Changing the culture of the Labor Party in the ACT and the 2016 election victory have been the high points for outgoing ALP secretary Matt Byrne, who is soon to head overseas after his wife accepted a four-year diplomatic posting in Europe.
Mr Byrne, who has held the position for five years, also had some advice for party figures reading the entrails of the calamitous federal election result: jettisoning progressive policies, including those to do with climate change, is not the way back to government.
The machine man said he was leaving the party in a very good position to retain government next year.
“We’ve doubled the party’s membership, made significant reforms to increase the participation of members in preselections, started work on substantial cultural change, moved the party away from being reliant on business donations to being member-movement funded, and we’ve preselected a good team of candidates for the election,” he said.
Besides the federal election result, one regret is that some of the leadership in the party have been slow to respond to the challenge of inappropriate behaviour, bullying and misconduct in some small sections of the party.
“It’s certainly a bit of a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude amongst some parts of the party but I’m glad that people have come on board and are serious about the party taking action. I look forward to seeing the results of that,” he said.
While some might suggest Chief Minister Andrew Barr has a use-by date, Mr Byrne flagged that Labor will apply the blowtorch to Liberal leader Alistair Coe in the lead-up to next year’s election.
“I think people in the ACT know where Andrew Barr stands on issues in contrast to Alistair Coe who for most of his career has been the conservative pin-up boy, standing in the shadow of [Senator] Zed Seselja who’s made himself a very small target recently,” he said.
“It’s a job for the party to educate Canberrans about the risk of Alistair’s leadership.”
He said only Labor had a plan for governing the ACT, while the Liberals hadn’t offered anything to the people of Canberra about how they would go about it.
“One tax cut is not a policy platform. Only Labor has a coherent plan for the city,” he said.
Mr Byrne said the ACT, while a different demographic from the rest of the country, did have lessons for Labor elsewhere on being able to provide a clear progressive agenda with strong economic management.
“That’s pretty key if you’re going to be a progressive government – you need to be able to show people that we’ll provide the economic stability for jobs, careers, for people to have a good life,” he said.
He warned federal Labor needs to not draw the wrong conclusions as it grappled with the fallout from the May federal election loss.
“Contrary to some of the debates going on inside the federal parliamentary party, while I agree the party needed a simpler message and to campaign on a simpler platform, I don’t think we went bold enough on a number of issues,” he said.
“This idea that we only need working-class votes to win is misguided, the same as saying we only need middle class or inner-city votes to win. A coalition of voters is needed, and the only way to bring that coalition together is if we offer a bold, simple set of policies that unites them.”
Action on climate change needs to be a part of that approach, according to Mr Byrne, who says the science is clear and the party could not bury its head in the sand. He said it needed to take the kind of action that’s necessary while not leaving working people behind.
“If the Liberals and Greens direct policies on that it will be done off the back of working people,” Mr Byrne said.
He backed Anthony Albanese, saying the federal party needed to take the time to review the loss, but hinted that in the post-election wash-up his leadership may not be as forthright at it could be.
“Albo has a pretty strong personality and I hope that starts shining through,” he said.
Mr Byrne said his plans at this early stage were unclear, other than obtaining a work visa. He leaves the position on 29 November.