There will be blood: A guide to the ALP conference
This week’s ALP National Conferences bears scant resemblance to the hey days of the seventies in Terrigal, when then-ACTU chief Bob Hawke cut deals in his budgie smugglers.
There is not even the gauntlet of the fields of pokies that provided the surreal backdrop to proceedings for most of the nineties when the Conference called the Hobart casino home.
This week’s affair at Darling Harbour in Sydney will involve a lot less flesh and a lot less vice, but the dynamic tension between the political and industrial wings of the ALP will be on display for all to witness.
What makes these conferences so compelling for political junkies is that no matter how the central office attempts to control proceedings, the raw politics that still drives Labor will find a way of hijacking proceedings and ensure that not everything goes according to script.
Having hovered around conferences as either a reporter or spin-doctor since 1993, I draw on recent history to fearlessly predict a few things that will happen over the next week.
Prediction one: The Leader Will Assert His Authority
The set piece of conference will see the victorious PM reprise his role from 2007 when he walked in with the dorkily portentous words “I’m Kevin. I’m from Queensland’ and I’m here to help’.
Rudd has delivered Labor power so he will be rightly be feted. Word is there will be no razzamatazz, the Party keen not to be basking at a time of financial crisis. But while he will be on guard for hubris, victorious leaders have a history of cashing in some of their political capital in the wake of victory and Kevin will find a way of throwing a few chips on the table.
My first trip to Hobart with the Daily Tele was notable for Paul Keating, fresh from victory in the unwinnable election of 1993 delivering a blistering spray to union leader, who were cutting up rough about the recently enacted industrial reforms. In a blistering rave he told his critics “if it wasn’t for me you would be gone before you could even say the words ‘enterprise bargaining”. Leaders pointedly taking on unions, who have an institutional power in the party, are part of the theatre of conferences. Build up the bogey and then take it on.
But there are limits. Morris Iemma tried similar at the NSW Conference last year, but he jumped the shark, setting up a fight on power privatisation he couldn’t win. He ignored the decision of Conference and is no longer in public life.
Our PM is a little shrewder than that, but there will be an issue where he wants to take on the machine. Refusing to yield on pressure to end the coercive powers that mean building workers can be jailed for refusing to answer questions about union meetings will be his chosen battleground.
Prediction Two: Someone Will Be Booed
My first memory of an ALP Conference was Laure Brereton being booed for offering up an extremely mild version of labour market deregulation at the 19993 Conference in Sydney. The thing about Laurie was he loved the attention and revelled in the reception, he was a politician who walked around with a kick me sign on his behind. Ironically, there are now signs around Darling Harbour celebrating Laurie for his vision in driving the development of the precinct 21 years ago,
Julia Gillard secretly wants to be this year’s villain, flush as she is from the political capital of staring down building unions at the ACTU Congress over her refusal to abide by party policy on the building industry. Unions and playing it smart, though, and are planning to kill her with kindness.
In her absence my money is on Mar’n Ferguson to cop the hisses, the former ACTU president having bagged the unions for pushing for further industrial rights and possessing an unhealthy love of yellowcake.
Prediction Three: The Factions Are Not Dead
Party conference is the moment when those of us who have predicted the death of factional-ism in the ALP end up looking stupid. The voting blocs of unions wield considerable power, by virtue of their control of 50 per cent of the vote.
There is a rich history of Labor getting through controversial platform changes by pitting one section of the union movement against the other to cancel them out on factional lines. The tactics has been used to privatise Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, extend uranium mining, overturn many of the basic tenants of Labor policy in the name of modernisation.
The factions though are shaping to use their power a little differently this year, with the AWU and the AMWU putting on a united front on manufacturing in support of a ‘Buy Australian’ policy. Likewise ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence has foreshadowed an industrial bloc vote on key issues – which will mean they become policy. That said there will still be some factional ritual blue over who did what to whom in some electoral backwater.
This rise of an industrial bloc is a significant development for the ALP and follows trends at recent NSW State conferences, where unions have combined to support refugees, constrain contracting out and, of course, roll power privatisation.
Prediction Four: The Libs Will Play Silly Buggers
While all the attention is on the ALP, the Liberals will be working out a way to throw a spanner in the works, by lobbing up some issue that will cause havoc on the conference floor.
A textbook case in how this is done was the 2000 Hobart Conference, which was going along swimmingly for Kim Beazley until the Howard Government announced he was going to ban IVF treatment for lesbians. Before you could say ‘moral panic‘ the Left was condemning the move while the socially conservative, but influential SDA, was backing the PM in.
While the Liberals no longer have the advantage of incumbency, Tony Abbott is addressing the Press Club on Thursday.
Prediction Five: The Media Will Get It Wrong
The Gods of the Canberra Press Gallery will observe proceedings and fail to understand what they are observing. Because they are so attuned to following the song of the leader, they will be led from set piece to set piece, without having to get their hands dirty. The real stories will not be written.
Whether they will get it as wrong as they did in 2002 when they hailed Simon Crean’s ‘victory’ in getting rid of the 60-40 rule, is another thing altogether. That was the year Crean was carried over the line by Albo (for whom the rule delivered factional dividends) after losing the support of the NSW Right. He raised two thumbs and the Gallery dutifully followed, not realising this was the moment he became a member of the political Living Dead. Six months later he was toast.
The Canberra Gallery covers conference from the perspective of the Canberra personalities, which is why they struggle to get what is really going on. It’s also why the Canberra insiders are so critical of the Conference structure, the fact that unions have the gall to retain an institutional role in the political organization they created; and even have the affront to expect their representative to stick to Party policy.
The reality is that the ALP is and remains an organisation with institutional roots in the union movement and a small, but committed, base of rank and file members. It may not always be pretty but it is a model that has delivered representation and success for more than 100 years. Nothing to be sneezed at.
NB Like the rest of the ALP, the author has chosen to ignore the entire Latham era.
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