Grattan on Friday: Shorten’s battle for electoral acceptability costs him party credibility

Low personal poll ratings and the trade union royal commission have made a successful conference especially vital for Labor leader Bill Shorten. Joe Castro/AAP

Bill Shorten’s authority is on the line as he struggles to reverse Labor’s opposition to turning back asylum seeker boats. A rebuff by the party’s national conference, which opens in Melbourne on Friday, would be a disaster for the already embattled leader. If Shorten lost this fight, his leadership would be shredded.

The stakes are so high that the betting must be on Shorten getting his way. But members of the left are furious, not just about the policy shift but at how Shorten dropped it on the party on Wednesday.

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The seriousness of the situation was dramatically highlighted on Thursday when left leader Anthony Albanese – who lost to Shorten in the 2013 ballot – told a Labor function in Melbourne: “I have real concerns about the way that yesterday was conducted in terms of the announcement on asylum seekers. I think that it is absolutely critical … that we always remember our need for compassion and to not appeal to our darker sides.”

This is seen by some in the party as Albanese, after a difficult day with left colleagues, sending a message to the right that they should not think this can be just bulldozed through.

A lot of talking will be needed before the vote, scheduled for Saturday, with specific undertakings given in terms of transparency around turnbacks and proposed increases in the refugee intake.

There is nothing complicated about Shorten’s turnback switch. It is driven by electoral pragmatism and a recognition that, even with the offshore detention policy, the people smuggling trade would be encouraged again if boats weren’t being stopped by Australian patrols.

The turnbacks have worked. If Shorten had to go into the election saying Labor would discontinue them, he would be handing a gift to Tony Abbott.

Those with long memories might see a parallel between this battle and the 1982 hard-fought switch on uranium policy. In dramatic scenes at that year’s national conference, Labor moved from an uncompromising anti-uranium position to a more flexible stand. The painful decision was seen as absolutely necessary for Labor to be competitive at the next election, which it won.

Shorten has been inching to a policy change for some time. That doesn’t stop many regarding his Wednesday declaration on the ABC’s 7.30 program that a Labor government must have the option of turnbacks – which obviously would be used – as an ambush.

In the interview Shorten also ate crow, admitting Labor’s policy failure in government and that, contrary to everything it had predicted, the Coalition turnback policy has succeeded. These admissions, while correct, are hard for many in the party to take.

The conference’s draft platform is silent on turnbacks, which would amount to permission for them. Shorten has to fend off a prohibition being written in. Although Labor governments can wriggle around conference decisions, such a ban couldn’t easily be ignored. But the political force of it would be its impact before the election.

Despite Labor being consistently ahead in the polls, Shorten is not entering this conference with “prime-minister-in-waiting” stamped clearly on his forehead. No messiah to see here.

Rather, Shorten is at a stage of his leadership where he must reassure doubters, inside and outside the party, that he really does have what it takes. That means showing he is in control, and also appearing to stand for something.

The problem thrown up by the turnbacks issue is that many in the party will be deeply disillusioned by what Shorten is now standing for, while potentially many in the electorate would write him off if he were not allowed this shift of ground.

Low personal poll ratings and a hellish experience in the trade union royal commission witness box have made a successful conference especially vital for Shorten.

Shorten’s Friday leader’s address needs to be strong in both substance and presentation. A bad performance is damaging, as Julia Gillard found in 2011 when she neglected to mention Kevin Rudd in a list of Labor prime ministers and was generally lacklustre.

If Shorten is trying to draw the opposition closer to the government by embracing turnbacks, his other Wednesday pre-conference announcement – commitment to a 50% renewable energy goal by 2030 – was designed to sharpen the contrast with the Coalition.

In his address, Shorten will go on the front foot over carbon pricing, while invoking the market language of the Liberals.

“Around one billion people and more than 40% of the world’s economy have already embraced the opportunities of emissions trading schemes,” he says in a section of the speech released early. “We must give Australian businesses the opportunity to engage with this global market … Labor will cut pollution with a market solution.

"A Shorten Labor government will build an emissions trading scheme for Australia. And we will not be intimidated by ridiculous scare campaigns.

"If Mr Abbott wants to make the next election about who has the best policy solution for climate change – I’ve got a three word slogan for him. Bring. It. On.”

Sometimes modern Labor conferences can look like mass rallies with little content. This one has a series of controversial issues to be managed.

At one stage the push for a binding, as opposed to a conscience, vote on same-sex marriage loomed dangerously. But the dynamics of that have changed and Shorten is confident of holding the line on the conscience vote.

Other contentious matters are recognition of a Palestinian state; how far to go in making the party more internally democratic; and the Australia-China free trade agreement. Wheeling and dealing has been in high gear to get compromises.

Compared with turnbacks, there is much less at stake on other issues for Shorten, although any setbacks would be bad.

The right and the left are equally balanced, with each faction a few short of 200 delegates, and there is a handful of unaligned delegates. With such a tight situation things can go wrong just by chance. It will be vital for the Shorten forces not just to have deals hammered out, but to ensure that numbers don’t drift away inadvertently.

Amid the arguments over current issues, there is a move to sweep away an antiquated piece of Labor’s past – the “socialist objective” – and replace it with a more contemporary statement. Some in the left are upset about that too, having a sentimental attachment to irrelevant wording that’s heading for its centenary.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan, with Australian Institute director Ben Oquist, here or on iTunes.