Bob Gould, 2006

On a quiet sector of a quiet front
A momentous Labor Party conference

Source: Green Left Weekly discussion list, July 17, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The courageous English communist poet John Cornford, who had been moving away from Stalinism, sent his companion Margot Heinemann a moving poem from the Spanish Civil War, which began: “On a quiet sector of a quiet front”, and a few weeks later he was killed in battle.

The NSW Labor Party conference, held over two days on the Queens Birthday long weekend, was a bit like Cornford’s poem. I’ve attended every NSW Labor Party conference, the whole 40 of them, since 1954, many times as a delegate and for many years now running a bookstall of labour movement books in the foyer of the impressive Sydney Town Hall auditorium.

This was possibly the quietest conference I have attended. Many of these events have been far more boisterous than this one, with demonstrations outside on the Town Hall steps and protests in the gallery directed at the 900 delegates on the floor of the conference. This conference was not like that, at all. It was all business. It’s the state conference before the coming state and federal elections, so there probably won’t be another one for two years.

Even at the big, turbulent conferences there are usually two events: the one on the floor, in the gallery and on the steps; and the linked event under the stage and in the caucus rooms on the other side of the corridors, where pressure is applied and deals are made.

In the relatively quiet, defensive atmosphere facing the labour movement, the overt agitation was much reduced, but the pressure and deal-making under the stage and in the caucus rooms was intense indeed, reflecting the pressure from the whole trade union movement, which is under the hammer from the Howard government and the ruling class.

Industrial relations was the burning issue at the conference by a country mile, and linked to that was the preoccupation of everyone in the labour movement with the re-election of a Labor government at state level and the election of a federal Labor government. Election of both governments is seen as necessary to defeat the Howard government’s attacks on the labour movement.

At the start of the conference Unions NSW secretary John Robertson drew a line in the sand, clearly indicating that the whole of the labour movement expected Kim Beazley to commit to the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements when a Labor government is elected. AWAs, so-called, are clearly the preferred ruling class mechanism for rewarding its very privileged servants, such as chief executives and other senior managers, and using ruthless government power to drive down the wages and conditions of most of the rest of society.

When Beazley addressed the conference, he vigorously adopted the trade union position on AWAs. In a remarkable speech, some of which may well have been written by Bob Ellis (it was full of elegant and effective Ellisisms) Beazley pledged his future Labor government to the abolition of AWAs. This declaration electrified the conference and Beazley received a standing ovation.

Subsequently this pledge, which comes down sharply on the side of the working class and the trade unions and a necessary collective bargaining process, has infuriated the whole of the ruling class. Both stables in the print media, the ultra-reactionary News Limited and the ostensibly liberal Fairfax chain, are beside themselves with fury.

Labor leaders are not supposed, according to the rules laid down by the ruling class, to display this kind of ticker in defence of the interests of the base of the labour movement.

On the second day of the conference, the Sunday afternoon, the report of the industrial committee, which always rivets the attention of the conference, prompted several hours of enthusiastic and often militiant debate and discussion that went well over time. There were 26 amendments, most of which were accepted.

This discussion was interrupted by the lights going down in the auditorium to show the new series of ACTU advertisements against Howard’s industrial proposals, which feature individual workers who’ve been disadvantaged by the changes. These ads are very effective, and were greeted by great applause from the conference.

As Michael Berrell, who I don’t always agree with, said on the Green Left list, both federal and state elections will clearly be fought on industrial relations, and the basis has been laid for a substantial mobilisation of Labor, the trade unions and the Greens.

Iemma’s speech: the unions and the Iemma government

NSW Premier Morris Iemma’s speech to conference was workmanlike. He announced a number of economic initiatives, spoke at length attacking the federal government’s workplace changes, and proudly asserted the state government’s role in appealing against the Howard industrial laws in the High Court and passing legislation to protect state employees from the federal legislation.

The response of the delegates was enthusiastic, but several trade union delegates strongly challenged the Iemma government over disputes their unions were having with government bodies, and matters such as so-called public-private partnerships.

Fairly typical was the speech of Nick Lewocki, the moderate but industrially conscientious secretary of the public transport union. His union is in ongoing conflict with Railcorp and the State Transit Authority, and has been involved in industrial action in the past few weeks.

It’s quite clear that the unions want the Iemma government re-elected for broad political reasons, but they are unlikely to modify their increasing conflict with the state government on major industrial questions.

Therein lies the contradiction embodied in state Labor governments adopting fiscal policies that conflict with union interests. By and large, however, the unions are willing to give Iemma a go and they hope that the Iemma government will adopt less pro-business economic and industrial practices and in due course the unions may use their industrial muscle to achieve this.

The Greens and industrial relations

Pressure from the Greens on social justice and environmental questions is now an important factor in NSW politics, as the Greens have proved capable of mounting serious electoral challenges in some inner-city seats. This pressure now extends to industrial relations, as the conflict over the Howard industrial laws and the beginnings of revival in the labour movement have begun to affect the Greens.

The national organisation of the Greens has been a bit divided about industrial relations. No one in the Greens supports Howard’s laws, but more conservative Greens in some states regard industrial relations as a Labor issue.

The serious left wing in the Greens, spearheaded by the NSW and WA branches, have taken up industrial relations with enthusiasm, however.

The NSW Greens industrial committee a week or so ago had a very successful forum on industrial relations addressed by about eight union leaders and a number of Greens. It was attended by about 100 people. Veteran unionist and environmentalist Jack Mundey and Greens MP Lee Rhianon made rousing speeches in favour of a careful and deliberate electoral united front in the coming elections between all progressive parties, including the Greens and the Labor Party. At the end of the meeting this was embodied in a resolution carried almost unanimously, with a couple of dissenters.

Other issues at the Labor conference

At the Labor Party conference, other issues of importance included a left proposal for the state government to legislate for basic democratic rights. This is a particularly important proposal in the current climate of hysteria about terrorism. It was strongly opposed by state government minister John Della Bosca and others in the NSW government, but was supported by a substantial section of the unions associated with the right, as well as the left, and was carried by the conference.

Despite Norm Dixon’s recent dopey post on the Green Left list about the proposal being a Clayton’s bill of rights, it’s an important proposal. If passed by the NSW parliament it could have more legal weight than any constitution. Obviously it will take a big struggle to get the NSW Labor government to do anything about this, but Dixon’s throwaway remarks underline how far removed the leaders of some socialist sects are from the real political world.

Another important issue was the continuing battle over refugee policy. The federal shadow minister for immigration, Tony Burke, has been taking a good stand on many aspects of the refugee question. For example, he has pledged that Labor will end the Pacific solution and temporary protection visas.

A curious position developed in the run up to conference in discussions within Labor for Refugees. A left sub-faction that has a slight majority in the left as a whole was blowing smoke, asserting that there was strong pressure from the right to modify the position adopted in 2002 by the NSW conference, which was well to the left of federal Labor policy on refugees. In the event, an arrangement was negotiated by Burke with the left leadership that he would support the left’s resolutions on Iraq and West Papua if the left would support his review of TPVs and bridging visa arrangements.

Labor for Refugees was asked by Burke to draft an amendment to the international policy committee report. Complexity developed when the proposed amendment appeared ambiguous as to whether the 2002 position would stand as NSW policy while the review was taking place, or would be replaced by the recommendation put to conference by the Labor foreign affairs committee, which was to the right of the 2002 position. The ambiguity remained in the proposed amendment much too long for the liking of a close friend of mine who is an activist in Labor for Refugees.

To resolve the problem my friend approached a senior person on the right who has a civilised position on refugees, and he said he hadn’t heard about the matter and he would negotiate with Tony Burke. After some discussion, Burke proved amenable to the 2002 policy remaining in place while the review was conducted.

The amendment was eventually rewritten in that spirit. During this process there was a lot of tick-tacking on mobile phones by the left leadership, and it would be interesting to know from which politicians’ offices the pressure on the left leadership was coming. The left leadership is well known to be rather close to Kim Beazley’s office.

If this account of the events is unduly complicated I apologise, but the circumstances were complex and deserve to be described. Tony Burke himself, while obviously an ambitious young politician of the Catholic right, who holds positions on questions such as abortion, that few socialists would agree with, is nevertheless very humane on the question of refugees.

He has proved open to argument and proposals from Labor for Refugees. He’s clearly a bloke in whom natural political ambition is tempered by humanity and conscience and he’s the right bloke for the job he has in the current climate. He serves up opposition to the xenophobes of the Howard government in a calm and deliberate way and his public persona on these questions is very effective.

The conference carried unanimously a proposition by Meredith Burgman emphasising the rights of the people of West Papua. The resolution on Iraq, however, was weaker and embodied the rather ambiguous and cumbersome proposition for immediate phased withdrawal of Australian troops.

Another interesting development that was apparent at the conference was a certain evolution of the right-wing majority in Young Labor in its overall political outlook. For many years the newspapers produced for conference by the right majority in Young Labor have been dominated by crude factionalism and anti-leftism. This all vanished from the newspaper produced by the Young Labor right for this conference, which was again all business, devoted mainly to the campaign against the Howard industrial laws.

The left in Young Labor, which is a significant force, is based largely in the inner-city, while the right is more outer-suburban and ethnically diverse. The two factions seemed to coexist in a slightly more civilised way than in the past, and it seems there has been a certain evolution in the Young Labor right, which is a good reason not to treat them as an undifferentiated reactionary mass, as the far left outside the Labor Party tends to do.

This development on the right of Young Labor was first apparent on May Day, when 50 or 60 marched for the first time, making them the biggest political contingent, with vigorous slogans against Howard’s industrial laws.

Working on the bookstall

Sound and video from the conference floor is piped into the foyer, so it’s possible to work on the bookstall and follow the proceedings. For many years my bookstall has been in the left-hand corner of the foyer going in, with Johnno Johnson’s official ALP stall selling a few books and his famous ALP puddings to the left and the credentialling counter to the right.

As always, my bookstall is a networking focus at the conference, the other main networking place being Johnno Johnson’s tea and pie stall up the corridor. I brought 30 copies of Mark Latham’s diary to the conference and explained why in a short review in the book list that I always put on the seats during the first lunch break, and it sold well.

The best-selling books were two major recently published titles on the Labor Party split in the 1950s and John Edwards’s book about the Curtin government, Curtin’s Gift.

An important book on Aboriginal affairs, The Way We Civilise, by Rosalind Kidd, sold very well, as did Tariq Ali’s book, Speaking of Empire and Resistance. A new book from Ocean Press, Victor Serge’s study of the archives of the Russian Okhrana, called What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression, proved surprisingly popular.

Another point of interest was that a number of the histories of particular unions were more popular this year, for obvious reasons. These were mainly bought by the middle, hard-working layer of trade union officials, a number of whom were pretty anxious to talk about the problems of organisation and agitation that they face in the new industrial conditions.

It appears to me that a certain differentiation is taking place among people who work for unions. Many of the young extreme go-getters who thought that a union job was an easy path to a political career seem to have disappeared, either to the big end of town or into staff jobs with politicians. The union officials who remain, some young and quite a few older, are the more conscientious and serious trade unionists, and this seems to be the case irrespective of whether they’re part of the left or the right.

The buildup of pressure from this middle layer of union officials seems to be a factor in Beazley’s more assertive stance on workplace agreements.

These circumstances are a fair distance from the rather simplistic model of the labour movement that sits uneasily in the minds of most of the far left, whose interest in trade union matters is rather episodic.

The far left and the Labor Party

The striking thing about this conference is that the far left pretty well wasn’t there. In most past periods, revolutionary socialists such as myself, Issy Wyner, Nick Origlass, Jack Sponberg, George Petersen and a number of others were well-entrenched at Labor conferences, intervening on major questions.

The Stalinists, who had a very serious implantation in the labour movement, always took the Labor Party state conference very seriously and had considerable influence on the Labor official left. The Communist Party newspaper, Tribune, always had journalists at the conference reporting it in detail.

These days, the much reduced far left makes almost a fetish of ignoring the Labor Party conference, even a rather momentous one, such as this. Green Left Weekly wasn’t anywhere to be seen. In the week since the conference, the GLW website, which is always quick to pick on any negative features of the Labor Party, hasn’t said a word about the political upheaval that started at the conference and has continued all week in the media about Beazley’s pledge to abolish individual workplace contracts.

One small indicator of the state of play in the workers’ movement is always the review committee report on admissions to membership of the Labor Party. The ALP rules provide that people who have previously been members of other electoral parties must declare that on applying to join the Labor Party.

Few or none of these applications are rejected, but it’s a ritual that provides an interesting overview of who is moving where politically. For many years the people joining the Labor Party with previous allegiances were mostly from the Communist Party and the Australian Democrats. Over the past eight years or so there has been a steady trickle of people from the DSP, the ISO and the Greens.

This year there were a number from the Greens and the first crop of people who stated their previous allegiance as the Socialist Alliance. The old CPA, used to, after a period of initial irritation, try to influence people who had left its ranks to join the Labor Party. That’s not the case with the DSP, whose constant anti-Labor rhetoric precludes influencing former members who join the Labor Party, or for that matter the Greens.

To sum up the current political situation in the labour movement. A rapid radicalisation of a rather defensive sort is taking place in difficult objective conditions. It is expressing itself through a rapid development of a more determined stance on basic industrial questions in the Labor Party, the trade unions and the Greens, despite the resistance of conservative forces in all those environments.

Driven by the objective interests of the left part of society and the working class, political developments such as Beazley’s stand on workplace agreements are a product of the pressure from the middle layers of trade union activists, including a very large number of union officials, the general viewpoint of whom is reasonably summarised by John Robertson, the leader of Unions NSW.

These developments aren’t exactly spontaneous, but the pressure for them is coming more or less spontaneously from the active people in the labour movement, and the far left is marginal in this. The viewpoint of the middle layers of activists in the labour movement can be summarised as cautious support for mass mobilisations and industrial action, stubborn determination that the unions and the state governments should take the necessary legal action in the High Court, and a set of demands on the political leadership of the Labor Party that they do the right thing in government, which is the precondition for energetic support of Labor in the elections.

The guarantees on the actions of Labor in government have now been met, so now it’s all systems go for varied mobilisations, including ACTU advertisements, periodic industrial mobilisations and a vigorous election campaign. That’s not a bad perspective in current conditions.

Unfortunately, most of the far left is preoccupied with a fantasy about replacing Labor and the Greens electorally, and a bit removed from the general labour movement perspective, to say the least. (Steve Jolly’s Melbourne-based Socialist Party, which is usually quite sane, has chosen this moment for a rather sweeping attack on Laborism as propaganda for its proposed new electoral party. Its modest newspaper, which isn’t too bad in some respects, lobbed in my letterbox yesterday, and one of the central pieces of its attack on Laborism, to persuade the masses to support the Socialist Party’s new party proposal, is an assertion that Labor won’t abolish individual workplace agreements.

Politics sometimes moves much too fast for people with abstractions, schemas and fantasies in their heads. The way the battlelines in Australia are drawn up in general politics is well summarised from the point of view of his industrial and political masters by Matt Price in the June 17 edition of The Australian in the Inquirer section, headed “Do or die for Labor’s union connections”.