Bill Shorten surprised no one with his laughingly tiny reforms at the Australian Labor Party National Conference over December 16–18.
If you expected debate, let alone proposals to stop the Adani coalmine or refugee boat turn-backs or the closure of off-shore detention centres, then you would have been disappointed as these things did not happen.
If you were hoping that there might be a commitment to increase the Newstart Allowance or to back progressive industrial relations reforms that will actually change the rules for workers, you would be doubly disappointed as these things were also rejected.
Clearly delegates to the ALP National Conference decided that it was better to shelve, possibly indefinitely, all debates on controversial issues in an effort to win government next year.
Shorten summed up this “don’t rock the boat” mentality in his opening speech. He said: “We are determined, we are united, we are ready. Ready to serve, ready to lead, ready to govern."
Was there a peep of opposition from those “intrepid warriors” of the Left, such as Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek or Penny Wong, against this lack of progress on issues dear to all lefties? Nope — unless you consider the call to register the narrowness of the vote against a Human Rights Charter as some sort of vague progressive victory?
Even that great defender of refugee rights, Ged Kearney, while promising not to let people languish in indefinite detention, did not actually put a motion to close down Manus and Nauru.
So what was there agreement on?
Shorten promised to subsidise the building of 250,000 new affordable homes with a $6.6 billion plan. It involves nothing more than giving $8500 subsidies to investors to build homes in return for a 20% discount on market rent to eligible renters.
This looks like a gift to landlords as there are no promises to create new or more public housing.
The proposed policy has being slammed by affordable housing experts who argue that the planned subsidies do not actually address the root causes of housing unaffordability.
The Conference promised to release the findings of a Newstart review within 18 months of taking power. After a brief debate, they rejected the call from anti-poverty activists campaigning to increase the rate of Newstart by $75 a week from the currently meagre $275.
As Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services said: “We didn’t need a review to put together a big package of personal income tax cuts. I don’t think anybody should ignore the fact that today we’ve got almost a million people living on less than $40 a day on a payment that hasn’t been increased in over 27 years.”
Measures were promised to address the question of the environment with an overhaul of the federal environment framework — presumably another review. However, while the conference floor did make a timely acknowledgement that we are facing a climate emergency, there were not a lot of concrete motions to address the emergency.
There was silence on the question of opposing the Adani coalmine — an uncomfortable fact highlighted by protest action groups AYCC and Stop Adani outside the conference.
Australia would accept 4000 more refugees a year under a Labor government, but their commitment to boat turn-backs and offshore detention remains. However they will try to humanise the policy a little by allowing some of the refugees on Nauru to be resettled in New Zealand and allow more medical transfers of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru to Australia.
The expansion of a community-based refugee program from 1000 to 5000 places is part of a compromise deal between the party's dominant Left and Right factions to avoid a damaging public debate on asylum seeker policy.
Too bad about human rights and stopping the psychological torture of indefinite detention as campaigned for by refugee rights activists who were dragged away from the conference for protesting the ALP’s shameful policy.
According to the ACTU, Bill Shorten has listened to working people and heard the cries for more secure work and pay rises. However he hasn’t actually promised to do anything about secure work or pay rises. He has promised a crackdown on dodgy bosses who steal superannuation, progress on equal pay and a model national industrial manslaughter scheme.
All admirable but a far cry from the dozens of demands made by workers in two mass rallies throughout 2018. The ACTU promised that if unionists campaigned for the election of a Labor government, there would be sweeping changes to unfair industrial laws, as well as improvements in pay and working conditions. It is more likely we will be sitting on our hands for long periods after the 2019 elections.
Obviously no one on the Left wants to see three more years of the Morrison government, with its anti-worker, racist and regressive policies. But surely we could have expected a little more from an incoming Labor government?