By Andrew Herington
The ALP National Conference granted a conscience vote on gay marriage by 208 to 184 delegates. This was not remarkable because every other vote passed by the same margin – give or take a few people out for a coffee. The number of independent Labor delegates free to vote outside the Right and Left factions was minimal.
The sole exception was the motion on gay marriage itself -carried on the voices despite the opposition of the Prime Minister. Having granted themselves a conscience vote, 30 or more Right delegates voiced their support for the Left position. To avoid embarrassment, neither faction called for a count to reveal who voted for what and organisers sighed in relief that no rogue delegate spoiled the game.
It is not like there were a dozen factions and union groupings that negotiated and realigned over various issues depending on their interests and priorities. Individual State views, the age of delegates or their gender failed to cause the slightest deviation in voting results on issues. It was all straight down the middle- winner take all.
The grim reality was that all the speeches counted for nothing. Delegates were not swayed by rhetoric or factual argument. Regardless of the merits their votes were locked in and the outcomes pre-determined. Oddly, Right leader, Stephen Conroy granted himself a conscience vote on uranium sales based on a childhood experience but failed to free the rest of his faction to similarly express their own views.
The ALP has famously relied on the Pledge signed by all its Caucus members to vote for party positions to maintain cohesion in Parliaments over the last century. The faction leaders see it as logical that every member should be similarly Pledged to either the Right or Left to enable the brokers to control the Party.
The last thing they want to see is the nightmare of the current minority Federal Government being revisited within the ALP. Factional leaders fear being at the mercy of a “crossbench” of unaligned member’s representatives who decide issues on their merits and who use their leverage to push further reforms to democratise the party.
In arguing against a conscience vote on gay marriage, the Left speakers used various arguments that progressive policies could only be implemented by binding party votes to support the leader. This enables reforms at times when there is progressive leadership – but prevents it when, as so often happens there is timidity or external events that mean the time is not ripe for reform.
The Left’s motive in support for reform appears to be that it is currently their best option to get control of the party and reverse the voting pattern at future Conferences. They are not supporting equality based on the overall population – one ordinary ALP member elected as a conference delegate for every Federal electorate.
Instead the Left want it based on current ALP membership which is heavily skewed towards the inner suburbs of the capital cities and broadly more progressive. The compromise is an Implementation Committee charged with finding a formula to implement some degree of direct election of delegates. It will be comprised of factional leaders and its real mission is to ensure the current balance of power is preserved.
Encouragingly, Tasmania and NSW party organisers expressed their frustration with this process and indicated they would push ahead with State reforms in advance of national agreement. Victoria, which traditionally has been the national ideas leader has in this case become the block to reform.
Both Right and Left produced glossy reform proposals, but these were only distributed at the last minute and were silent on any specifics. The Right’s package was very vague about implementation with most matters being referred back to State Conferences.
The actual debate on party reform on the Conference floor was a fiasco because, despite months of notice, the faction leaders had been unable to arrive at their respective positions to put to the conference. The conflict was not just between the factions but within them – yet still there was no open vote.
As a result the motions to be debated were not put onto the Conference website until minutes before the debate commenced. A lengthy filibuster was arranged where more than a dozen speakers made general contributions vaguely supporting reform but opposing specific action. This used up the time to prevent any real consideration of the individual proposals.
The result was complete confusion as in 10 minutes at 7 pm on the Saturday night, (when everyone wanted to leave for dinner) 21 motions were approved and 24 defeated, all on the voices, with a Right majority decreed each time. Ironically, the only unanimous applause was when the chair called for ALP members in the gallery to be silent.
The ALP’s challenge is to retain the support of the 4.7 million people who voted for them at the last Federal election and the further 1.5 million who gave Labor their preference. The current membership – which is slowly declining from around 35,000 – represents less than 1% of these Labor voters. To win a majority next time, Labor must now attract back enough of the 600,000 voters who have deserted the party since 2007.
The stark reality is that nothing decided at the National Conference will provide any inducement to attract the targeted increase of 8,000 new members. The prospect of reform of the policy development process will not empower members if they see that at the end of the day every policy position will be determined 208 to 184.
Andrew Herington is a Melbourne freelance writer and ALP member who attended the National Conference as an observer and supporter of Labor reform.