Five minutes into Labor’s 44th National Conference at Sydney’s Darling Harbour Convention Centre, my mind had already started to wander. To be precise, it wandered back eight weeks, to an aircraft hangar outside Paris, where I had joined 15,000 people to hear the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal, speak for two hours and twenty minutes if you include the thunderous five and seven minute ovations that punctuated her address.
At one stage, Royal clasped her hand to her breast, while tears welled in her eyes and she thumped the lectern with her other hand. Even understanding barely one word in five, I knew what she was saying: ‘As a mother, as a French woman, as a socialist, I want every child in France to have the same chances my own children have had!’
The crowd erupted: ‘SÃ©golÃ¨ne! President! SÃ©golÃ¨ne! President!’
Of course, that’s yet to be determined.
But, I suspect Kevin Rudd heard the echoes of another European centre-Left leader this time, Neil Kinnock, the British Labour leader who, going into the 1992 UK General Election against a 13-year-old Tory Government and with the opinion polls running heavily in his favour, thought he had sealed victory before any votes were cast.
As Kinnock entered a stadium in Sheffield a week before the April election and was almost mobbed by his supporters, he started to shriek: ‘We’re alright! We’re alright!’ As the BBC reported later, ‘He sounded like an evangelical preacher and the years of hard graft that had gone on before and during the campaign to show Mr Kinnock as a statesmanlike Prime Minister-in-waiting was laid to waste.’
Today, Kevin Rudd was not about to make the same mistake.
Rudd’s opening speech to the Conference was beautiful on paper. It contained far more poetry than I had expected from an unashamed technocrat. I’m informed by those close to him and not spin doctors that Rudd wrote much of it himself, in co-ordination with his speechwriter Troy Bramston. Listen to the lyrical opening, with its shades of Whitlam and Freudenberg in 1972: ‘There comes a time in the affairs of nations when they are forced to think afresh about the challenges they face for the future.’
He even snuck in a literary allusion when discussing Labor’s historic commitment to the ‘fair go’:
The reason why Lawson and Patterson could celebrate these things in ballad and in verse is because our movement delivered to them the living examples of our people at work.
And Rudd did channel a little of Kinnock this time, from the stunning 1985 speech repudiating Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that there was ‘no such thing as society’ when Rudd referred to John Howard, the Liberals and ‘their three great ennobling values of me, myself and I.’
But despite all this, when Kevin Rudd Leader of the Australian Labor Party, a man evoking the memories and legacies of Andrew Fisher, John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam stood before 2000 delegates and observers, he still sounded like the Director-General of the Queensland Cabinet Office addressing an interdepartmental working party on the realignment of Commonwealth-State relations.
Thanks to Carl Gopalkrishnan
In any great speech, and this was a pretty good one, there are certain built-in trigger points words or phrases on which to end a stanza, and which are designed to prompt applause and cheering. There were plenty of those, such as the reference to ‘the spectacular debacle of the Iraq War itself the single greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.’ But, in delivery, they usually require an upward inflection in the voice or a defiant hand gesture. Kevin Rudd simply nodded and stepped back slightly, as if to indicate permission to applaud.
To the connisseurs of speechcraft, this stuff matters, but to an Australian public sedated by a decade of pedestrian Howard ‘oratory,’ Rudd’s flat performance hardly matters.
He want’s to send out one, very simple message: ‘I’m safe.’
Labor had its excitement three years ago, when the voluable Mark Latham a Westie made good strode to the lectern to the sound of INXS’s ‘New Sensation,’ talked about the ‘workers and the slackers,’ and punched the air. Even Rudd’s theme song, ‘I See You Know,’ was deeply inoffensive.
There was, however, an outbreak of (controlled) passion but long after the weekend newspapers had passed their deadlines and the commercial news bulletins had filed their packages. At about 5:00pm, Labor began debating its human rights platform. Senator Joe Ludwig, the Shadow Attorney-General, rejected entreaties from people such as ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope for a Bill of Rights, in a motion seconded grudgingly by the distinguished law professor, George Williams, who does support a charter but is willing to settle, for the moment, for ‘widespread public consultation’ on the matter.
But it was an amendment to the platform by a Peter Holder, and seconded ever so cautiously by Ludwig, that produced the one actual debate you know, where people actually disagree with other people, and say so, publicly of the day. Holder called on Federal Labor to support a uniform State-based register to certify ‘non-married couples wanting to register publicly their ongoing commitment.’ In code, this meant ‘gays.’
Even many conservative religious groups and ‘cultural moderates’ such as myself support such a register, which would allow homosexual couples and hetereosexual de facto couples to register their partnerships, giving them access to many legal protections afforded to the married. Ludwig was at pains to emphasise that this policy which the Tasmanian Government has embraced ‘does not allow gay marriage or civil unions’ and would not be accompanied by any form of officially sanctioned ceremony.
But for the most conservative religious group of all, the Shop Assistants Union, and its Cardinal, National Secretary Joe de Bruyn, it was time to man the barricades.
De Bruyn and Tasmanian Senator Helen Polley said such a register was the thin end of the wedge, the end of the unique recognition afforded the traditional marriage between a man and a woman. ‘Where would you draw the line?’ implored Polley. ‘Same sex marriage and adoption?’
When de Bruyn said this amendment ‘would give same sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals,’ there was applause from his opponents. There are far worse things about de Bruyn’s politics than his social conservatism, which is shared by many sincere, compassionate advocates for the poor and dispossessed who are driven by faith. His main problem is that long before there was WorkChoices, long before there was even a Howard Government, de Bruyn and his union had a policy of never supporting a strike, thus depriving the dues-paying members of their ultimate, legal bargaining chip.
The performance of de Bruyn and company was not quite a throwback to the homophobic days of Jack Egerton and the 1971 ALP Conference. But it wasn’t far off.
At least, the issue produced a heart-felt debate. Conveniently for certain delegates, though, we’ll never know how they voted. The Holder-Ludwig amendment was carried on the voices.
Listen to Andrew West talk about the ALP National Conference here.
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