Labor conference leaves Shorten stronger

Labor leader Bill Shorten addresses delegates during the final day of the ALP national conference. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Bill Shorten has emerged from the ALP’s national conference looking more like an alternative prime minister than he did before.

Shorten, whose leadership has been in a serious low, won convincingly on the big defining issue of the conference – whether a future Labor government would be able to turn back asylum seeker boats.

In other areas compromises were managed – same-sex marriage, recognition of Palestine. Only minimal progress was made on advancing democracy within the party, but this is not something that galvanises the public. The conference did endorse an ambitious objective of having 50% women at all levels in the party organisation and in public office positions the party holds by 2025.

Apart from his initial address at the conference’s opening, Shorten made a number of strategic interventions. He gave short speeches at the beginning of day two and day three, as well as closing the asylum seeker debate and moving a much-wrangled motion on same-sex marriage.

On Saturday morning Shorten set out and made a strong case for his broad policy on asylum seekers; on Sunday there were feel-good remarks about his pride in how the party had handled the difficult part of that issue.

“In events, there’s sometimes a tipping point where matters can go one way, or matters can go the other way,” Shorten said on Sunday. “Yesterday there was a tipping point when we were talking about those hard and complex issues of how Australia can be a humane and safe destination.”

It’s only a small stretch to see the conference as one of those “tipping points” in Shorten’s leadership. If it had gone badly for him, it would have seriously undermined his position. Now, thanks to rugged negotiation and a recognition by those involved about how high the stakes were for Labor, Shorten’s leadership has been boosted.

By leaving the way open for turnbacks, Labor has endorsed the tough policy being pursued by the present government. At the same time, it has promised a very generous approach on refugees, including an eventual doubling of the intake and A$450 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The hard line is to reassure voters in the political centre, as well as to provide a viable policy for a Labor government. The generous trade-offs were both to appease upset left wingers at the conference, and also appeal to electors who will be tempted to turn to the Greens.

The policy leaves the government with a much weaker point of attack against Shorten.

The Coalition is questioning how anyone can believe Labor after its record in government. But the point is that Labor’s experience in government is the very reason why you would believe it is fair dinkum on turnbacks now. Why would it go through all this agony internally and then not follow through in government? Its previous experience of opening the floodgates and the subsequent drownings has taught it a lasting lesson.

On same-sex marriage, the conference compromise accommodated Shorten’s desire for the conscience vote for Labor MPs to be retained, in spite of the wish of many delegates for MPs to be bound. It says that the free vote should apply in this parliament and the next – going to a binding vote in 2019.

The seconder for the motion moved by Shorten was his deputy Tanya Plibersek, who earlier this year had expressed strong support for binding MPs. The left was in a strong position to impose a binding vote next term, but the Shorten forces pushed it out for another three years.

The Shorten camp argues, fairly convincingly, that by the end of the parliamentary term beyond this one Australia will have same-sex marriage, so the binding vote in the long term is irrelevant. Shorten gave conference the promise that if he became prime minister and same-sex marriage was not already legislated, he would move for it within his first 100 days.

Shorten has a position which not only backs his conscience vote stand for the foreseeable future but allows Labor to put maximum pressure on the Liberals to have a free vote.

But if Tony Abbott manages, as he wishes, to suppress or defeat the issue this term, Shorten has a useful pitch to take to the election, with his promise that he would bring forward a government bill if elected.

Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and Stephen Conroy negotiate the wording on a motion on Palestine. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

An extraordinary amount of last-minute tooing and froing – some of it in full view as the players talked in huddles – surrounded the compromise motion on Palestine.

The final position – in the form of a resolution rather than the party platform – said: “If … there is no progress in the next round of the peace process a future Labor government will discuss joining like minded nations who have already recognised Palestine and announcing the conditions and timelines for the Australian recognition of a Palestinian state, with the objective of contributing to peace and security in the Middle East.”

The motion was moved by Tony Burke, of the New South Wales right, and seconded by Queenslander Wendy Turner, from the left. There were no other speakers.

It was certainly not as tough as the left wanted, but it wasn’t quite what the Victorian right would have preferred either. The right is divided on Palestine, with the NSW right, influenced by the composition of western Sydney, more pro-Palestine, and the Victorian right, influenced by the Jewish lobby, more pro-Israel.

Burke told the conference that those on both sides would be disappointed. But on an extremely delicate issue, the conference has taken a step to opening the way for recognition of Palestine as a state without being excessively provocative.

The past three days have seen Shorten enhance his position within the party and publicly. The question now is how far he can build on a successful weekend.

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