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ALP National Conference Begins In Hobart

The Australian Labor Party’s National Conference begins today in Hobart.

BeazleyThe conference is the supreme governing body of the party and consists of nearly 200 delegates from all States and Territories. It includes all the parliamentary leaders of the party around the country.

Full details of the Conference are available from the ALP’s web site.

The conference will write the party’s platform for the election due next year.

The conference comes amid criticism of Opposition Leader Kim Beazley’s leadership in the wake of the debacle that followed John Della Bosca’s public comments questioning the party’s “rollback” strategy on the GST.

The conference will also elect a new party president to replace Barry Jones. Della Bosca was originally the anointed candidate, but he withdrew following his comments on the GST. It seems likely that right-wing Victorian union leader Greg Sword will win the position.

Attention will also focus on the factional composition of the new National Executive which will also be elected during the week.

The Conference concludes on Thursday.

Text of an article by Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2000.

Beazley’s party poopers

Geoff Walsh used to be a journalist who became a Labor flack. Ian Henderson used to be a Labor flack who became a journalist. Barry Jones used to be an academic who became a politician who became redundant. Kim Beazley used to be an academic who became a politician who became a party leader who should have stayed an academic. John Della Bosca used to be a political flack who became a politician who became a prize pain in Kim Beazley’s backside. Bob Carr used to be a journalist who became a Labor flack who became a politician who became a Premier who doesn’t want to be Prime Minister.

They’ll all be in Hobart tomorrow.

The ironies are endless. So, seemingly, is the discontent of Beazley’s winter. He desperately needs a good party conference to revive his besieged leadership. If July was bad for Federal Labor, it was a shocker for Beazley. There they were a month ago, he and Simon Crean, freewheeling along on the back of the GST bogy, the polls looking good, their parliamentary caucus in rollicking voice as it sang The Times They Are A’Changing at the June 29 break-up party for the winter recess.

Who was kidding whom?

A month later and Labor goes to Hobart looking more like political tramps than a credible government-in-waiting. And Beazley behaves and sounds less an alternative prime minister and more a fat, complaining John Hewson staggering under Rollback instead of Fightback.

At the beginning of the year, they cut Beazley’s hair, put him into decent suits that didn’t look like he’d been sleeping in them, got rid of the ties with the food stains , and had him puffing up and down the hill behind his sister’s home in Canberra to shed as many kilos as possible. All for what? To appease the image-makers and the party research that said voters overwhelmingly like Beazley, would invite him to a barbie in the backyard any time, but were far from sure they thought him up to the job of running the country. So the Jolly Green Giant is replaced by the veeeery serious, well-dressed, short-back-and-sides Mr Beazley, sir.

And what does Kim get for his trouble? A huge kick in the privates six months later from his NSW right-wing mate, John Della Bosca.

That’s irony number one. Irony number two is that Labor is only holding its conference at this time, rather than early next year to kickstart an election year, because this is what Della wanted and Beazley said yes, overruling his party’s then national secretary, Gary Gray. And why did Della want the conference now? Because he had the conference numbers to become Labor’s new Federal president, and thus chairman of the national campaign committee, and he wanted to ensure, with Beazley’s support, he got organisational control of the committee early enough to prevent Gray, as campaign director, taking election planning decisions that could not later be unravelled.

This and other internal bastardries convinced Gray enough was enough. With Beazley unwilling to intervene against Della Bosca’s white-anting of his authority, Gray ends 17 years’ service with and for the Labor Party and takes his wife and family back to her home town of Perth, driving all the way from Canberra and stopping overnight at Dubbo zoo so his baby son, Riley, can see REAL lions and tigers.

However, with the prize all but achieved, Della fouls his nest by monstering Beazley’s leadership in his Bulletin interview with Maxine McKew three weeks ago and Beazley, to show he’s tough, is forced to insist Della has to give up his ambitions to be party president, even though he is to remain on the national campaign committee. Thus Gray is needlessly sacrificed, Beazley is humiliated, the Labor Party is thrown into turmoil, Della Bosca shoots his own presidency, and the party’s national conference is committed to being held six months earlier than the most effective strategic schedule for an election year.

Such is Della Bosca’s much-admired political genius.

While all this mayhem is being wrought, Geoff Walsh, Gray’s successor as national secretary, shows he, too, can be just as clever.

Twenty years ago Walsh was in the Canberra press gallery for the Financial Review, writing heroic stories of a “Hawke-Keating axis” flexing its “formidable talents” in the post-1980 election lobbying then going on for the Caucus position of Senate deputy leader, with its crucial seat on the party’s national executive. When the Hawke-Keating candidate of the Right, Doug McClelland, lost by two votes to the Hayden-backed candidate of the Left and Centre, Don Grimes, Walsh interpreted the result as “a clear indication” of the “strength of the forces that can be marshalled” by the defeated right-wing alliance!

A few months later, in 1981, Walsh was chosen by an ALP national executive sub-committee, headed by Hawke, to be director of communications at Labor’s Federal headquarters. Thus began his long political service with Hawke, later as his press secretary and snooker-playing crony, and with Keating, as political adviser. It was a long and fruitful association, including stints in Geneva with the International Labour Organisation and a diplomatic posting in Hong Kong.

In 1988, Hawke canvassed getting the numbers for Walsh as Labor’s national secretary, purely to spike the Left’s Bob Hogg. When the Walsh candidacy wouldn’t gallop, Hawke tried to stitch a deal with Bill Hayden’s Centre faction in favour of Ian Henderson, a former Hayden staffer and, at the time, acting national secretary. The deal collapsed, Hogg was elected and Henderson became one of two assistant secretaries. In 1993, when Gray succeeded Hogg, Henderson quit head office and set about creating a career in economic journalism.

For his part Walsh is now the Labor national secretary Hawke couldn’t organise 12 years earlier. He’s also the first national secretary for at least 40 years appointed from outside the ranks of Labor’s State secretaries or national assistant secretaries. And now, within a bare few months of replacing Gray, the neophyte Walsh learns first-hand “the strength of the forces that can be marshalled” on behalf of Labor’s powerful Right wing.

It happens like this:

In a fortnight’s time there’ll be a Federal by-election in the Melbourne seat of Isaacs. It’s a fairly safe Labor seat previously held by the backbencher who committed suicide, Greg Wilton. The Left’s Jill Hennessy, a former Victorian ALP State president, should be Labor’s candidate. She won’t be. The reason she won’t be is because Geoff Walsh, as returning officer for the national executive ballot, allowed four Right members of the executive to amend, over the phone, their faxed ballot papers and insert a second preference.

If the ballot papers aren’t altered, Hennessy defeats the Right’s Julie Warren and the Centre’s Ann Corcoran. But in a clear debauchery of process, after it becomes clear Warren is going to lose to Hennessy, the Right’s Victorian faction organiser, Steven Conroy, a protege of the formidable Robert Ray, gets Warren to withdraw her candidacy. But before she does this, four of the Right’s executive delegates amend their ballot papers by inserting second preferences, by phone to Walsh, to ensure the Centre’s Corcoran defeats Hennessy once Warren pulls out.

Very neat, indeed. Walsh admits amending the ballot papers on request, but denies vigorously improper behaviour. He’s kidding, surely. The Left fumes and cries rort, but only inside the party, and are stymied from further action because 1) there’s no appeal process, and 2) court action is out of the question for obvious reasons, not least the nearness of the by-election. It’s simply too late to do anything.

Remarkably, the less rabid of Hennessy’s factional allies do not think Geoff Walsh a brigand. They just think him an innocent who was conned by Steven Conroy. Said one, without bitterness: “Playing snooker with Hawkie hasn’t equipped Walsh for dealing with Conroy.” No, it didn’t. Nor did it do a lot for perceptions of administrative competence.

Then there was this week’s excited story in The Australian, by none other than its new political writer, Ian Henderson, of Bob Carr being pressured to go to Canberra. This had a grim Kim Beazley looking like Della Bosca was back with his truck to run him down again.

It also excited the Government, predictably, especially the Prime Minister on his birthday. But after blaring the story on its front page, The Australian knocked it over inside by conceding Carr has no interest in leaving State politics. And why should he?

What would be in it for Bob Carr, other than a lot of hard political grind and no guarantee of anything more than the hapless Beazley and Co seem determined to ensure remains their lot next election: another backhander. No, Bob Carr won’t move, no matter how much some of his more ambitious colleagues might incite hares to run in the press.

Back in March, after Carr won his second term as Premier, a Labor source observed privately that if Labor couldn’t win with Beazley next election, the internal push would be on to draft Carr to Canberra. “If we can’t win with Kim, we won’t win with Simon”, was the sentiment. It’s a valid argument. But others knocked it down as easily as The Australian undermined its own story – and Kim Beazley, too.

The reason: Carr, already NSW Labor’s longest-serving leader, wants to exceed Neville Wran’s 10 years as premier. To do that he must win at least a third term in 2004. To imagine he would give up pursuing his goal for some chancy pig in a poke in Canberra is fantasy. And no reporter had to scratch around too hard to learn that.

That brings us back to Hobart and the next five days, starring a struggling leader, a wounded party secretary, a discredited political genius and the end of Barry Jones’s distinguished career in public life. All of these outcomes achieved by whom? That’s right, the smarties of Labor’s biggest, most powerful faction, the Right.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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