Bob Gould, 2005

Two state conferences of the Australian Labor Party

Source: Ozleft, June 14-16, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left Weekly discussion list, June 14, 2005

The Queensland Labor Party conference was held over the long weekend in Cairns in the far north. Labor Party state conferences are made up of 50 per cent branch delegates and 50 per cent from affiliated trade unions.

The Queensland conference was dominated by the threat from the Liberal federal government of draconian anti-union legislation when the Liberals get a majority of one in the Senate after July 1.

The conference unanimously opposed all aspects of the Liberal legislation, as did Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and federal opposition leader Kim Beazley.

The Queensland conference endorsed all reasonable forms of mobilisation against the Liberals’ anti-union laws.

Premier Beattie committed himself to a High Court legal challenge to the anti-union legislation in conjunction with the other states and territories, which all have Labor governments.

There is some chance of this legal action succeeding, as transfers of industrial powers from the states to the commonwealth have twice been defeated in federal referenda. It’s difficult to see how the commonwealth can take control of industrial law from the states without a further referendum.

On the question of asylum seekers and refugees, the Queensland conference unanimously carried two resolutions supporting refugees. One of these demanded that Labor in the federal parliament support the private members’ bills of the Liberal dissidents to abolish mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

New South Wales conference

The two-day NSW Labor conference took place in the grand old Sydney Town Hall, which has been the venue of ALP state conferences since 1954.

The first Labor conference I attended was in 1954, amid the increasing tension building up to the Labor split between left and right in 1955.

I’ve attended every NSW Labor conference since then, about 40 conferences, deducting election years, when a conference isn’t held.

In the late 1950s, the conference grew to about 1150 delegates, but after federal intervention in the NSW branch in 1971, and the introduction of proportional representation, the number of delegates was capped at 824, and is now, like Queensland, 50 per cent from local branches and 50 per cent from affiliated unions.

Allowing for two alternates for each delegate, 200-330 Labor politicians and their staffers, and ordinary Labor Party members observing from the gallery, about 3000-4000 people pass through a NSW Labor conference.

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, with factional struggles and splits, the conferences were often turbulent, even fierce, events. Since the mid-1980s they’ve been a bit quieter.

Since the early 1970s, I’ve run a substantial labour movement bookshop in the right-hand corner of the foyer opposite the registration desk, and I pay a percentage of the sales to the Labor Party. This is always a useful thing to do. I put out a list of new labour movement books on the delegates’ seats, and the bookshop is a handy place to meet and talk to delegates and observers, many of whom I’ve known for many years.

It’s possible to follow the debates in the conference from the television screen in the foyer, and most delegates go in and out from the conference through the foyer.

New labour movement literature sold very well this year, and at my most exotic I even sold three copies of John Percy’s History of the DSP and three copies of Barry Sheppard’s history of the US SWP, but most of the books I sold were on more traditional labour movement topics.

This was a fairly businesslike, quietish, sort of conference. The delegates divided roughly 65 per cent for the broad right faction (Centre Unity) and 35 per cent for the Socialist Left (the official left).

The dominating issue at the conference was the impending anti-union laws of the federal Liberal government.

Federal Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley committed to total opposition to the laws, and committed the federal Labor Party to dismantling these laws if elected to government.

NSW Premier Bob Carr, who had appeared in the media to weaken a bit in his opposition to the transfer of industrial powers to the commonwealth, came out extremely strongly against the transfer of powers and in opposition to all the anti-union laws, responding to pressure from the unions. The NSW conference also endorsed all reasonable forms of mobilisation against the laws.

As is usual at NSW ALP conference, the lengthy discussion of the industrial report was the centrepiece. Many unions pushed through important motions in support of their industrial demands, exerting pressure on the state government.

A notable feature of this conference was great union discontent with public-private partnerships in infrastructure development and broad union opposition to outsourcing of service delivery in a number of areas.

Motions were carried condemning outsourcing and directed at making the state government cease the practice, and a motion was carried unanimously to call for a public inquiry into public-private partnerships.

On the refugee issue, some right-wingers on the international relations committee, in combination with left-wing shadow immigration minister Laurie Ferguson, had forced through a resolution to be presented to conference weakening the pro-refugee position adopted overwhelmingly at the last NSW Labor conference.

Labor for Refugees campaigned vigorously against this resolution throughout the conference and John Robertson, the secretary of Unions NSW, who holds strong principles on a number of questions, indicated to all concerned that if the resolution to weaken the policy reached the floor of conference he would move an amendment to return to the more pro-refugee position adopted by the last conference.

In the face of Robertson’s intransigence on this question, the other side caved in, and in typical ALP style the offending resolution was pushed down the agenda so it wasn’t put to the conference, and the more progressive existing position prevailed.

In his low-key but commanding way, Robertson was a dominating figure at this conference. He stiffened up the unions to exert maximum pressure on Carr and the state government to oppose the federal anti-union legislation, he was the architect of the criticism of public-private partnerships and outsourcing, and his intervention on refugees was decisive.

It’s worth noting that on these three major questions at the conference a broadly leftist sentiment was almost unanimous and was cross-factional between Centre Unity, the Socialist Left and independent leftists such as myself.

Taken as a whole, it was a relatively low-key conference compared with some, but the determination and unity of purpose against the federal government’s attempts to smash the trade unions may well unleash in Australian society the slumbering forces of the labour movement, which we haven’t seen for some time.

PS. As far as I could see, there was no one from Green Left Weekly reporting the conference, which is an act of sectarianism that I find difficult to comprehend.

Urgency motions on refugees passed by the Queensland Labor Party conference

Royal Commission

That State Conference welcomes the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party’s support for a Royal Commission into aspects of the administration of Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers and refugees.

State Conference believes such a Royal Commission should have Terms of Reference sufficient to consider:

Migration Amendment (Mandatory Detention) Bill and Migration Amendment (Act of Compassion) Bill

That State Conference is encouraged by the constructive and positive proposals contained in the Migration Amendment (Mandatory Detention) Bill and Migration Amendment (Act of Compassion) Bill.

Conference notes that the key elements of the Migration Amendment (Act of Compassion) Bill include:

Conference further notes that the key elements of the Migration Amendment (Mandatory Detention) Bill include:

Conference believes these Bills represent a manifest improvement to the flawed and discredited administrative regime which presently operates, and notes that many elements contained in the Bills reflect aspects of Labor’s federal platform.

Accordingly, State Conference urges the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party to support these Bills as a step towards a better system and believes that any amendments offered by Federal Labor should only serve to advance a more compassionate and humanitarian policy.

A response to Kim Bullimore and Jon Strauss

June 16, 2005

Obviously I was not at the Queensland ALP conference. My information came from a combination of an email from one of the Labor for Refugees leaders in Queensland, sent to my friend Jenny Haines, a Labor for Refugees activist in NSW, and from reading the Brisbane Courier Mail.

My point about Green Left not having a journalist at the NSW Labor Party conference concerns a general approach to the labour movement and class struggle.

Even in quiescent times, the NSW Labor Party conference is the biggest representative gathering of the labour movement in Australia.

Firstly, for the DSP leadership to devise the idea of having a union fightback conference on the same long weekend as the Labor Party conferences in Queensland and NSW was a piece of short-sighted sectarianism dictated by their desire to boost the Socialist Alliance by attaching the Fightback event to the front end of it.

The negative feature of this sectarianism obviously is that the Fightback conference became a gathering almost entirely of Victorian unionists, because most trade union officials in NSW and Queensland would be at the state Labor conferences.

Those considerations obviously don’t matter to the DSP leadeship, as against the narrow organisational interests of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance.

Despite the deformations imposed on the old Communist Party by Moscow and high Stalinism, the old CPA and the old Trotskyists took the ALP state conferences very seriously, because of their experience of those conferences as arenas of struggle.

Tribune, the CPA newspaper, always had a journalist present all weekend, moving around the conference, getting stories and trying to get a picture of the dynamics of the event.

Incidentally, Tribune had a staff that was a little smaller than the GLW staff is now, but its coverage of Australian labour movement affairs was in-depth and thorough, although it was influenced by Stalinism.

Failure to take seriously the big state Labor conferences underlines how far the DSP is removed from the workers’ movement, and the tragedy is that it’s largely a self-imposed isolation.

In answer to Jon Strauss, no I wasn’t present at any of the trade union delegates’ meetings, but quite a few of my political friends and associates were, and took a vigorous part in those events, as you well know.