The Politics    Monday, July 27, 2015

When the main event is a non-event

By Sean Kelly

Wrapping up the ALP’s national conference

I’ve written before about the inevitable divisions between commentators in the immediate aftermath of events: that those divisions tend to indicate only the generic impossibility of judging the significance of large events right after they have occurred.

Some months, or perhaps years, after an event, it usually becomes clear that one or several opinionistas were correct. At other times, a significant divergence in opinion points to something quite different: that nobody was correct because the event wasn’t really that important.

Commentators today are divided on what the ALP National Conference meant for the various players (complete summary in the links section): some believe it strengthened Shorten, some believe it weakened him, some argue it strengthened or weakened either Anthony Albanese or Tanya Plibersek as leadership contenders. In this case, I think the mathematical average of these opinions points to the reality: the status quo was not really disturbed. The conference didn’t really make a huge difference to anybody’s fortunes.

That is still a win for Shorten. Most events in politics are awash with downside. There might be holes in your shiny new policy announcement. You might not be on form on a day you really need to be. You might break a cardinal rule of politics, or you might break a rule that has only just been invented, today, especially for you.

Labor national conferences are a prime example. Bill Shorten went into this past weekend like a man with cuts all over his body: from the polls, from the Trade Union Royal Commission, from The Killing Season. The weekend could have added some cuts to that tally, inching him closer to bleeding out. It could have felled him in one decisive swing of the axe. At best, he might have come out looking very slightly stronger. That was about the limit to the potential upside. It was never going to turn him into a hero. Heroism comes from winning battles against the other side: not from fighting for complex compromises with your own.

Shorten got through his opening speech without mishap – he even performed quite decently. He didn’t wow anyone during the rest of the conference, but nor did he embarrass himself. He needed two results to be delivered – for boat turnbacks to be an option open to a future Labor government, and for the party not to be forced to bind on same-sex marriage in the near future – and he got these. They were not huge victories, and they were largely expected, but the important thing for Shorten is that they were not losses. A loss on either would have been devastating.

And that is the main result from the weekend: Shorten is still standing as leader. It’s not a dream result for him, but it’s probably the best he could have hoped for.

A few brief observations on the rest of the weekend.

The fact that so much of the commentary today has focused on the conference’s import for Albanese and Plibersek is interesting. The ALP leadership has mostly been free from speculation thanks to Kevin Rudd’s rule changes making the leader almost untouchable. But it’s clear now that many, both in the ALP and in the Canberra press gallery, have been closely watching the undeclared race to be next in line.

Second, despite lots of chest-beating about reform by Shorten and other party leaders over the past 12 months, not a lot actually happened at the conference. You don’t have to delve into the arcana of rules to figure this out. Reform worth its name would change the structure of the party and challenge the way power is distributed. The second that happens there will be an almighty battle. You’ll hear about it. You didn’t, and that’s all you need to know: nothing much happened.

Third, I believe it is a good thing we get to watch these debates play out in public. There are some suggestions today that Labor will suffer because the divisions among its senior frontbenchers on various policies – particularly boat turnbacks – are now clear. They were clear already. And I would go further: voters know that frontbenchers in all parties disagree on various matters. The fact they do is a matter of the bleeding obvious. The point of a party is that the members put their differences aside, in most cases, to campaign for agreed policy. That is true of the Liberal party as well. The fact that voters can watch serious policy debates play out in real time, that they get an insight into how a major party’s democracy – however limited that democracy – plays out seems like an indubitably positive fact.

Finally, it was not a brilliant conference for Labor’s left. There are a few examples you could list, but one should suffice: the left faction claimed as its major victory an agreement that same-sex marriage would be subject to a conscience vote in this term of parliament, and in the next, but subject to a binding vote in favour after that. In other words: the left has managed to get the party to agree to force its MPs to vote, in four years’ time, in favour of a change that will, without doubt, already be legislated by then.

The policies that were announced at the conference (but that would have been announced with or without a conference) are important: Labor’s commitment to a 50% renewable energy target, alongside an emissions trading scheme, and Labor’s support for boat turnbacks. Both will be important in Shorten’s efforts to triumph over Tony Abbott at the election. He passed the test of getting through the conference. Convincing the electorate of the wisdom of those policies, and of his sincerity in pursuing them, is the much bigger test. It begins now.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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