Labor conference shifts party further right-wards

December 5, 2011
Equal marriage rights protesters
Equal marriage rights protesters at ALP'™s 2011 conference. Photo: Peter Boyle

Despite a significant, if partial, win for the marriage equality movement, the right-ward shift of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) continued apace at its recently concluded national conference.

The tone of the 10,000-strong demonstration for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples outside the conference in Sydney’s Darling Harbour on December 4 was more angry than celebratory — even though the conference had just voted to accept marriage equality in ALP policy.

The protesters knew that the policy change had been won despite PM Gillard’s opposition. They were also furious that the conference then gave in to Gillard and the party’s right faction by allowing Labor MPs a “conscience vote”, that is the right to vote against party policy in parliament.

“Julia Gillard, ALP, we demand equality! Shame, Julia, shame!” the huge crowd shouted outside the convention centre.

“If you are a politician there is no where for you to hide”, campaigner Kerryn Phelps told the protest outside the ALP conference.

“The only way to get rid of us is to introduce marriage equality and do it now.” This was met with thunderous applause.

Video: Thousands march for equal marriage rights in Australia. Peter Boyle.

Not that ignoring party policy is anything new for the ALP. Just about every Labor government has ignored some part of official ALP policy, especially when it cuts against the interests of the corporate rich Labor governments have loyally served for more than a century.

The equal marriage rights protesters weren’t just moaning or whining that they were cheated out of a bigger win despite the fact that polls have shown that up to 7 out of 10 people support marriage equality in Australia.

They were aware that the change in ALP policy was a won by the thousands who have taken to the streets for years in the biggest and broadest mass campaign for a democratic right seen in this country for many years.

Indeed, the movement used the weekend not just to protest but to organise. A “1Love – Equality, Marriage, Freedom” conference held in Sydney the next day planned to continue the mass protests with a cavalcade to Canberra for the first sitting of parliament with a “Have a Heart, Vote for Marriage” action.

This was a practical recognition that there was now an opening to take the pressure to the parliament — even in the framework of the ALP conference’s “conscience vote” concession to the right.

Sole Greens federal MP Adam Bandt and Labor MP Stephen Jones have both said they’ll move private members bills to allow same-sex marriage rights when Parliament re-convenes next year.

“It is disappointing that Labor has failed to adopt a position of complete support for marriage equality,” Bandt said.

“However, Labor support for a conscience vote provides us with an opportunity to test parliament’s support for marriage equality. Labor’s decision now puts marriage equality in the hands of those Coalition members who have the courage to stand by their convictions.”

A recent Galaxy poll shows that the other traditional parties of government are equally pressed by growing public support for marriage equality. It found that 76% of Liberal-National coalition supporters now support with equal marriage rights.

Popular former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull has called for a conscience vote in the Liberal party which could free an estimated 10-20 of its MPs to vote against their party’s policy and support same-sex marriage rights bill.

The angry reaction of religious conservatives to the ALP’s policy shift indicates that this was a significant win for the progressive movement. They know what this opens up. But most political commentators think that with ALP allowing its MPs to vote against the party’s new pro-marriage equality policy a same-sex marriage rights bill will not win a majority in parliament.

If equal marriage rights activists outside the ALP conference on December 3, and their supporters among the delegates, were not celebrating — rather, the mood was captured by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir’s moving rendition of We Shall Not Give Up The Fight at the end of the protest: “We shall not give up the fight, we have only started…” — the mood of refugee rights and anti-uranium protesters who marched on the ALP conference the next day was angry and bitter.

The ALP’s two other headline policy retreats by the ALP in this conference were on refugees and uranium export to India, a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a country with nuclear weapons.

The retreat on uranium export comes in a long line of rollbacks for anti-uranium mining and export policy forced on the ALP by a mass movement in the second half of the 1970s.

In 1983, the ALP’s position was watered down to a “three mines policy”, which allowed the Ranger, Narbelek and Roxby Downs uranium mines to go ahead. The three-mine policy was abandoned in 2007 — ironically one of the arguments the ALP used at the time was that uranium exports could go only to nations that had signed the treaty. Now the ALP has dropped that condition too.

The ALP conference reaffirmed Labor’s policy for the mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat. It also voted to support offshore processing for refugees, opening the door to revisiting the notorious “Malaysian solution” — Labor’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Malaysia that was defeated in parliament earlier this year.

The Paul Keating Labor government first introduced the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, a policy that has left thousands of desperate refugees (including 882 children at the last count) detained indefinitely without trial in ever-more detention camps around the country.

The fury of the crowd was palpable as Dianne Hiles from Children Out of Detention (Chilout) read out a list of the desperate refugees who have recently committed suicide in detention.

Notes on the conference by Labor for Refugees secretary Nizza Siano, and circulated around the refugee rights movement by ALP member and refugee activist Jenny Haines, captured the bitter defeat of a reform motion by 27 votes.

Supporters of the government’s inhuman refugee policy focused their arguments on “people smugglers” and inferred that “somehow, if our amendments were supported, that would encourage people smuggling”.

“They also used the ‘queue jumping’ furfie without actually calling it that and claimed that we’d lose the election if our [reform] amendments were adopted. Strange that the Party leadership was prepared to push for a conscience vote in Parliament for same sex marriage but not for refugees/asylum seekers — an issue of life and death for some refugees. I’m trying hard not to feel bitter.”

Refugee activists used the mobilisation around the ALP conference protest as an organising point. Representatives of 10 groups from across the country met after the conference decision to discuss a campaign framework to escalate the campaign to free the refugees over the coming year. This will include a national convergence over the Easter weekend next year at the refugee detention camp in Darwin.

On behalf of the national consultation of refugee activists, Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said: “The amendments are a step backwards for the Labor Party and the Labor government. The move to increase the refugee intake only on condition of the government implementing the Malaysia Agreement was an shabby piece of domestic politicking.

“Any plan to expel asylum seekers to Malaysia, or any other third country is a fundamental [beytrayal of] Australia’s obligation to provide protection for who arrive on our shores fleeing persecution. But [immigration minister] Chris Bowen is locked in an anti-refugee race to the bottom with Tony Abbott. Abbott says ‘Nauru’, while Bowen says, ‘Malaysia’.”

Despite the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ promise that the ALP conference would deliver workers “enhanced rights to bargain for better pay and conditions and secure jobs” there was little to show for this except a bit of posturing.

The construction unions’ planned motion to outlaw the hated Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) industry “Gestapo” special inspectors that have victimised construction workers was reportedly withdrawn even before conference started because it didn’t have the numbers.

The ABCC was set up by the former Howard Coalition government to smash militant unions in the industry. It is ALP policy to abolish it, but the Gillard government has failed to deliver. The amendments moved to the legislation this year fall short of the promise to abolish it.

Grand promises to deliver a democratic reform of the ALP at this conference came to nothing and morphed into the ongoing leadership tussle between Gillard and former PM Kevin Rudd.

The ALP’s membership has fallen from about 50,000 in the 1990s to 31,208 today. This still leaves it the biggest party in Australia, though its ranks have not had control of the party for a long time.

The general pattern of policy change at this latest ALP conference follows the steady right-ward trend of conferences since the early 1980s.

ALP leaders now boast that it was an ALP government that did what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US — began the push for neoliberal “reform”. In the process they’ve soured and debased the word “reform” in public discourse.

ALP politicians have sometimes looked for costless social reforms to cover up their consistent betrayal of working class interests in the interests of making the corporate rich even richer. It appeared for a while that they may have hoped to use a new position on marriage equality as a way to re-sell the party as a party of popular reform.

But when this reform is won, it will have been won by the activists in the streets and not delivered by the politicians.

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