Wins for workers, blows for refugees at the ALP Victorian State Conference

Precarious workers speak about wage theft at the ALP Victorian State Conference in Melbourne on May 25.

The Victorian Branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) held its state conference over the weekend of May 26 and 27.

The conference was held amid rising tensions within the Victorian ALP; with several prominent unions including the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU) splitting from the Socialist Left to form the new “Centre Unity and Industrial Left Alliance” faction with a number of right-wing unions including the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

This arrangement effectively overturned the “stability pact” that had existed for a number of years between Labor Unity (the right faction) and the Socialist Left in Victoria. The pact ensured that sitting MPs from one faction would not be challenged in internal pre-selections for their seats by the opposing faction.

There were several wins for workers at the conference. Most prominently, there was a commitment to make industrial manslaughter a crime punishable by jail. There was also a commitment to make wage theft a crime.

However, these commitments will not be legislated right away, despite the fact that Labor is in government in Victoria. They are, in effect, election promises and will be legislated if the Daniel Andrews-led government wins a second term at the November state election.

Given that they are currently in government, the question has to be asked: why can these commitments not be legislated now? There is also a question of what will come of these commitments if Labor loses government. It stinks of vote buying and rank opportunism. Rank-and-file unionists should rightly call Labor’s motives into question.

With that said, it is important to acknowledge that this is a step forward when it comes to Labor’s position on these issues. Before, they had no formal position when it came to industrial manslaughter or wage theft. A formal position on these matters gives unions and activists the vital ability to hold Labor to their word.

While it is important to acknowledge this step forward for working people, there was also a serious blow to refugee advocates.

The Socialist Left drafted a motion that called on Labor to "close the offshore detention centres, transit centres and other camps on Manus Island and Nauru within the first 90 days" of a federal Labor government.

As the debate was about to begin, delegates from the CFMMEU and the AWU teamed up to defer the motion — and all others — in what has been described as a “potentially damaging debate”, effectively shutting down the discussion and ending the conference. This action prompted cries of shame from the audience.

Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has been going to great lengths in recent weeks to emphasise the party’s support for boat turnbacks and indefinite offshore detention, which remains formal Labor policy and largely mirrors that of the Coalition government. This comes after some MPs, including the MP for Batman Ged Kearney, have become increasingly vocal and critical of the practice.

Before the debate was shut down, Shorten told the ABC: "The current government would like to say that there'll be another policy; there won't be. I am very committed to making sure the boats don’t start again.”

“We also just happen to think that we shouldn't be leaving people in semi-indefinite detention for five years just to achieve this.”

It can be speculated that debate was shut down because the ALP is currently contesting a series of byelections across the country. One of these byelections is the division of Longman, a seat in regional Queensland, north of Brisbane, which it is hoping to retain and is a seat that likely wouldn’t respond well to a softened (or any sign that it could be softened in the future) policy on asylum seekers.

Historically, Longman has been a conservative electorate that has seen right-wing populist parties, such as One Nation, historically perform strongly. At the 2016 federal election, One Nation gained 9.4% of the vote in this electorate.

Any vote on refugee policy at the ALP state conference would not have been binding, with the party’s policies to be set at the forthcoming National Conference. Despite this, like with putting off reform to criminalise wage theft and industrial manslaughter until after the state election, deferring debate on refugee policy is a classic example of rank electoral opportunism — buying votes with people’s lives.

The date of Labor’s National Conference is yet to be determined but is likely to be after the July 28 by-elections. We will soon find out what this brings as far as policy outcomes are concerned.

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