Managing capital: a preview of NSW ALP conference

This is the weekend (10-11 June 2006) of the NSW ALP conference. In the run up to state conference, Marcus Strom, provides a preview and Labor Tribune's commentary on what is up for discussion

With a state election nine months away it is no surprise that the heavies in Sussex Street are attempting to avoid controversy at the NSW ALP's state conference on June 10-11. A look at the conference order papers shows that while there is gratitude towards the former triumvirate of Carr-Egan-Refshauge, NSW general secretary Mark Arbib is clearly trying to show that NSW under Morris Iemma and Michael Costa have a new team in charge. This was the tenet of the recent state budget and it is reflected in the conference slogan: "Getting NSW Moving". Does this mean that NSW has been going nowhere?

The horse-trading that goes on in the lead-up to state conference would make a Persian pony seller blush. What appears on the order paper at the beginning of the week bears only a little resemblance to what actually happens at conference as the factions, unions and powerbrokers lock horns. And comrade Arbib makes sure that any potentially embarrassing agenda items come last. This may explain why the Local Government item is last on the list. There are some curly questions in there about the role of donations when it comes to planning approval.

The all-important Centre Unity faction meeting is on the Friday before conference. At the time of writing, the smoke signals from right are yet to emerge.

A leading figure in the ALP left told Labor Tribune that the main points of division to be expected were around motions strengthening policy that calls on state government to stick to policy on procurement (suppliers to NSW are meant to have good work practices); calls for a charter for Human Rights; the role of capital punishment in the 'War on Terror'; policy on West Papua; and the nuclear debate.

The NSW Socialist Left faction is presenting a united front to defend the current ALP policy of no new uranium mines. It was unanimous in support of current policy at its most recent meeting. Of course, the main public protagonists in NSW on this issue are the 'hard left' Anthony Albanese, federal shadow environment minister, and the 'soft left' Martin Ferguson, federal shadow resources minister. Given the public schism seems to be coming from within the left at present, the matter may not get to conference unless the rightwing Australian Workers Union pushes it there. Even if it does, this is all shadow boxing for the main event at next year's national conference.

Managing capitalism

A cursory look at the policy reports shows that NSW Labor's entire approach depends upon the health of the capitalist economic system. No surprise of course. The ALP leadership is committed to the management of capital. Such an approach is anathema to Marxism and consistent working-class politics. Our analysis must be based on another criterion entirely: the ability and health of the labour movement to fight the capitalist system. And despite some signs of fight over WorkChoices, the labour movement's report card on that basis is looking quite weak.

The clearest example of the ALP leadership's perverse approach to the role of the labour movement in society comes in the Finance and Economic Policy Report. The author of that report, presumably committee secretary Mitch McDonald, attempts to paint the ALP's record of managing capitalism in a good light. He rails against the injustice of Treasurer John Howard leaving office in 1983 with a federal budget deficit of 4.7 per cent of GDP where Paul Keating only left a deficit of 2 per cent.

However the most revealing insight into how the NSW right and the ALP leadership views the working class comes in his appraisal of the role of the Prices and Incomes Accord.

"It should be remembered that Treasurer Keating announced a massive budget surplus of $5.5 billion in the 1988 budget and the government had a tight wages policy through the use of its agreement with the trade unions, the Accord ... It is likely that the same advice to increase [interest] rates would have been given to John Howard had he won the 1987 election. It is possible that Howard would have relied even more on interest rates because he would not have had an agreement with the unions ... and would not therefore have been able to bear down on inflation using that lever."

There you have it. The role of the unions is to allow the ALP in power to "bear down on inflation using that lever". Says it all about the pro-capitalist and ultimately anti-working class attitude of the ALP leadership.

Rank-and-file umbrage

There are clear grumblings from rank and file party members around issues such as the now jettisoned Snowy privatisation proposal; on preselection of candidates; on potential corruption in local government; on former ministers getting themselves plumb jobs in the private sector after stepping down from politics; and on the federal ALP's support for Howard's draconian anti-terror laws.

It is not surprising that there is near unanimity on fighting Howard's WorkChoices. However, strategy extends nowhere beyond the next federal election. In his introduction, secretary Mark Arbib says that the only way to defeat these laws is to win government federally in 2007. I'm sure it is an oversight, but nowhere does he call for a Beazley government, just a Labor government.

Elections, of course, are a tactical consideration for Marxists. For those who see all politics through the prism of parliamentary power, elections are everything. Marxists fight for a republican strategy to overcome Howard's anti-worker agenda.

The conference papers come to more than 350 pages in total. Here are some motions and issues that caught my eye. It is not intended as a throrough critique of NSW Labor and it was written at some pace. Many motions and reports will not even get to conference or they will be hammered through on factional lines, or referred back through dealings on the floor. On many matters, conference will allow motions from the floor to seal backroom deals.

Democratic socialisation

The ALP maintains its pledge to the "democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields". An attempt by Georges Hall branch to replace this pledge with a wish-washy pledge for social justice and the national interest is recommended rejected by the NSW administrative committee. Labor Tribune backs this. However, the administration committee seeks amendment of the rules so that the ALP will seek "to achieve this objective [of democratic socialisation] through constitutional action through the Australian and State parliaments, local government and other statutory authorities".

Labor Tribune recommends voting against this. The working class should not bind itself to the monarchist constitution. We should demand its immediate abolition and the formation of a provisional republican government which should convene a constitutional convention to draw up a new constitution. In our fight for democratic socialisation, the boss-class will use any method at its disposal to defeat us. We should offer ourselves the same tactical flexibility.

Central policy branch

The proposal for this branch comes out of concerns for decline in membership numbers. Attracting busy people with good ideas to a central branch is seen as one way out of this impasse. It is a technocratic way to attempt to overcome a much deeper political problem and I doubt it will stem the membership crisis. However, on its own merits it is not such a bad idea to centralise some policy debate as it does not preclude continued operation of local branches. The central policy branch will have no democratic rights to elect officers - these will be provided by head office - and will not provide delegates to Federal or State Electoral Councils.

FEC forums

Motion G3 from the rules committee caught my eye because of its sheer madness and control freakery. To address declining interest in party forums, a number of Federal Electoral Councils have held policy forums for members (and sometimes non-members). The NSW ALP wants to formalise these forums through this motion to "be held in May and November" each year. "All party members in the electorate must be invited. The only two speakers at each forum shall be the federal member of parliament or the duty senator and the guest speaker. The speeches of the federal member or duty senator shall be limited to 10 minutes."

This is bureaucratic control gone mad. I'm sure the motion will be passed and I'm sure the minutiae of its content will be ignored. Why only two speakers? Why only 10 minutes. It is trivial at one level, but says much about the mindset of the rules committee.

Candidate preselection

Party members care about their democratic rights and party members resent candidates being parachuted in above their heads. And Sussex Street cares about its right to have candidates installed against the wishes of local members. This is shown by the motions calling for rank-and-file preselection and in the fact that all of them are recommended rejected by the administrative committee. The following party units have motions in on this matter: Blackwattle branch, Surry Hills branch, Sydney local government committee, Lismore branch, Newcastle branch, Stewart branch, Newcastle SEC, Wallsend SEC. Not all of these motions are coherent, but all display a hunger for democratic control of the party.

Bob Carr's legacy

The heavies in Sussex Street are keen to talk up the heritage of Bob Carr while trying to paint Iemma and Costa as the new team. Not all party members are so keen on where Bob Carr has gone after his decade as premier.

Gwandalan-Summerland Point branch has moved the following: "Conference moves that all ministers, including the premier and deputy premier, be banned from taking consultancies or employment in industries or professions associated with their present or past portfolios for a period of at least two years in line with existing federal policy. If the government is not able to introduce this legislation into parliament, then the ALP should adopt a rule that states: 'Contravention of the above proposed legislation will be cause for expulsion from the party.' "

Labor Tribune commends this motion to confernce. The administrative committee has recommended its rejection. Working people are turned off politics when it is seen as a path to wealth and careerism for both sides of mainstream politics. Labor Tribune campaigns for Labor candidates to pledge to only accept the average wage of the skilled workers that they represent.

Voluntary student unionism

I was both horrified and amused to see that NSW Young Labor commends Kim Beazley for "putting up the compromise model of Voluntary Student Representation in order to expose [then education minister] Brendan Nelson's proposed Voluntary Student Unionism scheme for the extremist and damaging model that it is". It is quite sad when the ALP's youth wing attempts to appear wise on such matters where outright rebellion and rejection are the order of the day. Beazley's weak attempt to 'wedge' the federal government on this matter fell flat and also fell foul of national policy. Wentworth FEC were up to speed on this and accused the federal parliamentary party of breaching democratically determined policy.

In this instance, the NSW administrative committee has also seen sense and recommended rejection of Young Labor's motion on VSU.

Snowy Mountains Scheme

It is fairly embarrassing that the agenda goes to conference defending the sale of the Snowy scheme a week after it was canned. I'm sure it will be quietly dropped off the order paper. However, many ALP branches can be proud of the role they played in opposing the privatisation. The pressure they put on the NSW government through motions to conference played a not insignificant part in this little political drama. Congratulations to Cardiff-Elermore Vale branch, Greenway FEC, Homedale branch, Newcastle SEC, North Sydney branch, Swansea SEC, Tamworth branch and the Hills-Baulkham Hills branch.

Procurement and PPP

It is NSW ALP policy that the state government should procure goods and services from companies with a good track record on industrial relations. However, the reality of government means that this does not always happen. Further, the Iemma government has been stung by the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. Public-private partnerships are on the nose and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union is calling for severe restrictions on PPP and many branches are calling for the ALP to drop them altogether.

The Finance and Economic Policy report states "all successful goods and service providers should be audited on a general basis and where breaches of industrial instruments, industrial agreements, OH&S requirements and other contractual requirements are found penalties including financial penalties and or the loss of contract should apply".

Unions must vigorously ensure that this policy is carried through in spirit and letter. In the lead up to conference John Della-Bosca, industrial relations minister, has said that such an approach may be illegal. Nevertheless, there is little point in having Labor in government if it procures goods and services from unscrupulous employers.

Refugees and mandatory detention

Last year, Labor 4 Refugees was able to bury attempts to remove opposition to all mandatory detention of refugees. Current NSW ALP policy on refugees is being challenged again this year. Negotiations on the international relations policy committee report saw its report fall short of calling for the 90/90 model for refugees. That is, 90 per cent of refugees are out of mandatory custody within 90 days, current federal ALP policy. Instead it calls for all unauthorised arrivals to be dealt with in 90 days. This is a 90-day mandatory detention policy, which is unsupportable.

It is most likely that the international relations policy report will fall off the agenda to avoid division on this issue. If it does go to floor, it is likely there will be a fudge on temporary protection visas. Shadow immigration minister Tony Burke is not prepared to contradict federal ALP policy on this matter, but will support a fudge that calls for the amelioration of the worst aspects of TPVs.

On a more positive note, I understand that Tony Burke is happy to call for the end to the use of Christmas Island as a processing centre. This does contradict national policy. Hopefully this foreshadows change for the better at national conference. Labor 4 Refugees will need to campaign hard to overturn the policy on mandatory detention.

West Papua

A set piece debate on West Papua is on the cards, with division likely to be along traditional factional lines. Unfortunately, there are no motions calling for West Papuan independence, only a criticism of Howard subordinating the treatment of Papuan refugees to Australia's relationship with Indonesia.

Anti-terrorism laws

ALP members around Australia were surprised, some outraged, at Kim Beazley attempting to outflank Howard to the right on the recent anti-terror laws. Beazley called for the non-judicial lockdown of entire suburbs and other draconian measures. The state always needs an `enemy within' to adhere people to its agenda. The anti-terror laws are part and parcel of this.

It is refreshing to see Banks FEC pulling no punches on this issue. It moves: ``Conference condemns Kim Beazley's support of the proposed anti-terrorism laws and demands that the federal ALP take a strong stand against the detention without charge and sedition elements of the bill. Furthermore, if Kim Beazley feels he cannot take such a stand, we call on him to resign the leadership in favour of a candidate who is not solely poll-driven, who cares for what is right as much as what is popular, who is prepared to fight over matters of freedom and principle, and who can better reflect the views of the rank and file of the party." Well said, Banks FEC. Kingsford-Smith and Wentworth FEC also have a motion in calling on state, territory and federal Labor to “cease their support for the Anti-Terrorism Bill (No.2) 2005 and related state and territory legislation". Similar motions are on the agenda from Newcastle FEC, Greenway FEC, Neutral Bay branch and Como-Janali branch.

Bill of rights

New Matilda has been busy campaigning for a Human Rights Act that would enshrine certain democratic rights into the body politic, if not the constitution. While laudable, this falls far short of what is needed: a militant republican campaign to abolish the current constitution. A republican constitution should incorporate a bill of rights, putting such democratic necessities beyond the vagaries of temporary parliamentary majorities.

Unfortunately, the law reform and constitutional processes policy committee report falls short of New Matilda's campaign. However, calls to pursue a parliamentary charter of rights is allowing a softer critique of the anti-terror laws. These include calls for due process, no to arbitrary arrest or imprisonment without trial. These moves are welcome but fall far short of what is necessary.

It is likely that policy strengthening calls for a charter of rights is passed. UnionsNSW is on record calling for such an instrument to strengthen industrial rights. However, it should be noted that even New Matilda's Human Rights bill fails to incorporate the absolute right to withdraw labour.

China and free trade

It is an irony that motions to conference on China insist that country incorporate the right to strike before Australia signs any free-trade agreement. Perhaps Chinese workers should be insisting on the same thing: no FTA with Australia until WorkChoices is abolished and the right to strike is enshrined in our constitution.

Local government and political donations

The local government policy committee is a new report for state conference. And local government is a potential minefield for the ALP with accusations of planning corruption rife; with cash donations to the ALP from development firms flying thick and fast. It is no surprise that the ALP machine has seen to it that this report falls off the agenda.

The report foreshadows policy being passed next year on political donations. It is worth repeating the report in full on this:

"Donations to political parties have been the subject of criticism. They are alleged to distort the political process in favour of the donor.

"At a local government level, where individual decisions both for and against a development can reap significant profits and where substantial contracts are tendered the dangers are considerable.

"If this issue is not dealt with there will be increasing pressure for non-democratic mechanisms to deal with council decision-making including the use of administrators, IHAPs and the complete removal of local councillors from the planning process.

"Dealing with donations is not easy. Suggestions include tougher disclosure rules, spending and donation limits, the pooling of donations, bans on corporate or developer donations and the prohibition of councillors' participation in matters involving donors to their campaigns. None of these are without difficulties.

"There is no simple definition of those who are developers. It is also not easy to increase transparency given the ability of donors to use innocent or opaque third parties to accept donations on behalf of others. Nevertheless it is a task that needs to be confronted.

"The local government policy committee believes that an appropriate policy will take time to formulate and to test. It will be impossible to implement any policy without the participation of all levels of government. It is intended that this task take place over the next year for adoption at the 2007 annual conference. The committee intends to consult widely within the Party and to seek expert advice where appropriate.

The committee recommends that a draft policy dealing with donations to local government candidates form part of the committee's report for deliberation by the 2007 Annual Conference."

Working class representatives should be above reproach on these matters. The impression among voters is that Labor is not. Threats on removal of councillors combined with NSW planning minister Frank Sartor's grab of development planning powers is no way to deal with murmurs of corruption in the planning process. Sartor's new powers are less about dealing with questionable practices at the local government level than they are about ensuring the state ALP and the NSW government has its hand on the development-donation tiller.

Doonside branch notes its concern "about the additional powers for the state government to make local planning decisions without adequate community or local government consultation".

Labor must not only stand full square against corruption, it must actively root out corruption in its dealings. We should not rely on money from grubby developers.

Marcus Strom


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