The Conference Is Not What It Used To Be


The 5 per cent of people who allow more than 1 per cent of their daily thoughts to be occupied by matters political will probably be aware that the ALP’s national conference is happening at the moment.

This is a time when such folks might ask themselves questions like: What can the ALP achieve at this conference? Are there any surprises in store? What will the state premiers be bringing to the party — apart from lower approval ratings than the national leader? And same-sex marriage aside, are there any fault-lines for disagreement?

At least those are the sorts of questions the engaged folk at asked me to consider, and as one of the above mentioned 5 per cent of people, they seem like good questions to me.

It is only natural that people who have to write about politics for a living look for surprises, for conflict, or for the unexpected. It makes their job more interesting and gives some variety and colour to their work.

But the biggest surprise out of this national conference — as with most political party conferences these days — will be if there are any genuine surprises at all.

There is no particular reason why a party’s national conference should have surprises or even major controversies. And yet that doesn’t mean that everything that happens is of no consequence, or even that it is a stage-managed event whose only purpose is to present the desired images to the public.

The key public messages out of the conference will be about jobs and the economy. The fact that a key announcement in Kevin Rudd’s speech on the opening day was a pledge of 50,000 "green jobs" is a sign that environment issues still have a fair degree of resonance in the electorate. Labor is trying to position itself as having done enough on the environment to address the concerns of the electorate, but not so much that it could leave itself open to exaggerated attacks about costing jobs or risking the economy.

How green those jobs will actually be, and how many of them will even actually be jobs, seems less than clear at the moment. Labor followed the same approach before the recent Queensland election, making announcements about green jobs and other green things, creating a general impression of acknowledging the environment, while knowing that most people wouldn’t absorb or even look for the detail. The phrase "green jobs" may well be becoming a mantra in the order of the previously ever-present "working families".

As for the state premiers, their main role is to turn up. It is a national conference, and while there are issues of policy tension between state and federal Labor governments on areas like health and water, those tensions won’t get played out in this forum.

Their presence may remind us that the country has some stale and unpopular state governments, but they also bring a reminder that Labor is actually quite good at hanging on to government for a reasonable length of time. Some of them haven’t been so good at doing much of value while they are there — other than convincing people that the other mob would have been worse — but I believe having visible reminders that the electorate has been willing to give your party the reins of power repeatedly across the country still has a positive effect.

The issue of gay marriage is one that some people have identified as providing the biggest chance of a stoush. Obviously, there are different views on this issue within the Labor Party and, just as obviously, Kevin Rudd has decided that the party will continue to oppose gay marriage. Whether his view is derived from his own personal beliefs or is simply a political judgement doesn’t matter in a practical sense.

I think Kevin Rudd is wrong, and polls show more and more Australians support or accept making gay marriage legal. The effort to change Labor policy will fail this time, but there is a fair chance it will succeed down the track. The campaign for change certainly isn’t going to stop.

But having a conference debate on an issue where people have differing views isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a big deal. There will be plenty of others issues where differing views will be expressed, but unless there is name calling or the possibility of unexpected outcomes, they probably won’t get much attention. This is a pity, as they can give an insight into what sorts of views are present within the party beneath the veneer of imposed unity.

As has been noted, many of the things passed at this conference have no practical binding effect. Labor’s century-long tradition of absolute caucus solidarity — one of the most rigid examples of political party discipline in the democratic world — has long conditioned its members in having to vote for things in Parliament that they are strongly opposed to.

A further effect of this is that it leaves the parliamentary party in a position to discount many resolutions passed at party conferences with minimal political cost or internal damage. This makes such conference motions less significant — but it doesn’t necessarily make them irrelevant.

There will continue to be opposition expressed to the Federal Government’s position on workplace laws for the building industry, and there could well be some success in getting stronger action to protect workers’ redundancy entitlements when companies go bust.

The possibility that a major drop in company tax will be recommended by the Henry Review has seen some motions passed opposing any net reduction. There are differing views within the party on this, but on this occasion they will mostly be left for other forums.

The push to introduce more overt protectionism has clearly been rebuffed. Even efforts to examine trade penalties for countries who don’t or won’t meet climate change or other agreed environmental standards is also being treated solely as a protectionist measure and thus rejected.

Of course these sorts of penalties can be motivated by protectionist aims, but so can quarantine measures. That’s no reason to reject all notions of quarantine, and nor should it be a reason to reject any notion of imposing environmental requirements. However, getting agreement on anything worthwhile at the forthcoming climate change summit at Copenhagen will be hard enough as it is, so it’s probably for the best at this time not to add too many variables into the mix.

The debate about the Productivity Commission’s proposal to change the current parallel import restrictions on books is another area where views diverge within Labor, and while protectionism is only one of the issues involved in this matter, it is one example where the protectionist side will get some traction. Whether that will stop the Federal Government from acting on the commission’s recommendations is another matter, the answer to which won’t be clear for a while yet.

Another area where the protectionist agenda has had some successes in the past year has been in the campaigns to restrict skilled migration. Even though this was framed for a while as an issue of workplace safety or preventing exploitation of migrant workers, the protectionist aspect has become more overt over time. This article from The Age makes that fairly clear, commenting that: "left-wing delegates are expected to tie the issue of 457 visas into the free trade debate".

There is plenty of potential for disagreement, and much disagreement will be expressed. It just won’t have a significant enough consequence for anyone to get excited about.

Even those of us among the 5 per cent of people who pay more than minimal attention to politics haven’t really got the time to pay that much attention to political events that won’t have any effect on our lives.

We’ll have to wait and see what the Government decides to do — in most cases well after the conference is over.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.