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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Michael Parris

NSW Labor freezes party membership after 30 people try to join branch

Labor's head office has tried to shut down party infighting in Newcastle.

NSW Labor head office has lost patience with its feuding Newcastle members, freezing membership applications across the city.

NSW Labor's administrative committee took the drastic action on Friday after more than 30 members applied to join the Lambton-New Lambton-Kotara branch at a meeting and barbecue at Dixon Park, Merewether, on February 25.

The Herald understands the barbecue followed a Labor recruitment drive during the University of Newcastle's Orientation Week celebrations in mid-February.

The 44-member Labor administrative committee, which includes federal MPs such as Jenny McAllister, Deborah O'Neill and Michelle Rowland, NSW cabinet ministers Ron Hoenig and Tara Moriarty and a host of union leaders and party figures, backdated the nine-month membership freeze to February 24.

In a letter to party members, NSW Labor leadership said the decision to stop members joining branches in the Newcastle and Wallsend electorates was due to prolonged infighting in the city.

An excerpt from the NSW Labor letter to members.

"Member relations in these areas have reached a threshold necessitating action," the letter, authorised by NSW Labor general secretary Dominic Ofner, says.

"Despite efforts to improve these relations over an extended period of time, it is evident that clear and decisive action is now required.

"This comes after a number of Internal Appeals Tribunal charges and challenges over the past 12-18 months, and ongoing adverse media coverage about the Party and its branches in local media, most recently during the recent local government preselections.

"Consequently, an immediate freeze will be placed on people who live within the State Electorates of Newcastle and Wallsend joining a local branch."

All seven Labor councilllors on Newcastle council, including lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes, faced internal party preselection challenges on February 17 in the lead-up to the September local government election.

Cr Nelmes defeated lord mayoral challenger Dr Ross Kerridge with an initial ballot count of 134-104, though the Herald has been told a review of voter eligibility challenges is ongoing.

Cr Nelmes, deputy lord mayor Declan Clausen and fellow Labor councillors Peta Winney-Baartz and Margaret Wood are members of Lambton branch.

The four councillors said in a joint statement that they were "proud to be members of a large active branch in Newcastle, with a diverse membership that has been integral to the progressive change in Newcastle".

"Along with our grassroots membership, we are working hard to deliver for the community on City of Newcastle council," they said.

"We look forward to working with our party members and supporters at the upcoming election to make sure we can continue that positive work."

The membership freeze will apply until at least November 30 this year.

Anyone who joins the party after that date cannot vote in the next state preselection contests in Newcastle or Wallsend because branch members with less than two years of service are ineligible.

State candidates will be preselected about 12 months before the 2027 election.

The party leadership's letter to members said the decision to freeze membership was "due to the ongoing actions of a few" and "prompted by a tripwire notice tabled with the Administrative Committee advising that over 30 members had joined a local branch in a single meeting".

Branch meetings where more than five people sign up are referred to head office as part of the party's anti-stacking measures. The party leadership's letter to members did not explicitly mention branch stacking.

"Additionally, any new applications to join the Party from people who live within the State Electorate of Newcastle and Wallsend will be automatically referred to the Membership Sub-Committee, which will not approve an application unless they are satisfied that the applicant is bona fide," the letter says.

"We recognise that members may feel upset or disappointed by this decision."

Labor's Newcastle state electorate council, which comprises delegates from the electorate's nine branches, passed a motion on Sunday noting with "extreme concern" the membership freeze.

The 10-part motion "notes Lambton, New Lambton, Kotara branch held a meeting on 25 February at Dixon Park at which 33 new members joined the branch".

"Notes that it is no coincidence that the branch freeze has been backdated to 24 February 2024 - the day before the Lambton, New Lambton, Kotara meeting," the motion says.

"Notes that this meeting was held at Dixon Park which is over 7 kms and a 15 minute drive from where the Lambton, New Lambton, Kotara branch normally meets, and that this area is served by a number of existing Labor party branches.

"Notes this is the branch of the Lord Mayor, Deputy Lord Mayor, Cr Winney Baartz, and Cr Wood."

The motion "expresses deep concerns about the actions of the Lambton, New Lambton, Kotara branch" and "reaffirms the Newcastle SEC's strong opposition to branch stacking as this appalling behaviour erodes the core democratic principles on which our party was founded".

The Herald has reported at length about a bitter feud between Ms Hornery and Labor councillors over the "privatisation" of the city's five inland pools.

The infighting has spilled over into a series of allegations about the conduct of party members, including allegations and counter-allegations of "bullying", "disloyalty" and branch stacking.

Georgetown-Waratah branch secretary Justin Davis wrote to Labor assistant secretary Dominic Ofner in August alleging Cr Nelmes' then chief of staff, Matt Murray, was involved in an attempt to stack the Georgetown-Waratah branch with four new members aligned to the lord mayor.

Mr Murray later formally charged Mr Davis under party rules with "disloyalty and unworthy conduct" and accused him of "illegally" calling a fresh election of delegates to the party's Newcastle local government committee.

The NSW Labor administrative committee dismissed Mr Davis' branch-stacking complaint.

Mr Davis has also been involved in allegations and counter-allegations involving Cr Clausen and his partner revolving around a Wallsend Labor state electorate council election in August.

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