Australian Labor Party (ALP) Conferences used to mean something. They used to have a direct effect on the policies that leaders and politicians representing the labour movement took and implemented. Ideally, they were symbolic of the innately democratic nature of Australia’s largest worker’s party.
Motions passed at your local branch could theoretically become policy if passed through all the chains necessary for it to arrive on conference floor. Factions had a strong social purpose: the Labor Left remained staunch in their commitment to the ideals of socialism, feminism, industrial action, environmentalism, nationalisation and anti-privatisation, land rights, the further democratisation of the Party and the movement, and so on. It was a chance to challenge not only the status quo of the Party, but if Labor was in government, it was a chance to actually challenge the status quo in Australia.
Long gone are the days of Maoists and Leninists battling it out on the conference floor. Nowadays, ALP Conferences are pure theatre. All positions are decided on before the fact, via deals between factional heavies and politicians. There is no serious debate on most controversial issues, and votes are rarely taken further than by voice or by show of hands. The 2023 National Conference was no exception. While the grassroots sentiment of the Party has never been more characterised by disillusionment with the government’s policies, challenges mounted against these were more or less quashed.
An analysis of conference
The platform endorsed by the 2023 National Conference of the ALP should be a disappointment to any Labor loyalist who calls themself a socialist. It reaffirmed the Party’s endorsement for a government which has been by-and-large supportive of US imperialism and its military-industrial complex, supportive of landlords and property-owners, supportive of sustaining the neoliberal project, supportive of capitalism’s continued destruction of our environment, and so on. The Party has shown no remorse for students who have had to deal with HECS debts in the tens of thousands, which are indexed at over seven per cent.
Key issues that initially inspired mass grassroots dissent from rank-and-file activists and unionists alike, such as AUKUS, Palestine and refugee-rights, remained unchallenged. AUKUS is particularly interesting. The PM apparently took to the stage for the last speech before a vote was called and pleaded with the audience to understand the electorally pragmatic position of the government. To understand that a decision such as AUKUS — one which will see nearly 400 billion dollars go towards acquiring and building eight war machines instead of housing our homeless, feeding our poor or assisting our most vulnerable — is just one that simply cannot be undone, we are told.
What is crucial to understand about this, is that it was the political class of Australia’s Labor Party that led this reactionary charge. In fact, the pattern seems to be that it is always the ALP’s political wing that opposes mass reform and genuine socialist policy within the Party.
The Trade Union Movement as a Bulwark to the Rightward Shift of the ALP
All this is not to say that left-wing forces within the ALP, which champion ‘change-from-within’ as a useful tool to dismantle capitalist hegemony, have failed at their core strategy. The Labor Left have now basically won power on a national level, controlling a majority of delegates as well as having half the positions on the National Executive. The problem is the rank-and-file of the ALP simply aren’t as militant as some groups seem to think they are. In fact, what consistently seems to be the case, is that any meaningful progressive agenda within the ALP is led by those in the union movement.
The ALP has enacted useful reforms since its election to the national stage last year — most importantly, ten days paid domestic and family violence leave for all workers in Australia, abolishing the ABCC, fee-free TAFE, extended paid parental leave, multi-employer bargaining, commitments to end loopholes in the gig economy and for casuals, requirements for big employers to publish gender pay gaps, and so on. These are concrete, material changes for the working class in Australia. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the tremendous reform that is the commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full — and to Voice, Treaty and Truth. However, these issues — with the exception of the Uluru Statement — are all part of policies initiated by the trade union movement.
When people look at the failure of not just the Labor Party’s internal democracy, but of its socialist elements, a crucial element which is overlooked is the importance of strengthening unionism. This doesn’t mean handing over more delegates to the unions — of which they control 50% already. But calls to reduce union control on conference floor are completely misguided and should be disregarded outright. What is essential is reviving the militancy of the union movement.
The unions which consistently represent a committed, progressive agenda both within and outside of the ALP are those not only affiliated with the Left but which are, crucially, very internally democratic and grassroots-led: unions such as the Maritime Union of Australia, Australian Services Union , the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, and the United Workers Union. These unions led opposition against Labor’s support for anti-protest laws in NSW, they led opposition to the continued enactment of the AUKUS submarine policy, and have consistently led the charge for industrial relations reform in Australia. They have also been at the forefront of social activism to support LGBTQIA+ rights, Indigenous justice and a just transition away from fossil fuels.
The most right-wing, of course, are those which are heavily top-down and politically obsessed with control of the ALP, such as the Australian Workers’ Union or the infamously pro-boss Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. These unions maintain a tight control of factional politics and thus retain a disproportionately heavy influence over the policy positions that the ALP and – crucially – its political representatives take.
Looking toward the future
Albanese’s intervention on AUKUS tells us something very important. We must note that rank-and-file delegates to the 2023 National Conference still voted in favour of a pro-AUKUS policy position. At the end of the day, rank-and-file delegates will always be vulnerable to persuasion by politicians and factional interests. The only true force which can prove to be a militant opposition to the reactionary political class of the ALP, is a coalition of left-wing trade unions. The fight to reinvigorate the Party democracy of the ALP, is thus one which is deeply intertwined with that of the fight for a strong and militant trade union movement.
After all, the ALP was always meant to be the political wing of the union movement. As soon as it stops being that, it will have degenerated to an intolerably right-wing level. Those who are interested in moving the Party in a more progressive, more democratic and more socialist direction, should look towards rebuilding militant unionism. Join your union, get involved, and fight for a better future both on the picket line and in the halls of the Labor Conference.
Disclaimer: Gerard Buttigieg is the Secretary of Young Labor Left NSW and is a member of the ALP.