The Labor Party rules conference


Partial defeat in an important skirmish in a very long war

Bob Gould

The Australian Labor Party’s rules revision conference last Saturday and Sunday in Canberra reveals a lot about the current state of Australian politics, and deserves study because of that. Some of the events also touch on matters raised by Ben Courtice.

The conference agreed to the biggest structural change in the ALP since the federal conferences of the early 1970s, at which the party’s structure was standardised nationally. The conference took place in the context of a critical examination by the ALP of its federal election defeat last year, and followed a protracted process of national discussion.

A fair amount of pressure was whipped up by the bourgeois media attacking the trade union links of the ALP, and models of substantial Blairisation were put forward by a number of important figures in ALP politics, mainly figures associated with the leadership of the “left” faction.

Most pernicious and dangerous was a proposal that delegates to the peak body in the ALP structure, the federal conference, should be elected in a so-called rank and file postal ballot, rather than the present arrangement, which is that they are elected at state conferences composed of 60 per cent union delegates and 40 per cent branch delegates by a system of proportional representation, which allows for election of members of different factions and even small minorities.

The key Blairite proposal championed by some leaders of the left was a plebiscitary election for federal conference by individual branch members alone. A second, more moderate, proposal was to marginally reduce the 60:40 arrangement, which gave a slight preponderance to union representatives, to 50:50.

The rather lacklustre federal ALP leader, Simon Crean, formerly a key bureaucrat of the Australian Council of Trade Unions during the period of the Prices and Incomes Accord, which effectively hamstrung trade unions, had virtually staked his leadership on the 50:50 proposition. In the lead up to the rules revision conference and in the long process of reappraising the election — the review process led by former NSW Premier Neville Wran and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke — three main issues emerged:

  1. The already mentioned push, mainly from the right of a parliamentary leadership, to reduce 60:40 to 50:50.
  2. The, also already mentioned, intense Blairite push from one wing of the left for the so-called rank-and-file plebiscite for conference delegates without PR.
  3. The near-universal revolt of ALP branch and trade union activists against the mandatory detention of refugees.

During the review process, about 100 mass meetings of ALP members took place around the country. These were attended by about 10,000 members, who almost all rejected mandatory detention of refugees despite the dogged support of the parliamentary leadership for retaining the policy.

On the structural matters very few speakers at those meetings supported changing 60:40 to 50:50 and there were quite a few speakers defending 60:40. A few speakers, prompted by the Blairite wing of the left, proposed so-called rank and file postal ballots for federal conference delegates.

A couple of months ago, the national left delegates to this conference met in Canberra for a preliminary discussion. At that meeting the left union delegates from Queensland and Victoria indicated their strong opposition to the 50:50 proposal and their solidarity with the more militant group of NSW unions, located factionally in the right-wing caucus, that were vigorously defending 60:40.

This bloc of left and right unions presented a problem to the Blairite section of the left leadership, which is trying to position itself as the strongest supporter of Simon Crean, the federal parliamentary leader. This attempt of a significant cave of left parliamentary leaders to be the most slavish supporters of the parliamentary leader is an old tactic of opportunist left ALP MPs, and in the short term it has proved quite successful, because quite a few of them have been able to leapfrog quickly into the shadow ministry.

The widespread cross-factional surge against mandatory detention that gave birth to the equally cross-factional Labor for Refugees movement in all states and territories presented a rather big problem for the parliamentary leadership, and particularly the left MPs trying to curry favour with Simon Crean.

The consistent and forceful support for Labor for Refugees of John Robertson, the NSW Labor Council secretary, factionally located in the right wing of the ALP, made the predicament of the left “leaders” even worse.

Over the past nine months, all five of the eight state and territory ALP branches that have held conferences have called for the removal of mandatory detention from ALP policy. At the crucial 800-delegate NSW ALP annual conference, the heartland of the ALP right faction, rejection of mandatory detention went through unanimously on the voices, mainly because it was moved by John Robertson.

In all states a new generation of young trade union functionaries, and even some staffers of ALP politicians, have emerged as activists in the Labor for Refugees agitation. Quite a number of these have been in the orbit either of the right faction or in NSW of the two sub-factions of the left. Characteristic of these young, slightly rebellious lower rank functionaries is their universal commitment to the refugee agitation, a moral commitment that they feel strongly. The ones who don’t feel like that have not involved themselves in Labor for Refugees.

This layer partly reflects the regeneration of the trade union movement after the defeats and demoralisation of the Accord years, and includes many of the militants in Victoria and WA who have attracted the attention of the DSP and others on the far left in recent times.

These younger functionaries have obviously enjoyed the cross-factional camaraderie involved in supporting the refugee cause. They are young movers and shakers just setting out in the jungle of ALP and trade union politics, and of course they aren’t entirely free of the usual career motivations, but in my estimate the ones who have become active in the refugee cause, left or right, are the better types, and often the ones who work hardest in their jobs as trade union functionaries, organising the union members that they service and seriously trying to represent the interests of those union members. These militant young trade union functionaries in the refugee movement are the ones whose natural desire to advance in the structure are tempered by, and in balance with, some commitment to righteous causes.

In four states and territories the convenors of Labor for Refugees are talented young lower rank functionaries of this committed sort.

Well, this old rebel, who is quite ready to find fault where fault exists, can’t fault the agitation conducted by these young convenors of Labor for Refugees over the past week, in particular, in the tense build-up to the conference.

I also can’t fault the principled behaviour of John Robertson and a number of his colleagues in the militant section of the right faction of the NSW trade unions, on this issue. These pro-refugee functionaries of the right have to take into account that in their own faction, particularly its parliamentary wing, there’s a lot of opposition to the Labor for Refugees cause because of perceived electoral Realpolitik, which seems to suggest to a lot of Labor politicians that a pro-refugee policy is dangerous electorally, particularly in outer-suburban seats.

The week before the conference, and the conference itself, was a most educational process, carried out in the public and private way characteristic of the ALP. The office of Simon Crean put enormous pressure on the NSW right faction to buckle on both 60:40 and refugees, but by and large the NSW trade union right refused to cave in on either question, stiffened up somewhat by the unusual fact that the trade union wings of both factions of the NSW right, which have been divided for a year or so over a leadership conflict of interest, stood together on both issues.

On the left, the pressure on both questions was also enormous. On the refugee question the leadership of the dominant left faction in the parliamentary caucus put tremendous pressure all through the week on the young leaders of Labor for Refugees not to raise the refugee question at the conference.

The usual sorts of pressure were used on these young rebels in the lower ranks of the bureaucracy — the kind of pressure summed up in the title of the book about Hollywood: You’ll never eat in this town again.

The young Labor for Refugees leaders quite shrewdly deflected some of this pressure by relying on the support of Robertson and the NSW Labor Council, which was maintained throughout the week of tense negotiations. Because of the constitutional difficulty of getting the two-thirds majority necessary to raise the refugee issue at what had been convened only as a rules conference, the convenors of Labor for Refugees adopted a fall-back position, with Robertson’s support, of demanding that if refugees didn’t come up on the agenda at this rules conference, there should be a through, public, ALP policy discussion, with Labor for Refugees represented on the committee overseeing the discussion, and that the final refugee policy should not be announced until it had been discussed and decided on at a federal policy conference in the new year.

During the course of the week, this fall-back position was initially accepted by Crean and then rejected the next day on the urging of the Blairite left, then accepted again later in the week under pressure from the NSW trade union right, then ditched by Crean again, and then finally accepted at the Federal Executive meeting on the Friday before the conference. All factions went into the conference on the Saturday believing that the above was the broad outline of the deal that had been endorsed at the Federal Executive meeting.

ALP federal conferences are strange political animals. The delegates pour in at 9am, and ALP non-delegate observers and the media are admitted at 11am, but the conference doesn’t actually start until about 3pm because the first business, of course, is the meetings of the right, left and centre factions. In this case these meetings ran from 9am to about 3pm with a few very short coffee breaks.

The left meeting convened in a tense and bitter atmosphere. The first two hours were taken up with an embittered exchange over refugee policy. Several convenors of Labor for Refugees launched an attack on the devious behaviour of the Blairite left leaders who had tried to save Crean on the refugee question. After this protracted debate, the left caucus endorsed the policy of Labor for Refugees, including the abolition of mandatory detention.

The next business was 60:40. The Queensland and Victorian left unions fought for three hours in the caucus in defence of 60:40, led particularly by Michele O’Neil, Victorian secretary of the clothing and textile union, and Peter Tighe, federal secretary of the electrical trades union.

The very big guns of the national trade union left bureaucracy were wheeled in against them, spearheaded by Doug Cameron, the authoritarian and bureaucratic leader of the highly centralised metalworkers union, who is currently trying to purge the elected Workers First group of militant full-time officials in the Victorian branch of the metalworkers. Michele O’Neil is a close friend and ally of many of the Victorian Workers First militants, and owes a debt of gratitude to them because they have lent industrial support to the battles of her superexploited members, so her clash with Cameron had a sharp personal subtext, for all who knew the situation, and was extremely intense.

Cameron and co argued two points: the need to support the federal leader, and the dubious proposition that the reduction in union influence would assist the left in the NSW ALP, which is hard to sustain when you look at the real numerical breakdowns involved. Marginally strengthening the vote for the NSW left was a figleaf for the first and more important question to them: positioning themselves as loyalist watercarriers for the federal parliamentary leader.

In the event, the 50:50 forces carried the day in the left caucus by the narrow margin of 42 to 37. That vote was the end of the story on 60:40 versus 50:50 because the narrow 50:50 majority group in the left insisted on making the vote on that issue binding (the vote to make it binding was carried by the same 42 to 37 margin). The 60:40 left forces, being less prominent trade union figures than the big guns, didn’t feel confident enough to defy the caucus, but were left with a very bitter taste in their mouths.

The right caucus was also a complex affair. It became clear early that most of the Victorian right unions would support Crean because he comes from Victoria, and the factional leaders of the right in Victoria are his close associates.

The Queensland right unions supported the NSW right and so did, in a formal way, the powerful shop assistants’ union, which meant that the right was split roughly 60:40 on the 60:40 question, with the majority supporting 60:40. The right faction is not traditionally as authoritarian as the left faction and doesn’t have a “democratic centralist” tradition, so divisions in the right faction are more accepted and the right faction delegates were not bound.

The combination of the 40 per cent of the right delegates who were in support of Crean’s leadership and the binding left caucus vote gave Crean the necessary majority.

After the battle of the caucuses, the discussion on the conference floor, while intense, had a preordained quality. The final vote on 60:40 was a little closer than the results that were announced. I counted the vote fairly carefully from the gallery and by my estimate there were 80 in support of 60:40 and there were a few reluctant Victorian and Queensland leftists outside the conference when the vote was taken, which suggests to me the vote was something like 100 to 80, but the president, Greg Sword, announced a vote of 121 to 69 — the exact number of delegates registered for the conference. Tidying up the vote a bit to emphasise your victory is an old custom of ALP conference chairpersons.

Other aspects of the conference produced better results. The federal conference was doubled in size and the Blairite plebiscitary proposals were thrown out, so federal conference delegates are now elected in the usual way by proportional representation at 50:50 state conferences.

As there are now about 90 federal conference delegates from NSW, the quota (or number of votes a delegates needs under PR) to be elected to the federal conference will be about 15 votes, which has opened up the unexpected possibility that a few more rebels and mavericks may be elected.

The Marxist left should be seriously interested in this new layer of militant middle-rank and lower-rank trade union activists. Their emergence reflects something happening more broadly in Australian society. These days, hundreds of thousands of Australians of working class origin go through universities. These are the more talented layer of the working class. The better types among them, from a socialist point of view, often have old family connections in the labour movement, and these days many who are drawn from migrant groups gravitate to labour movement politics in the Labor left and even the Labor right, at universities.

Then, when they leave university, a small minority of students — the minority with a bit of idealism and perhaps labour movement connection — are often drawn into the less well-paid world of trade union industrial activity and politics. A much larger proportion of students go directly into the more lucarative bourgeois world of finance, the professions, etc.

Usually, these days, the transmission belt into the labour movement is through the Organising Works program of the trade unions, which has existed for about 10 years. When these types of more dedicated and less money-oriented university graduates get jobs in unions they tend to be initially reasonably careful and loyal to the elected officials of the unions they go to work for. That’s part of the deal. There are probably 1000 young trade union functionaries like this across Australia.

Rather than being an undifferentiated group of careerists, as self-interested, simple-minded far leftists often characterise them, they are a diverse and complex group of people.

Unquestionably, the pressures of the bureaucracy bear down on them, but their occupational location at the coal face of the trade union end of the class struggle constantly brings other forces to work on them as well. This is why it is pure nonsense for the ridiculously isolated far left to attempt to excommunicate this fairly large social layer in the workers movement, from the left, by a kind of verbal legerdemain, as Ben Courtice, Phil Ferguson and Jose Perez do on Marxmail.

The principled struggle conducted by a number of people of this type at the ALP federal conference demonstrates this point and I will return to it in my sociological analysis of the Australian labour movement, which is still brewing in my teapot. It goes without saying that the 40 or 50 youngish comrades of this social layer, who were involved in the battles leading up to and at the federal ALP conference, got a brutal education in the nature of bureaucracies, and the worse aspects of the political traditions of Social Democracy and Stalinism — much more powerful than the frequent lectures they get from Bob Gould or the far left, and these practical lessons and experiences will remain with a number of them for quite a long time, independently of anything that happens in the future.

These people are getting a grounding in politics that most members of left groups could never even dream about. They went head-to-head with the alternative prime minister and his supporters and they conducted an honourable and intelligent struggle. In my book the left trade unionists from Queensland and Victoria might have gone a little further and broken the caucus on 60:40, but they have to take those tactical decisions, not me. Their day-to-day political and trade union existence is much more directly affected than mine is, so I defer to their tactical decision.

Until the Marxist left pays serious attention to the practical questions in the workers movement faced by this layer in their day-to-day political and industrial lives, the far left will not win this layer’s respect, and the support and involvement of a large part of this layer will be essential for building a mass socialist movement, or any mass social movements, in this country.

Any strategic model of future political development put forward by the far left that excludes this social layer in the Labor Party and trade union continuum is a form of political mysticism.

At the start of the federal rules conference there was a very effective demonstration cum lobby of the conference outside the convention hall. It was jointly called by Canberra Refugee Action Collective and Sydney Labor for Refugees. The rally was chaired by Phil Griffiths of Canberra RAC and speakers included the Catholic bishop of Canberra-Goulburn Pat Power, the Sydney convenor of Labor for Refugees, Amanda Tattersall (who moved between the left caucus inside and the rally outside), Ian Rintoul of the Sydney RAC and myself as a member of the Sydney Labor for Refugees and a rank and file ALP member of long standing.

This rally had considerable impact on the delegates and the Labor for Refugees stall inside the foyer of the conference sold about 40 Labor for Refugees T-shirts, many of them to burly trade union delegates to the conference, and quite a few to members of the NSW right faction.

Balance sheet of the federal rules converence

The dilution of trade union influence was a setback, but it did not decisively change the character of the ALP as a mass workers’ organisation, sociologically speaking, resting heavily on the involvement of the trade unions.

The proportional representation element was preserved and the worst Blairite proposals for so-called structural reform were decisively defeated. The expansion of federal conference and the expansion of the state conferences actually allows a little more scope for future rebel groupings to stake out some territory.

The failure to Blairise the ALP structurally is a defeat for the Blairite “modernisers” and for the half-dozen mini-Blairite parliamentary Bonapartes hawking their leadership wares in the wings of the ALP to the Australian media and bourgeoisie, with their little field marshalls’ batons in their knapsacks. This structural settlement in the ALP will tend to remain the structural set-up for quite a long time. That’s the way things go in the ALP.

The moment of extreme Blairism, structurally speaking, has probably passed in the ALP. It remains a bureaucratised workers’ party, described by Lenin as a bourgeois workers party, with the additional factor being that a new, serious left is beginning to revive, located in the Labor for Refugees movement, in the left trade unions in Victoria and Queensland, and even to some extent in the industrially militant unions in NSW led by the Labor Council, and factionally located in the NSW ALP right faction.

A view from the Murdoch press

The three little votes that saved a career

By Sid Maris, The Australian, October 7

In public, Simon Crean won an overwhelming endorsement on the weekend for his push to reduce the union bloc vote in the Labor Party. But behind closed doors, it came down to three votes in one crucial ballot in one faction. And that support came from the Left, traditionally opposed to Mr Crean’s own right faction.

At the end of 10 months of internal torture, and weeks of intense negotiations, a victory for the Labor leader still was not assured on Saturday morning in Canberra … The key was not union representation itself — it was all the other changes up for grabs …

The hope emerged in the Left. Frontbencher Anthony Albanese, a factional powerbroker hardened in the bitter NSW party battlefield, maintained steady consultation between the factional negotiators and the leader’s office.

Mr Albanese already had borkered a way through the stand-off between Crean and the Labor for Refugees de facto attack man, NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson.

The NSW faction was divided. Some were operating on principle, others on a deep enmity for Mr Crean. …

So, on Saturday morning … the 85 members of the Left gathered.

National union leaders had urged colleagues to support 50:50 because of the deal between Mr Crean and Australian Council of Trade Unions leader Greg Combet to give unions a bigger role through Accord-style meetings between union bosses and ministers.

The metalworkers’ Doug Cameron, construction union boss John Sutton and Miscellaneous Workers Union chief Jeff Lawrence told their comrades it was time to accept the wins on other issues and back the leader on 50:50 for the sake of the party.

But Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union secretary Peter Tighe and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union’s Michele O’Neil argued that the Left faction was being sold “a pup”.

They had been told to accept a significant symbolic change in exchange for other parts of the package. But it was clear that important issues, such as direct election of delegates to conference, were going to be defeated. Ms O’Neil said Victorian unions were furious the compromise on refugees — an oversight committee policy to avoid embarrassing debate on the conference floor — had been agreed to without consultation.

Under Labor tradition, once the factional caucus voted and decided on a position, all were bound, but Mr Tighe said the ETU had asked to be freed from the constraint.

A vote was held and the Crean supporters won, 42 votes to 37 — all members of the Left would be bound. Three delegates had made the difference.

Crean win silences the right

Glenn Milne, The Australian, October 7

Crean’s reaction was furious. The report, he told those close to him was “a disgrace”. He sheeted home responsibility for both the tone and the detail to Robertson. The Crean camp now describes Robertson openly as “a Trot[skyist]” and a “madman”.

How else, Crean asked privately, could you explain Robertson’s consistently destructive behaviour, including his action in June 2001 leading a union blockade over workers compensation against a Labor government, which shut down state parliament.



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