National conference subdued about Labor revival as Shorten gets his way

Bill Shorten took on some members of his party at Labor’s national conference on contentious policy issues – and won. AAP/David Crosling

After Labor lost government in Tasmania last March, the ALP was in opposition federally and in all states across the country, with the sole exception of South Australia. Sixteen months later Labor has returned to power in two more states, Victoria and Queensland, and leads consistently in federal opinion polls.

One might have expected, then, more jubilation at its national conference than seemed to be the case. My impression was of being in the members’ section of a football team that was down on its luck but determined to keep up its spirits at all costs.

At a time of declining party loyalties, Labor’s national conference is a rallying point for the true believers. It is a chance to reassert their commitment both to a vision of Australia and the election of a Labor government.

Cynics argue that Labor is wedged between the left purists of the Greens and the populist right represented, if only fleetingly, by Clive Palmer. But given the constraints of a gathering of 400 delegates, the ALP’s national conference is a remarkable event.

Shorten wins on turnbacks

As I was leaving the conference hall after the asylum-seeker debate, the woman next to me said:

Well, now maybe I should join the Greens.

To which her neighbour responded:

But aren’t you proud to be in a party that is able to hold a debate like this?

The debate, which became a test of Labor leader Bill Shorten’s commitment to keeping the option for boat turnbacks, was the conference’s emotional and political highlight. Large numbers of Labor members are deeply troubled by Australia’s record, and struggling to find a more humane solution.

In making boat turnbacks a test of his leadership, Shorten was gambling that he could take on many in his party – including three of his most senior federal colleagues in Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese – and win.

Lost opportunity to debate foreign policy

Unlike other potentially contentious issues, that of turnbacks could not be resolved by a compromise. Shorten’s opponents went into the hall knowing they would lose and accepting the need to rally behind the leader.

This was very different to the question of Palestinian recognition, where a compromise was hammered out behind closed doors with a more critical stance towards Israel than Shorten’s supporters wanted.

The vote on Palestine was delayed while powerbrokers argued over wording before presenting a motion, which passed without debate. Frontbench MP and right-wing powerbroker Tony Burke spoke to both this and the asylum issue. This might suggest he is being groomed as a future Labor leader.

Shorten did not discuss foreign policy in his opening address. Even in the session devoted to it there was little criticism of the broad directions of the Abbott government – except around development assistance, which Plibersek has made her major theme as shadow foreign minister.

As Australia is a major participant in the campaigns against Islamic State, one might have expected more debate on Labor’s support for this commitment.

Where now for Labor?

Conferences are about solidifying the leadership, mobilising the base and providing opportunities for a new generation of leaders to present themselves. Fairfax Media’s Adam Gartrell identified five rising Labor parliamentarians: Terri Butler, Pat Conroy, Ed Husic, Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts. I’d add Andrew Giles, who moved the left motion to oppose turnbacks.

At times there was a weird disjuncture between the parliamentary leaders, all of whom were senior ministers in the Rudd/Gillard governments, and the determination of the conference organisers not to remind us of the recent past. There was no former prime minister in the audience to be applauded.

But in the invocation of an emissions trading scheme and his emphasis on jobs, education and health, Shorten was establishing continuity with the past – even if no-one was wearing Kevin ’07 T-shirts.

National conferences, as Senator Kim Carr told me, lay down broad directions rather than policy. Predictably, the conference reaffirmed opposition to university deregulation. Carr insists that claims Labor won’t adequately fund higher education are, in his words, “bullshit”. Universities might anticipate hard questions about the “massive expansion of their senior management” if Labor wins government.

Over the weekend several thousand people passed in and out of the conference. They attended the open discussions organised through the Labor Fringe, taking materials from the 20 or so stalls carrying everything from EMILY’s List tea towels illustrating Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, to yoyos and free water from the health promotion booth.

Around the booths area one could see a remarkable cross-section of Australia. There were rusted-on party veterans alongside large groups of young supporters, many of them wearing the green T-shirts of Labor for Environment, the red of Labor for Refugees or the multi-colours of Rainbow Labor.

The Labor Party’s future depends on its ability to steer its vision for a more progressive Australia through the twin obstacles of public suspicion and the still-powerful party oligarchies.