ALP conference: Labor’s left grapples with reality

ALP conference: Labor’s left grapples with reality

Over the past weekend, Labor’s progressive wing was forced to grapple with a political reality – the uncomfortable truth that the party must first get elected if it is to implement the fine words and sentiments embodied in its policies.

This is by no means a revelation, but the news that Labor’s right faction lacked an outright majority of votes on the national conference floor this year had brought hope that some of the left’s progressive proposals for Labor policies and processes would prevail.

However, this was mostly not to be, predominantly because Labor put pragmatism above the left’s principles to remain electorally attractive to mainstream voters.

The vaunted battle over asylum seeker boat turn-backs was a case in point. The conference debate was ostensibly about a future Labor government having a range of measures to deter asylum seekers from taking the sea trip from Indonesia to Australia’s northern shores. But in reality, the inclusion of boat turn-backs in the policy options was more to fend off accusations from the Abbott Government that Labor was soft on asylum seekers.

Labor can ill afford to be seen to be weak on “border protection” when the majority of voters either support the Government’s handling of asylum seekers or want even tougher treatmentThe reasons for this support are admittedly complex, and tied just as much to economic anxiety as they are to xenophobia, but they constitute a vote-loser for Labor if not carefully taken into consideration.

As former Labor state secretary and Gillard adviser Nicholas Reece wrote last week, “Labor will be politically disembowelled by Tony Abbott and the Liberal attack machine if it goes to the next election opposing boat turn-backs“.

Nevertheless, the warriors of Labor’s left – Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong – stuck with their principles and opposed turn-backs at the weekend event. Labor’s deputy leader Plibersek and senate leader Wong gave their votes to proxies rather than be seen to be voting against their leader, but the deflection did little to diminish the MPs’ perceived dissent with Bill Shorten and the shadow cabinet.

This vignette highlights another political reality for Labor – the party’s electability is not just about policies that are attractive to mainstream voters, but proving that Labor’s days of instability are past.

Yet all three shadow ministers risked party solidarity to make their (albeit important) point. And in the cases of Albanese and Plibersek, they did so also to fend off the electoral threat posed by the Greens against them personally.

This determination to ignore Labor’s reality on asylum seekers sat strangely with the left’s subsequent acquiescence to a politically pragmatic approach cobbled together to handle the vexed question of marriage equality.

Despite having the majority of Australians onside and reportedly the majority of votes on the conference floor, Plibersek abandoned her demand for Labor MPs to be bound to vote in accordance with the party’s already-established support for same-sex marriage. She agreed instead to a deferral of the binding vote for two parliamentary terms, and accepted a commitment from Shorten to introduce a bill to legalise gay marriage within 100 days of winning government.

Plibersek apparently also yielded to a tactical argument that maintaining a free vote for Labor MPs would increase pressure on the Prime Minister to allow the same conscience vote in the Liberal Party. And even more importantly it would avoid an ugly split within Labor by those who still vehemently oppose gay marriage.

So the left again chose pragmatism over principle.

Only when the conference came to consider affirmative action did the left’s principles prevail. Following a push by the left-aligned Emily’s list, the conference agreed to a minimum requirement for 40 per cent of party positions to be held by women, matching the already existing requirement for women to be pre-selected for at least 40 per cent of winnable seats. This minimum will be raised to 45 per cent in 2022 and 50 per cent by 2025.

And most importantly, the party executive was given the power to step in when the quotas are not met, thereby meeting Plibersek’s requirement for Shorten’s 50 per cent aspiration to be enforceable.

Given its other concessions on the weekend, this was no small win for the left, even with the support that right-wing women have lent to the cause. It could even be argued that if the left was going to win any debate at the weekend’s conference it should have been this one – for the party will be soon be irrelevant and moribund without more women in its ranks.

However, the weekend’s conference was nothing like the progressive vanguard that the left – and its supporters – had hoped it would be.

Progressive voters are likely bewildered and disheartened to see the principles they hold dear being sidelined for more electorally palatable policy options. One bemoaned on social media that Labor thinks voters in western Sydney are more important than asylum seekers.

Regrettably, that’s the political reality: Labor can’t win government by adopting policies that are disliked by swinging and undecided voters. That’s not to say the party shouldn’t have progressive policies or try to bring the community around to more progressive points of view. But as the Labor left may have learned over the weekend, being a progressive in a successful government is much easier than it is in a barely-trusted opposition.

Bishop must resign over incompetence, not bias

Bishop must resign over incompetence, not bias

It’s easy to get caught up in the chase when a political villain stumbles and their opponents close in for the kill. In the case of the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, it’s important, however, to stay focused on her actual misdeeds to ensure political accountability doesn’t degenerate into an opportunistic blood sport.

Bishop’s offence is not so much that she is tribal or biased – for most speakers are. Her crime is that she is just not up to the job.

Australian politics doesn’t enjoy the benefit of an independent speaker, such as in the UK, although our speaker is expected to show “impartiality in the Chamber above all else“. The British speaker resigns from his or her party and is generally unopposed at election time. For only once they are out of the reach of their former party can a speaker be truly independent.

The tradition is not followed in Australia’s smaller Parliament because governments can’t afford to give up their speaker’s vote. However, this exposes the speaker to the whim of the government. When speakers have taken their impartial role too seriously, such as in the case of former Liberal speaker Bob Halverson, they’ve sometimes been forced to step down from the role.

Nevertheless, in recent times, the Rudd-Gillard government speakers Harry Jenkins and Anna Burke decided to distance themselves from their party in order to protect the dignity of the speaker’s office. Compared with the determination of Jenkins and Burke to make the speaker’s role as impartial as possible, the incumbent’s flagrant tribalism is particularly shocking to political observers.

Yet having always been a political warrior, Bishop is more like the Labor speakers of old than Jenkins or Burke.

Labor would be in less of a position to criticise Bishop’s lack of impartiality if she had directly followed on from the Hawke-Keating government speaker Leo McLeay. Like Bishop, McLeay held party fund-raising events in the speaker’s suite, and also had a number of no confidence motions brought against him.

It is often forgotten, or perhaps not even known, that every speaker has a tendency to throw out more MPs from the other side. A paper prepared by the parliamentary library shows that from 1994, when the new 94(a) rule was introduced giving speakers the power to “sin bin” an MP for an hour, until August 2013, 91.3 per cent of MPs ejected under the new rule were non-government. Bishop’s score so far is 98.25 per cent.

The imbalance in the ejectees is partly a function of the expectation placed on the speaker to protect the government of the day. It’s also a reflection of the opposition’s behaviour during Question Time, when ministers have to contend with a wall of noise as the other side tries to intimidate, distract or wrong-foot the government with cat-calls, insinuations and abuse.

A weak speaker, who can’t manage the chamber well enough to minimise the cacophony, is likely to resort to throwing out the troublemakers. The fact that Bishop has ejected more MPs in her time than any other speaker is one of several indicators that she is unable to effectively perform the role.

Another indicator is that Bishop regularly struggles to call MPs by their correct titles, as even a casual observer of Question Time would notice. The Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, is often called the Member for Burke and some MPs have been called by the names of electorates they’d held in previous parliaments. Even ministers assist the Speaker with their correct titles when she calls them to the despatch box.

Tony Burke has begun to exploit Bishop’s failing acuity, and has at times managed to fluster the Speaker – who once had an encyclopaedic recall of “the Practice” – on parliamentary procedural matters. In response Bishop has taken to lashing out at the Opposition, ejecting one Labor MP for laughing and another for saying “Madam Speaker”.

The third indicator that Bishop is unfit for office is her lack of judgement. It is not so much that she, like Labor’s McLeay, thought it acceptable to use her entitlement as Speaker to participate in a party fundraiser. It is more that Bishop did not see the trip in the luxury helicopter as politically unwise until it hit the tabloids.

The Prime Minister has been open about his choice of Bishop for the speakership, even performing the traditional backbencher role of escorting her to the chair when she was appointed to the role. So it is smart politics for Labor to try to pin responsibility for Bishop on Abbott.

But Labor will only get so far complaining about Bishop’s partisan behaviour. Before Jenkins and Burke, Labor speakers were similarly tribal. Even the most impartial speakers we’ve had – Jenkins, Burke and Slipper – between them threw out non-government MPs 89.5 per cent of the time.

And considering it was a personal decision by Jenkins and Burke to place themselves at arms length from Labor, there’s no guarantee the next Labor speaker will be any less partisan than Bishop.

The Opposition is also treading on thin ice if it pursues the notion that being a guest speaker at a party fundraising event is not “official business” for a speaker. Inconveniently for Labor, there is no legal definition of the term. The criticism does raise the question, however, of whether it is official business when a minister or shadow minister attends a similar event as guest speaker, and travels to the event in a taxpayer-funded car. This is a fairly common practice.

There undoubtedly is a problem with speaker bias, but that is as much a product of our parliamentary system as it is due to the tribalism of any individual. Making the role truly independent, along the lines adopted in the UK, would ensure we would no longer have to depend on the good graces of civic-minded parliamentarians like Jenkins and Burke for the speaker to be impartial.

There is also undoubtedly a problem of some holders of high office thinking it is acceptable to charge the taxpayer for a luxury helicopter flight to a party fundraiser, use taxpayer-funded vouchers to clock up $900 worth of taxi fares while visiting wineries, or hit taxpayers with a questionable insurance claim. The privileged culture that mostly turns a blind eye to such behaviour must be exposed and changed so that the entitlements system can be made more transparent and MPs more accountable for how they spend public money.

However, neither problem will be addressed with the removal of Bishop from her role as Speaker. The problem of Bishop’s unfitness for office is an entirely different matter, and it is for this she must be removed from the role or resign.

As Abbott said in 2012 when referring to the need for Slipper to stand aside, it is “very important that the prime minister act to ensure the integrity of the Parliament”. Indeed. And on this basis, PM Abbott knows exactly what he needs to do.

Bill Shorten feels the slow burn of royal commission’s interrogation

Bill Shorten feels the slow burn of royal commission’s interrogation

Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have bounded out of bed this morning with more than his usual vigour. For him, a former industrial relations minister in the Howard Government and now the self-appointed scourge of Labor PMs, the much-anticipated day had arrived when former union leader and now Labor leader Bill Shorten would face Abbott’s Royal Commission into union governance and corruption.

This would be the interrogation of a third Labor leader by an Abbott Government-commissioned Royal Commission, following on from Kevin Rudd’s attendance at the inquiry into the Home Insulation Schemeand Julia Gillard’s appearance before the same Royal Commission being faced by Shorten today.

In the cases of Rudd and Gillard, their scrutiny under the veil of a Royal Commission was an attempt by the Abbott Government to recast history and blacken the names of the two former Labor Prime Ministers: to depict Rudd’s determination to roll-out stimulus spending as irresponsible and fatal; and designate Gillard as a dodgy lawyer who had personally benefitted from doing special deals for unions before embarking on a political career.

It is too early to tell whether either attempt will have any permanent impact on the two former PMs’ historical reputations.

However Shorten’s appearance before the union Royal Commission, jauntily known as #TURC on social media, has another purpose altogether. This interrogation is not only meant to besmirch but to bring down the Labor leader, to cast enough doubt on him – even if only in the eyes of his own colleagues – to either precipitate another Labor leadership change before the upcoming federal election, or exacerbate existing voter concern about Shorten’s suitability for high office.

Royal Commission examinations are not for observers who like to cut to the chase. They do however make compelling watching for those of us with a penchant for the slow-burn lawyerly interrogation that’s become the staple of myriad popular crime shows.

In this respect, the Commission’s counsel (or prosecutor), Jeremy Stoljar, has not disappointed, systematically taking Shorten, the former state and national leader of the influential right-wing union the AWU, though a series of documented events to determine whether he personally benefited from arrangements made with his knowledge during that period.

Of the three Labor leaders who have endured these Coalition-inspired witch-hunts, Shorten appears the most relaxed. He’s been well-schooled by his lawyers to use concise language, and has felt confident enough to offer mini-dissertations to provide context. In response, Stoljar has sternly asked for shorter answers.

One of the main issues investigated today was whether the services of an employee of the labour hire firm Unibilt was in effect hired and then donated to be Shorten’s campaign manager when Shorten was a Labor candidate in 2007, and whether this donation had been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.

The campaign manager’s wages were later paid by the AWU, although Unibilt continued to furnish the cash for that purpose. Reference was also made to another worker on the Shorten campaign whose wages were paid by the AWU.

It’s certainly not unusual for political operatives to move in and out of various roles, and the funding of those positions is not always straightforward. Staffers employed by party headquarters, for example, may work in politicians’ offices, or corporate lobbyists aligned with one party or another may take leave to work on election campaigns. Political staffers employed at the territory, state or federal level may take leave to work in election campaigns at other levels.

Some political staffers may even have their salaries topped-up by the party machines, to compensate for their low remuneration compared with equivalent roles in the corporate world.

So in itself, it’s not unusual or necessarily underhanded for an employee of another organisation to work on the campaign of a Labor candidate, or their office, or to be funded by someone else. And it’s not often that such a resource is declared as a donation (even though it should be).

It became clear during Shorten’s evidence that he had indeed declared the Unibilt employee as a donation – sometime in the past few days. Given that Shorten’s experience with “donated” staff is a common practice, we should expect to see a number of other updated candidate returns in coming days, from both sides of the political fence.

Then there was the question whether Shorten gained a personal advantage by getting the donated staffer from Unibilt at the same time the company was negotiating a wage agreement with the AWU. Shorten denied he was involved in the wage negotiations.

The more troubling element of the donated campaign manager was not so much that he was an undeclared donation but that he might not have known he was actually employed and paid by Unibilt.

This question of unknowing employees leads to the other, more politically dangerous, matter being examined today. This is whether Shorten knew of, or was involved in, wage agreements that required employers to pay union memberships for employees who were unaware they’d been signed up to the union.

The rationale for such a practice would be to boost the official membership numbers of the AWU and therefore the number of votes it was allocated within Labor Party decision-making processes.

Accounts differ as to whether the employees in question knew they were members – and had agreed to be, for compulsory unionism is illegal – but current AWU secretary Ben Davis told the Royal Commission he stopped this practice because it weakened the union’s bargaining powerSome of the relevant paperwork from that time has also become unavailable, apparently due to a computer upgrade.

We are yet to hear what Shorten knew about these deals, and whether they were sanctioned by him. The Commission has resumed this afternoon to further apply the screws to Shorten concerning these arrangements.

No doubt our erstwhile PM is hoping Shorten’s hand will be caught in the tea caddy, not only demonstrating to the Liberal base that Abbott is tough on unions, but that those dastardly unionists just can’t be trusted. This strengthens the campaign narrative that will be rolled out by the Coalition at the next election.

However, Shorten may not have to be caught red-handed to be damaged by this inquisition. If he loses his nerve, slips up on a key detail, or starts to obviously lie, his party will lose whatever faith they still have in him.