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Labor renews itself rightward

December 4, 2011

Julia Gillard described this weekend’s Labor party national conference  as “full of open, passionate & honest debates. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”

The first part of this statement is simply not believable, the results of different motions were reported in papers before they happened, but the second part is absolutely believable. She deserves to be proud, as the national conference seems to be a victory for Gillard and almost exclusively a defeat for progressives.

On same-sex marriage, it is inevitable that there is a whole lot of confusion  about what to think about the result at the conference. That is because the result was confused.

The Labor Party voted to support marriage equality as part of their formal platform but also voted to support a conscience vote on this issue when it comes before parliament next year (this was the only issue which a conscience vote will apply). It also voted to give same-sex couples the necessary paperwork so they could marry overseas.

So, the situation is that the Labor party will officially support marriage equality but almost inevitably due to the conscience vote,  Labor party members of parliament will unite with the Liberal party to defeat it. So, then the situation will be that same-sex couples can’t get married in Australia but they will be given assistance so they can marry overseas. A bizarre and strange situation.

The policy is discriminatory on two levels. Homophobic for not allowing it in Australia but it would also discriminate on the level of class. Many working class queer couples won’t be able to afford overseas flights and costs for them and their family and friends, on top of wedding costs. Moreover, for the self-proclaimed party of ‘jobs and growth’ it seems utterly bizarre that they would be encouraging people to spend the large amount involved in putting on a wedding overseas.

The big question though is whether the vote is a victory or a defeat for those who support marriage equality. It is both, at the same time. In the long-term, however, it probably will seem more of a defeat. That the ALP have finally formally supported marriage equality after a seven-year campaign is a victory, or more accurately it is an important recognition of how strong the marriage equality campaign has been in this country.

Joe de Bruyn, head of the right-wing SDA and grouper, wanted to fight the platform change to the bitter end but right-wing unity on opposing marriage equality had already broken down. Right wing MP’s had indicated they would vote in support before the conference. Gillard recognised this reality and was willing to let it pass. Gillard, though, who has always opposed marriage equality, needed to find the best way to sabotage the chances that it will become law. Hence, the conscience vote.

The reasons behind taking this stand are quite obvious. Gillard has calculated that the Liberals won’t support it in parliament, moreover, even if the Liberals did allow a conscience vote, it still wouldn’t pass.  That seems a correct calculation at the present moment. Parliamentary votes, can of course be changed and influenced by social movements but for this to happen it would require an intensification of the independent mobilizations and campaigning which have played such a big role up to this point.

Labor parliamentarians, even those who opposed the conscious vote on principled grounds, have a different idea of where the campaign should go. At the rally supporting marriage equality outside the ALP conference on Saturday, the Labor party politicians who were allowed to speak said the pressure was now on Tony Abbott to allow for a conscience vote for the Liberal party and urged people at the rally to direct their fire that way.

Labor senator, John Faulkner, at the conference said a conscience vote “‘is not conscionable’’ and that “human rights can never be at the mercy of individual opinion or individual prejudice’’, but that is exactly what the Labor Left politicians want marriage equality activists to advocate. If the marriage equality campaign demanded full support for marriage equality from the Labor party, why wouldn’t it make that same demand of the Liberal party or indeed, any party? The rally slogan “nothing less than marriage equality” is seemingly more appropriate now than ever.

That the campaign shouldn’t involve itself in the parliamentary games of the Labor party was made quite clear in a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, which said,  “The majority of the ALP opposed a conscience vote but could not afford to roll Ms Gillard”. This means that those Labor party  delegates who opposed a conscience vote but voted for it anyway chose to avoid short-term embarrassment for Gillard over and above equality and civil rights. They sold the marriage equality campaign down the river for short-term political expediency. That Labor party delegates would do that at the national conference makes it fairly clear they could and would do it when it came to a parliamentary vote.

On the two other ‘contentious’ issues. Offshore processing and uranium sales, the results and reaction were less ambiguous. Chris Bowen’s motion to overturn ALP policy and support off-shore processing was passed with votes of 206 for and 179 against. It called for supporting off-shore processing but also increasing Australia’s refugee intake to 20,000.

The increase of refugee intake was apparently necessary for support from those who opposed off-shore processing previously. Just as in the ‘Malaysian Solution’, it is meant to bamboozle people who support refugee rights. It doesn’t seem to have worked, though, except with some of the more fuzzy minded liberals, because it is fairly apparent that such a trade-off isn’t necessary or just.

On exporting uranium to India, the vote was 206 to 185. The main issue of contention was that India is not a signatory to the  nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty .  That this vote was passed was probably the least surprising. The anti-nuclear movement is quite small and the environmental movement has tied itself to Labor government’s carbon tax/trading scheme and so there was has been very little opposition to the policy, except on the level of  rhetoric.

That the argument around it was almost exclusively around India’s s non-signature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty meant it was always doomed to fail at a conference which just endorsed trashing the United Nations convention on  refugees. It also lacked potency, because the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty has been a massive flop in preventing what it is meant to stop. The chief culprit for undermining it has been the United States, who also receive more of Australia’s uranium than any other country.

On the issue of party reform, the ALP Right won. On the issue of the mining tax and budget surplus, the Right won. On the issue of the ABCC, the Right won. On the issue of live exports, you guessed it, the Right won.

In time honoured fashion, however, those on the Labor Left will pretend the conference was a massive success, hiding the reality that on every major issue the Right ultimately won. Labor Left senator Lisa Singh said on Twitter that she “feel[s] positive about our Party’s future with now a more diverse and robust platform.”, while Anthony Albanese called the conference “successful”. You’d hate to see what the Labor Left would consider a unsucessful conference.

Leader of the NSW Labor Party, John Robertson, tweeted that the national conference was sure to inspire confidence in the Labor Party when he said the conference was “unlike the Liberal Party or the Greens. Debates that are open to all & broadcast for everyone to see.”

The problem with this, though, is that what is being broadcasted is if you support equality, a humane refugee policy, a nuclear free world or workers rights, then the Labor party isn’t the right one for you.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben Aveling permalink
    December 4, 2011 12:01 pm

    If anyone didn’t like the result, they now know how many more votes are needed next time.

    • Mel permalink
      December 10, 2011 11:43 pm

      I think you missed the point of the article which is that the Labor party is shifting even more to the right. What makes you think the votes will be any different next time?

      • Ben Aveling permalink
        December 11, 2011 2:43 am

        Hi Mel,
        The point I was trying to make is that if people don’t want to see the party continue to drift right, then there is an option: get progressive delegates elected – most ballots were about 205 to 185.

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