Factions give Iemma an easy ride
Despite attempts to present the Iemma-Costa leadership as a "new direction" for NSW, the musty smell of the Carr years lingers. Marcus Strom reports from the NSW ALP state conference.
Most old hands at the NSW ALP state conference over the June long weekend reckoned it was a pretty tame affair as these things go. And that's just how the factional chiefs wanted it. The sparring warriors of the Labor tribe buried or blurred their differences to give Morris Iemma a smooth ride nine months out from a state election and embraced a federal leader that the NSW Right had been undermining for months.
An invigorated Kim Beazley killed two birds with one stone. By committing a federal Labor government to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements, Beazley put clear blue water between himself and the federal government while simultaneously giving the NSW Right a gentle smack in the mouth.
In the often strange world of ALP factions, it is the NSW Left of Anthony Albanese that has shored up Kim Beazley's position as leader. The NSW Right is known to prefer shadow foreign affairs minister Kevin Rudd, with perhaps a wandering eye on the Napoleonic figure of AWU leader Bill Shorten. The mainstream press has widely reported John Robertson's distaste for Beazley as party leader. Beazley's announcement took the conference by surprise and Robertson, Unions NSW secretary, was reported as saying, "If yesterday's purpose was to secure his job, it served him well." (Sydney Morning Herald, June 13).
Of course there was political gamesmanship in Beazley's announcement. Yes, it is aimed to stabilise the Labor factions behind him in the run up to the election. However it shows something deeper about the Labor party. Prime minister John Howard, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Hendy and a cast of bilious business leaders lined up to declare that Beazley had "caved in to the unions" or that Beazley was being "bullied".
They have a point. Despite its pro-capitalist program, the ALP remains organisationally entwined with the unions. Some far-left groups such as Steve Jolly's Melbourne-based Socialist Party dismiss this fact and say there is no fundamental difference between the ALP and the Liberal Party. The Democratic Socialist Party describes the ALP as a "capitalist party", which, while true to some extent, is not the whole story.
Beazley's announcement on AWAs does not turn him into a class warrior, however. The pro-capitalist ALP leadership sees its role as one that mediates between capital and labour in the interests of class harmony and the "national interest". But the relationship of the labour movement to the Labor Party shows there is a persistent contradiction in the heart of Laborism. It is this contradiction with which Marxists seek to engage, unravel and resolve in the interests of the working class and genuine socialism.
The rhetoric of union leaders and ALP parliamentarians for an "independent umpire" to oversee the implementation of awards and enterprise agreements is dangerous. The Industrial Relations Commission is meant to be such an 'independent' umpire. Marxists know that this is nonsense. The capitalist state is incapable of being independent. This myth is at the heart of traditional social democracy and explains why as an ideology it is ultimately useless for the working class. And while the agencies of the state and its statutory authorities are open to pressure from class action, our action cannot be subordinated to the needs of such bodies. If Beazley is elected prime minister, the working class cannot rest, it must redouble efforts to place itself at the heart of political life in Australia.
Party democracy and preselection
Dozens of ALP activists from the Hunter region attended conference waving placards "Newcastle demands rank-and-file preselection". The sitting member for Newcastle, the left's Bryce Gaudry, is tipped to be replaced by the independent mayor John Tate. I don't know much about Tate, but the last time the ALP recruited an independent lord mayor we ended up with Frank Sartor as planning minster. Nuff said.
The Labor machine is fundamentally about getting elected and running government. Democracy rarely has much to do with this. While the working class and the unions are able to pressure the ALP's platform, what it stands for usually runs a poor second to actually winning. Hence focus groups and polling take precedent over principle and politics. I'll bet my giddy aunt that Beazley's conversion on the road to Damascus over AWAs was thoroughly polled and "focus-grouped".
This parlous state of affairs was shown up at state conference. There was a dozen or so motions calling for rank-and-file selection of candidates. This is obviously an issue of concern to ALP activists. Geoff Drechsler's contribution to Labor Tribune shows that the heavy-handed intervention of head office to parachute in candidates alienates workers from the Labor Party. And while Drechsler's solution to this is schematic rather than political, there is clearly a groundswell of disenchantment with bureaucratic management of candidates.
Delegates defeated a motion from the Newcastle state electoral council, 390 in favour and 477 against. It says: "Conference vehemently opposes any proposed N40 selection of any candidate for the state electorate of Newcastle and reaffirms its total support for the standing member and a rank-and-file preselection." Rule N40 of the NSW ALP allows for the suspension of selection ballots, the installation of a central panel and the effective removal of rank-and-file control.
At conference Gaudry said that Morris Iemma needs "committed, hard-working ALP members [of parliament] supported by the rank and file". However Karl Bitar, the rightwing's assistant secretary accused the left of hypocrisy because it had supported the installation of Peter Garret in Kingsford-Smith. Bitar couldn't but help himself to a bit of red-baiting either, accusing Gaudry of preferring he be succeeded by Tim Crackenthorpe. Claiming that Crackenthorpe had recently visited Cuba, Bitar said he "learnt the pure form of communism at the hands of Fidel Castro". If only it was so.
Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities
The so-called Socialist Left faction of the ALP had its list of hobbyhorse issues to take to conference. Rather than stand an alternative platform for government that is actually socialist, the comrades instead chose an all-together more timid approach.
And there was nothing more timid over the weekend than the debate about a Charter for Rights and Responsibilities. Or rather, it was a debate about holding a discussion about maybe NSW introducing such a charter. And speakers from the left bent over backwards to assure delegates that any such charter would be a parliamentary bill, not a campaign for constitutional change, heaven forbid!
A proposed charter is to be modelled on Victoria's Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act. This contains such matters as freedom from forced work, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, belief, expression and association. It puts in law the right to join a trade union. However it is quiet on any rights once you're in a trade union - the right to withdraw labour is nowhere to be seen in this act or in the NewMatilda sponsored Human Rights bill for federal parliament. After all, the rights to property are also protected in the charter.
Speaking in favour of the motion, Sydney deputy lord mayor Verity Firth warned delegates that "ALP is not going to be in power forever in NSW ... and what legacy will we leave workers?" She went on to claim that many rights and liberties, including the right to join a union, are enshrined in Victoria.
Now I don't know about you, but "enshrined" implies something a little more permanent than that of a parliamentary majority. A conservative government in Victoria could easily repeal the act, as could any subsequent Liberal-National government in NSW.
Further, the Victorian act contains this killer clause: "Parliament may expressly declare in an act that that act or a provision of that act … has effect despite being incompatible with one or more of the human rights or despite anything else set out in this charter." S. 31 (1) Such an act is aimed at making the liberal left feel good about itself. It is not designed to empower working people.
The whole point about "enshrining" human rights is to put them beyond the vagaries of parliamentary majorities. Labor Tribune supports a constitutional bill of rights as part of a republican constitution. In order to achieve this we cannot tinker with the current constitutional settlement - we must abolish the monarchial constitution through the mass action of the working class, including any pressure through parliament we can muster.
Bernie Smith of the SDA retail union opposed the motion. He claimed that our political culture is enough to protect such rights and that legislative measures on particular issues is all that is required. He said that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Mao's China and Stalin's USSR all had bills of rights and they were dictatorships.
NSW attorney-general Bob Debus countered saying that we need statute and culture and said that we have enjoyed such rights 'since time immemorial'. While this was no doubt a mere rhetorical flourish, it exposes a weakness in the "Socialist" Left's thinking on this matter. Rights are not from 'time immemorial', they are concrete; they are fought for, won and defended through class struggle. The motion passed on the voices with the left gaining the backing of most of industrial right.
As it stands it is a weak "feel-good" motion and is the sort of "trendy" issue that the conservatives so love to wedge Labor on. Human rights need to be real not merely a charter from the chattering classes that can be snatched away by the next rightwing government. They need to be constitutionally enshrined and, most importantly, exercised by a militant working class movement.
International relations committee
NSW Labor has policy opposed to all mandatory detention of asylum seekers. That is a good thing. It is something worth defending. Of course, it is not a consistently democratic and internationalist position. Marxists fight for the right of all people to free movement. In a globalised world economy it is an obscene madness that a plastic spoon made in China, or a Nike shoe made in Indonesia, has more rights to travel the world than the person who made it.
At the past two state conferences, Labor for Refugees has had to fight a rearguard action to stop the NSW Right overturning policy on asylum seekers and refugees. And in that fight we have found a champion in John Robertson, secretary of Unions NSW. Again, that is a good thing and it is an alliance worth defending.
Once again the international relations committee report threatened NSW policy on this issue. And in tune with this whole conference a nice little fudge was sorted out.
Initially John Robertson and the L4R convenors favoured the whole item falling off the agenda. This is how the policy was saved last year. But shadow immigration minister Tony Burke wanted his shot at grandstanding at the Town Hall podium. Comrade Burke is a very ambitious man.
So a deal was done. Daney Faddoul and Daniel Mookhey from Labor 4 Refugees met with Meredith Burgmann, John Robertson and Tony Burke to sort this out.
Tony Burke got his wish to address conference regarding his review of temporary protection visas. L4R got its wish to re-emphasise current state policy on this, but not in such a way as to bind Burke to it, but merely as one submission to the review process. Further Burke condemned the Howard government's odious second Pacific solution to send offshore all "unauthorised" asylum seekers for processing. Conference also instructed the state government to allow Medicare access to all non-residents on TPVs. This final point is an important win for the refugee advocacy movement.
In return, the right allowed through the Left's motion on West Papua, which was no great concession given that the motion falls short of calling for self-determination for West Papua. The motion calling for Australian troops to withdraw from Iraq also passed. However, this calls for "orderly withdrawal" rather than a better formulation from the Illawara regional assembly for "immediate withdrawal".
Unfortunately it did not call for Australia to withdraw from Afghanistan, it just opposes further deployment. So that bloody occupation is all right then.
Opposition to the Howard government's anti-terror laws was strong throughout branches. Party members are particularly angry at the sedition and detention-without-charge aspects of these laws. One motion, from Banks FEC, went so far as to call on Beazley to resign as leader if he couldn't oppose these anti-democratic laws.
Not surprisingly, these motions fell, largely along factional lines.
The other classic fudge at conference came courtesy of Anthony Albanese and the Australian Workers Union. Albanese has been admirably carrying the flag for the anti-nuclear campaigners. The neanderthal wing of the ALP is in danger of allowing Howard to drag Labor into a diversionary debate on uranium and nuclear power. All it sees is jobs and export earnings. As one rightwinger said to me at a branch meeting: "Morality has nothing to do with the national interest." Well, he was right, but for all the wrong reasons. Marxist morality is concrete and is universal for all humanity. The national interest is nothing but short hand for the interests of the Australian capitalist class. Bill Shorten, the man who scabbed on the Pilbara mineworkers to do a deal with Rio Tinto, and the AWU he leads is at the forefront of seeking to overturn current ALP policy, which opposes new uranium mines. That policy is itself a compromise born in the 1980s.
The AWU had a motion to conference: "Conference calls upon the state government to undertake an investigation into the use of nuclear technology in the provision of energy as a supplement to existing sources in meeting the growing energy demands of NSW." The administration committee recommended support for this in the conference papers.
Albanese's motion on Saturday afternoon in the environment section was in opposition to nuclear power. The AWU not only withdrew its motion, but it seconded Albanese's opposition to nuclear power. You may think this odd, but in the short-term electoral interests of the ALP, the factions agreed to defer the debate to national conference. It was in the speeches of the mover and seconder where the differences emerged. Albanese expanded on his opposition to nuclear power, mentioning dangers posed by the "entire nuclear cycle". This is in opposition to those in the ALP who not only wish to see uranium mining expanded but want uranium enrichment and even entertain fantasies of nuclear energy.
Mick Madden, NSW president of the AWU, spoke in favour of Albanese's motion, but made clear that this did not equate to any opposition to expanded uranium mining.
The motion passed unanimously. The debate was mere shadow boxing and a factional deal had meant the fight on uranium mining was put off to national conference next year.
The NSW government has been saying some decent things about WorkChoices. It has helped bankroll the High Court challenge to the legislation. It has moved to protect public servants by making them Crown employees. Fair enough as far as it goes. However, unions want more leverage out of Labor in government in NSW. In the lead-up to conference, John Della Bosca - the uber-minister for commerce, finance and industrial relations - had said that any moves to force government to only procure goods and services from worker-friendly employers would be illegal.
Unions NSW moved to have government procure goods and services from companies that respected awards, industrial agreements and occupational health and safety issues. The government tried to wriggle out of this, but it saw the writing on the wall - or rather, saw it didn't have the numbers.
Della Bosca made a statement at conference saying he would draw up guidelines for consideration to implement the decision. Unions must ensure that the motion is carried out in spirit and letter.
So there you have it. Another exciting weekend in the life of the Labor Party. Deals done, motions passed and the rank-and-file told to leave the stage for another year. The meeting was interesting for what was left off the agenda: local government. The airing of this report and its associated amendments would have been embarrassing for a state Labor government that has accepted donations from developers at a time when planning issues are so hot. The report raised concerns about political donations and how this impacts local government, but withdrawing planning powers from councils doesn't remove the temptations and possibilities of petty corruption, rather it allows for the possibility of it being completely professionalised, sanitised and corporatised.
A motion calling for all ministers to be banned for two years from taking jobs in private enterprise should have been heard and should have been passed.
Despite attempts to present the Iemma-Costa leadership as a "new direction" for NSW, the musty smell of the Carr years lingers.