The texture and sociology of the Labor conference


Bob Gould

Doubling the size of the ALP federal conference, and holding it in Sydney, has brought to the forefront a number of the features of the Labor Party as a contradictory, mass, popular organisation, with both a working class aspect and a conservative, bureaucratic, pro-business aspect.

In the past the Labor Party could be broadly divided into left and right, but the modern reality of the great, shambling Labor elephant is more complex.

I spent pretty well the whole of the three days of the conference either outside at the start and end of sessions giving out my labour movement book list and our Ozleft flyer, inside listening to the sessions, or in the foyer networking and talking.I attended a number of the fringe events and my close associates spent a lot of time on the Labor for Refugees stall and in Labor for Refugees agitation, and the rest of their time in the conference.

My old sparring partner cum political comrade over many years, Hall Greenland, was there, writing a conference diary in his capacity as a Bulletin journalist. A couple of times we had lunch together during the breaks and compared notes on the contradictory developments in the ALP that we’d both observed and participated in over the years.

Hall seemed mightily amused by my observation, based on my conference leafleting experiences, that the great, shambling, old ALP beast was both reviving fast and was no longer two parties, as it once was, but perhaps four.

  • The first was the party of the ordinary ALP rank and file, two or three thousand, mainly from Sydney, who passed through over the three days. These people were older, although they included some youth. They tended to take my leaflets, a lot of them knew me vaguely, and they were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Labor for Refugees agitation. A significant chunk of them were proletarians or retired proletarians.
  • A second subgroup consisted of the more middle-class Labor Party members, the survivors of various levies into the ALP going back so far as the 1975 Whitlam levy, or even the Vietnam levy. These more middle-class Laborites were also overwhelmingly supportive of Labor for Refugees, vaguely on the left, a lot also knew me, and they tended to take the leaflets.
  • The third recognisable group was from the world of the trade unions. These days, with the big amalgamations, the union community is a bit more compact than it used to be. Some union bureaucrats wear suits, but a surprising number, even of the top bureaucrats, wear open-necked shirts with the union’s logo, as do a number of union delegates who are associated with the different union machines and bureaucracies, but who aren’t full-time officials. These, often rather compact, union clans are drawn from all over the country, some are on the left and a few on the right. At Labor Party federal conference level, the union delegations are dominated by the senior officials, but nevertheless they have considerable contact with their union constituency, and are reasonably responsive to movements in society. A lot of the union delegates took my leaflets, probably the majority, although some, mainly from interstate, refused. Many of the union delegations, although not all, were sympathetic to Labor for Refugees.
  • The fourth ALP world at the federal Conference consisted of the men (and women) in black: the universe of current and aspiring Labor politicians and their staff. Their specific weight in the ALP these days is pretty striking. With Labor in government in every state and territory, and with all state premiers except Peter Beattie, and many of their ministers, attending the conference, as well as the federal shadow cabinet, the presence of this social layer is physically obvious. The pollies themselves are a bit more relaxed, but taken as a whole, their staffers are a rather extraordinary breed. They wear suits, even at 21 years of age, usually black. They stride through the lobbies talking into mobile phones and trying to look super-important. Most of them brush aside everybody’s leaflets with a kind of precocious, arrogant contempt. They try to project the appearance of a breed apart, and to some extent they succeed. This social stratum, the stratum of Labor in government, is the hard spine of conservatism in the ALP. There’s a civilised, more leftist minority, scattered among the politicians and their staff, a minority that doesn’t, these days, coincide exactly with the formal split between right, left and centre factions in the ALP, and the leaflet takers are among the civilised, slightly leftist, minority. The hardest, most conservative group is from the biggest states. The pollies and their staffers from the ACT and the Northern Territory are more leftist than the ones from the other states, and there’s even one redoubtable Aboriginal minister, Marion Scrymgour, from the Northern Territory, who asserted herself very forcefully at the conference in defence of indigenous interests.
  • The conference delegates from the smaller states seemed to me to contain a high proportion of union officials, of a rather conscientious and militant sort, who asserted themselves in a fairly expert way on a number of questions, often in implicit conflict with their state governments.One underlying motif at the conference was a considerable tension between the trade union movement in every state and territory and Labor in government in every state and territory. The underlying potential conflict also extends, by implication, to a future federal Labor government, if it fails to carry out the will of the trade union movement.

    The industrial relations debate

    The industrial relations debate took place on the last day of the conference. It turned out to be a replica, on a broader national stage, of the traditional industrial relations debate on the last day of the NSW Labor Party conference.

    I’ve often described, in a humorous way, in other things that I’ve written, the NSW Labor industrial relations discussions, and the same applies to this federal conference. Suddenly, when the industrial relations debate starts, the lobbies empty, the hall fills up, and the discussion gets serious.Village Hampdens, so-to-speak, from many different unions, present their motions and amendments, on issues specific to their situation, and all the other unionists, even their factional opponents, listen to them carefully and seriously.

    The decisions often cut across formal right, left and centre factional lines, and draw together collective trade union interests. Where there are conflicts of interests, as often happens at NSW Labor conferences, the issues are fought out with good humour, a lot of expertise, and considerable stubbornness.

    At this federal conference Barry Jones, who was chairing the session, kept trying to hurry the discussion along with the same dismal lack of success that chairs at the NSW conferences always have. The industrial relations session, by its very nature, can’t and won’t be hurried.

    Everyone wants to have their say, and union officials from unions big and small claims and gets equal respect for their point of view.

    Over many years, at the NSW Labor conference, the often quite boisterous battles in the industrial sessions, year after year, were the place where the forward march of Labor, so to speak, from the 1940 to the early 1980s, was registered and pushed forward.

    Even the industrial relations discussions at the much smaller federal conferences of the past had something of this quality. I was a participant at the federal conference in 1971, when we knocked Clyde Cameron’s proposal for a prices and incomes policy on the head, and it wasn’t revived until the Accord 10 years later.

    This forward march of labour was halted, to a very great extent, in a very drastic and sweeping way, in the Accord period of the 1980s. This federal conference put a full stop to the Accord period.

    Over many years the propositions carried by this conference incorporated the bitterness of the trade union movement, including the anger of union officials, at the undermining of their social base and reason for existence.

    At this conference, this sentiment produced the demand to get rid of Australian Workplace Agreements, the Howard government’s form of individual contract, and the abolition of all the industrial changes of the Howard period.

    The Howard era industrial arrangements are now clearly understood by all, even the top ranks of the trade union bureaucracy, to be disastrous for unions.

    The more interesting thing about this debate, which went on for a long time, was that the politicians, both state and federal, acquiesced in all these industrial demands. The state politicians even acquiesced in the demand for state industrial manslaughter legislation, along the lines of the ACT legislation.

    Given that there have been constant battles in a number of states between the trade union movement and Labor governments on these questions, the fact that the politicians were forced to acquiesce in these general demands of the trade union movement, and to do so unanimously, bodes well for the future. In each state the unions and the trades and labour councils now have the authority of an ALP federal conference to strengthen their hands in their struggles with the state Labor governments on these questions.

    Anyone with experience in the labour movement knows that getting something passed at a conference, state or federal, doesn’t lead to its implementation, by any means, but there is clearly a build-up of anger and tension that any state or potential federal Labor government has to take into account.

    It is of some interest that Mark Latham, who in the past has had several clashes with the trade unions, did not express discontent or disagreement with the progressive and pro-union policies adopted by this part of the conference, to be implemented by a Latham Labor government.

    In the discussion on the Building Industry Royal Commission the right-wing secretary of the AWU, a rather ambitious up and comer, Bill Shorten, seconded a motion by John Sutton, the national cecretary of the CFMEU.Shorten made a convoluted but highly significant statement about how the birds disappeared from Pompeii days before the eruption of Vesuvius, comparing the unlikely combination of the two historical rivals, the CFMEU and the AWU against the Howard government, as an augury of the eruption that will sweep away Howard.

    There is obviously an underlying motif to Shorten’s rather erudite historical analogy about what might happen to a Latham Labor government that does not do what the unions want and expect.There were a number of interesting contributions across the whole spectrum of the trade union movement in this industrial debate that were of great interest. The union officials from the smaller states played a big role.

    Michelle O’Neill spoke very forcefully in the industrial relations debate. Martin Kingham also spoke powerfully and effectively on industrial manslaughter legislation. I was fascinated by Kingham’s address. I’ve heard him speak in smaller gatherings, and he is an accomplished, devastating and colourful speaker.

    In the ALP Federal Conference forum, however, while speaking effectively, he was almost shy and diffident, as if he was feeling his way in that environment.

    The leftist character of the decisions on industrial relations at the ALP federal conference are an adequate reason for recognising that the conference registered a shift to the left in the labour movement. The reason for that is that it also registers a certain revival of confidence and assertiveness in the trade union part of the labor-trade union continuum, and if this flexing of trade union muscle continues, particularly in conditions of the election of a Latham government, this may help to revive the confidence and strength of the industrial labour movement.

    The enthusiasm for the possibility of defeating Howard and the election of a Latham Labor government

    For those who may not have noticed, there is now very widespread enthusiasm, right across the whole of the left half of Australian society about the possibility of getting rid of Howard, and electing a Latham Labor government. Just about everybody in the labour movement, even extending into the constituency of the Greens, is ready to give Latham the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that his youth, vigour and occasional iconoclasm will be enough to carry Labor over the line.

    The hatred of the Howard government runs very deep in the workers movement and among the progressive sections of the middle class.On the Green Left list, a couple of days ago, Simon Butler, who is usually quite an intelligent observer, made, in my view, a considerable error of judgement, chiding the Greens for being too soft on Latham.

    The approach embodied in that particular ticking off of the Greens shows a profound misunderstanding of the dynamics and the current mood on the left side of Australian society.

    The DSP leadership seems to be the only group of people who don’t seem to have noticed the enormous groundswell of hope that has built up rapidly that Labor under Latham might defeat Howard. The trade unionists at the Labor federal conference have shown the possible line of march for serious socialists and leftists in Australia.

    They have presented Mark Latham with a package of far-reaching industrial reforms that go to the heart of the interests and necessities of the trade union movement in the serious expectation that an incoming Latham Labor government will carry out that package of real reforms, not the phoney reforms we are presented with by economic rationalists.

    Socialists with any sort of political nous will go through this experience with the masses on the left of society and the trade union movement, and work hard for a united front tactic, directed at Labor and the Greens, with the aim of electing a Labor Government with a probable Green balance of power in the Senate.

    If that parliamentary change takes place, as now seems likely, socialists of course will then go on fighting for, and demanding from Mark Latham and the Labor-Green parliamentary majority, progressive reforms that won’t just be limited to the reforms accepted at the federal Labor conference.

    It is only by going through this political experience with the masses and the left of Australian society that Marxists and leftists are likely to find any resonance for their specific program. An ostrich-like opposition to the necessary election of a Latham-led Labor-Green majority in the national parliament will condemn socialists who adopt that posture to near-total isolation and irrelevance.

    See also:Federal Labor conference lurches unevenly to the left



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