Anyone who joins a political party loves an argument. Sometimes those arguments get noisy, but that’s a healthy sign. A party able to hold robust debates is a party full of energy and ideas for the future.

J Gillard The Age 15 November 2011

Coalition claims that The Age is an in-house Labor rag start to have something to it when reading Gillard’s bizarre piece a couple of weeks ago. Quite what something addressed mainly to the party faithful is doing in a public paper is unclear. After all, why would anyone else outside the ALP care if it was able to hold robust debates or not? Voters would surely only care what the party did, or intends to do, not whether they had an argument deciding to do it. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard these days to have leafleted the ALP members directly, even if there are 35,000 (!) of them as the leadership claims.

But then this is a party so self-absorbed that not only is it having an internal debate about reform and the need for debate in public, but it actually thinks anyone else might be interested.

That this Conference might be a highly volatile affair, given what has happened since the last one, is understandable. After all, the ease with which Labor’s new industrial relations framework is now being used as a strike-breaking tool, not only to the benefit of a union-buster like Alan Joyce but, more awkwardly, by a Victorian Liberal government against its nurses, will doubtless provoke a fierce response from both ALP members and unions.

Or maybe not. Or perhaps Gillard’s unseemly wrangle with the dying Labor NSW government to water down OHS requirements that was enough to make even Sussex St look like it had principles, might get some response? Maybe next Conference.

But surely Conference will be tearing itself part over the government’s sordid attempt to set up offshore-processing with non-UNHCR signatory Malaysia. After so much sincere condemnation of Howard doing the same with Nauru that we saw at Conferences past, this one should be a real barney! Get the popcorn ready! What channel will it be on?

Probably best to leave the corn unpopped. Because in the spirit of open democracy, Gillard informs us that apparently the “robust” debate will instead be on gay marriage and uranium.

The issue of gay marriage is understandably of significant personal interest to some. Indeed it is the very personal way that marriage is regarded across society these days that means the right’s usual warnings about threats to the “institution” of marriage has far less resonance. Since most now regard the institution of marriage only in terms of their own relationship, it is unsurprising that the majority of voters can’t really see why same sex couples also getting married will be a problem for them.

But it’s precisely because marriage is such a personal issue, which probably lies behind the voter majority in favour of allowing same sex marriage, that Gillard’s position for a conscience vote at the same time as supporting the Marriage Act makes no sense. Firstly, because it raises the questions why MPs consciences should be regarded as finer than our own, which in majority has no problem with changing the Marriage Act.

But secondly, if allowing same sex marriage is a matter of personal conscience, why then should the state legislate on it at all? Nick Minchin’s refusal to allow a conscience vote against defending the Marriage Act may be old hat, but at least it’s coherent. The logic that if marriage is a social issue then the Liberal party, as an upholder of family values, will have a view on it, was even conceded by the Liberal proposing a conscience vote (although Minchin’s own argument was rather undermined when had to concede that under Liberal party rules, members may leave the party line on conscience grounds anyway).

But for Gillard to argue that it’s an issue of personal conscience, so therefore the state should be allowed to continue to over-ride personal consciences on the issue is clearly nonsense. If it was a debate on the issue itself, then the move by Wong and Barr to get the Marriage Act out of the issue altogether would win. But then this is more about the leadership reaffirming itself through allowing “robust debate”, so it probably won’t.

Yet, if there is something a touch phoney about the same sex marriage debate, it looks positively genuine compared to the one on uranium.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the ACTU and the ALP were putting the finishing touches to the biggest assault on employee living standards since World War II, the Accord, the number one issue for the Labor left at the time became … uranium. Opposition to uranium mining and the use of nuclear technology became the ultimate in displacement activity for a left that was facing awkward decisions over its attitude to what the ALP leadership was up to at the time. Indeed, suspicion of nuclear science was practically de rigueur for being in the Labor left in those days, years before it adopted the phoney respect for science it has today with climate change.

Hawke revelled in making a show of taking on the left over uranium such as in his, er, rather emotional performance at the 1979 ACTU conference and later as Prime Minister at the 1984 ALP Conference. It not only added to his moderate credentials, but reaffirmed the irrelevance of the left both in terms of what it had to say about the core government program around the economy, as well to what was affecting most of Australian employees at the time.

It is largely in fond nostalgia for those grand, pointless debates of the past that the leadership would like to see another slightly less grand, pointless debate now. Or at least, let us hope so. Because on its own terms, the debate is less savoury. The government’s position is merely geopolitics. The US has been increasing nuclear relations with India as a delicate means of containing the political influence of its banker, and the government is just following suit.

The left’s position is objecting to the sale of uranium to India because it is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India has stated it is not on the entirely reasonable grounds that the NPT forces emerging countries to jump through hoops to get access to uranium but is perfectly happy for the main holders of nuclear weapons to keep them – even the only country that has actually used those weapons against civilian populations (but let’s not go there).

Indeed India is the one of the few countries with a no first use first policy, constraints under which the main holders of nuclear weapons and enforcers of the NPT have not felt the need to place themselves. So this debate is not really about restricting nuclear weapons or even non-proliferation, unless you consider it under the terms it is defined by the largest holders, and users, of nuclear weapons. It is a hollow dance by a left wanting to show it exists when, after what it has done over asylum seekers and industrial relations, you really might be under the impression it doesn’t.

Finally there will be the real debate, the one that will generate most intensity, passion and uncertainty in the party, the debate about itself. At the core of the debate on party reform is an attempt by the main power bases in the party to justify itself, against those, led by Rudd and his supporters, who want to undermine it. Throughout, the membership will be flattered and perhaps a little bewildered as the debate on reform will revolve around it, but not really. Rudd will be talking up the membership and party democracy as means of undermining the power brokers. The same power brokers will be countering it by showing such party ‘democracy’ in action.

That’s why, in contrast to every other leader in Labor’s history, who wanted to contain opposition to its policy from Conference, Gillard is taking such an odd path of talking them up. But then it’s not the policies that matter, it’s all about form and internal power plays. And you can’t get more hollow than that.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 1 December 2011.

Filed under State of the parties

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6 responses to “Self-absorbed and deluded – Conference special”

  1. Steve on 2nd December 2011 10:31 am

    “But then this is a party so self-absorbed that not only is it having an internal debate about reform and the need for debate in public, but it actually thinks anyone else might be interested.”

    Clearly you are as you are writing about it.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 2nd December 2011 11:34 am

    Got me!

  3. Alex White on 4th December 2011 8:38 pm

    Opposition to uranium mining and the use of nuclear technology became the ultimate in displacement activity for a left that was facing awkward decisions over its attitude to what the ALP leadership was up to at the time.

    PS — you seem to have a historical understanding of the history of the Left that ignores most of the facts. The reality is that in the 1980s, the Left was very active in campaigning and debating the Accord.

    The 1980s was a major period of activity for the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation movement.

    Listening to the Left speakers today, it was clear that they weren’t arguing against India having uranium, but against the dangers of uranium mining, of proliferation, and in favour of multilateralism. Albo and others opposed nuclear weapons as a whole — including the UK, USA, France, Russia, etc. This is not about development (and that is a spurious argument anyway, as you know).

  4. Riccardo on 5th December 2011 8:36 am

    The real [insert cliche] in the proliferation game is Israel (and I’m assuming South Africa is now out of the game).

    India has an unstable relationship with Pakistan but it is nothing to what some states want to do to Israel, and conversely, what Israel would do to them in return.

    I’m not talking about Iran BTW. I’m talking about Israel who thinks a conventional invasion by the likes of Syria could somehow merit response using those nukes they don’t have.

    Agree re USA.

    The Left is dead and the media seemed to get excited about the ALP conference when it was the same choriography we’ve seen in past ones. Rubber stamp of PM’s authority + token issue that won’t get any traction.

    If Rudd’s threats that the Greens will keep eating the base have any currency, then it’s hard to see a fixed outcome of conscience vote (which will fail) is going to appeal to the leftish base when they can vote Green for certain non-conscience vote.

    Except that, in the Senate, the Greens could originate the vote if they were a majoritarian party, but without certainty that the DLP/Catholic rump won’t side with the Christian fundamentalists in the LNP, no-one can be certain of anything.

    People should read their David Chalke. He talked about how they are a couple of ‘conspiracies’ of the political class no-one wants to talk about. The Death Penalty would get up if put to citizen’s referendum, which is why both major parties make damned sure it doesn’t.

    But equally odd, complete legalisation of abortion would also get up if put to a referendum. Ditto, the parties prefer the fiction of de-facto legalisation so they don’t have to confront the De Bruyns of their respective parties.

    I like Annabel Crabb’s comment on whether De Bruyn will offer the actual SDA members a vote on gay marriage. Coz it’s not really about the union as such; but about the leadership and control mechanisms of the union which are feudal.

  5. dedalus on 5th December 2011 4:59 pm

    If every issue was put to a referendum, all sorts of unworkable and paradoxical stuff would come out. That’s basically why democracy only works when the issues are bundled together into a single and simple choice: party A or party B. Then the cabinet of the winning party gets to ‘democratically’ decide on the seperate issues.

    Funny thing, it seems to work – well, sort of, despite very few of voters’ minds being broad enough to grasp the basic idea, which is that of synthesising the many conflicting positions (with a progressive or conservative lean as the case might be). Society seems content to vote on the ‘lean’ every 3 years, according to the prevailing vibe.

  6. Riccardo on 6th December 2011 12:03 pm

    Are they content? Or is it the constitution? Don’t confuse the two.

    Most people feel damn well cheated within days of an election, and if they weren’t feeling that on their own accord, the parties help them by breaking promises in foreseeable circumstances, corruption, scandal and disunity.

    Some of us going into the booth feeling cheated before we even mark the paper.

    No, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the 2 party system. It’s broken. Badly. It fails Politics 101 – not being a system for reconciling competing views and interests. It produces non-pareto optimal outcomes.

    At best an election, or ‘democracy’ is a cistern on a toilet. It flushes the bad stuff down. You press the button and off goes Kristina Kenneally or whoever who has been there too long. It doesn’t guarantee a worthy successor.

    I’ve had to laugh at the stuff about peanuts, monkeys and politicians pay. In the end, the current salaries ARE enough to draw people (not necessarily good people) into the ALP particularly because union officer positions and staffer positions in ministers offices actually aren’t THAT well paid in comparison. The average Lib suburban solicitor or real estate agent may also be doing better in Parliament.

    Anyway, many of these positions like Mirabella’s are granted when they are uni students so yes, it is attractive pay.

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