Enduring Labor Values? a Report of the 43rd ALP National Conference, Sydney, 29–31 January 2004

The first indication that this national Australian Labor Party (ALP) conference was going to be a little different from its 42 predecessors was not so much the impact of the larger number of delegates attending the expanded gathering — up from 190 delegates to 400 as they sluggishly milled to their seats in the vast semi-circle cavern of the Darling Harbour convention centre — as the sight of no less than three national presidents, two vice-presidents and the national secretary cosily pressed at a small table at the left of the stage, impatient to be getting on. The trio of president and vice-presidents, elected by direct rank-and-file vote in November 2003 as part of Labor’s initiatives to increase rank-and-file participation, would rotate the chairing of sessions throughout each day of the conference.

The old trouper, Barry Jones, sat with his arms folded across a generous waist; he might have been waiting for the next pick-a-box question. Warren Mundine blinked a little self-consciously and adjusted his spectacles. Carmen Lawrence primly sat to attention, probably collecting her thoughts for her opening presidential address. Labor’s young national secretary, Tim Gartrell, was all technology and restless energy, uncertainly stabbing an index finger into the keyboard of his laptop and frowning at the screen while chattering into his mobile. They appeared somewhat adrift in their corner of the sweeping stage. The official table did not directly face the delegates but confronted a speaker’s lectern poised away at the far right. Beneath the waiting microphone a discrete sign declared the conference theme, ‘opportunity for all’.

Carmen Lawrence was preceded to the lectern by Allen Madden, a representative from the Sydney Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, who welcomed the delegates to Gadigal country and observed that his grandfather had been denied the vote. In contrast to this troubling and pointed reminder of exclusion Carmen Lawrence was able to welcome vice-president, Warren Mundine, who will take his turn as (the first indigenous) ALP president in 2006. Labor’s first woman president urged delegates to put an end to the Howard years. Driven by humane and progressive values, Labor, Lawrence said, had gathered to plan the building of a fair and just society. ‘Ours is a more unequal society now than at any other time since federation’, Lawrence lamented. Then the lights dimmed and images of a young boy, growing to youth, university graduation and family life began to pulse on the overhead screens to the beat of INXS’s New Sensation.

The Federal Leader’s Address

Mark Latham descended the long stairs towards the podium, through the cheering crowd of delegates and observers, after quietly emerging from a passageway up in the gods, the hesitant patter of applause growing to a sustained burst as people recognised the solitary progress of the federal Labor leader. With an almost shy wave of acknowledgement Latham made his way to his first major public address since assuming the leadership in December 2003. He chose the theme of ‘Enduring Labor Values’, an assertion made, as so many of Latham’s predecessors have done, to soothe the anxieties of the membership as the leadership plans another renovation of policy. ‘We are the nation builders of Australian politics’, Latham declared, rehearsing a Labor claim almost as old as federation. Invoking the memory of his hero, Gough Whitlam, Latham reminded delegates that Labor had provided the nation with Medicare, and an ‘expanded’ education system with ‘opportunity for all’ — although there was no reference to Whitlam’s abolition of university fees. Labor had championed Aboriginal reconciliation, had engaged with Asia and made the Australian economy ‘internationally competitive’. The dilemmas of health care and education and the consequences of international competitiveness formed compelling themes of subsequent conference deliberation.

Latham turned to familiar promises: resisting the full sale of Telstra, abolishing Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) and the Office of the Employment Advocate, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Then the unexpected agenda — that we’ve gradually come to expect but which still bewilders John Howard — began to emerge. When was the last time a federal political leader declared ‘there is no more powerful force in our society than a good government school’? Latham introduced Neville Smith, a government school teacher of 35-years experience, who had taught his pupils, including a young Mark Latham, the principles of ‘good citizenship and community service’. Latham promised a ‘needs-based’ school funding system, and 20,000 new university places and 20,000 new TAFE places annually.

Latham’s ‘third way’ instincts, which may yet come to haunt those of Labor’s Left who supported him for the party leadership, coyly emerged in Latham’s suggestion — it was hardly a clear statement of intention — that Labor must approach public-sector management and ‘social investment’ — presumably social welfare — in ‘a new way’:
we can provide all the services in the world, but unless people are willing to work hard and respond the right way, we won’t get the results we need for Australia. Responsibility from all, opportunity for all: that’s what I call a good society.
Climbing the ladder of opportunity will require a degree of Spartan effort in Mark Latham’s Australia, but it is hard to argue that Latham lacks compassion. Latham pointed to strong economic growth ‘matched by record rates of depression, loneliness and isolation’. Appointing Lindsay Tanner as Shadow Minister for Community Relationships, Latham promised that Labor will seek ‘new solutions to the problems of loneliness, work stress and community breakdown’. Latham linked the problems of service provision and addressing community breakdown in a promise to encourage ‘grass roots democracy’: ‘I don’t want people campaigning for better community services. I want them running them — getting involved in their local community and having their say’.

A commitment to strong national security found Latham invoking a somewhat dubious Labor history — Labor has always put Australia first, Latham declared, as when ‘Fisher established the Australian Navy’ (an achievement shared with Deakin’s liberal protectionists) or when ‘Curtin brought home the AIF from the Middle East and created the American Alliance’. ANZUS was signed by the Menzies Government and, as Neville Meaney has recently argued, it’s easy to exaggerate the ‘independence’ of Curtin’s 1942 appeal to the Americans: the purple thread of British kinship remained a powerful force in the ethos of the Curtin and Chifley ministries (Neville Meaney, ‘Britishness and Australia: Some Reflections’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 31, no. 2, May 2003). Yet there is little doubt of the appeal of Latham’s history, as he promised to return the deputy sheriff’s badge and to present ‘an independent, self-reliant Australia’ before the world; although even here the shadow of the eagle reared in Latham’s promise to establish a Department of Homeland Security and a US-style Coastguard, commitments subsequently adopted and reinforced in the conference debate on ‘Community Security’ that followed an enthusiastic reception for Latham’s address. Labor’s Shadow Minister for Homeland Security, Robert McClelland, promised that there was ‘no conflict between freedom and security’ in Labor’s community security platform.

The summary of key policy debates outlined below generally follows the order of debate over the three days of the conference. In an assertion of the role of the parliamentary leadership, if not the caucus, federal frontbenchers routinely moved the adoption of the platform relevant to their portfolio responsibility.

Developing Australian Industry

The debate on industry policy and trade was the most lively of the first day, and reflected the competing tensions over the appeal of liberalised trade versus industry and job protection that has marked labour movement conferences in recent decades although the debate at the 2004 conference was distinguished by at least some willingness, characteristic of all the major policy debates, to seek compromise. Latham’s elevation to the Party leadership had not only resolved the personal rivalries of the federal caucus; the conference debates revealed that his ascendancy had clarified the need for a disciplined focus on achieving government.

Protectionist warrior, Doug Cameron, the national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, rose to welcome the Party’s (somewhat belated) embrace of the principles of ‘fair’ trade — at least in terms of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Introducing the debate Shadow Trade Minister Stephen Conroy announced that Labor, while continuing to support an ‘open economy’, would urge the WTO to commit to meeting core International Labour Organisation standards in trade agreements — a position resisted by the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments. Cameron argued that Labor had followed, like Pavlov’s dog, an ‘ideological’ notion of free trade — instinctively responding to the bell — although as the Russian scientist’s dogs found, there was no food. Free trade, Cameron insisted, ‘is just a myth — it doesn’t really exist’.

That was too much for some of the Right: Cameron had barely left the lectern before Bob Carr leapt up the steps to caricature Cameron’s argument, accusing Cameron of wanting a North Korean-style closed economy. Carr argued that the tariff reforms of the Hawke-Keating Governments had delivered higher living standards for Australian workers and their families. Carr also observed that protectionism always comes at a price: the Bush administration had tried to protect 9,000 US steel industry jobs at a cost of 70,000 jobs lost, as American industry was forced to pay more for home-made steel. The scheme was abandoned. Cameron’s push for a more general policy move from free to fair trade was defeated.

Other resolutions in the platform debate reflected Labor’s enduring preference for intervention and planning. Echoing the industry plans of the Hawke Government, a future Labor Government will establish an Australian Manufacturing Council. Labor’s Industry Shadow Minister, Kim Carr, said Labor would support ‘strategic intervention’ in industry planning: ‘Markets are not perfect and Labor can make them deliver better outcomes’. Another resolution outlined a highly detailed government procurement policy for protecting Australian manufacturing and jobs. Stephen Jones of the Community and Public Sector Union won support for a ban on Australian Government jobs, or those in government business enterprises, being taken offshore — a resolution adopted in response to Telstra’s decision to send 450 call centre jobs to India.

The Environment

The debate on environment policy saw a future Labor Government commit to establishing a renewable energy target of at last 5 per cent by 2010 and an annual ‘Green Budget’. NSW Premier, Bob Carr, told the conference that environment policy provided one of the sharpest distinctions between Labor and the Coalition, particularly over ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. ‘This is the most demanding issue of our time’, Carr argued. The science on climate change clearly indicated that ‘human intervention’ was having an effect. Labor also committed to a fund to finance the revival of the Murray-Darling river system, and to move to extend the Great Barrier Reef National Park. Environmentalists however criticised Labor for failing to take sufficient policy initiative to address the loss of Tasmania’s old growth forests.

Economic Policy

Day two began with Shadow Treasurer, Simon Crean, outlining Labor’s plan for ‘a strong economy for a fair society’. Crean predictably committed Labor to ‘building economic growth’ and ‘fiscal rigour’, although the economic policy debate was dominated by an attack on Australia’s poor record of corporate governance. Labor will require executive pay packages approved by a shareholder vote, and tax deductibility will be withdrawn from executive packages — at least for those valued at over one million dollars. Conroy argued that these measures would help protect workers entitlements by restraining corporate greed. Tony Sheldon, secretary of the NSW Transport Workers Union, pointed to the difficulties of enforcing corporate reform: construction firm, Boral, had resisted small shareholder initiatives to seek redress over the poor treatment of owner-drivers by arguing that the Boral Board was not accountable to its own Annual General Meeting or the shareholders. A voting bloc of 28 million shares is required to change Boral’s constitution.

Personal and Family Well-Being

Opening the debate, Labor’s Shadow Health Minister, Julia Gillard, declared that health issues will define whether Labor will win the next federal election. Gillard observed that the Howard Government was so rattled by perceptions of its hostility to Medicare that a directive had been issued that cakes displayed in Medicare offices Australia-wide for the twentieth anniversary of universal health care were not to be cut — at least in public, for fear of being seen to be ‘taking the knife’ to the scheme. Chief amongst Labor’s new health commitments was the announcement of a national dental scheme, Australian Dental Care, to provide free dental services to concession card patients, and to cut the waiting list for the 500,000 Australians who cannot afford dental care.

To underline the significance of the dental announcement, Latham introduced the measure to conference and emphasised the link to the Party’s history; in the 1946 Commonwealth referendum the Chifley Government had ‘accepted its constitutional responsibility’ to amend section 51 to make dental services a federal responsibility — a change supported by Opposition Leader, Robert Menzies, who, Latham said, ‘would be an outcast in the modern Liberal Party’. Labor is now also committed to ensuring that public housing tenants pay no more than 25 per cent of their income in rent; and a ‘reinvigoration’ of Commonwealth mental health services — one in five Australians were affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives, Latham told the conference: ‘You can’t have a fair Australia without reaching out to those with mental illness’.

Australia’s Place in the World

Shadow Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, made an eloquent — and, unusually, off-the-cuff — case for a more independent and multilateral Australian foreign policy. Rudd outlined three pillars of Labor’s approach: membership of the United Nations, a commitment to ANZUS, and a ‘comprehensive engagement’ with the region. In contrast to the craven unilateralism practised by the Howard Government — as a sub-contractor of the American franchise — Rudd stressed the role played by Australian Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly, H.V. Evatt, in establishing the United Nations and defining its principles.

The most striking feature of the foreign policy debate was the sight of the Left’s Anthony Albanese and the Right’s Michael Danby combining to present an agreed position on the Middle East. Albanese said the resolution reflected a desire ‘to be consistent about urging Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate peace in good faith’. The resolution condemned all forms of state or individual terrorism, including an ‘unconditional condemnation’ of suicide bombers. The ‘dividing barrier’ being constructed by Israel ‘promoted insecurity and an apartheid-type separation’. Danby invoked Labor’s historic role by observing that in 1948 Evatt had backed a two-state solution for British-mandated Palestine: ‘this resolution is working towards that’. The resolution was unanimously adopted by the conference.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity for All

Understandably, reporting of conference debate on this theme has focused on Labor’s asylum-seeker policy — which occupied much of Friday afternoon — although there were other significant issues considered. Introducing the platform, Shadow Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, observed that 2004 was the twentieth anniversary of the Hawke Government’s Sex Discrimination Act, ‘something to be proud of’, particularly in the face of Howard Government attempts to undermine it. Roxon stressed that Labor was committed to helping women achieve a more effective balance of work and family responsibilities, including better access to child care. A proposal to provide ten hours of free child care per week was to have been outlined at the conference, but apparently was held back in order to be announced closer to the federal election due in late 2004.

Kerry O’Brien, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Reconciliation and Indigenous Affairs, outlined Labor’s policies for the Indigenous peoples, and noted that they die, on average, 20 years younger than white Australians. Indigenous Australians still suffer from poor health services and educational opportunities, and a poor standard of living. A Latham Labor Government will issue an apology for the stolen generations and work to alleviate the disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians. Matthew Loder, a member of the Rainbow Labor group, said it was impossible to exaggerate the sense of inclusion that flowed when rights others took for granted are extended to those denied them. NSW Labor MP, Linda Burney, successfully moved an amendment that Labor delivers its Native Title social justice package — promised in the wake of the Mabo case by Prime Minister, Paul Keating, but still unfulfilled — in its first term of office. Australia ‘hasn’t valued indigenous people or what they can offer’, Burney told conference: ‘We need to care for them’.

Shadow Immigration Minister, Stephen Smith, introduced the debate on asylum seekers by outlining the reforms to Commonwealth policy the parliamentary leadership recommended to conference which sought to balance the conflicting pressures of principle and public opinion: all children to be released from mandatory detention; Christmas Island, ‘a magnet for people smugglers’, to remain excised from Australia’s migration zone, although other islands closer to the mainland excised by the Howard Government would be restored to the migration zone; an end to the disgraceful ‘Pacific Solution’; Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) to be made consistent with the UN Refugee Convention and restricted to two years — after which the onus was placed on the Commonwealth to prove that the asylum seeker was not entitled to permanently remain in Australia; mandatory detention for ‘unauthorised arrivals’ would remain but the Commonwealth would have to decide the asylum seekers’ refugee status within 90 days, in most cases, and all claims within 12 months. It was Labor’s intention, Smith, argued, ‘to stop demeaning people who come here seeking our protection’.

In response, Carmen Lawrence argued that the policy of mandatory detention, introduced by the Keating Government in 1992, had failed. Australians should not fear the few refugees that arrived on our shores. Lawrence, outlining the measures supported by Labor For Refugees, said that asylum seekers should be subject only to a brief period of detention for health and security checks. Christmas Island was part of Australia and should be restored to the nation’s migration zone; TPV’s should be replaced by permanent protection visas. The policy proposed by Smith was still too close to the Howard Government’s position. Lindsay Tanner supported Lawrence’s amendment and said that Labor had to break with Howard’s strategy of ‘fomenting racial division and fear for political gain’. Matt Collins of Labor for Refugees said that Labor’s revamped national conference promised rank-and-file participation, but the proposed policy did not deliver participation or reflect the views of the rank and file. Julia Gillard rejected the comparisons between Labor and the Howard Government’s policies: no element of the recommended policy, which was consistent with the UN Refugee Convention, was racist. Acknowledging the electoral sensitivity of the refugee issue, Gillard observed that ‘we have to draft a policy that can win public support’. The vote on the Lawrence-Tanner amendment was taken to a count and was lost 166 for, 226 against. The measures outlined by Smith were adopted as Party policy.

Lifelong Education and Training

The highlight of the final day was Latham’s intervention in the education debate to emphasise the need for early-childhood literacy programs. Latham observed that $100,000 was spend on each child’s education — but that the crucial first years of life were overlooked; 75 per cent of a child’s brain develops in the first five years of life. Latham announced a new Early Childhood Policy with a budget of $80 million over four years, which would include a national reading program, Read Aloud Australia, and programs for identifying early learning difficulties. Labor will also launching a BookStart program to issue up to three free books to the parents of every new baby to get them on the path to regular reading, and build ‘a parental literacy network’ so parents have the skills they need to read to their children. It is estimated that this program will help more than 4,500 parents every year.

Education Shadow Minister, Jenny Macklin, also reiterated Labor’s commitment to 20,000 new university places under Labor each year; and ‘there will be no $100,000 degrees under a Labor Government’. Access to university will be based on merit, not income. Labor also announced that it would reverse the Howard Government’s 25 per cent increase in HECS fees, and create an extra 4,600 teacher education places in universities. Labor would bring schools up to ‘a decent national standard’ through a program of ‘needs based’ funding.

Industrial Relations

Moving the adoption of Labor’s industrial relations policy, Workplace Relations Shadow Minister, Craig Emerson, observed that ‘Labor was born of the trade union movement, and Labor is proud of its bonds with the trade union movement’. To give meaning to this expression of goodwill, Labor’s program includes giving casual workers the right to convert to permanent employment after six months, abolishing AWAs, and supporting the union campaign for new industrial manslaughter laws, to take stronger action against employers over workplace deaths. In a significant move to improve entitlements for working women, conference also committed Labor to providing 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. Cassandra Wilkinson of the NSW Labor Women’s Forum said the reform ‘recognised the importance of women’s participation in the labour market’.

Michelle O’Neill of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) highlighted the ongoing problems faced by workers who had suffered a loss of entitlements through corporate collapse; TCFUA members once employed by National Textiles are still seeking the recovery of their outstanding entitlements. The industrial relations debate was also characterised by a spirit of unanimity, with often bitter construction-industry rivals, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Australian Workers Union combining to condemn the Building Industry Royal Commission and Task Force established by the Howard Government.

Observing Conference

The larger number of delegates at the 43rd Conference did not necessarily make their presence felt in the debates. Unionists worried by the 2002 special party conference reduction of union representation at ALP conferences to 50:50 parity with the rank and file need not be unduly alarmed. Policy debates continued to be dominated by parliamentarians and senior union officials: many were male. Yet Labor continues to attract heterogenous supporters, often enthusiastic and easily disillusioned by the compromises of democratic politics. In the observers’ gallery there were the gay activists of the Rainbow Labor group; the predominately young, black T-shirted squad of the Labor for Refugees supporters; old loyalists and dissidents in flannelette shirts, often armed with bags and folders of ideas and papers; small groups of women of polite appearance given to sudden outbursts of sharp interjection; a formidable trio from the National Union of Workers, in shorn heads and black suits with the NUW logo and slogans stitched into the breast pockets of their jackets. All came in the expectation that Labor might speak for them.

The Fringe Program

The conference fringe program, an inspired initiative and another innovation of the 43rd Conference, drew many hopeful observers and delegates, and at times seemed to generate a more inclusive, and free-flowing discussion than the more disciplined proceedings on the conference floor. The fringe program featured debate on drugs policy, the environment, information technology and reconciliation; there were significant debates about eradicating poverty — ‘Moving Forward Together’ — and an initiative, sponsored by the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU), to build a coalition to defeat ‘poverty jobs’. The LHMU hopes to create an alliance of community groups, students, churches and ethnic groups to campaign for a ‘Fair Wages and Decent Work’ agenda. ‘Moving Forward Together’ evolved from the work of the Senate Inquiry into Poverty, chaired by Labor Senator, Steve Hutchins, to debate solutions to the endemic poverty faced by 2.4 million Australians. These fringe events should have occupied a central place on the conference program.

Enduring Labor Values

That Labor remains able to bounce back from apparent leadership and policy drift is testament to its ability to endure significant periods of decline. In the process its values, as expressed in policy, are often subject to renegotiation — and few renovators of Labor policy argue their case without insisting, as Mark Latham did in his opening address, that their program is one of renewal, making a future by reaching back to the principles that shaped Labor’s past. To dismiss such appeals as a cynical ploy is, by and large, to misread the intentions of the reformer, usually torn between the need to adapt Labor’s program to new requirements and win office while clinging to the values that they believe as sincerely as those accusing them of betrayal or compromise. Throughout the conference successive speakers — often senior figures – invoked Labor tradition and past achievement to validate their actions.

In all, conference considered 17 chapters of policy. Details of the draft National Platform can be found on the ALP website. Appropriately for a conference dominated by the parliamentary party the site also reprints the text of a number of the speeches made by leading Labor MPs, including the full text of Latham’s opening address. Go to: http://www.alp.org.au/nc2004/