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''I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.''
Anthony Albanese has pledged an end to pork barrelling and deliver a “fair and reforming” federal budget in a rousing address to party faithful at the NSW Labor State Conference, where the party leader emphasised the branch’s unity as it eyes victory at the March 2023 state election.
The prime minister received a hero’s welcome inside Sydney’s Town Hall on Saturday as he headlined the first state conference to be held in more than two years and the first NSW conference to welcome a prime minister in his home state since Paul Keating in 1995.
In a stirring speech to a room of party heavyweights including national secretary Wayne Swan and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, the prime minister reflected on his history and successes in the party as he threw his weight behind NSW Opposition leader Chris Minns.
“I have to say, I didn’t always get that sort of universal reception here,” he laughed, recalling a time when he took the stage at the conference to find his microphone had been unplugged.
“I first came to this great conference as a delegate back in 1983. I never dreamed I’d be standing on this stage as leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party - let alone as Australia’s 31st prime minister,” he said.
Mr Albanese fronted the conference as Labor prepares to deliver its first budget in 10 days.
On Saturday, he said Labor would up the pace of reform even as he acknowledged that financial headwinds including inflation and global uncertainty meant some issues would not be fixed within a single political term.
He also vowed to put an end to the political practice of allocating disproportionate amounts of government spending to safe seats, known as pork barrelling.
“After five months in government … we can now see the problems and pressures are even greater than we imagined … but we are not daunted – we are determined,” Mr Albanese told the conference.
“It will be a true Labor budget: responsible, fair and reforming. And it will be a budget that closes the book on a wasted decade that has weakened our economy and held back our nation.
“Of course, we understand that not every problem can be solved in one budget, or even one term of government. We all know that progress demands patience … But this is not an excuse to delay. It is the reason we must begin.”
PM addresses party tensions
The party leader who comes from the NSW branch’s left faction also fronted the conference as a series of factional spot fires threaten to boil over into public view.
Labor leaders and officials were nervous ahead of the conference as members bristle over the state parliamentary party’s decision to back right-to-protest laws penalising activists who block roads, port or rail lines which were passed in April with Labor’s support.
Members were scheduled to debate a motion on Sunday which could force the party to condemn the new laws, despite the fact Mr Minns has ruled out repealing the legislation.
Officials were also wary of a simmering preselection spat pitting the party’s powerful CFMEU industrial union against its left faction. The construction union is leading a charge to install barrister Cameron Murphy on the party’s upper house ticket in a move which would see sitting MP Mick Veitch dumped.
In a brief reference to tensions in the traditionally volatile NSW branch, Mr Albanese described disagreements as a natural consequence of “passions running high because … the stakes are high.”
“This mighty colosseum of political engagement … a bit like the Roman Colosseum, where we’ve seen the odd occasional mauling from a political lion or two … it’s understandable,” he said.
“That strength is our passion … and the arguments and debates we have here matter, the ideas that we grapple with, the resolutions that we move - they shape the future of our nation. Passions run high because we know the stakes are high.
“These victories bring heavy responsibility, but it’s a great reward. It’s why Chris Minns and his team are seeking government in March.”
Mr Minns will address the conference on Sunday where the ambitious leader is expected to outline a large chunk of the party’s election platform, and its plan to unseat Dominic Perrottet’s Coalition government which has held power for 12 years.
In his introduction for Mr Albanese, Mr Marles described the party leader as being central to the party’s success at the federal election.
“It’s the wisdom of his judgement that has made Labor competitive,” the deputy prime minister said.
Samantha Hutchinson is the AFR's National Reporter. Most recently, she was CBD columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Before that, she covered Victorian and NSW politics and business for The Australian, the AFR and BRW Magazine.Connect with Samantha on Twitter. Email Samantha at email@example.com