Bob Gould, 2008

Keeping the rank and file in the dark
The unfolding mystery of the NSW Labor Party’s May conference venue

Source: Ozleft, April 2, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

NSW Labor Party conferences have a long history and tradition. As luck would have it, the first Labor conference I attended was the first one in the Sydney Town Hall, in 1954, and over the years I’ve been a delegate at about 25 Labor conferences and an observer at the rest.

For a very long time, with a few gaps, I’ve run a substantial labour movement bookstall in the foyer of the Town Hall during state conferences, across the aisle from Johno Johnson’s official Labor raffle and pudding stall, and from the registration desk.

In the turbulent 1950s the number of delegates to the conference got as high as 1200 or so, but with restructuring of the Labor Party in the 1970s it settled down to a standard 850 delegates, who sit in the main part of the town hall while members observe the event from the galleries, making it possible to see how your delegates are voting, which is important.

Over the years the galleries have been the scene of numerous rank and file protests, with placards being displayed at moments of conflict. For instance, in the bitter battle over electricity privatisation 10 years ago the gallery was packed with perhaps 800 Labor Party members, as well as the delegates on the floor, and the few who were going to vote for the privatisation had to do so publicly and run the political risk of being hauled over the coals by their constituents.

As a delegate to the conference in the 1950s, one year I was declared black by the chairman, Fred Campbell in a dispute over procedure, but the next year I was declared white by Charlie Oliver, who had taken over from Campbell.

Conference sometimes has a mind of its own on vexed questions, and I’ve been to quite a few of these events at which the debate has swayed the outcome, which is unusual in politics. One year in the early 1970s the dominant right-wing machine proposed to make the conference biennial, and to halve the number of delegates, and I participated as a delegate in a revolt on the conference floor against this proposal.

The turning point of that debate was when the recently deceased John Russell, who over years of political opposition between us gradually became a friend of mine (Russell and I were both kind of collectors of people, and over the years we collected each other). At that stage, as a member of the right-dominated Administrative Committee he dissented strongly from his own machine’s proposal, and being no mean orator he pointed to the delegates and said: “If this goes through, you won’t be here next year, and half of you won’t be here the year after.” That was the turning point of the debate and the proposal was defeated.

Over the years a certain amount of spontaneity has gone out of the conference as it has become more managed by the platform, but the sheer logistics and mass character of it, with the delegates being observed by the members in the gallery, still makes the conference open to something of the mood of the rank and file.

Unfortunately, that may be changed this year by obscure administrative fiat. When the conference was brought forward because of the electricity privatisation issue, information was released by the Labor Party head office that the venue had to be changed from the town hall to the Darling Harbour Convention Centre.

No reason was given for this in the circular to Labor Party members, but in conversation about the change of venue people from head office usually said it was because the Town Hall was due to be refurbished at that time. It now emerges that the town hall refurbishment story is either confusion or a bit of a furphy. The refurbishment hasn’t begun, and as far as I can tell, it won’t commence for a few months.

The logistics of the conference are becoming more obscure by the minute. A circular in the past couple of weeks from Labor head office says branch observers won’t be allowed in the conference hall, and will have to watch the event on a television feed in another location, for logistical reasons.

It’s not clear where the observers would watch the television feed. Perhaps the exhibition hall next to the main conference hall?

I’ve been on the case for a week or two, but I’m having difficulty getting a straight answer from anyone about the logistics of the conference. Will it be held in the major conference location, the Convention Centre, where the the Labor Party federal conference was held? With a bit of a push you could squeeze perhaps 1100 or 1200 people into that location, allowing room for the delegates and about 200 seats at the back for observers to look down on the event. If the logistics problems cited by head office are real, that mightn’t be too bad.

I’ve raised the question with quite a number of people who should know, or who should find out pronto, and I’m having difficulty getting a clear answer.

The alternative venues at Darling Harbour are mostly flat exhibition halls, which could easily be adjusted for a bigger number if that was required, but these venues have the great disadvantage that they’re flat and observers wouldn’t be able to see much.

Insisting on a proper location and logistics for the Labor conference isn’t Bob Gould making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s a very serious question because the privatisers would be favoured by a Labor conference strangled in such a way that the ranks of the party can’t express their views to the conference.

The Darling Harbour Convention Centre as a venue

The use of the Darling Harbour Convention Centre as a venue for a mass Labor Party state conference is highly problematic for other reasons as well.

Darling Harbour as a whole is policed by security guards and there’s a further layer of security inside the Convention Centre. The question inevitably arises whether some personalities in the Labor government, who appear to be considering defying conference if they’re defeated on electricity privatisation, may decide to try to use the three layers of security — the state police, Darling Harbour security and Convention Centre security — against rank and file Labor protesters opposing privatisation.

Almost anything is possible in this kind of clash between the views and interests of the trade unions, the labour movement, Labor Party members and tens of thousands of citizens on the one hand, and a recalcitrant Labor Party state government on the other.

All these questions about the logistics of the conference should be answered promptly, and there’s another question: what’s to prevent a majority of the Labor Party Administrative Committee, which appears at this point to be opposed to privatisation, reopening the question of transferring the conference back to the infinitely more satisfactory Town Hall location if the renovations haven’t begun by the May Day weekend, the date of the conference?

May Day

By a piece of unconscious serendipity the Labor conference will be held on the weekend of the traditional labour movement May Day celebration in Sydney.

The May Day Committee, as a matter of urgency, should consider holding May Day on the Saturday rather than the traditional Sunday, have the traditional meeting in Hyde Park a little earlier than usual, and then organise a march to wherever the Labor Party conference is being held to form a permanent demonstration outside the venue for the rest of the day.

The best intelligence I can get at this point is that the electricity privatisation debate will take place on the Saturday afternoon of the conference.