Labor Party National Conference – Preview

Don’t believe what you read in the mainstream media (e.g. www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/labor-powerbrokers-lose-control-with-reform-back-on-the-agenda-20150617-ghqeiy.html) or what’s on Facebook.

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The Australian Labor Party’s triennial National Conference* is in Melbourne in a month – 24 to 26 July – and most analysis you’ll see is desperately shallow, aspirational, malicious, and/or tainted by faction, politics, or Rupert Murdoch’s evil.

The real dynamics of the Conference are much more nuanced than commentators are so far acknowledging.

It is true that all but about 1.5% of the 397 voting delegates are lined up with either the Right or the Left factions, and on raw numbers no group has majority support.  Solid numbers for each of the Left and Right sit somewhere in the 190s, but each are below the magic 199, and unaligned numbers are around four to six.

conf_seats

BUT it’s also true that on many issues the numbers float, hence “somewhere in the 190s”, and on key issues there is often a leakage of votes: the factions are pretty rigid at National Conference, but there is plenty of scope for votes to fragment.  For example, there are two Right factions in Queensland,** but the smaller of the two pride themselves on some degree of autonomy, and might be attracted to vote with the Left on several issues.  And there are at least two Lefts and two Rights in Victoria.

When you add in the unions who sometimes split from their usual factional colleagues when they see an issue as being of particular interest to their members, and the restiveness of some unions who are increasingly attracted to autonomy, there is plenty of scope for votes to be determined other than along strict factional lines.

So what does that mean for the Conference, for the ALP, and for Australia?

Both factions will see the imperative of unity and discipline, to maximise their influence: this will be more important than at past Conferences because of the tighter numbers, and impose greater strains on both Left and Right, over specific policy and Party reform issues, as they try to craft positions that will keep “their” votes united.

Numerical uncertainty will force negotiation and compromise – no one wants to go to a vote if they don’t know what the outcome will be.  That’s likely to mean very few real debates or fights on the Conference floor – consensus around difficult compromises, and tense behind-the-scenes negotiation is probably the order of the day.  While these deals will often involve the non-aligned delegates, their rejection of caucusing or voting collectively makes it difficult to get enough of them on board any particular proposition, so it is much more likely that the Left and the Right will be the most frequent deal-makers.

Those passionate about heart-felt issues will do everything they can to win over the handful of votes that might secure success, and will be furiously lobbying anyone who can command a handful of votes – which is mostly union officials, as union members at the Conference often vote in a bloc with their union’s leadership.

The Right’s past dominance of Conference has meant they sometimes dump a controversial issue on the agenda with little notice and no negotiation, and claim the Left are party-wreckers if they oppose whatever it is.

While that might be tried at this Conference, it’s already been discussed within the Left that no such manipulation should be accommodated, regardless of the proponent – that bad behaviour should not be rewarded, but punished.  On the other side of the ledger, Right faction leaders have been discussing how they ensure Conference isn’t seen as moving the Party leftwards.

This Conference is the last before the next Federal Election, so delegates will be aware that it needs to positively position Labor and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for the campaign – so taking procedural or policy risks may prove unwise.

Every delegate will have their favourite issues and passions, but the imperative to negotiate, and to demonstrate unity in the run-up to the next election, might well mean that very few of those passions and issues-based divisions are paraded publicly.  There will be at least one issue, and often more, in every chapter of the draft Platform where the differences between and within Left and Right will make it very hard for agreement to be struck.

Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water is the newly elected National President, in a ballot that confirmed the Left’s appeal to the Party’s rank-and-file membership – Left candidates secured 67% of the vote.  He’ll be chairing the Conference, and can influence the agenda and process – his strength as a factional leader means he can to some degree force the factions to behave.

The draft Platform was considered by Labor’s National Executive on 19 June 2015 and should be released the week that this is published, and while the Rules report is likewise close to completion, many key participants are barely ready to list the key and potentially divisive Party reform or policy issues, let alone working out what can be done with them.

Of the ballots to be conducted at the Conference, the Left seems likely to increase their representation on the powerful National Executive, from nine out of twenty, to ten.

 

 

* This is the supreme governing body of the Australian Labor Party, and the decisions of the conference are binding on all members.  It elects the National Executive, and determines Rules and Platform.
** Some members of the “soft” Right, the smaller Labor Unity faction, will vigorously dispute this description, but historically they have been part of the Right in Labor’s Federal Parliamentary caucus and at National Conference.  Labor Unity, though, has developed a positive and stabilising relationship with The Left in Queensland, and recent history – a loooooong story – is likely to make them less comfortable siding with the national Right caucus on some issues.

 

 

About Mike Smith

Partner in Ethical Consulting Services: www.ethicalconsulting.com; sometime University lecturer; previously Government Relations consultant; before that Labor Party State Secretary in Northern Territory; union advocate with LHMU/United Voice in NT and NSW; hobby – election campaigns!

Posted on June 24, 2015, in Change, Culture, Culture change, Democracy, Election, ideology, Leadership, Opposition Leader, Policy, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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