What does the Minns Labor government mean for NSW?

NSW Labor’s victory, as one in a series of victories, actually illustrates that a red wave in Mainland Australia poses a clear mandate from the people – in particular, young people who are doing it the toughest — that they need a bold, progressive and, dare I say, socialist answer to the numerous crises they are facing in the modern neoliberal world.

On 25 March 2023, Chris Minns’ Labor Party was elected and NSW found a progressive party at its helm for the first time in 12 years. Not only that, it was the first time Labor had won from opposition in the state since 1995 and marked only the second time in history that the ALP had won the entirety of Mainland Australia (including the Federal Government).

A historic occasion no doubt, but one that leaves the Party with a big responsibility, and an even bigger question: what do we do now we’re in power? Obviously the new government is immediately concerned about fulfilling its key election promises; ministers, MPs and the Premier himself have all been quick to make that very clear. But now that the ALP has an extensive influence over the machinery of government throughout Australia, its identity is inevitably going to come under scrutiny by various divergent forces and interests which make up the Party and the broader Australian public. As a result, they need to decide which fundamental ideological course to pursue.

There are those “progressives” who will say that the ALP must continue down a trajectory of electoral pragmatism and centre-left politics, cautious about challenging the status quo and making sure to satisfy the interests of the Murdoch-Costello media as well as the business class so as to keep them at bay. Otherwise, the Labor Party risks electoral defeat and as a consequence stifles any chance at real change — so we are told. However what I think NSW Labor’s victory, as one in a series of victories, actually illustrates is that a red wave in Mainland Australia poses a clear mandate from the people – in particular, young people who are doing it the toughest — that they need a bold, progressive and, dare I say, socialist answer to the numerous crises they are facing in the modern neoliberal world.

Public ownership and privatisation

In the first week of parliament, Chris Minns moved a bill to enshrine in the NSW constitution that Sydney and Hunter Water be protected from privatisation. This was the result of campaigns by unions such as the Australian Services Union (ASU), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Public Service Association (PSA), as well as grassroots activists, that reorients the Labor Party back to a stance of standing firmly in support of public ownership of essential services, and against rampant privatisation which has not only seen services in the transport and energy industries dramatically decline but has also seen the worsening wages and conditions of workers within privatised industries.

Yet the new government has been careful to frame its protection of publicly-owned water services as, well, just that. There is no indication from this government that they are willing to actually reverse the privatisation which occurred under both the Liberal-National and Labor governments that preceded our incumbents; privatisation which has seen energy prices skyrocket, bus services depleted and disability services operate ineffectively. Now more than ever, young people need a government which is not only prepared to do away with the neoliberal obsession for privatisation, but one which is actually committed to expanding socialised ownership of the services people need.

Anti-protest laws

Despite strong social policy such as banning queer conversion therapy and boosting funds for domestic violence support services, we must consider the elephant in the room. Why would a Party that was founded on the values of protest, of activism, of industrial action, of democracy, the principle of looking after and uplifting those most vulnerable in our society through grassroots activism, support the draconian anti-protest laws introduced in NSW by the Coalition? The ALP need only look to its own past, and to the history of the union movement to which it is politically wedded, to understand the value of one’s democratic right to protest. Any decent, civil society will make no attempt to infringe upon the right of its citizens to organise and demonstrate. Regrettably, NSW Labor politicians voted in favour of doing just that.

If the new Labor government is to distinguish itself from the previous regime in NSW as a progressive administration, and if the NSW branch of the Labor Party is to stay true to the values of the labour movement, then Chris Minns must repeal the shameful anti-protest laws. These laws are not supported by the Party’s rank-and-file, they are not supported by a swathe of affiliated trade unions, and they threaten to take away a human right — the right to protest.

Rental and housing policy 

The Labor Party’s plan for the rental crisis in NSW hits the basics, but realistically does not leave much to be inspired by — especially for students and young people who must balance constant and unaffordable rent increases with HECS debt (now being further indexed at 7.1%), stagnant wages, and rising inflation. It is a step in the right direction that Labor is establishing Homes NSW so it can properly regulate the rental market, that it has banned secret rent-bidding, and that the new Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Rose Jackson, is outwardly advocating for extensive investment into building good quality, social and public housing.

 Ultimately however, there are still around 300,000 vacant homes across NSW according to the 2021 census and there are no strong proposals about how we are going to deal with the serious problem that is rent gouging by landlords, the deregulated market of Airbnbs, and social housing waiting lists that include waiting times of up to 10 years. There is a crisis, and solutions such as rent freezes, or the government seizure and socialisation of long-vacant properties are not ideas that should be discounted, irrespective of how radical they are perceived to be.

At its core, the Labor Party is still a democratic socialist party. It is only this sort of Party, I wholeheartedly believe, that is adequately equipped to deal with the issues of late-stage neoliberal capitalism. A housing and cost of living crisis, skyrocketing rent, rampant privatisation, gutted public services, an overworked, wage-dependent workforce, and so on – these are problems that must be met with practical yet bold and unashamedly progressive solutions. 

Sadly, at this early stage it looks unlikely that a Minns Labor government will provide such a vision. Indeed there are some great policies and commitments that will definitely distinguish Minns’ government from not only his conservative predecessors, but also previous Labor governments . However, the magnitude of contemporary political issues undoubtedly requires more substance and readiness for reform than what NSW Labor is currently offering. If Labor is to succeed, then it must reevaluate what it actually means to be the party of the working class, the party of “labour”.

Yet while it’s one thing to sit and criticise the incumbent government or Party for not being progressive enough, it is a whole other thing to actually organise and fight for left-wing change under a progressive regime whose internal instruments have the potential to allow mass mobilisation for rank-and-file, grassroots activism. We are living in a historic period in this country, where the Labor Party wields an enormous amount of political influence – it is up to progressive activists themselves to realise their views through direct engagement with the political machinery, or risk wasting another generation of possible reform.

Disclaimer: Gerard Buttigieg is a member of National Labor Students (NLS) and the Australian Labor Party, is currently serving as the Secretary of Young Labor Left NSW,. His father is the NSW Labor MLC, Mark Buttigieg.