A calm caucus or ruckus over AUKUS – will Labor Party delegates toe the Albo line?

by Zacharias Szumer | Aug 17, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

As the first in-person ALP conference in five years kicks off, Anthony Albanese and his allies will be working hard to ensure that the Prime Minister avoids being embarrassed by motions that run counter to his government’s policy positions. Zacharia Szumer reports from the Brisbane conference floor.

The party’s national conference is a far more managed affair than it once was, but with roughly 400 delegates representing a variety of unions and branches, there will inevitably be some debate on the national party platform.

The platform, the wording of which is the conference’s primary business, is theoretically binding on Labor parliamentarians. In practice, they have significant leeway to prioritise, and de-prioritise, certain elements within it.

Here’s some of the main debates we’re likely to see over the next few days.

AUKUS ructions

The main question that has exercised the media in recent weeks is whether Albanese will face a rank-and-file revolt over the AUKUS security pact.

In recent months, dozens of party branches and several unions have passed motions condemning AUKUS. Some take issue with Labor’s lack of internal deliberation before supporting it during the previous Morrison government.

They’ve certainly made more noise than the caucus – the parliamentary wing of the party – where public dissent to the policy has been essentially non-existent. This is standard for the party known to have the most internal discipline of any in the nation.

Some anti-AUKUS motions will seek to delete the sole reference to AUKUS in the draft ALP national platform: “Our self-reliant defence policy will be enhanced by strong bilateral and multilateral defence relationships, including AUKUS.”

Meanwhile, statements ($) made recently by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), suggest it’s angling to maximise worker benefits from AUKUS-related projects, rather than opposing them outright. However, the union, and the left faction to which it belongs, have a long history of opposition to uranium mining and nuclear technology.

Other motions reportedly seek to more explicitly reject AUKUS. A flurry of backroom wheeling and dealing is no doubt underway to ensure that any such motions are voted down. A party insider told MWM:

Albanese’s loyalists within the national left will be working very hard, not just to carry the government’s position on the conference floor on AUKUS, but even to try to stop any debate on AUKUS or at least limit it.

Leaders of internal groups critical of AUKUS say that even getting AUKUS debated at the conference will be “a victory”.

MWM also heard a rumour that former Victorian senator Kim Carr, who has been publicly critical of AUKUS, would be propelled onto the stage to speak to a motion. Other party insiders said that was unlikely, as Carr’s unpopularity within the party would make any such move counterproductive.

Most media commentary has watered down the possibility of these motions being carried on the floor. Presuming this is true, limiting the scope of debate will be the main game for Albanese.

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AUKUS at the Victorian conference

The way AUKUS debate was handled at the Victorian ALP conference in June may give some insight into how the party is handling the issue.

A motion critical of AUKUS was brought forward by the AMWU. However, the motion was reportedly re-written several times before it got brought before the conference. Reportedly, the re-writes watered down the motion’s language in exchange for certain promises from the party.

However, before the motion got to the floor, a backroom factional deal was stitched together between right and left powerbrokers and a procedural motion was brought forward, deferring the debate until the national conference.

While the Socialist Left faction had a majority of delegates and could have ensured the motion’s success, left faction leaders “relieved themselves of being put in the position of being actually tested …” one party insider said.

Environmental issues

Apart from AUKUS, there are a few other potential flashpoints at the conference.

The Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) has orchestrated a national push for the party to end native forest logging and land clearing. A LEAN representative told MWM that, as of Wednesday night, 363 Labor branches had expressed support for the motion.

For obvious reasons, delegates from states such as Tasmania are likely to be a roadblock here.

The LEAN motion also calls on the government to halve agricultural emissions by 2030. While the Albanese government has signed Australia up to the global methane pledge – a 30 per cent reduction from 2020 levels by 2030 – it is yet to announce a plan to achieve the goal.

Super-profits tax and housing

The CFMEU has pledged to lobby for a super profits tax that would fund a massive investment in social and affordable housing. Whether or not this issue becomes live at the conference will probably depend on how happy the union and its allies are with the housing policy announced at the national cabinet meeting.

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Israel and Palestine

Debate on Israel and Palestine – which has long been a source of tension in the party – may have been headed off by some last-minute concessions. Labor announced last week that the party would begin referring to Gaza and the West Bank as “Occupied Palestinian Territories” and any Israeli settlements in those territories as “illegal”.

Party business

Apart from sorting out the party platform, the conference also elects the national executive, a body that plays an important role in pre-selecting federal candidates.

In the past, such votes have sometimes been stitched up by the factions in advance, with each side putting forward ten candidates. With 20 positions up for grabs and no more candidates than there are positions, there’s no need for a vote.

It’s still unknown whether a vote will be held at the conference this week.

While the right faction has presented their ten candidates for election, the left has split, and a so-called rebel group of left-faction candidates, mainly union bosses, have thrown their hats into the ring.

However, it’s not clear whether these candidates genuinely want the positions or are using the nominations as a negotiating gambit to extract other concessions.

Labor Business Forum

Finally, in addition to the national executive elections, another type of party business is occurring on the sidelines of the conference. On Tuesday night at an undisclosed Brisbane CBD location, a $10,000-per-head Labor Business Forum boardroom dinner was held.

Media was not allowed to attend the business forum event, nor informed who would be in attendance.

Like its Liberal party counterpoint, the Australian Business Network, the Labor Business Forum is essentially a cash-for-access fundraising scheme that allows members to give parties money that doesn’t count as an official donation.

MWM has previously revealed that the Labor Business Forum includes dozens of the nation’s biggest companies, including Woodside, Wesfarmers, Commonwealth and PricewaterhouseCoopers, although PwC revoked their membership in the wake of the recent tax-leak scandal.

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Zacharias Szumer is a freelance writer from Melbourne. In addition to Michael West Media, he has written for The Monthly, Overland, Jacobin, The Quietus, The South China Morning Post and other outlets.

He was also responsible for our War Power Reforms series.

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