NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
ALP Conference: triumph of 'spin' over substance
, October 19, 2002
Last week's Special National Conference of the ALP - hailed in the press as "the Crean revolution", in which the Labor Party was "forced" to jettison much of its old-guard culture - was largely window-dressing, which will have no long-term impact.
It was significant that the Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, John Robertson, pointed out that reducing union representation from 60 per cent to 50 per cent "would not deliver one extra vote at the election".
He correctly pointed out that the rule change was being implemented so as not to damage Mr Crean's leadership.
The left-wing National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, Doug Cameron, supported the proposal as necessary for Simon Crean's profile, though said it was "absolutely meaningless" - a sentiment echoed by Joe de Bruyn, the National Secretary of the largest union in Australia, the SDA.
What, then, was it all about?
Basically, it was all about "image": Simon Crean - former Federal Secretary of the Storemen and Packers' Union, and ACTU President before winning a safe seat in the House of Representatives - wanted to make himself look different from his predecessors, Paul Keating and Kim Beazley, who had led Federal Labor to three successive defeats.
After the last Federal Election, Crean was elected on the promise that he would "reform" the party, to enable it to win government. As part of this plan, he commissioned the former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and the former NSW Premier, Neville Wran, to investigate the party's structure and program, and to put forward a plan of action for the future.
With the national media looking on in awe, the two Labor heavyweights laboured mightily.
Months of painstaking work eventually produced a report which turned out to be a damp squib: it recommended no change to ALP policy to regain the allegiance of the disenchanted " battlers" in working class suburbs and outer suburbia, no challenge to the dogma of economic rationalism, just a number of platitudinous changes to the ALP's rules. These included changes to boost female representation in the party, outlawing branch stacking, and watering down union representation.
Even the Canberra press gallery, which has "beat up" the Crean reform package into a major issue, was forced to report that the outcome was less than satisfactory.
A Melbourne Age
reporter said, "This is the victory Simon Crean had to have. It is a cause not for jubilation but for a sense of relief that a divisive and draining opening phase of his Labor leadership is behind him ... But there was no standing ovation for the leader and no triumphalism from him."
The only group actively celebrating the conference outcome was the radical feminist network, led by Victoria's ex-Premier, Joan Kirner - best remembered as a cartoonists' delight, who was defeated by Jeff Kennett.
The changes in this area - like everything else - were symbolic. The National Conference accepted a recommendation that women's representation in the party's halls of power should rise from 35 to 40 per cent: hardly an earth-shattering decision. But to offset that, the Conference also resolved that male representation should also be no less than 40 per cent.
It is interesting to note that despite the large number of women in the Federal ALP caucus, Mr Crean has only six women out of the 33 members of his Shadow Ministry, a proportion of less than 20 per cent, and most of them occupy junior positions.
It is true that Mr Crean's deputy is Jenny Macklin, the left-wing Shadow Minister for Education and Employment, but nobody seriously contemplates that she could ever become party leader: she is no Margaret Thatcher, or even a Carmen Lawrence. The issue has nothing to do with her sex: but everything to do with her leadership abilities.
Despite the media hype, the rule change aimed at lifting the quota of women to 40 per cent will not apply until 2012 - ten years away.
In an interesting twist, the ALP National Conference decided to allow the National President to be elected by a ballot of all Labor Party members - an initiative which seems to have been borrowed from the Australian Democrats.
This resolution seemed to have been carried without opposition.
If recent history teaches us anything, the Australian Democrats have shown how naïve such a policy really is. The direct election of the Democrats' leader has produced a decade of instability and factionalism, which has made the party a laughing stock.
Yet Mr Crean has promised that under the new rule, the ALP will have its first woman President within three years! What type of democracy is it, when the Parliamentary leader is able to nominate the sex of the next party leader?
In the meantime, despite the fact that Labor is in government in every state and territory in Australia, it is difficult to think of a single issue on which the Federal ALP has set the national agenda.