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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Labor president Wayne Swan on the party’s coming national conference

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Labor president Wayne Swan on the party’s coming national conference

Next week the Labor Party will hold its national conference in Brisbane. It’s the first face-to-face conference in five years. These conferences don’t have anything like the bite they once did, but there’s still a chance for the party’s rank and file to have a shout about issues. More than 400 delegates will be there. Most of the delegates are aligned to a faction, and for the first time in decades the left will have the largest slice of the numbers.

AUKUS and the Stage 3 tax cuts are expected to be among the hot topics, but the conference will be carefully managed – there will be no defeats for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Ahead of the conference, we have already seen the government change its stance on Palestine, a sensitive subject among the left and right factions of the party.

In this podcast we talk with Wayne Swan, the Labor Party National President. Swan was treasurer and deputy prime minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments.

National conferences have “enormous power” Swan claims, denying they have lost clout, and casting the conference as more of a “partnership” between the party and the parliamentary caucus:

Of course the parliamentary caucus does operate within the confines of the platform. And on one or two occasions in history there have been fundamental conflicts between the two. But for most of our history, Labor parliamentary caucuses, Labor prime ministers, Labor leaders of the opposition have worked within the confines of the platform and that’s where we are today.

Recently, Labor assistant minister Andrew Leigh strongly criticised the stranglehold the factions have on the party. Swan is in complete disagreement with Leigh:

It’s true to say that people mix and vote differently on different issues from different backgrounds at different times, which doesn’t always coincide with the story that Andrew tells in his recent essay. The factions are nowhere near as monolithic as Andrew presents them, and many more people get involved in the party who don’t come from the sort of backgrounds that you would imagine if it was just two big monolithic groupings. Our party is very much representative of the general community.

Yes, factions are organising groupings in the party, but they are much more diverse and free flowing then the presentations Andrew [presented] to people.

On the conference issues, Swan says:

I certainly think there’ll be a debate over AUKUS and I hope there is. As we’ve been through the history of this party - it’s 132 years [old] - national defence has always loomed large in our party conferences. Indeed the party split during the First World War over these sorts of issues.

People are passionate about the very big issues. That’s why the Labor Party has been around so long and why it’s the oldest social democratic labour party in the world.

Swan as treasurer went through the global financial crisis, when Australia managed to avoid a recession. Swan’s former chief of staff, Jim Chalmers, is now in the economic hot seat. Swan believes Australians now are much more accepting of government intervention, using COVID as an example:

One of the great differences between my period and Jim’s period is that the inadequacies of trickle down economics and the use of fiscal policy not only to promote growth but to promote equity is now much more strongly supported in our community than it was when I was last treasurer, simply because it was demonstrated through COVID in particular.

The intervention by government to massively support the economy and to produce social and to, if you like, produce desired social and economic outcomes was entirely legitimate.

One of the reasons the Liberal Party is floundering so much is that it’s in denial about this one important fact about our nation, that government must always intervene to protect people, to protect their jobs, and to distribute income throughout an economy, particularly when an economy is under threat from something like COVID or an international recession. During the GFC, we did precisely that. We were opposed all the way by the conservatives, they were forced to take similar steps during COVID, and now it is much more established that government has a fundamental role in intervening in the economy to protect people, to deal with insecurity and inequality.

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