Federal Labor Party conference lurches unevenly leftward

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The great shambling ALP elephant lurched unevenly, but quite definitely, to the left at the first expanded ALP federal conference, at the Sydney Convention Centre.

Bob Gould

The decisions of the 2004 ALP federal conference were uneven, and even a bit contradictory. But taken as a whole, they embodied a significant shift leftwards from the policies advanced in the last Federal Election. Indeed, the industrial policy adopted, pushed by the trade unions, acquiesced in by the leadership, and passed unanimously, is probably the most leftist industrial policy for more than 10 years.

Various other reform commitments for the next federal Labor government, such as Latham’s dental plan were all carried unanimously. The ALP parliamentary party’s opposition to the Iraq war was endorsed, although there was no clear commitment to withdraw all Australian troops.

On Palestine, a rather contradictory compromise was reached between the pro-Zionist MHR Michael Danby and the pro-Palestinian MHR Anthony Albanese. This compromise opposed the apartheid wall, imposed by the Israelis on the Palestinians, and condemned suicide bombing.

The most significant defeat for left sentiment at the conference was the endorsement of the parliamentary leadership’s position on refugees and border protection, so-called. A very vigorous campaign was conducted in the run-up to the conference by the Labor for Refugees organisation in most states.

Labor for Refugees campaigning at the conference was constant and energetic, with a stall outside, and several hundred people wearing Labor for Refugees T-shirts. The gallery, the area for Labor Party members to observe the conference, was overwhelmingly packed with pro-refugee people during the debate.

The chairperson had to constantly call for order in the gallery. Moving and powerful speeches in support of a radical change to refugee policy were delivered by Carmen Lawrence, Matt Collins, young union official and convenor of Labor for Refugees in Queensland, Barry Jones, a past ALP president and current vice-president, and Sally McManus, the NSW joint secretary of the Australian Services Union.

On the other side, particularly demagogic speeches were made by Premier Carr from NSW and Premier Gallup from Western Australia. The speeches by Stephen Smith and by Mark Latham, the leader, were more measured. The policy put forward by the parliamentary leadership represented a very modest advance over the benighted policy defended by the ALP in the last federal elections, but it did not go nearly far enough in the direction of the civilised refugee policy advocated by Labor for Refugees.

In the right caucus, John Robertson argued strenuously for the Labor for Refugees position, but he was outvoted there, and he and a number of others were forced to proxy their delegates’ rights to others who supported the majority right position. More than 40 of the 260 right and centre delegates who wished to vote for the Labor for Refugees position were proxied out of their delegations.

For the first time in living memory the leadership of the official left was forced by rank and file pressure to take the lead in the left behaving like a real left. On the motion of Anthony Albanese, the left caucus decided to campaign for the full Labor for Refugees position, and to bind the left delegates.

A few left delegates who wished to support the leadership were proxied out, and Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin broke the caucus and voted with the parliamentary leadership, but otherwise the left vote held solid and delivered 167 votes to the Labor for Refugees motions and amendments. The general sentiment among the Labor for Refugees activists, who are still a vigorous and determined force across all factions in the ALP, and in all states and territories, is that the struggle on refugee policy continues.

Relatively leftist policies were adopted in a number of areas. For instance, discussion of policy on indigenous affairs was dominated by indigenous delegates, of whom there were a significant number, including federal vice-president Warren Mundine, Marion Scrymgour, the first indigenous minister in the Northern Territory government and Linda Birney, the newly elected Labor MLA for Canterbury, NSW.

Just about everything that the indigenous delegates argued for was adopted as policy, and Mark Latham has committed an incoming Labor government to the symbolic, but extremely necessary, apology to indigenous people for the past crimes of the British in their imperialist outpost, Australia.

On trade policy, the capable, persuasive and determined Michelle O’Neill, Victorian secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (who spoke a number of times at the conference), achieved quite a coup. She avoided too much discussion of it at the left caucus, at which it was said that Kim Carr opposed her amendment, but on the floor of the conference she insisted, to Kim Carr’s obvious displeasure, in putting an amendment that tariff reductions in the textile and clothing area be frozen for the indefinite future.

Michelle O’Neill’s amendment was comfortably carried by the conference, despite opposition from some front-benchers. In the comparative jungle of ALP trade union politics, Michelle O’Neill seems to me to be a fairly principled and rather ingenious agitator.

Industrial relations

The most significant aspect of the shift to the left at this conference was on industrial relations policy.

The rather stony-faced shadow minister, Craig Emerson, quite stoically put forward for endorsement as ALP policy for the next federal election pretty well the full package of demands of the trade union movement.

In particular he committed an incoming Labor government to the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements and individual contracts, and the abolition of the Office of the Employment Advocate. The position adopted amounts to the abolition of all the industrial relations arrangements in the first two waves of the Howard government’s attacks on the unions, and stiff opposition to the third wave.

Conference carried proposals for a dramatic increase in full-time, rather than part-time employment arrangements. It unanimously carried a motion by John Sutton of the federal office of the CFMEU, and seconded by Bill Shorten, the national secretary of the AWU, condemning the Cole royal commission into the building industry.

Shorten observed that for a couple of days before the eruption at Vesuvius the birds stopped singing and fled, which was later taken by the Romans as an augury. He said the AWU and CFMEU jointly moving this motion could be taken as a similar augury for the coming federal election.

The motion rejects outright the findings of the anti-union Cole royal commission and the Howard government’s proposals flowing from that inquiry. In the same vein, during the same debate, and with a similar augury quality, Andrew Ferguson, of the NSW CFMEU, moved, and Martin Kingham, of the Victorian CFMEU, seconded (these two have in relatively recent times been in sharp conflict) a motion demanding industrial manslaughter legislation in the commonwealth, states and territories, modelled on the ACT legislation. This motion was passed unanimously. Conference adopted militant positions on a number of other industrial relations questions.

Taken as a whole, despite the defeat of the left on refugee policy the conference represented a fairly sharp shift to the left in the run up to the federal election. This leftward shift is basically driven by a substantial new mood in the trade unions across the country and across the factions, and by a mood of rebellion among the rank and file of the ALP on the refugee issue.

Green Left‘s ignorant, sectarian and deeply ill-informed coverage of the conference

I’ve just seen today’s Green Left Weekly on the website. Its coverage of the ALP federal conference is deliberately insulting to the several thousand progressive and left-leaning ALP members who passed through the conference.

It’s also eccentric in its extraordinary lack of information about the conference. Even the World Socialist Web Site, which will no doubt put a similar spin on the conference to Green Left, had the good sense to send two people, that I encountered, to report on the conference.

As far as I could see, Green Left didn’t bother to send anyone to report on most of the conference, or perhaps any of it. Certainly the reports in this week’s Green Left seem to be entirely recycled pickings from the bourgeois press, or loud-mouthed interviews with themselves.

I’ve become used to the deeply sectarian animosity of the leadership of the DSP towards everyone who holds a Labor Party ticket, but this week’s coverage of the Labor federal conference verges on the surreal. Little notice is taken of the decisions on industrial policy, indigenous policy, the Middle-East, or Michelle O’Neill’s motion on tariffs.

A large part of Green Left‘s coverage is taken up with a leaflet said to have been given out by the Socialist Alliance (which I never saw, although I was there at the start of most sessions systematically distributing my labour movement book list and Ozleft flyer, and all my close associates were working on the Labor for Refugees stall. I still haven’t actually found anyone who actually saw this leaflet).

Maybe the Socialist Alliance leaflet was handed out at the business dinner they picketed, which I didn’t bother to attend. Anyway, this leaflet places a number of demands on the ALP couched in a way that’s very insulting to ALP members (with a very demagogic united-front-from-below tone). The eccentric thing is that quite a few of the demands in the Socialist Alliance leaflet, or something very like them, were actually adopted by the conference, particularly the demands on industrial relations, a fact that Green Left doesn’t even seem to have noticed, in its belligerent hostility to Laborites, and its general anti-Laborism. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

I spent most of the weekend either attending conference sessions or giving out my catalogues and Ozleft leaflets outside, and my closest associates spent most of their weekend participating in the Labor for Refugees agitation inside and outside the conference. I’ll post another report on the flavour and sociology of the conference, probably tomorrow.


My crime of political longevity

February 4, 2004, Marxmail

Peter Boyle, in his usual apolitical, philistine way has me “hanging around the entrance, handing out flyers for his [my] bookshop!” What a philistine. What I was handing out was a well presented list of labour movement history, Marxist and socialist books including, as circumstance would have it, a number of the useful books on Marxist theory produced by Resistance and the DSP.

It seems that the DSP are happy enough to sell the books, but a bit resentful when I seek out an audience who might actually read them.

My eclectic and diverse labour movement and socialist booklist, which has grown over the years is, in its own way, a very definite political statement and is recognised as such throughout the labour movement.

As a matter of fact I gave away about 1300 copies of it to a fairly receptive audience. Quite a diverse range of people who came to the federal conference, particularly from interstate, have come into the shop to acquire particular items, and through the process I’ve got to know some left wingers I didn’t know before.

In addition to that I gave away about 800 copies of our flyer for Ozleft, and hits on the site have gone up sharply for a few days, which always happens after we give out flyers at big events on the left.

Giving out both leaflets was a useful talking point for me, as it always is.

I was a bit amused at the rather humorless but obvious resentment of several of Boyle’s associates, during the brief period I saw them picketing the conference, at the easy familiarity of a lot of the delegates with me arising from the fact that I’ve been talking to many of them for many years over many different questions.

My division of labour with other associates of mine who were working on the Labor for Refugees stall was clear for all to see. I’ve been active in Labor for Refugees since day one, and I made my views known in all the meetings running up to the conference.

Now that I’ve drawn the DSP leadership’s attention to it, Boyle is forced to recognise the biased and inadequate nature of their reporting of the conference, but he ascribes it, falsely in my view, to accidental factors. The question he, of course, has to answer is the one I’ve asked in both my major posts. Did the sweeping radical propositions carried in the industrial relations debate, and on a number of other questions, represent a significant shift to the left in the ALP?

Does it also represent a change in mood and more assertiveness within the trade union movement? If the answer is yes to both of those questions, the subsequent question is, whether there is a mood of expectation and hope associated with this shift to the left, that the ALP under Latham’s leadership may be able to defeat Howard in the coming federal elections, with the possibility of the Greens having the balance of power in the Senate.

If the answer to that question is also yes, isn’t an adjustment in the tactics of the DSP leadership towards the mainstream labour movement necessary? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to mesh in with the aspirations of pretty well the whole of the workers movement, in a less sectarian way, while of course independently raising all of the militant demands that socialists ought to raise?

A political analysis is required of what is involved in the shift at the ALP federal conference, and the current enthusiasm for Latham’s leadership of Labor on the left of society.

This should be an analysis in the name of the DSP leadership, and should not shelter behind tendentiously framed pseudo-interviews with trade unionists, although of course whatever the DSP can rustle up to support them in such interviews could be taken into account in such an analysis.

The middle-aged, socialist sectarian Phil Ferguson (pompously nailed to his own wall, as he is, by his sectarian schemas) is a different proposition. It is quite clear to me from many past postings by Phil that he is in favour of his “Bolshevik” formation running in a few seats in elections, but otherwise voting informal, because of course all other parties are capitalist (if I’ve got that wrong, he can correct me).

He also appears dubious as to whether modern trade union structures, in their weakened and bureaucratic state, are of much value (from this point of view, it is obviously of dubious importance to Phil that the ALP federal conference endorsed the demands of the trade unions).

It might be useful for us if Phil would elaborate in more detail his views about the current tasks of socialists in relation to trade unionism, to give us some idea from what standpoint he judges developments at the ALP federal conference.

Ferguson, for purposes of argument, outlines a groundhog day scenario about the attitude of myself, and for that matter most left-wing trade unionists, towards Laborism.

He can develop that caricature as far as he likes, but the issue for serious Marxists is to get an audience among the working class and progressive middle class. Lenin and the Bolsheviks spelled out the general tactic of the united front as the way to get that audience, and in my view, that approach is still valid.

Ferguson’s views replicate those of Pannekoek and Gorter, not the views of Lenin, on the united front with Social Democracy, although he likes to throw in a reference to Lenin to confuse things occasionally.

Ferguson likes to associate himself with the DSP leadership from time to time, latching on to their ultraleftism towards Labor, but the DSP leadership isn’t t quite as loopy as Phil Ferguson. They at least, through gritted teeth, finally call for a preference vote for Labor against the Tories.

Phil, however, clearly advocates an informal vote if the small group of people he recognises as socialists aren’t standing. He ought to come clean about his electoral tactics, rather than sniping at me, in an eccentric way, for the apparent crime of relative political longevity.


You can drag the DSP leadership horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

February 11, 2004, Marxmail

About a week ago, I drew the attention of readers of the Green Left and Marxmail lists, rather sharply, to the one-sided, sectarian, defeatist and ill-informed coverage of the ALP federal conference in that week’s Green Left Weekly.

Peter Boyle blustered a bit, that the inadequacy of the coverage was more-or-less accidental, and that all the issues would be taken up in the next issue. Well, a little more was addressed, but a lot was still ignored in this week’s Green Left.

It’s incomprehensible to me why a socialist newspaper would not, even in its second issue, address, for instance, indigenous policy adopted at the ALP federal conference. This was the first time at a Labor Party federal conference that the discussion of indigenous policy was totally dominated by indigenous delegates. These delegates included the first indigenous minister of the Northern Territory government and the first indigenous member of the NSW Legislative Assembly.

Green Left is unable to deal with this phenomenon because it underlines the social reality in Australia, that the half-million indigenous Australians — the most oppressed social group in Australian society — are totally embedded in the Labor side of politics, which is one of the things that gives the Labor-Green political expression of the left side of Australian society its plebian character.

For a socialist newspaper to not even mention this aspect of the ALP federal conference underlines clearly the impossibilist sectarianism of the Green Left editorial board.

This week’s Green Left is forced, at least, to address in some way the industrial relations decisions at the conference. It can hardly avoid doing that, due to the circumstance that the main leaders in the left unions group (to which Green Left orients, in a literary way) were high-profile participants in the industrial relations discussions at the conference.

The way, however, the question is addressed in the article by Sue Bolton speaks volumes about Green Left and the DSP leadership. The article is a classic of angled journalism, of the sort that David Marr often dissects on Media Watch.

Sue Bolton’s preconceived animosity to political work in the ALP totally permeates the article. It’s presented to read like an interview, but you’re never told what the interviewer’s questions were, and then Sue Bolton edits and angles the answers to suit her bias.

She also selects the sequence of responses to strengthen the DSP’s model lesson that activity in the ALP is futile and all socialists should leave that mass party.

This is a rather tall order because the core material she has to deal with, her interviews with Michelle O’Neil of the Victorian TCF union and Martin Kingham of the Victorian CFMEU, clearly demonstrate the validity of another point of view: that some socialists being energetically active in the ALP is from time to time extremely useful to the cause and interests of the working class.

Sue Bolton’s article is relentlessly tendentious from the first word to the last full stop. Instead of celebrating the shift to the left represented by the conference decisions on industrial relations, she poses a question: how much has Labor industrial relations policy changed? She then answers her own question, in a way which is tendentious in the extreme.

She says there “are a wide range of responses among unionists to the question”.
Bolton then proceeds, mainly, to interview Michelle O’Neil and Martin Kingham, who were key participants from the principled left at the conference. At least she gives, in some detail, their balance sheet on the industrial relations decisions at the conference.

A reasonable summary of their view is that the decisions had some inadequacies, but as Martin Kingham put it: they were the best decisions by an ALP conference on industrial relations policies in the past 10 years.

Both Kingham and O’Neil are reported as asserting that the decisions of the federal conference were much better than those of the recent Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) conference. (The circumstances of this aren’t explained in the article. It might have been useful for Sue Bolton to explain those circumstances, which are probably known to her, and certainly are known to me. At the ACTU conference, the move against Australian Workplace Agreements by O’Neil, Kingham and other militants was blocked by the opposition of the leadership of the Australian Education Union and the AMFSU. The important feature of the change between the ACTU and ALP conferences is clearly the role of the role of the agitation conducted by O’Neil, Kingham and other militants, both in the unions and the ALP.

Clearly O’Neil, Kingham and others have been conducting an exemplary campaign on these questions, part of which is their work in the ALP. It doesn’t suit Bolton to recognise this because these facts don’t fit her rock-hard sectarian schema that activity in the ALP is a waste of time.)

Something that amazes me is the failure to show any serious recognition or understanding of the importance of the complex agitational role played by O’Neil, Kingham and some other militant trade union delegates in the debate at the ALP conference, and obviously in the battles in ALP trade union circles leading up to the conference.

James P. Cannon liked to classify himself as an agitator, and he showed enormous respect and admiration for figures he regarded as agitators in the US labour movement, such as Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the US Socialist Party, and Vincent St John, the leader of the IWW.

At this federal ALP conference, anyone with half an eye to see could actually witness two principled and talented agitators, O’Neil and Kingham, using every bit of their skill to achieve the best outcome possible on policy.

Michelle O’Neil points out in Green Left that motions carried at ALP conference are only one part of an agitation, because they can be ignored by Labor in government, and it is now important to be vigilant to ensure that the resolutions on industrial relations are carried out by a potential Latham Labor government.

She spells out a clear perspective of continuing the struggle to have the conference decisions carried out by Labor in government, state and federal.

It was very instructive to observe Martin Kingham, who is obviously used to speaking authoritatively to workers’ mass meetings and to smaller gatherings of leftists, on the floor of the conference: feeling his way, tentatively, but extremely determinedly, facing down all the conservative forces in dark suits, arrayed in front of him, and effectively forcing them to vote unanimously for a range of progressive industrial proposals.

These delegates, who in due course dutifully voted for the new industrial relations policy, included seven state premiers and chief ministers, the ALP leader Mark Latham and his deputies, and the whole of the shadow cabinet.

Sue Bolton quotes Martin Kingham as saying he’s only in the Labor Party because he has to be, but she doesn’t tell us what questions she asked to squeeze out this statement.

Leaving aside the veiled question of context, which would only become clear if Sue Bolton published the notes of her questions to Kingham, she should examine carefully what Kingham is saying here, and what he might mean, based on his actual practice.

Does Bolton think Kingham is some kind of weak individual who’s just in the ALP because of a personal adaptation to some kind of social pressure? This is the same Martin Kingham who has just spent nearly a week at an ALP conference, and weeks leading up to it, agitating effectively for a leftist outcome on industrial policy.

Clearly, another way of putting what Kingham has said is that Kingham has to be in the ALP because it’s a major sphere of agitation in the interests of the members he represents. Why else would he be there, and what else could he possibly mean?

Sue Bolton brings her article to an end by rounding up a couple of members of the Socialist Alliance to say things that indicate being in the ALP is a waste of time, which is a kind of implicit attack on O’Neil and Kingham for wasting their time in Labor Party.

The whole of Sue Bolton’s article is a deliberate attempt to obscure the very clear reality that the industrial decisions at the ALP federal conference marked an important shift to the left. The next step in the political process is obviously a vigorous united campaign to throw out the Howard government and elect a Labor-Green majority in the house of representatives and the senate.

The fact that the progressive motions on industrial policy were carried unanimously at the Labor federal conference lays the basis for further united-front agitation directed at the incoming Labor-Green majority government, led by Latham, demanding that this government implement the industrial relations decisions of conference, and possibly improve on them.

This kind of approach is increasingly difficult for the DSP leadership to adopt. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, they are implacably wedded to the view that nothing good can possibly come from the ALP, and that essential differences between Labor and the Liberals are non-existent.

The shift to the left on industrial policy at the ALP federal conference, which was partly achieved by the vigorous and effective intervention of individual socialist trade union leaders like Kingham and O’Neill, is one of many indicators that this strategic orientation of the DSP leadership in the labour movement is bankrupt.

Happily, despite the fact that I spend a certain amount of time and effort arguing with them, the DSP leadership is something of a sideshow in these matters. What’s much more important for the development of the mass movement is the clear-headed, intelligent and courageous agitational role of O’Neil, Kingham and some others like them, who don’t artificially confine their activities to the trade unions, but also agitate in the ALP.

They do so because the interests of their members require, as Martin Kingham put it, when pressed by Sue Bolton, that they have to be in the ALP.

Discussion (Green Left), Discussion (Green Left), Discussion (Marxmail)See also:

The texture and sociology of the federal Labor conference

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