abuse victims from claiming compensation from its assets.

The circus started before expulsion proceedings formally began, when a right-wing operative called for a “general discussion” on hearing rumors that Murnain would be charged. A contemporaneous email about the discussion reveals that the operative suggested it might be advantageous for the prosecutor pursuing Murnain to drop the proceedings.

Entirely by chance, in the same conversation, the right-wing operative also happened to suggest that the prosecutor might be a valuable addition to Labor’s new Audit and Risk Committee — the very body established to prevent corruption in the wake of the Murnain scandal. Of course, the magic words “quid pro quo” were never used. But it was an uncomfortable coincidence.

At first, right-wing officials refused to even acknowledge that the charge against Murnain had been filed, although it had already been stamped as received. This changed when they were threatened with legal proceedings.

The Labor Party’s rules state that a charge must be referred to the Internal Appeals Tribunal. Yet right-wing officials (supported, shamefully, by Labor Left assistant secretary George Simon) made the preposterous decision to reinterpret the word “must” as meaning “may.”

On that basis, they delayed the referral indefinitely, preventing the tribunal from hearing the proceedings. This decision was promptly appealedto the very same tribunal — which decided that the officials had acted beyond their powers and broken the party rules.

The Lawyers Can’t Save You

The ALP introduced the Internal Appeals Tribunal in response to a previous anti-corruption review. Its purpose was to replace the nakedly partisan Disputes Committee with a quasi-judicial body made up of lawyers and retired judges.

An outside observer might well question the impartiality of a tribunal whose members were largely appointed under Murnain’s direction, composed in part of her former factional allies. They may be concerned to discover that the tribunal denied prosecutors access to evidence, and seems to have made decisions without hearing both sides. Of course, this is not to suggest that the tribunal’s members were biased or corrupt. But it didn’t look good — and the ultimate outcome was the same.

The proceedings themselves were like something out of Bleak House, but with none of the Victorian charm. At this point, the so-called new regime dropped any pretense at impartiality. A party official, paid with members’ money to defend the party’s interests as a whole, made extensive submissions trying to explain why the proceedings should be delayed indefinitely — almost as though they considered themselves to be Murnain’s private defense lawyer.

First, the Right argued that the party officers’ decision to halt the proceedings was unquestionable, because it was based on legal advice. They refused requests to share that advice — while insisting it was indisputably sound.

Second, the Right argued that Murnain’s own confession at the anti-corruption commission was inadmissible as proof of her corruption. Never mind that Labor’s rules stipulate precisely the opposite. No matter that the very same evidence was used to expel right-wing former ministers whose corruption the commission had exposed. The Right had decided to spare no effort in order to protect its own.

Third, the Right argued that it would be unfair to expel Murnain before the anti-corruption commission’s final report, having previously claimed that the report and the evidence uncovered by the commission could not be taken into account. Again, Labor’s rules expressly stated the opposite: merely being investigated by the commission could provide sufficient grounds for expulsion, to prevent further damage to the party’s reputation.

After interminable holdups, the tribunal decided to delay the proceedings indefinitely. More than four years after the conspiracy of silence took place, and a full fourteen months after its exposure, no date has been set for a hearing. Murnain remains an ALP member in good standing.

Not Angry, Just Disappointed

We already know that the Labor Right has terrible politics. After all, its veteran leaders included John “Johno” Johnson, a papal knight who wore a badge of tiny feet (representing his undying crusade for unborn fetuses), and Joe de Bruyn, a lifelong opponent of gay marriage, offensively described as “the only Dutchman who hates d*kes.” Now it’s also clear that the Labor Right faction is full of outright crooks.

Labor Left activists often joke about the “Pipeline.” It starts with young right-wing activists being recruited into the Young Labor machine, brimming with excitement at the prospect of deferring action on climate change and defending the indefinite offshore detention of refugees. The pipeline carries them onward to Labor’s head office, before turning east through the backbenches of parliament. After a gentle turn west past the anti-corruption commission, it can easily end up — as former Labor Right leader Eddie Obeid did — in Silverwater Jail.

A successful operator in the Labor Right must be morally flexible and place tribal loyalty and aggressive pursuit of self-interest above all else — summed up in the motto “Whatever It Takes.” Corruption is the natural by-product of such attitudes.

Ivan Mitchell and Daniel Lopez have argued that the typical ALP member can be placed “on a spectrum ranging from ashamed to mortified.” They’re not wrong about that, but we also have to recognize how unsurprising all of this has become to members.

They no longer greet new revelations of shopping bags stuffed with cash and branches stacked with dead people with outrage but rather wearied resignation. New reports of corruption lead to review after review after review. But nothing ever changes.

The right-wing clique may rotate individual personalities in and out of office (not to mention the revolving doors of prison), but the same undemocratic party machine keeps power in the hands of a coterie of officials who handpick general secretaries and MPs. Labor will never clean out its own corruption, let alone prove to be an effective opponent of neoliberalism, until it empowers its rank and file by allowing them to directly elect MPs and party officials.

The ALP hasn’t won an election since 2010, and for all we know, Australia’s next Labor prime minister could still be in primary school today. As long as the Right prioritizes controlling the party machine over controlling the levers of government, we could be in for a long wait. The Labor Right faction likes to stress its pragmatism, but in truth, it’s anything but. “Whatever It Takes” isn’t the slogan of a smart strategist, but that of a cynical careerist destined, ultimately, to lose.