It’s all about the leader at ALP conference, leaving less space for policymaking

The ALP national conference has become a highly choreographed, stage-managed affair in recent times. AAP/Mick Tsikas

This weekend’s ALP national conference is the first time Bill Shorten will take centre stage as a political leader. Since winning the federal Labor leadership in the wake of Labor’s defeat at the 2013 election, Shorten has kept a reasonably low profile as opposition leader.

The conference’s timing represents a litmus test for Shorten. In this week’s Newspoll, Shorten recorded his lowest-ever approval rating as leader of 27%. This is a worrying number for the ALP, which has had a tendency to destabilise – and even remove – its leader based on poor polling figures.

The conference’s outcomes could revive Shorten’s fortunes or sink them further. What are the lessons of history as Shorten prepares for his moment in the spotlight?

Past national conferences

In 1969, another leader who had yet to face a federal election used the national conference as the starting point to articulate his own agenda. Then, Gough Whitlam – who obtained the leadership two years earlier – used the conference to argue forcefully for policy change within the ALP. As he told the 2007 conference:

[At] … the National Conference of 1969 … We re-wrote two-thirds of the platform. In particular, we established the principles for universal health care and for federal aid for all schools, government and non-government alike, on the basis of needs and priorities. We were enabled thereby to bury the sectarianism which had disfigured our society for a generation and had retarded education for a century.

These events are an example of the national conference serving its original intent, as it was designed in the ALP constitution.

The conference, now held once every parliamentary term, is notionally the party’s supreme policymaking body. The decisions taken at the conference are theoretically binding on the elected ALP members of parliament. The conference, as laid out in the party rules, is intended to serve as the major forum for the party to debate its policy decisions.

The national conference codifies these decisions, which are approved by its delegates. The decisions the conference makes are, according to the constitution, final.

The conference delegates are represented in an equal number from each Australian state and territory. They are elected both by branch members and each state party’s electoral college, which is comprised of union representatives and members of the ALP’s organisational wing. The vote is evenly divided between the two groups.

A shift in focus

Historically, the conference brings out a tension that still exists within the ALP today.

There are those within the party who seek to promote policies that adhere to the ALP’s more socially conscious agenda. But, increasingly, this objective has become secondary. Instead, the conference has become dominated by pragmatic political operatives who try to craft agreements before the conference starts in an attempt to stifle debate and project an image of party unity.

The recent focus of the national conference has therefore shifted. It is now used to serve a different purpose: a political marketing service. As a result of this trend, the conference has become a highly choreographed, stage-managed affair.

In 2007, the then-leader, Kevin Rudd, used his speech at the national conference to road-test themes he would later use in his successful election campaign.

Three years earlier, the ALP hastily labelled Mark Latham as a “New Sensation”. It attempted to market the previously unpredictable leader as a modern political statesman ahead of his own election campaign.

Lessons from the 2011 conference

The last national conference is an example of how a tightly controlled affair can work against a leader. In 2011, Julia Gillard’s speech was overshadowed by her omission of Rudd’s achievements as ALP leader. This further exacerbated the leadership tensions that Gillard’s speech was designed to dismiss.

This year’s conference will attempt to stabilise Shorten’s position as leader and set a platform for the campaign the ALP wishes to run at the federal election due next year. Expect the media to play up divisions between warring factions over policy issues. This narrative is in the ALP’s best interests if Shorten’s performance at the conference falters, as it did with Gillard. The ALP would prefer to be seen as squabbling internally over policy issues rather than over the viability of Shorten’s leadership.

During the last conference, the hot-button issue that sparked debate on the conference floor was same-sex marriage. The conference voted to change the party platform to support legalising same-sex marriage. Four years on, the party as a whole has yet to argue forcefully for its implementation.

This is because the ALP national conference has lost its policymaking significance of the past. Instead it has become a reflection of the leader’s standing within the party. Consequently, this year’s conference will be the event that defines Shorten’s leadership in 2015 – for better or worse.