Bill Shorten, Boat Turnbacks And Men In Shiny Suits: The First Day Of Labor’s National Conference

We went to the Labor Party's national conference to see what we could dig up. It is a very strange place.

The first thing you notice walking into the cavernous, echoing hall that is the Melbourne Convention Centre are the suits. They are perfect; immaculately groomed, gorgeously cut, tailored to the nanometre. Every detail, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, tended to — the trouser hems end right on the boot, the requisite half-inch of shirt cuff peeks out from four-buttoned sleeve.

It’s a uniform whose subtle variations can tell you a lot about the wearer. The sharp young staffers who trail at the elbow of their bosses favour skinny ties, army-short haircuts and big wonky glasses, the better to convey an air of whiplash cleverness and unassailable confidence. The more baby-faced university politicians and student union leaders make some cautious concessions to their age — beige chinos, fitted cardigans, pointed laceless shoes — and stride around in little packs, laughing loudly at one another’s jokes.

The older men (and they are mostly men) sail through the crowds solo, leading with their bellies, parting shoals of onlookers until they spot someone of similar stature. Then they come to a halt, their shoulders and legs set wide, and size each other up. Backs are slapped with a bit too much cheery rigour; hands are squeezed just a little too tight. Smiles stretch to show a few extra teeth.

Whatever their age, the message for any watchers sounds just as loud: “I am someone to watch. I am influential. I am close to someone very powerful, and my power increases with theirs. I have friends in high places, and sooner or later I will be heading those places myself.”

When the bells ring to get the Australian Labor Party’s National Conference underway, these are the people who fill the front-most rows of the immense auditorium that will serve as the face of the summit for the next three days. The auditorium is discreetly divided into two halves by a short perspex screen and a bank of tech equipment, and the side of the divide you sit on reveals your relative importance in this place with a brutal honesty.

At the foot of the stage are the Premiers, the Senators, the Shadow Ministers and the leading lights, greeting and gladhanding and parading for the scrum of photographers huddled in the front row. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk gets a barnstorming reception; NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley half-turns in his seat and waves at the crowd sheepishly.

Behind them, among them, relaying messages or running last-minute errands in a hurried jog-walk, are the suits. Employed by those who’ll soon take the stage and dominate the coming headlines, their job is to keep everything running smoothly; to ensure this spectacle of staged-managed acclamation and grand-sounding, meaningless rhetoric passes without ruction, with no ugliness or discord of any sort.

They’re clearly good at their jobs. When Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews makes a passing reference to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in his introductory remarks, the room rises to its feet and gives a standing ovation on cue, leaving Andrews to shout that Shorten’s not actually coming onstage yet. “Practice makes perfect,” he says to laughter, as people bashfully resume their seats. “Who says we’re a compliant conference?”

But behind the screen, as far away from the action as the cheapest seats in a footy stadium, the suits are nowhere to be found. Sitting quietly in the back half of the room are those who are often rather patronisingly referred to as “the rank-and-file”: the card-carrying diehards who diligently renew their memberships by post and turn up to meetings in dusty community halls.

They have no vote, but they have come from all over the country to see the people who would lead them. Clean-cut young professionals and respectable old duffers in daggy jumpers sit alongside muscled unionists in hoodies and activists in t-shirts bearing slogans. As they watch the boisterous proceedings below, an old Shannon Noll song croons politely through the speakers: “This is the time, this is the daaaay we’ve been waiting fooooor.”

Will Shorten Survive?

For the first time in decades, Labor’s National Conference may give the people in the cheap seats a real look into the world of those at the front of the room. The party’s 397 delegates are voting on what kind of policies it’ll take to the next election, and at most conferences the Labor leadership is able to rely on the rigid discipline imposed on delegates by the unions, political subgroups and state party structures they’re connected with to see its preferences rubber-stamped.

But this conference is different, because for once the results of those votes are not foregone conclusions. Major decisions on refugee policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and internal party democratisation hang in the balance, which is exactly where the party’s leadership doesn’t want them to be. Individual delegates could decide the outcome of crucial votes, giving every one of those 397 people much more power than they are meant to have.

Raising the stakes even higher are the shaky prospects of Shorten himself. While the Labor Party has maintained an election-winning lead in polls for most of the past two years, Shorten is even more unpopular with voters than Prime Minister Tony Abbott is, which is saying something, and only 17 percent of Labor voters think he’s the best person to be Labor leader. If the party listens to criticisms from the likes of Anthony Albanese and votes against Shorten on crucial issues like turning back asylum seeker boats this weekend, it could realistically spell the end of his ambitions to become Prime Minister.

When he finally materialises to give the opening address, it runs smoothly enough. His introduction as “the next Prime Minister of Australia” by his deputy Tanya Plibersek and his passage to the microphone provide some excellent footage for the evening news; he scoops up his little daughter and kisses his wife very photogenically, and everyone stands and applauds like they should. A video showing him having a beer with miners and sitting at bedsides is as bland and inoffensive as you’d expect.

He’s a funny little bloke in real life, with a rather large head and a speaking voice pitched to just under a shout. The speech he gives diplomatically avoids any touchy subjects, like asylum seekers or national security, and much like that pub speech from a few week ago, says enough nice, vaguely inspiring things about hope and opportunity to sound leaderish without getting too specific. When he’s finished everyone rises to their feet, again, and he’s joined onstage by his family and Plibersek, waving beatifically at the crowd like the Obamas in 2008.

But something about the timing is just a shade off. His family take a bit too long to come to his side, and in the interim he shuffles awkwardly off to one side of the podium, his shoulders hunched, and the vast empty stage stretches out in all directions around him.

The next few days will see Shorten front-and-centre while the men in suits Labor pays to smooth his path work furiously behind the scenes. Whether they succeed or not could largely determine whether he gets to take Tony Abbott to an election, or whether that job will be given to someone else.

At this stage, it’s difficult to tell. From up in the back rows, he suddenly looks very small.

Feature image via the Labor Herald/Twitter.