Day 3 A Foreign Affair


If you were wondering what had happened to that firebrand of the Victorian Labor Party, Jean McLean, well, she’s back and wearing a delegate’s badge at the ALP National Conference in Sydney this weekend.

In the 1970s and 1980s, McLean and her comrades, Joan Coxsedge and George Crawford, represented the hardline Left-wing of the Victorian branch. Whether or not one agreed with them, one had to admire their uncompromising fortitude.

They were fighters at a time when the Left within the ALP defined itself by the revolutionary concept of actually opposing the Right. They may have been socialist dinosaurs even back then, but McLean, Coxsedge and Crawford were also ahead of their time on South Africa, East Timor and nuclear disarmament. In the 1960s, McLean and Coxsedge had also been leaders of the anti-Vietnam War group, Save Our Sons.

‘They gloried in defeat because it showed they were pure,’ said one old comrade, who also remembered that on the downside of the ledger they were also great supporters of the expelled Victorian ALP Secretary Bill Hartley: ‘They would go over a cliff with Bill in supporting Gaddafi in Libya and the Baathists in Iraq. I think we had our own foreign policy in Victoria.’

This afternoon I watched McLean shuffle to her feet during the foreign affairs debate at the ALP National Conference and, if I recall correctly, was actually heard welcoming the prospect of a Rudd Labor Government.

McLean was moving an amendment to the Party’s foreign affairs platform that called for the continued presence of Australian troops in East Timor. ‘Labor welcomes the establishment of an expanded UN presence and supports Australia’s leadership of the international security force following the political crisis of May 2006,’ her amendment read. But she also added that ‘Australia will respect the sovereignty of East Timor and engage in dialogue with its elected leaders and on this basis will be committed to providing support and assistance to East Timor for the long-term.’

On this score and I’m quite genuine here it’s good to know that some things never change and McLean’s amendment, which appeared moderate, did contain a thumb in the eye for imperialism of any sort.

Thirty, even twenty, years ago, the feistiest debates at ALP conferences were about issues far from home. The party’s foreign affairs platform was often the most fiercely contested part of the manifesto.

Some of the Labor Right would refuse to support resolutions in solidarity with the African National Congress (ANC), which now governs South Africa, because the ANC included the Communist Party. Some on the Left were wary of supporting the Polish movement Solidarity, suspicious of its links with the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Vatican.

At this Conference, the foreign affairs platform passed I kid you not without any debate at all. Shadow Foreign Minister Robert McClelland accepted every amendment and the conference passed, unanimously and on the voices, resolutions calling for the closure of the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and for a Federal Labor government to lead a world-wide campaign against the death penalty.

Now, demanding the closure of Gitmo is no longer controversial, especially after the Blair Government, which has largely been in lockstep with the White House over terrorism, has also called on the Bush Administration to shut it down (and Barry Jones’s passion and eloquence helped erase the vestiges of Labor support for the death penalty 40 years ago).

But I had hoped, for amusement’s sake, that some Right-wing relic might get up, invoking our alliance with the United States and suggest a more ‘moderate tone’ or some such thing. Alas, no.

Two delegates, Julius Roe and Peter Holder, did succeed in having a ‘positive reference to the War on Terror’ removed from the party platform, and replaced with the phrase, ‘Afghanistan continues to be the central priority for Australia’s effort to secure peace and stability in the region’. But it was a change in rhetoric.

Holder delivered a passionate speech about how the anti-Iraq War movement had been vindicated, given the complete breakdown of order in Iraq and the emboldening of Iran. In tones reminiscent of Arthur Calwell’s last great speech of principle (to the 1965 Conference, opposing Australia’s role in the Vietnam War), Holder said the anti-war movement had borne the accusations of disloyalty and lack of patriotism from the Howard Government and the Murdoch press. It was a line sure to raise a cheer, but instead received tepid applause from a half full or half empty auditorium.

The former President of the NSW Legislative Council, Meredith Burgmann, committed a Rudd Government to supporting sovereignty for the people of Western Sahara from Morocco. It was, she said, a moral imperative akin to the plight of East Timor before liberation. But she stopped short of causing a genuine diplomatic incident with a resolution calling not for independence for West Papua from Indonesia, but merely, ‘the full implementation of the Special Autonomy Act of 2001 and the acceptance of international monitoring teams for dispute resolution between the Indonesian Army and West Papuans’.

One amendment, passed unanimously, did intrigue me though. The Victorian Labor MP Michael Danby — the Israeli Right’s most reliable mouthpiece in the Federal Parliament — moved that the ‘Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue give an annual report to the Human Rights Committee of Parliament’s Joint Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee’. It was a worthy resolution, given that the human rights situation in China, a country beloved of George Bush, John Howard and Kevin Rudd alike, remains far worse than anything in the so-called ‘pariah’ States of Cuba and Venezuela.

I wonder if Danby had attended a breakfast on Saturday morning, hosted by the ALP’s International Projects division, where the theme was ‘building Party-to-Party links’. Among guests were representatives of the New Zealand Labour Party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement of Greece (PASOK) and Zhang Zhijun, Vice Minister for the International Department of the Communist Party of China.

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