The man in the deepest ditch on day one of Labor’s national conference was surely the party’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles.
With party feeling still red hot about the plan to allow a Labor government to turn back asylum seeker boats, there were audible groans from a few delegates when leader Bill Shorten said in his conference address that Marles “will deliver immigration policies that are safe and humane”.
Later Marles appeared on a panel at one of the conference’s fringe events. The room was packed. This was hostile territory.
But Marles was blunt. We know that 1200 people had perished at sea, he said, and almost every person familiar with this area believed the figure was far higher.
That human tragedy had now ended and the people smugglers were no longer in business. But if Labor reopened this journey “we will be condemned by history”.
As the number-crunchers continued to work behind the scenes, Marles promised the critics would soon see unveiled “the most generous offering any potential Australian government has made”. Members of the party would be able to “hold their heads high”, he said.
But the questions were critical, and there were mutterings and interjections. For many in Labor, the asylum seeker issue – and especially turnbacks – is highly emotional.
Despite the strong feelings, Shorten and Marles are set for a win on turnbacks when asylum seeker policy is debated on Saturday. The frontbench and the factions were closing behind Shorten over the issue. They could not afford to humiliate him.
Frontbencher Brendan O'Connor, from the left, a former home affairs minister, was on the same wavelength as Marles. “I think if we don’t get right this policy, if we don’t have sufficient deterrents, we’ll see a return to hundreds of people dying at sea. That’s not acceptable,” he said.
Shorten’s push on turnbacks would ensure there is no difference on this front between the ALP and the Coalition at the election.
The emphasis on preventing drownings has a strong echo of the Coalition’s own line at the last election and since.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, a former immigration minister, said Shorten’s position would be supported on the floor of conference and defended him against critics in the left who complained they felt ambushed by his surprise announcement on Wednesday.
Bowen said that Shorten had openly indicated in advance what approach he would take at the conference – if he had left it until the issue was on the floor, people could have accused him of “not being open and honest in advance of the conference”.
Bowen also said Shorten had consulted appropriately with senior colleagues, including him, on the policy initiative.
In his address, Shorten chose to bypass turnbacks, concentrating on issues more congenial to the rank and file.
Shorten’s pitch on climate – the 50% renewables target, the plan for an emissions trading scheme, and a challenge to Tony Abbott to make the next election a contest about climate policy – went down a treat with delegates.
The speech contained no new policy announcements – the renewables target had been flagged earlier in the week. Nor was it particularly inspirational. But it did the job for the delegates on the day.
Notably, despite Shorten being under attack over aspects of his union career and Labor criticised for being too close to the unions, he went out of his way early on to pay tribute to them.
“No group of people in all Australian history has done more to guarantee safety, to build national wealth, to lift the living standards of ordinary people, than our unions. Ten thousand royal commissions won’t change this,” Shorten said.
In his speech Shorten made a particular pitch to women saying: “Our goal should be nothing less than the equal participation of women in work, equal pay for women at work, and an equal voice for women across our parliament.”
For women in the party, Shorten called on the conference to “declare, by 2025, 50% of Labor’s representatives will be women”. A worthy aspiration, no doubt, only remember that Labor has had targets before. When push comes to shove, other considerations – especially factional ones – have overridden lofty sentiments about gender representation.
As he looks to the conference’s second day, with its consideration of asylum seeker policy, Shorten can be feeling easier. But even when he gets his win, turnbacks will continue to be a divisive issue in the rank and file.
Opening the way for a Labor government to return boats should help Shorten in his competition for votes with the Liberals. But the danger for him will be that he loses votes on the left to the Greens, which will be the one party opposing the practice.