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ALP Conference: Some Votes Are More Equal Than Others

Julia Gillard had a good National Conference over the weekend.

ALPShe won the day on gay marriage, uranium sales to India, internal party reform, and refugees. She has been buoyed by the passage of the carbon tax through parliament. The mining tax should be through the Senate early in the new year. Tony Abbott has lost a number in the House and the Government looks almost certain to make it into 2013.

Gillard is looking prime ministerial at last. Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions have been dealt a blow. The year of decision and delivery is ending well. This week may well be the time for a ministerial reshuffle to sharpen the Government further.

Well, that’s the official story. It may even be right in many respects.

If you turned off the relentless babble of commentary pouring forth from the cable news channels over the last three days and simply watched the live feed of the ALP conference, it was difficult not to be impressed at times.

As many Labor MPs and supporters pointed out, it was encouraging to see open debates taking place. The debates were often heartfelt. Powerful points were made. Many delegates showed a strong grasp of a wide range of issues. Articulate young people marshalled their arguments on the same platform as cabinet ministers, MPs, unionists and assorted old hands. Important issues rarely covered by the media were canvassed across the weekend. Votes were taken and democracy in the ALP was on display to the nation.


With the ALP, there is always a ‘but’. It’s the ‘but’ that arises from the party’s perennial struggle with pragmatism, electoral reality and ideological purity. It can be seen in Gough Whitlam’s denunciation of the impotence of the pure and Harold Wilson’s declaration that “the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.

For today’s ALP, with its declining membership and narrowing trade union base, its state governments toppling like dominos, and its federal minority government experiencing record-low approval, the struggle is a compelling one. The weekend conference happily endorsed a national disability insurance scheme but fought bitterly on uranium sales to India. It voted in favour of same-sex marriage but gave its parliamentary representatives a conscience vote. It reversed its policy on offshore processing of asylum-seekers in return for an increase in the refugee intake.

These issues don’t exist in a vacuum. Their resolution is directly affected by the ALP’s operational structure and the culture of vested interests that have seized power from the membership.

As the ALP conference opened on Friday, the election of the party’s National Executive was declared. Strangely enough, the 20 positions on this committee were all elected unopposed. Twenty nominations, 20 executive members.

How convenient that amongst around 400 delegates, only 20 offered themselves for election to the party’s day-to-day governing body. And what a coincidence that the Right-wing faction scored 11 positions whilst the Left drew the short straw with 9.

Of course, it always happens that way. The idea that 30 or 40 conference delegates would nominate for the executive and submit themselves to a free-flowing campaign for the votes of their comrades is a fantasy. Nor is there anything new in the notion that union secretaries and faction chieftains endorsed the nominees before their names were submitted.

But it told you everything you needed to know about how the contemporary ALP governs itself. The party is an oligarchy of two main groups, each with roots in unions which are guaranteed 50 per cent of the delegates to the national conference. It is a duopoly with geographical, philosophical and personality-based sub-groups which choose election candidates, divide the spoils of office proportionally amongst themselves, resolve policy issues behind closed doors, and avoid ballots wherever possible. The ideological divisions between the Left and Right have largely disappeared, although occasionally a spat is played out in the public eye to allow them both to pretend that they’re fighting on principle.

For every vote on that televised conference floor over the weekend, more important decisions were taken behind the scenes which determined how the public theatre would play out. It was as far removed from political reality as is parliamentary Question Time.

To see the power of these groups over the party and its dwindling membership, consider the position of the party’s National President. As a result of reforms over the past decade, the president is directly elected by the rank and file members. This year they opted for Jenny McAllister, a left-winger.

Even though the president presides over the national executive, she doesn’t have a vote. The only direct and nationally-elected office-holder of the party has no real power. On Saturday, a motion was moved to remedy this. It was defeated. The Right, in particular, wouldn’t tolerate it because they know that the membership is more likely to elect someone from the Left.

And so, as Prime Minister Gillard repeated her “challenge” to the party to recruit 8,000 new members in the coming year, the existing membership was reminded of the irrelevance of their voting power inside the party. The 8,000 target conveniently overlooks the reasons people don’t join and don’t stay when they do.

The 2010 ALP National Review Report, undertaken by Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner, showed that over 10,000 members have left the party in the past decade. At least 100 branches have closed. Bracks reminded the conference on Saturday that the party was unable to staff all polling booths in last year’s election. Faulkner said the ALP is well on the way to being a small party of old age pensioners and superannuation recipients. The three men agree that the party is doomed unless the membership is empowered.

Even though a policy committee for members has been set up, most of the recommendations of the review were shelved or watered down. A committee will look at how to allow an unspecified proportion of conference delegates to be directly elected, but the oligarchs are as entrenched as ever. They show no signs of surrendering any of their power, even as the party disappears beneath them.

The logical consequence of the concentration of power in a small number of union and faction leaders can be seen in the substantive decisions taken by the conference.

Gillard and her right-wing backers sang the praises of the party’s free and open debate on gay marriage. They were forced to concede that support for a same-sex marriage amendment to the platform could not be resisted, so they worked overtime to nullify the vote by mandating a conscience vote in parliament.

At any other time, this might have been seen as incremental policy development, a vital step forward on the hard road to social equality. But it was nothing of the kind. The fix was in to protect Gillard from a policy she says she doesn’t support, from an electorate she fears will condemn her, and from conservative groups within the party that now constitute her power base.

Unsurprisingly, the vote on Gillard’s motion for a conscience vote wasn’t counted. It was simply passed on the voices because of the risk of embarrassing right-wing defections. On the floor of the conference, no-one demurred or demanded a count. They wouldn’t have dared.

In the bizarre world of Labor factions, the votes that don’t take place tell you much more about who holds power.

In public, the people who stitched up the conscience vote deal were proclaiming their cleverness. They seemed to be saying that it was all a cunning plan to put Tony Abbott under pressure. If he also granted his members a conscience vote, same-sex marriage legislation stands a chance of passing, said Defence Minister Stephen Smith.

Just as the Government continues to beg Abbott to pass their refugee legislation to enable implementation of the Malaysia swap deal, they now think they can embarrass him over same-sex marriage, a policy the PM doesn’t want to implement anyway.

As for the Malaysia solution, it featured in another set piece debate in which Immigration Minister Chris Bowen offered up his latest plan to increase the overall refugee numbers in return for conference support for offshore processing and transportation to Malaysia. The conference duly voted for a policy the Government is unable to implement by reversing its previous support for onshore processing, a policy the Government has been reluctantly forced to adopt.

What is the political strategy behind these bizarre conference decisions?

It’s perfectly legitimate to consider whether gay marriage is an electoral albatross for the Labor Party. The Coalition has already mounted the case that it isn’t a mainstream issue. But when the party is languishing in the polls and recording its lowest primary vote on record, who are they frightened of alienating? You can’t help suspecting that the people who won’t vote Labor over an issue like this would never vote for it anyway, but there may just be some votes to be won back from disenchanted Labor supporters who have turned away because they don’t know what the party stands for anymore. These voters might be impressed by some bold social reform. It might even impress those thousands of members who have churned through ALP branches in recent years.

As with the refugee issue, the Gillard ministry still behaves as if it is scared of upsetting its conservative opponents and their media mouthpieces. When you’re as down in the polling dumps as they are, you’d think they might just be willing to give it a go, instead of playing safe. They might well consider the example set by the late Peter Andren, an independent member, who argued his case against John Howard’s stand on refugees in his conservative rural electorate and was rewarded with landslide re-election victories.

Any other Labor leader might have chanced his or her arm at persuading the electorate that marriage equality’s time has come. Many argue the electorate has reached this view anyway. But as she has done with refugees and climate change, Gillard has again locked herself into a contorted policy which fools no-one but satisfies the entrenched interests which control the party.

A good weekend for Labor? Not really. It looks more like several steps forward and just as many resolutely back.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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