Labor’s National Conference Is Over. It Was Exhausting, Depressing, And Extremely Weird.

If you were looking to be inspired at Labor's National Conference over the weekend, you went to the wrong place.

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Melbourne’s Craft and Quilt Fair is humming. Amid elaborately-hung feats of knitting prowess the nation’s aunties gather, greeting each other with squeals of delight and inspecting the quality of the wares on display. The atmosphere is electric, if a showcase of Australia’s finest patchwork quilts is what gets you going.

Next door, as the final day of the Labor Party’s National Conference begins, the mood is a little more subdued. Hangovers are the conversation item of the morning; who got wrecked last night, where they ended up, how this year’s piss-up compares to years previous. Balding men loudly complain about their headaches, the better to segue into exhaustive accounts of how much they’ve managed to imbibe over the weekend. If you shut your eyes, you could be outside the Dutch pancake tent at Splendour.

But the vast collective hangover attendees are sporting isn’t the only reason the mood is a little subdued. Over the weekend the ALP was once again forced to publicly grapple with its policies on asylum seekers, and the end result has left a bad taste in plenty of people’s mouths.

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

Two days before the summit began, Labor leader Bill Shorten announced his intention to support the Abbott government’s policy of turning back refugee boats when it is “safe” to do so, ensuring the issue would dominate both the conference and the subsequent media coverage.

Shorten’s announcement horrified many Labor supporters and drew open criticism from a number of MPs, including one-time leadership rival Anthony Albanese, Senator Lisa Singh, and former Labor speaker Anna Burke, who said she was “not in a position to support this policy”.

It’s those dissensions that made headlines, but plenty of conference delegates and Labor members with a more progressive bent than the party frontbench detest the idea of turning back boats. Besides the questionable legality of doing do, they see boat turnbacks as symptomatic of Labor’s willingness to concede any debate over the treatment of asylum seekers, no matter how depraved, to the Coalition, for fear of being labelled “soft” on people smuggling, “illegal” arrivals, “securing the borders”, national security, terrorism, or any other hysterical argument their opponents can dream up.

The depth of these Party members’ opposition to the idea of turnbacks — and the way Labor has conducted itself on the refugee issue more broadly — revealed itself early on the conference’s first day. It was overwhelmingly directed at Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles, who — besides Shorten — is the most visible face of Labor’s internal conflict over asylum seekers. Shorten didn’t mention refugees at all in his opening address, but the issue was heavy in the room; when he ran through the names of the Labor frontbench and got to Marles, the otherwise-plentiful applause was cut off like someone had hit the ‘Stop’ button. A few well-timed groans and hisses claimed the silence.

Later that afternoon Marles faced an openly hostile audience at a panel hosted by refugee advocacy group Welcome to Australia, fielding questions from refugee rights groups furious at Shorten’s proposal. Despite Marles’ protestations that Labor is still committed to treating refugees fairly and humanely, attendees were far from convinced. At another policy discussion hosted by Labor for Refugees, the room was so packed they had to turn people away. “Ironically, we’re having to tell people ‘fuck off, we’re full’,” one of the organisers said wryly.

Members Only

It wasn’t only in the building itself where the turnback proposal proved unpopular. Outside, hundreds of protesters braved the cold and gathered to condemn Shorten, demanding Labor abandon the bipartisan commitment to mandatory offshore detention that has dominated the Australian immigration debate for years. A choir made up entirely of grandmas wearing purple lined the steps leading up to the Convention Centre’s entrance, singing a dorky jingle about getting kids out of detention. People pressed their protest signs up against the glass walls of the conference hall, trying to get the attention of the delegates inside.

One of them, a middle-aged woman rugged up against the cold, caught the eye of a small knot of staffers making their way up the escalator to a factional meeting. The fact that her sign referred to ‘Labour’ as opposed to ‘Labor’ — revealing her ignorance that the ALP prefers the American spelling of the word, for some long-forgotten reason — was a great source of mirth to them. They moved on, the woman and her sign forgotten.

There’s a vast gap between the unruly, noisy world of the protester, and the opaque, insular bubble that is Labor’s internal workings. No matter how many people march and chant in the street, Labor policy is ultimately decided by just 397 Party and union conference delegates, and the way they operate — and vote — depends on a set of rules and priorities most people are unfamiliar with.

To its most loyal and active members, Labor is more than a political party, or even a movement: it’s a way of life, complete with its own language and customs that are incomprehensible to an outsider. They refer to each other, unironically, as “comrade”. One of their favourite collective activities is yelling “hear, hear!” when they agree with a speaker and “shame! Shame!” when a speech touches on something they dislike.

Above all, the good of the Party comes first — far above individual preference, and certainly above the wishes of those who criticise the party from the outside. If you disagree with Party policy, you work for change from within, keep your opinion to yourself, and vote the way you’re told in the meantime.

Exactly who does the telling is a fraught issue in itself. The complex and never-ending interplay between “the factions” — various geographic, demographic and personality-based tribes within the Labor Party that jostle for power and position — is the stuff of constant fascination to political addicts, and a source of bamboozlement, frustration and indifference to just about everybody else.

Historically Labor members separated into factions largely on ideological lines, but 25 years after the end of the Cold War the deeper reasons for factions to exist are largely gone; a former NSW Premier once described them as “the people you go have a beer with”. So while knowing that Bill Shorten is from the Victorian Right faction or Tanya Plibersek is from the NSW Left might be of interest to people who watch Insiders on Sunday mornings for fun, it doesn’t provide a casual observer with a great deal of insight into what a particular politician actually believes.

More progressive Labor members like highly-respected Senator John Faulkner see the very existence of factions as one of the ALP’s biggest problems, as they concentrate power into the hands of a small number of party elders, union leaders and influential staffers who are often not in the public eye. But they have persisted nonetheless, wielding huge influence over everything from policy to leadership positions; Shorten himself came to wider prominence in 2010 as the powerful factional leader who helped topple Kevin Rudd. The way most delegates vote on controversial issues — turnbacks included — is decided almost entirely by the factions, and the people who run them.

Like the archaic language and the shouting (so much shouting), it only really makes sense if you see the Labor Party as a world unto itself: one characterised by fervent declarations of loyalty, intense friendship and rivalry, and unanimous hostility towards outsiders. As the grandma with the sign learned, in this world anyone outside the building does not exist.

On Saturday afternoon, that tribalism was on full display. As Victorian Labor MP Andrew Giles took the stage to cheers and applause, ready to argue why the Party should ban turnbacks outright, protesters hidden in the audience stormed the stage and unfurled a banner reading ‘NO REFUGEE TOWBACKS’ while others scuffled with security.

But if the protesters had expected a sympathetic audience, they vastly underestimated what a closed shop the Labor Party is, especially at an event like this. After they were escorted out, Labor President Mark Butler loudly declared that “the Labor Party, unlike other parties, conducts our debates in the public eye” — a swipe at the Greens, who don’t allow media or non-members into their conferences. He was given a massive standing ovation.

Behind Closed Doors

What Butler neglected to mention was that although the debate would go ahead “in the public eye,” the outcome was already decided. The fine balance between Labor’s various factions meant that Bill Shorten only needed to convince a small number of delegates to vote his way on the boat turnback issue in order to carry the day, and he went to great lengths to make that happen.

In a short speech to the conference on Saturday morning, Shorten announced a suite of policies designed to mollify Labor’s refugee advocates into letting the proposal pass quietly when it came up for debate in the afternoon. Shorten promised a future Labor government would double Australia’s annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 people by 2025, abolish temporary protection visas, legislate to ensure mandatory reporting of child abuse in detention centres, appoint independent oversight of every Australian-funded detention facility, establish an advocate to be “a strong voice” for child refugees separate from the government or the Immigration Department, and “work to end the moral shame” of children in detention “as quickly as possible”.

Whether or not a Shorten Labor government would actually do all this is anyone’s guess (Shorten and the ALP were staunchly against boat turnbacks until they weren’t, after all), but for the narrow purposes of winning a vote on the conference floor, the gambit worked. Just after lunchtime on Saturday, delegates began quietly telling journalists that several unions and senior figures from the party’s Left faction had agreed to support Shorten’s position.

With the audience gallery packed to the gills for the first time since the conference started, the doomed motion to enshrine Labor’s opposition to turning back asylum seeker boats came up just four hours later. It was duly debated, with no small amount of genuine passion and conviction.

 Former Immigration Minister Tony Burke spoke movingly of the refugees who died on his watch, and recounted in a trembling voice the story of a ten-month-old baby who drowned at sea: “His name was Abdul Jafari. I was given his name on a Post-it note, and I kept that Post-it note on my desk until we lost office.” City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott gave a brutally honest opinion on any policy that sends asylum seekers back to uncertainty and fear: “It is not fair. It is not right. It is not legal.”

Everyone who spoke was at pains to emphasise the civility and respect with which people of opposing viewpoints treated one another. Andrew Giles, who sought to ban turnbacks, and Richard Marles, who led the push to allow them, sat side-by-side in the front row of the auditorium. At an evening drinks event shortly afterward, Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek said she’d “never been more proud” to be a member of the ALP after hearing the arguments from various speakers.

But some of the voices that most needed to be heard were conspicuously silent. Left-wing leaders like Penny Wong and Plibersek herself were absent when the vote went ahead; they had given up their votes to proxies — substitutes directed to vote in their name so they didn’t have to be physically present — in order to register their opposition quietly. Anthony Albanese railed against boat turnbacks in private and voted against them publicly, calling them “a red line we cannot cross” — but declined to explain why on the conference floor.

Progressive Labor politicians are often forced to endorse or be complicit in less-than-progressive policies for the sake of unity, or the appearance of it; it’s a trade-off that comes with the territory. But that constant tension between principle and pragmatism, conviction and compromise, sometimes leads to outcomes that many people just find too hard to swallow.

Everything Is Terrible

So it was when the debate played out to its inevitable conclusion. When it became obvious that Shorten had won, delegates were heckled and jeered by enraged onlookers. The Greens have already begun to capitalise by accusing Labor of leaving their own supporters “heartbroken and gutted,” and Plibersek in particular has been heavily criticised, particularly after it was revealed she privately urged progressive delegates to support Shorten’s position.

The next day those same internal pressures to compromise forced the party’s progressives to concede another point of principle for the sake of party loyalty: despite overwhelming public support, Labor refused to bind its MPs into supporting marriage equality, instead allowing a conscience vote on the issue until 2019. That position — officially proposed by Shorten — was seconded by his deputy, Tanya Plibersek.

Just as senior Labor figures talked up the quality of the turnback debate to massage the bald fact that Labor now endorses a refugee policy that breaches international human rights law, the conscience-vote concession was dressed up as a big victory for LGBTI rights in Australia. Applauded by the crowd, Shorten, Plibersek, Albanese and Wong took to the stage with a rainbow flag, and Wong’s moving speech on marriage equality has since gone viral. Whether or not Australia has to wait another four years for a reform that’s over and done with in most comparable nations remains to be seen.

With the conference over and Labor’s policy platform settled for three more years, it’s a little difficult to see what all the fuss was about, or what anyone got out of it. Shorten won a battle in a fight that’s consumed Labor for years, but in a way that alienated people instead of bringing them together. Progressives bent over backwards to accommodate him and were given little in return.

One of the biggest political conferences in Australia went through its motions on the weekend, and it attracted fewer attendees than the display of quilts next door. It was exhausting and confusing and a little sad, and I suspect I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Read a recap of Day One of the Labor National Conference here.