Calling out the conference

Generally speaking, there has been a fairly muted response in the media to the 45th ALP National Conference that took place in Sydney over the course of the second half of last week. This is unsurprising. The only thing that the average person watching the news over the last few days would have concluded from conference proceedings is that Mark Arbib has the capacity to be a bit of a goose, and that political parties are boring, antiquated entities that no sane person valuing their time on the planet would dare join. The images of delegates reading magazines during proceedings, yawning, and occasionally falling asleep are as humdrum as they are damning. What use is a conference, one might ask, that has been opened up to the media and stage-managed to such an extent that debate is relegated to the substitution bench? Surely not to further advertise the fact that Australia’s political parties have somewhat advanced cancerous nodules within their ancient bowels?

Let me disclaim. The only state or federal Labor Party conferences I have attended in my time as a member have been in the capacity of observer, not as a delegate. I have attended a couple of Young Labor conferences as a delegate, and these in my experience tend to resemble chicken-pens overstocked with super-mutated egos, proving yet again, perhaps, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Realistically speaking, a few healthy dollops of ego can be tolerated, but what I don’t think should be tolerated are party conferences devoid of any real purpose. What was achieved? The Prime Minister and his senior cabinet colleagues are firmly in control of the reins of Federal Labor in a policy sense. There seems little likelihood that policy proposals generated by members outside of the core leadership team and presented at the conference would ever be adopted, if they were in fact presented at all. Aren’t conferences necessary for party democracy? Well, no – particularly if they really only exhibit the pretence of party democracy. Although they ended up the reaping the whirlwind after the fact, former NSW Premier Morris Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa proved through their belligerent overriding of state conference on the electricity privatisation issue that ALP conferences are not intrinsically democratic. The party platform, rather like a slowly rusting candelabra, is regarded more these days as a quixotic decorative feature than as something that actually guides and illuminates.

Clearly the modern Labor Party needs to continue to hold conferences, but they need to have a rational and meaningful purpose for the organisation. They need to mean something both for members of the party and for outside observers, granted a rare window into the world of the mob that they have elected to run the country. And what a world. Last week’s conference seemed to me to be an amalgam of supercharged press conference and a mechanism for “dealing with” the necessity of involving party members in the life of the party. Party democracy was revealed as something that one grits one’s teeth and endures, rather than encourages and celebrates. As an advertisement for joining the Labor Party or indeed organised politics generally, it was nothing short of an indictment.