Last week’s NSW Young Labor (NSWYL) Conference saw a string of victories for the dominant right wing faction of the party, Centre Unity. Attempts by the left faction to democratise the organisation’s electoral rules were thwarted, along with motions on refugees, Safe Schools and legalising abortion.
Currently, NSWYL operates under a labyrinthine indirect system, where all decisions — from the composition of the Executive to policy motions — are voted on by ‘delegates’, rather than individual members. Half of these delegates are sent by local Young Labor Associations (YLAs), while the other half represent affiliated unions. This means that the majority of young Labor members who are not part of a YLA get no say in the composition of the executive, or of positions taken by the organisation.
While all other state organisations have moved towards a more openly democratic process, with a direct election for president, NSW still clings onto the indirect voting system, which was introduced by corrupt former factional heavyweight Joe Tripodi in the 1990s.
This system has given Unity de facto control of NSWYL. Since more unions are affiliated with the right, the left faces an insurmountable structural disadvantage at every state conference.
However, for the last few years the left have been pushing to abolish what they see as a gerrymandered electoral process, and replace it with one where Young Labor members get to vote directly for the president. This year, left leader and current University of Sydney Union Secretary Shannen Potter sent individual Young Labor members an unauthorised ballot paper with a letter explaining their proposal to introduce a direct voting system. The ballot had no binding effect, and operated purely as an expression of interest.
In response, members of the right reported Potter to the party’s non-factional internal dispute body, in an attempt to get her kicked out of the ALP. Although this is unlikely to eventuate, a member of the left told Honi that the move was “symptomatic of a push against democracy” by Unity.
The left also moved a motion for the conference to be live-streamed. A member of the Left told Honi that the current lack of accountability allows the organisation to present itself as progressive whilst supporting policies “so abominable that if any young person saw them on the live stream they wouldn’t want to be a member of this organisation”
Indeed, the battle over procedural reform is indicative of wider ideological rifts within NSWYL.
Members of the left feel Unity’s entrenched control over the organisation has allowed right-wing ideas to gather momentum, in part due to the resurgent influence of socially conservative unions such as the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA).
Control of the organisation represents an invaluable opportunity to shape the agenda pursued by the next generation of apparatchiks, and to lobby the party at a national level.
Several decisions made at this year’s conference reflect an institutionalisation of socially conservative positions within the NSWYL.
The conference voted to ‘note’ — or functionally reject a motion — in support of extending Safe Schools. According to posts on Facebook, Unity rejected the motion because it was badly worded.
However, a member of the left told Honi that if wording was the main problem, Unity could have proposed an amendment, which they did not do.
Despite being a youth wing, NSWYL’s position on Safe Schools is arguably further to the right than the party’s national platform.
Despite pressure from the left, the conference voted to maintain the party’s position in support of offshore processing for refugees, even rejecting a motion calling for mandatory reporting of child abuse in detention centres.
A motion calling for NSWYL to bind in favour of legalising abortion, and to pressure the NSW party room to do the same also failed.
Honi reached out to several members of Unity for comment, and received no response.