Labor fudges position on troop withdrawal



In last week’s Green Left Weekly, I reported on federal Labor leader Simon Crean’s public backflip on the ALP's original call for Australian troops not to participate in a non-UN approved war against Iraq. Many ALP MPs, however, have since denied that any backflip has taken place. For this edition of GLW, I set about tracking down the truth.

On ABC TV's March 23 Insiders program, Crean responded to a question asking whether he still called for the troops’ recall, by saying that he hoped the troops would “finish their task quickly and successfully and return home safely”. He added: “I want them to win.” This has been his last public statement on the matter.

Whatever Labor MPs think their party's policy is, the media certainly thinks, and reports, that a backflip has taken place.

On April 1, for example, the ABC ran a story arguing that ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope would “contradict the party line” in the ACT parliament, by calling for the “troops to be withdrawn”.

In his speech, Stanhope argued that Australian involvement in the war should be stopped, saying: “The war is wrong. To persist with it will not make it right. It is never too late to do the right thing ... to continue [Australian involvement in the war] will forever diminish our nation.”

I rang Stanhope’s office to ask if he considered these remarks a breach of Labor policy, only to be told someone “who could answer that question” would ring me back. No-one did.

I also spoke to Labor’s most prominent anti-war campaigner, Harry Quick. When he heard from a journalist about Crean’s remarks on March 23, Quick says he went, “off my face”, condemning Crean’s backflip. But now, he says he is somewhat repentant, telling me “I should have read the transcript first.”

Quick was reprimanded for his outburst by Crean’s senior media adviser. “No-one [in the ALP] would share their 'big lunch’ or their 'little lunch’ with me for days”, Quick said.

On March 25, Labor MPs turned up to a caucus meeting, expected a fight over Crean's remarks. According to Quick, however, it turned out to be “the quietest caucus I think I’ve ever been to. The left rallied behind Simon.”

Quick said that Crean clarified that “We support the withdrawal of the troops, we oppose the war and if the ALP was in government, the troops would be withdrawn”. Quick explained away Crean’s comments as a result of confusion. “Barry Cassidy is a very clever journo. When he asked, 'what do you mean by win’, Simon started to um and ah — it’s very easy to lead yourself into a maze. We should just say we are totally opposed to the war, not get tied up in discussions about the UN and vetos and so on.”

I raised with Quick some of the rumours being printed in the Murdoch press. An article in the March 26 Herald Sun and the Australian argued that the “withdraw troops immediately” formulation had been changed by the ALP caucus following the intervention of former Labor leader Kim Beazley. The new formulation, the article argued, was “oppose the use of military forces and urges their withdrawal”. Quick was dismissive of this claim.

The article also said that there were deep divisions in the party about whether to support or oppose the war. It described March 24 Labor right faction and shadow cabinet meetings as “heated”, arguing that right-wing MPs Craig Emerson and Mark Latham wanted a clearer anti-war stance, as did the left faction as a whole.

A subsequent article by columnist Glenn Milne, published in the March 31 Australian, however, acknowledged that Crean had contradicted the March 25 report, which had been given to Milne by from an unnamed shadow minister, about the factional dissent. Crean said only that people had “misinterpreted” his comments. In his article, Milne indicated he was unsure of the true story.

Quick, like anti-war backbench MP Carmen Lawrence who spoke to GLW on March 27, was unaware that on March 26 the Labor Party had reworded a Greens' Senate motion calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops to call for the “safe withdrawal” of the troops. Senator John Faulkner’s office had told Bob Brown that the word immediately was not acceptable to the ALP.

I got the same response when I spoke to Faulkner's media adviser, Colin Campbell. He argued that the word immediately was “unrealistic” and hit a “bad tone”.

“When they are published, you want people to take these motions seriously”, he said. “It needs to be do-able and believable. People will think [of the “immediately” demand] 'that’s a bit silly, they’ve just gone in'.”

Campbell vehemently denied that this was a change in position. “If the prime minister called an election in a month, and by some miracle the polls turned around and Simon Crean won, he would withdraw the troops. That’s Labor’s position.”

When I asked Campbell why, if the ALP’s position on the troops was so simple, Crean had not publicly contradicted the media’s reportage of a “backflip”, he somewhat curtly replied: “He’s said it plenty of times.”

However, all the examples that Campbell and Quick gave me of Crean’s public position on the war predated its beginning on March 19-20. Since then, the ALP leadership has been very quiet. There is no correction, or even a clarification, of Crean’s comments available on the ALP’s national web-site.

It seems somewhat incredible, then, that the ALP has “an anti-war position” that only Labor MPs know about. But this allows the ALP to do what it does best — fudge and obfuscate.

Crean wants the support of the ruling class, which is for the war. But he also wants to win the electoral support of those opposing the war.

With at least half the population opposing the war, notwithstanding the massive pro-war media campaign, Crean is under enormous pressure in the polls — his approval rating hit a record low following his comments on the Insiders program.

The Labor left is desperate to convince people that the ALP is truly anti-war, and supports the only practical way to end Australia’s involvement in it — by bringing the troops home.

But their desperation to create the illusion that the ALP supports the anti-war movement should not obscure the reality. The good work that Quick and Lawrence are doing is not mirrored in the ALP as a whole.

Neither Crean nor any other shadow cabinet member can even bring themselves to say publicly, no matter what he is saying in caucus, that this war is an injustice that must be stopped immediately.

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
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