Before the 2007 federal election, former Labor minister and ex-party president Barry Jones made a striking analogy between the ALP’s factionalism and its predilection for selling public assets. He said: “The ALP has been privatised and factions are majority and minority stakeholders, run by professional managers, some now in the third generation.”
Less than 18 months later, Queensland Labor Premier Anna Bligh won a state election on a platform that made no mention of privatisation.
After winning office she proceeded to sell $15 billion worth of publicly owned infrastructure that included ports, forestry holdings, roads, and Queensland Rail. Vocal protests from unionists fell on deaf parliamentary ears. Only two of the 51 Labor caucus members spoke against the decision, despite the fact that it was contrary to party policy and opposed by 85% of Queensland voters.
As the sale process unfolded in the rail industry it attracted criticism from then-Labor federal resources minister and former Australian Council of Trade Unions president Martin Ferguson. His objection was that coal companies should be allowed to bid for the assets.
After 17 years in parliament, Ferguson is now supplementing his meagre six-figure pension with the role of chairperson of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association’s advisory board.
COAL SEAM GAS
It was in this capacity that he gave a speech in Sydney at the Clayton Utz Energy and Resources conference on the eve of the NSW ALP state conference, which was held over July 26 to 27.
Ferguson attacked NSW Labor for its “opposition” to coal seam gas development. Instead of “chasing green votes in Nimbin and Lismore” the ALP should give the industry the green light. For good measure he attacked the Maritime Union of Australia and argued for changes to the Fair Work Act to ensure unions could not disrupt resource projects.
The speech came after financial services group Credit Suisse published a report on the Santos Narrabri coal seam gas project in the Pilliga state forest. The project has been set back by leaking ponds, ground contamination and massive community opposition.
After signing a memorandum of understanding with the NSW government for a decision on whether the project can go ahead early next year, Santos missed a June 30 deadline to lodge the environmental report required by the agreement.
Credit Suisse’s intrepid researchers actually visited the Pilliga and spoke to residents and landholders. They concluded that there was widespread mistrust of Santos and the CSG industry in general and that “mass opposition” was the key risk to the company’s mining prospects in the Pilliga.
They concluded that the value of the project was now $350 million. In 2011, Santos bought it from Eastern Star for $950 million. The price of protest in the Pilliga has cost Santos $600 million in under two years.
FALLOUT FROM ICAC
NSW Labor cannot shake the stench of dishonesty that has followed it ever since the Independent Commission Against Corruption found Eddie Obeid and other prominent Labor parliamentarians to be corrupt.
The conference's solution was to ignore the issue in the hope that it would fade from public memory – preferably by March next year when NSW goes to the polls. Senator John Faulkner’s attempt to wrest control of selecting upper-house candidates from among the factions which catapulted the corrupt to power came to nothing – thanks to factional control of the conference.
Resolutions that would have made it binding on ALP caucus members to vote in favour of same-sex marriage, ending offshore processing of asylum seekers, and raising the level of revenue in relation to GDP were also defeated.
What the conference did manage to do was remove the “socialist objective” from the party platform where it has lain dormant since it was introduced in 1921.
The turn to neoliberalism is commonly associated with the Margaret Thatcher government in Britain and the Ronald Reagan administration in the US.
Yet in many countries it was the parties of social democracy that led the way – Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany prominent among them. When they did not lead they were enthusiastic followers.
Ridding the ALP of a long-redundant socialist objective is simply recognition of the obvious. So too is the fact that the ALP has long been committed to neoliberal economics. So the tricky question that arises is, what does the Labor Party stand for?
This will apparently be determined at the ALP national conference next year after members are consulted on developing a new statement which will clearly “explain Labor’s values, principles, traditions, goals [and] approach to government.”
If the party wants an honest answer to these questions it should ask Ferguson.