ALP national conference: experts respond

The ALP’s national conference, held in Melbourne over the weekend, was Bill Shorten’s first as Labor leader. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Bill Shorten survived an internal push for a future Labor government to ban turning back asylum seeker boats at the ALP national conference.

The party’s three-day national conference, which concluded in Melbourne on Sunday, also resolved to recognise Palestinian statehood “if there is no progress in the next round of the peace process”, committed federal MPs to a binding vote in favour of same-sex marriage after another two parliamentary terms and made small progress on internal party reform.

The Conversation’s experts were watching the conference with an eye across key policy areas. Their responses follow.


Asylum seekers

Alex Reilly, Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School at University of Adelaide

As a result of the ALP national conference’s failure to ban turning back asylum seeker boats, there is nothing to distinguish the architecture of Labor and the Coalition’s asylum seeker policies. Both are committed to a unilateral response to boat arrivals that involves turnbacks and offshore processing to ensure no asylum seeker arriving by boat will be granted protection in Australia.

This is a stunning concession to the Coalition’s hardline policy. The Coalition has won the debate on turnbacks. It is now mainstream policy. And yet, we would do well to remember just how dramatic the policy is.

The policy is pursued in the face of the objections of Indonesia – to whom the majority of turnbacks are directed. It is in clear contravention of Australia’s voluntarily assumed obligations under the UN Refugee Convention. It is undertaken at considerable risk to the asylum seekers who are forcibly returned to the shores of Australia’s international neighbours.

The assessment of it being “safe” to carry out the policy would seem to refer only to a narrow assessment of the seaworthiness of boats that are turned back with no regard for the personal circumstances of the asylum seekers on board, or their subsequent plight.

The Labor left moved a motion to ban turnbacks. It argued instead for a policy that pursued strong regional and international arrangements and improved the protection outcomes of asylum seekers before they reached Australia by boat.

The motion was doomed to fail – it did not address the dilemma for Labor in formulating its asylum seeker policy. It is clear that Labor must take to the next election a policy that guarantees that asylum seeker boats will not again arrive in large numbers under its watch.

Both Labor’s left and the right missed an opportunity at the national conference to pursue an alternative way. The policy Labor takes to the next election need not focus on stopping the boats – as far as we know, this has all but been achieved. Labor only needs to ensure that the boats do not start coming again in significant numbers. This outcome is more easily achieved, and does not require either a turnback policy or regional processing on Nauru or Manus Island.

The answer lies in a much more robust engagement with both Malaysia and Indonesia. Labor’s 2011 agreement with Malaysia offers a useful blueprint. As I have outlined previously, a return to a policy along these lines preserves the human rights of asylum seekers and offers an opportunity to engage positively with Malaysia and Indonesia, with whom we share the dilemma of addressing the needs of asylum seekers in our region.


Climate change and energy

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography at University of Melbourne

In tackling climate policy head on at its 2015 party conference, Labor made a virtue out of necessity. There is no way it could have done anything else. The alternative was being bludgeoned by the Coalition about its “hidden plans” for a carbon tax and emissions trading between now and the next election.

And so Shorten went out on the front foot. He used his opening speech at the conference to aggressively promote climate as a key electoral issue. He affirmed that Labor will support a target of 50% of stationary energy from renewables by 2030 and establish a national emissions trading scheme (ETS).

The platform also indicates that Labor will introduce tougher vehicle emissions standards and provide ongoing support for important climate institutional innovations – the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Climate Change Authority – created by previous Labor governments and attacked by Abbott.

The platform and Shorten’s comments use four narrative claims that aim to frame and capture the initiative for Labor in the upcoming climate debate:

  • Shorten emphasised climate is “an economic and environmental cancer that demands early intervention”. In other words, this issue is about national security and “national health”.

  • Labor is pushing for innovation and investment in a “clean energy future” – a claim that fits with Labor’s traditional self-representation as Australia’s only party of national modernisation.

  • Shorten underscored the policy’s economic and social responsibility. It will produce – rather than cost – investment and jobs, and lower household energy bills.

  • Shorten and his environment spokesman, Mark Butler, have aimed to blunt Coalition claims of “rash leadership” by arguing this new policy is merely trying to catch up with others, and is specifically following the lead of major economies like the US and China.

So what could be better and what’s missing?

Electricity production is currently responsible for around 33% of Australia’s national emissions. The ALP’s renewables announcement therefore implies a national emissions reduction target of at least 16% below present levels by 2030.

With the ETS and the use of other emissions reduction and energy efficiency measures, tougher targets are possible. And they are essential if Australia is to do its fair share in keeping global warming well below two degress Celsius.

Given the Abbott government’s ongoing refusal to divulge Australia’s targets in the run-up to the UN climate negotiations in Paris this year – Australia is the only developed country to not have done so - Labor missed an important political opportunity by not now announcing its own national emissions targets and national carbon budget for 2025, 2030 and beyond.

These targets and the carbon budget could have been justified in reference to the research of the Climate Change Authority – just as Labor’s platform does for vehicle emissions standards.

Labor also failed to make any mention of tackling Australia’s very substantial public subsidy to the fossil fuel sector. The International Monetary Fund recently reported that Australia’s subsidy to this sector to expected be around A$41 billion in 2015, or around 2% of GDP.

Ending this environmentally destructive subsidy would help level the economic playing field between alternative energy sources and provide significant additional revenue for the budget – including for investment in renewables. On this matter too, the ALP platform is silent.


Party reform

Rob Manwaring, Lecturer, Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University

The late British Labour MP Tony Benn once quipped that:

New Labour is the smallest political party that’s existed in Britain – the only problem is that they are all in cabinet.

Tony Blair and the modernisers made reform the party a central part of his efforts to re-make the party. His greatest achievement was to re-write Clause IV – de-socialising UK Labour’s key aim.

The Australian Labor Party, under Bill Shorten’s leadership, has deferred its “Clause IV” moment. Modernisers, especially on the right, won the conference battle to “review” the long-standing socialist objective.

In a feisty debate, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley led the battle to re-write the ALP’s core mission, calling for an objective that “true believers can believe in”. Veteran Kim Carr led the counter-charge, with a pointed “Comrade, I could not disagree with you more” and some old style tub-thumping.

On other reform matters, Labor has, in classic style, tentatively and messily moved forward. Conference committed to increasing Indigenous membership and required state branches to direct elect delegates. Kevin Rudd’s leadership changes were endorsed. Labor’s gender 40:40:20 rule will eventually become a stronger 50:50, but only by 2025. Critical issues like changing the trade union block vote were not even debated.

This all suits Shorten. Labor has signalled some progressive intent, but the difficult decisions have yet again been postponed and deferred – the same-sex marriage amendment is a perfect example. Internally, the left faction has not been able to impose itself.

Debates on internal rules are often dismissed as party “navel-gazing”. While they have little immediate impact on the party’s electoral appeal, they remain central to what the party stands for. Blair knew this, which is why changing Clause IV was such an early crusade.

Shorten, despite his modernising tendencies, is unlike Blair. First, he lacks a cohort of like-minded modernisers. Second, his “vision” of modernising the party is neither as clear nor radical. This might just help get him into office, but it remains hazy what he might do if he got there.


Education

Bill Louden, Emeritus Professor of Education at University of Western Australia

The Labor values underpinning the education platform are reassuringly familiar: equity, access and inclusion. The platform hits all the contemporary educational hotspots, too:

  • Better early years education and care;

  • More support for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers;

  • Needs-based and sector-blind school funding;

  • An independent national curriculum and assessment system;

  • Higher standards in initial teacher education;

  • The primacy of the public TAFE provision; and

  • Accessible and affordable higher education.

So, is it a matter of “move along, nothing to see here”? Not really, because beneath the educational values that have served Labor so well electorally lie some unresolved policy tensions.

As always, these are mostly about money. The continued commitment to the Gonski resource standards in schools will be welcomed by most in the school education industry. The platform acknowledges that delivering on this will require Labor to:

… work co-operatively with the states and territories to increase school funding.

More co-operation and more money would be good, but the federation has a lot of moving parts. Without significant reforms to the federation the states won’t have more money to contribute. Without reductions in outlays in other portfolios it is hard to see how a future Labor government could afford to invest more in school education.

The policy tensions in higher education lie between the commitment to “a strong, affordable and accessible higher education system” and the opposition to “deregulation of fees, or the introduction of full fee degrees for undergraduates”.

It’s said to be dangerous to get caught between a vice-chancellor and a bucket of cash, but the near-unanimous support of vice-chancellors for Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s funding reforms reflects real financial pressure on higher education. The demand-driven system has opened up access, and this is a good thing. But declining income per student is undermining the quality of teaching and research.

So, the policy tension remains after the national conference. In government, Labor values have delivered accessible and affordable higher education. But without funding reform the system will be weaker, not stronger.

Gwilym Croucher, Higher Education Policy Adviser at University of Melbourne

As widely speculated, the national conference reaffirmed the ALP’s strong opposition to the current government’s planned deregulation of university fees. Senator Kim Carr said a future ALP government “will rebuild what the Coalition has torn down”, and that the platform makes it “clear that Labor will never support fee deregulation”.

Carr also signalled again that while a future Labor government would respect university “autonomy”, there will be an expectation that in receiving public funds they will be “accountable for how they spend taxpayer dollars” through “partnerships”.

This will be read by many as further evidence that the ALP intends to return to the previous policy of requiring universities to sign “compacts” with the government, which would set out agreed goals in exchange for public funding. The previous Labor government’s use of compacts was unpopular – they were seen as ineffective.

The ALP’s platform signals a return to higher education targets. It seeks 40% of 25–34-year-olds holding bachelor-level degree or higher by 2025, and 20% of university undergraduate enrolments made up of low socioeconomic background students by 2020. These were dropped by the Coalition once they formed government.

Australia is likely to achieve the first target with little change to the system as numbers are already close. But the low-socioeconomic goal has remained elusive – there has been only slow progress on this in recent years despite significant investment.

Regarding research, the platform promises the full cost of research will be funded while encouraging:

… researchers to engage with end-users, including industry, to improve the impact of their research for industrial applications and the public good.


Health

Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy at University of Sydney

Labor’s 2015 policy platform on health is the equivalent of motherhood and apple pie – a traditional presentation of what the party has always stood for and what the electorate wants and expects.

Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme are essential components of Labor’s vision for a fairer Australia. Together they deliver access to health care based on need not ability to pay. And there is a lead role for the Commonwealth government in the funding and delivery of healthcare services.

The party platform gives little indication of what health and healthcare policies will be taken to the next election or implemented should Labor win. That’s not surprising: its main role is to serve as the yardstick by which policies and programs should be judged.

The good bits:

  • Recognition that investing in good health for all Australians will deliver a productive workforce and a competitive economy and that climate change is having an impact on health outcomes;

  • Acknowledgement that the social determinants of health are crucial to more equal health outcomes – especially important when it comes to tackling Indigenous disadvantage;

  • Commitment to a strong and properly resourced public health system, including primary care and preventive health;

  • Mental health as a priority for action; and

  • The statement that lack of dental care represents a significant gap in the provision of universal health care.

The not-so-good bits:

  • No clear role delineation for public and private sectors;

  • Nothing new proposed to address the chronic disease challenge; and

  • A very clinical approach to prevention.

The real problem is the failure to clearly recognise and articulate the difference between achieving good health and delivering health care. Thus, despite the invocation of social determinants, health does not appear in other parts of the platform concerned with infrastructure, environment, education and employment, and social justice. That’s a function of the way the platform document is produced.

Effective delivery of Labor’s goals for health and well-being and Closing the Gap will require a whole-of-government approach that, for the moment remains, undisclosed.

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