ALP National Conference: Talking about the issues that really matter

Prime minister Julia Gillard faces challenges from all sides at this weekend’s ALP conference. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

After surviving a brutal political winter that many thought would be her last, Prime Minister Julia Gillard can be forgiven to looking forward to the summer holidays.

But she shouldn’t let her guard down just yet. Despite having faced down fanatical opposition to the carbon tax (and having passed the mining tax for good measure), Gillard now has to take on the most lethal opponent any Labor leader can meet: her own party.

This weekend’s bi-annual ALP National Conference has the potential to upset the fragile Labor recovery. What are the issues that matter? Have the deals to sort them out already been done? And can Labor overcome the stranglehold of the factions and unions and introduce reforms that will make the party more attractive to prospective rank and file members, or at the very least staunch the bleeding of existing members?

Conference in a nutshell

The draft platform has about 160 issues or policies that need to be voted on or endorsed. The most hotly debated - or at least of media interest - will be on gay marriage, the increase of refugees and uranium sales to India.

The reality is most of these issues will have been settled beforehand in the proverbial backroom. It is very unlikely Gillard will get any nasty surprises.

That gay marriage and refugees will dominate the conference is indicative of Labor’s general shift away from their grass roots toward concerns that are more lofty and less fundamental to traditional Labor values. There is undoubtedly a conflict between the Labor “chardonnay socialist set” that tends to adopt issues that would be at home on the Greens’ platform.

Party reform

Reforming the internal structures of the Labor party is a hot topic at the moment. Unsurprisingly Kevin Rudd is not a big fan of the factions. And even a true believer like Paul Keating recognises the current system is anti-democratic and deeply unattractive to voters. It is also proving to be deeply unattractive to party members, who are leaving in droves.

But all parties are forever saying they need to go back to their grassroots and they talk about going back to their grassroots, they talk about being more democratic in their policy formation and those wonderful things that happen in political fairyland. In reality, by the time these reports are completed, the political climate has changed.

And so the parliamentary wing of these parties forgets – often quite deliberately - about the reports and so they’re left to be implemented by the organisational arm of the party, which means they are just shelved and forgotten about as they’ve moved on to something else.

What reforms SHOULD Labor make?

It’s the factions that are tearing the party apart as Rudd says. There’s too much emphasis placed on them and they have too much power. They are also becoming an electoral liability.

But in some respects Labor is much more democratic than the other parties in that what is voted on at conference has to become party policy. That doesn’t happen with the the Liberal or National parties. So it’s not so much the actual organisational structure that needs reform, rather the party needs to weed out factionalism and start generating policy ideas from the grassroots.

What Labor should really look at is their shift towards adopting the policy platform of the Australian Greens. They’re moving away from their core values of representing working class and middle class interests, and adopting the “inner city” perspective which is self-defeating in the long term.

They need be seen as a distinctive party that represents working and middle class interests. And that’s where the Australian Labor Party it has, since it’s inception, done its best work. That is the best reform they could make.

Healthy debate or damaging PR?

Are same sex marriage and the difference between onshore and offshore processing of refugees the issues that fundamentally concern the voters Labor needs to attract to maintain government?

The offshore that really matters to these voters is when their jobs are moved there. The processing they care about takes place in a rapidly shrinking manufacturing sector. Gay marriages and refugees matter to an urban elite and they don’t translate to the rank and file where Labor is losing its anchor.

It is particularly strange that they would be re-opening the refiugee debate so publicly now. Labor really doesn’t have a good refugee or even boat people policy in place. Voters don’t see the difference between a boat person and another refugee. Voters think: “How can we have more? Are we even properly managing those we have?” The policy is confused enough as it is without adding more debate.“

Do we really need party conferences?

Party conferences are the ultimate political beast: when they work well they can provide a huge boost but when they go wrong, the negatives can be terribly damaging.

The reality is that Labor is structured in such a way as to make these conferences a necessity. And even if the party does undergo major structural reform, it is unlikely it would elect to move to a set-up similar to that employed by the Liberals or the National party because that would simply make the ALP even more undemocratic than it already is.

At the risk of tempting fate, Gillard can still look forward to her summer holidays. This National Conference is more a maze than a minefield and she’s already worked out the path through it.

Which is good because as long as the summer may be, it always has winter waiting on the other side.

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