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Grattan on Friday: Labor’s national conference looms but the party’s rank and file has lost its bite

Stuart Robert, one of the ministers involved in the notorious Robodebt scheme, can anticipate some sharp criticism when the royal commission’s findings come. Robert won’t be able to avoid the flak, but he has made sure he is out of parliament before it lands.

The commission’s report is due early July; on July 15 voters in Robert’s Gold Coast seat of Fadden go to the polls in the byelection to choose his replacement.

Labor has yet to say whether it will contest the seat Robert held on a comfortable 10.6% margin, after a 3.5% swing against him on the two-party vote.

There are arguments both ways. After seizing the Victorian seat of Aston from the Liberals in April, there’s the smell of blood. Even in these volatile times the government doesn’t think it could “do an Aston” in Fadden, but a swing to Labor could further wound Peter Dutton.

But Queensland – Dutton’s home state – is hard going for Labor. A swing against the ALP would be a (minor) setback for the government and a morale boost for the Liberals.

It might also be seen as sending a message against the Queensland Labor government, which has lost its pandemic shine and faces an election next year.

A month after the byelection, the Labor Party will hold its national conference in Brisbane on August 17-19. Coincidentally, the venue is in the electorate of Griffith, which Labor lost to the Greens in 2022.

This will be the first face-to-face national conference in five years (a virtual conference, which didn’t amount to much, was held in 2021).

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While some state delegations are still being chosen and so the numbers remain uncertain, the conference might possibly be the first in recent times where the left has the numbers.

But the notions of “left” and “right” don’t mean a lot in today’s Labor, except as groupings to dole out preselections, frontbench representation and other spoils.

Journalist Michael Pascoe, writing in the New Daily this week and focusing on the parliamentary party, declared: “Mr Albanese, the former leader of the left, has effectively abolished it.”

Most notably, a prime minister from the left has delivered the former Coalition government’s AUKUS deal, with hardly a murmur from that faction.

In a twist on how the story might have gone in earlier times, the most vocal criticisms of AUKUS and the implications of the submarine deal have come from two major figures from the right, former PM Paul Keating and former foreign minister Bob Carr.

Attacking AUKUS, Keating said he expected the issue would mobilise ALP branch members. Certainly one would anticipate that AUKUS and the submarines will trigger one of the more spirited debates at the Brisbane conference, including about the storage of the nuclear waste.

In the end, of course, AUKUS and whatever other contentious issues arise at the conference will be squared away. The government’s boat won’t be rocked. The leadership will not be embarrassed.

The conference might see an undercurrent of tensions between the pragmatists and those who would like the government to move faster on a progressive agenda, but the pragmatists will carry the day. The Albanese narrative of caution in the first term to win a second and hopefully a third is baked in.

Once, Labor national conferences set prescriptive platforms, although the timing of implementation was a matter for the caucus, which meant a Labor cabinet.

Victories came after struggles. In the early days of the Hawke government, then treasurer Paul Keating had to fight at the 1984 national conference to get approval for the entry of foreign banks into Australia.

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Before that conference a senior journalist, David Solomon, had written: “The party conference is the only real threat facing Prime Minister Robert Hawke and his government. The government has a huge lead in public opinion polls [..] Mr Hawke has an unprecedented 70 percent personal popularity in the polls. But the Labor Party requires its politicians to be responsive to the policies of its rank and file.”

The Hawke government had already defied the platform, in particular on floating the dollar, but by and large acknowledged the conference’s authority and the need to win its approval.

For instance, that government took plans for airline privatisation to a special national conference in 1990. Such a course would be unthinkable now.

These days the national conference, which is a mass affair of some 400 delegates, is more or less a toothless tiger. Even tigers without teeth have to be managed, however, and there’ll be a good deal of work behind the scenes to keep things as smooth as practicable in Brisbane.

The government’s aim will be to control issues at the conference as meticulously as it does in the caucus (despite the recent stirring on a couple of specific matters) and in Labor’s presentations in the public arena.

There is one issue, however, where the government is at risk of losing control. Not at the national conference, where there will be furious agreement, but in the electorate, which is far more serious.

That issue is the Voice to Parliament. While it is too early for the government to panic about the decline in support for the “yes” vote in some polling, it should be worried about the turn the debate is taking.

For Indigenous leaders to engage in personal attacks, as Noel Pearson did against Mick Gooda (both on the “yes” side), is neither respectful nor tactically wise.

For assistant minister Malarndirri McCarthy to be drawn into a shouting match at Senate estimates with maverick crossbencher Lidia Thorpe was to fall into a trap.

The further descent into claims about racism could be harmful for the “yes” case. Peter Dutton, in his speech to this week’s House of Representatives debate on the referendum legislation, used as one of his arguments against the Voice that it would “re-racialise” the nation. Anthony Albanese, in his contribution on Thursday, denounced Dutton’s speech as “simply unworthy of the alternative prime minister of this nation”.

There’s been a lot of talk about Albanese trying to get the Voice passed on “the vibe”, something he has been criticised for by those who say the detail is what should matter.

But “the vibe” is actually important in the effort to secure the referendum’s passage. That “vibe” encompasses fairness, doing the right thing by First Australians, the prospect of progress on closing the gap, a body that’s seen as unthreatening.

“The vibe” leaves voters feeling comfortable with the “yes” case.

Once the Liberals (preceded by the Nationals) decided to fight the Voice, the vibe was delivered a major blow. Now it is being undermined further as the debate gets rougher.

The referendum is far from doomed, but it is in a dangerous place.

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