Razer reviews the ALP Conference: why Labor can't stage manage itself

If there is a national institution more popularly misunderstood than the ALP, its constitution must be written in code. But, the ALP’s constitution is written in plain English and its “codes” can be easily broken. National Conference, a (usually) triennial event that took place in Melbourne this past weekend, is a cipher and it tells us what we should already know: the ALP is far less a party of “faceless men” and backroom deals than any other. It’s a party that, both formally and informally, embraces the opportunity to publicly fuck up.

National President Mark Butler, a decent emcee and one yet to spectacularly fuck up on a reckless Rudd-Gillard scale, uses his opening remarks to remind delegates and observers that the ALP has its tiffs out in the open. The Greens have their conference behind closed doors. The Libs have theirs behind a screen of big hair, blue ties and US-style convention choreography. Labor may have abandoned many of the values written in ink in 1921, but what it hasn’t left behind is the habit of open debate and amateur theatrics.

I have seen secondary school productions of Pippin more stage-managed and contained. If the ALP has a terrible secret, it’s not making any real effort at dramatic disguise.

All weekend, news media report on the deals done in private and the false consensus displayed on the floor. They shrug off Butler’s claims that this will be an unrehearsed weekend of wrestling and proceed with the old Mafioso lore. The ALP is shadowy! The ALP is at pains to conceal its “true nature”—which, depending on where you sit politically, is either a misogynist first world racist or a cold Stalinist heart.

That media can continue to hint at their own excellence in revealing the “real” ALP is curious. Particularly when they do so from a room less protected by security than the Quilt and Craft Fair unfolding its own patchwork in the adjacent building. My friend, who has no media accreditation and is visiting only as an observer from his sub branch, wanders in to the media centre to find me. “Are you ready for lunch, Helen?” he asks, while a Shadow Cabinet minister is backgrounding journalists on one of the electoral era’s most divisive and sensitive matters. No one stops him. We decide on the Cantonese food “powerful”, “faceless” numbers men are reputed to traditionally enjoy.

That there are relatively few accurate reports on the contentious Chapter 9 debate on asylum seeker policy is also curious. Stuffed with Richo-style menu items, I am not comfortable sitting in the conference room but I am compelled by speeches delivered by MP Andrew Giles and unionist Michelle O’Neill. Speaking for amendments that would oppose turn backs, end the cruel on-shore torture of Temporary Protection Visas, increase humanitarian intake and close off-shore detention facilities independently deemed unsafe, these two don’t turn the Right vote around but they should turn around the view that the ALP is shadowy. These are good speakers who are not, by any stretch, “performing” debate. They are genuinely having it before a delegation votes.

As Giles begins to speak, one group of protestors storms the stage and another bursts in behind me. A group of white men with Skip Australian accents let fly with some of the feeblest swearing I’ve heard in a nation otherwise gifted in this art. “You fucking dog c*** traitor racist c***”, they say to a man who will go on to passionately argue, as they presumably are, that on-water operations are inherently unsafe. A woman behind me in a Labor for Refugees shirt says “SHOOSH HE’S ON YOUR SIDE” and as this possibly well-meaning but certainly stump dumb group of protestors do their bit to swing any undecided votes in the turn-back direction, the woman begins to sob. “We worked so hard to consult on the amendments. We have worked so hard for the numbers. And now, these little pricks are working against what both of us want”. She hugs me and I say “There, there” while I check with the hand that is not cradling her head for social media responses from the room. “That feeling when a white male yells you’re a racist and you’re a person of colour who supports the Labor Party” is one of the downcast tweets posted in those moments to #ALPConf2015.

That night, SBS news cuts the footage so that it looks like the crowd is applauding the protestors. The next day, Andrew Bolt spins the story so that it seems like an extreme Left with white-boy dreadlocks rules the party. A representative from Buzzfeed tittle-tattles on the minimum wage workers who admitted the protestors. Both liberal and illiberal commentators make these protestors appear welcome or tolerated and not, as they were, disdained on both sides of the vote for different reasons. No one much seems to notice that the ALP really is critically unable, if not unwilling, to stifle internal debate.

The “real” ALP shows itself time and again all weekend but media don’t want to look. There is no truth so abstruse than anyone can be bothered employing security to protect it and, in many cases, there are amendments so divisive that party members can be bothered to fight. While I’m certain that the least indolent members of the press gallery have access and insight into true backroom deals that far exceed mine, I also know what I saw and heard. And that is, at every visible level, open and unafraid and sometimes ill-advised dissent.

I saw Paddy Crumlin of the Maritime Union let fly with some nationalistic swearing on the conference stage. At the Fringe discussion, I saw a notable academic insist Labor for Refugees change its wording on an LGBTI motion that would be delivered for passing the following afternoon. I’m legally blind and I had one ear occupied by News Radio commentary. Neither of these impediments worked to falsely reveal a party that tries to keep secrets through theatrics.

Labor is an ineluctably, sometimes dangerously open party and if it weren’t it would no longer be Labor. But, in the view of most commentators, Labor either has its doors too wide open or not open enough. It has long been the case that Labor just can’t win with media. But with Bill Shorten, it’s probably also true that Labor can’t win with the electorate.

The most planned moments of conference contain, as they should, the Leader. It becomes apparent even before the moment of the opening address that the ALP don’t know how to manage a stage and that no stage can manage the very faint charms of Bill Shorten.

Before Shorten takes his place on the dais, we are treated to a soundtrack and a video that both seem as though they were initially produced for a mid-range assisted living development. As the royalty free synthesised waste drops down from the PA and onto diminished party hope, he takes the perplexing decision to shake the hands of male colleagues and kiss the cheeks of women. The gendered division of affection is followed by what we have come to know as standard-Shorten. The guy cannot make a written thing sound natural and with each word, decent as it might be, you can hear the keyboard of a speechwriter not yet attuned to Shorten’s difficult rhythms.

His policy might not be as distant from the Prime Minister’s as many in the room would prefer. Certainly, his style of speaking is Abbott’s opposite. While Abbott excels in delivering talking points as though they were exactly what he believed, Shorten only becomes bearable when he is off-script. While Abbott seems to like nothing more than a room full of antagonists, Shorten falls into mediocrity without the AWU applause he memorably enjoyed at Beaconsfield. Shorten is only decent before a room full of unqualified love. But, at Conference, the guy gets a slouching ovation and in this posture of the true believers, he should see an instruction to lift his game to the very ordinary Abbott standard.

Instead, throughout the weekend, he sounds insincere and dispassionate and never so much as when he delivered his rationale for upholding turn-backs. “It’s about Australian identity”, he said, suggesting that the matter of asylum policy should be determined by exactly how good we Australians feel when looking in the mirror. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s more than my reflection on national identity at stake when it comes to the matter of masses desperately fleeing.

When the ALP tries to perform, it fucks it up; cf. the Real Julia. When the ALP doesn’t try to perform, you get the Maritime bloke delivering unpasteurised invective about foreigners or members of the Left discussing the finer points of queer politics. Maybe the mask it should go with is one that represents a party that has always wrestled. Or, at the very least, do away with craven stock music, poor speeches and other stage-managed moments designed to anaesthetise and not adrenalise a party that has always, and will, I hope, always fight.

Featured image: Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek (right) with opposition leader Bill Shorten after the 2015 ALP National Conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre the Melbourne Convention Centre in Melbourne, Sunday, July 26, 2015. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

29 responses to “Razer reviews the ALP Conference: why Labor can't stage manage itself

  1. To see that we have entered an era of neo conservatism is the obvious. The ALP will endorse more right wing decisions not because of any other reason than the world has entered a period where there is less altruism approaching all facets of human conscious especially financial & refugees. Globalisation needs a rehash.

  2. As a Greens member I don’t really see what your party gets out of letting the media into your conferences tbh. Surely many attendees hold back their views so as not to publicly embarrass the party.

  3. The LNP also do it in plain sight. Only the electorate won’t look. If you think the Speaker’s troubles mean the voters are being diligent, think again. All day, every day, Australians turn a blind eye as the wealthy, executives, etc. are swanning right past them in droves, while paddling hard under the water, where the lovely expense accounts are lying open to be trawled.

    1. That the current government work so clearly in the extreme minority interests of extreme majority shareholders gets on my wick, too. I would say, though, that this service to big business, which far exceeds the scale or corruption in anything we’ve seen at that waste of tax dollars the TURC, is harder to see.

      1. It is true that something that is veiled is harder to see. That is the function of the conservative media. But Australians know that the private skimming is there, are perfectly capable of understanding it, and indeed are seduced by the promise of a share in the bounty – work-funded trips, cars, lunches and dinners, salary sacrificed school fees, promotions, international placements, share options, tax avoidance vehicles like trusts, public subsidies including negative gearing, etc. To get some bits thrown to them, the voters will allow the wealthy to take the greater part. The politicians are a convenient target, because there is no illusion that most people are eligible to get the same things as they do. But we are paying through the nose to prop up local and international private wealth, not only as taxpayers, but also as consumers (including mortgagees).

  4. The ALP has been up shits creek since Keating lost. Penny Wong is one of the brightest stars in the party whether the electorate is ready for change I feel if they got their shit together would welcome. Are these intriguing ideas ?

  5. Good go at reportage Mz Razer, greatly preferable to your usual senna-pod ravings.
    Pity there is no ‘there’ there – since the apparatchiks of the SussexSt Lubyanka took over I’m surprised that people still piss their money away on party membership fees.
    The fact that the right, supposedly, “gave in” on so much of the left agenda (minor things like the state of the planet, climate, social justice – silly little fluffy thangs) just to win (can’t imagine what losing would look like) office with this Balrick brilliant strategy, would anyone care to wager what would happen to those concessions once the Machine got its arse of the Treasury benches again?
    Vote Green or Independent.

  6. As an ALP member who has long been looking for our supposed dark secrets, thank you for this article. I think it’s worth noting, when looking for Labor’s “secrets”, that most of us could reliably say something in a caucus and see it being discussed on twitter before anyone’s left the room. We are a lot of things, good and bad, but clandestine is not one of them.

  7. Thanks Helen. I suspect that I disagree with you but, then again, I wasn’t there, and it’s good to hear of your experiences and thoughts.

  8. I spent a few years on the Victorian Conference many years ago, its a form of living death. I could look at who was heading for the lectern and know what was going to happen next and next again. It was all nutted up days before. I presume at the Nat Conference they all had their mobiles out for text messages on how to vote or cheer now. I can see why your lady friend felt so upset if some group had moved away from the script. Shorten was elected in the least democratic election in the history of Australia. Not my choice. Can he win ? Abbott is seen as weird but do the rich want an ALP government ? Does Kerry Packer want an ALP victory ? If not the Liberals will be awash with money come election day. I’ll wait for the tablets of stone telling me all about the conference in the next few days !!

      1. Shit, I didn’t even know Kerry was sick. I presume young James will bankroll his friends at the next election. Some guy said the Labor party was fucked since Keating – it certainly was and it certainly still is. Keating was a symptom of whats wrong, only partly the cause.

  9. Nice work Helen – great to see some humour coming back into political reporting. Reminds me of PG or Julie B.

    And yes, the Abbott strength is to make the stilted seem like conviction. Bill gives stilted a bad name.

  10. Thank you Helen for getting far closer to the truth than others in the media do. I never read accounts of anything that happens in the Labor Party because it is almost always wrong. Most journalists don’t seem to have any understanding of the enormous beast that is the Labor Party. It is their loss. It makes them sound so stupid. In fact negotiation, deals, ballots, meetings and voting goes on all year round. No one pays attention to most of it. There is nothing to hide so why shouldn’t it be public?

  11. Helen, assuming you’re serious means you have no idea of HOW the ALP makes decisions (especially what nowadays are the important ones such as sharing the goodies across ‘factional’ lines) among a small handful of Powerbrokers. After that it’s let the carefully choreographed circus performance begin.

      1. You can roll your eyes as much as you like, but you can’t have a debate if all the votes are already cast.

        It is a sham, it is stage managed, all the little plebs running around trying to ‘line up votes’ are part and parcel of the scam, as is ‘robust debate’, which in establishment talk is code for “this is a done deal but we have to put on a show”.

        What you’re missing is who the performance is for, primarily. The ALP cons its own members. They are both the audience and the chorus of this tragedy.

        Every one of their rank and file who invests their time, thinking that there is a process here, who puts in all that ‘work’ and effort, who jumps through all those hoops, is being conned into thinking that they actually have a say, and that they can actually make a difference inside the party structure.

        That’s the performance. They invest their hopes in the farce, they do mental- and verbal- gymnastics to rationalize failure after failure, they boo and shake their fists when those UGH PROTESTORS turn up, all of it, theatre.

        Improvisational sure, a bit chaotic, a farce at times, a LARP as much as a stage production, but always fake and for appearances sake, to tell a story of a party that doesn’t exist.

        1. I understand that this is the popular view. I understand that the ALP mimes spontaneity. I also know what I saw, with whom I spoke, the Labor history I have read and the way the votes, in some cases unexpectedly, fell.
          You are welcome, of course, to continue chiding the ALP as a great totalitarian force that springs from the pockets of infinitely corruptible union officials and, by extension, give the nation’s truly top-down party a free pass.
          And you are welcome to view all the unnecessary complexity of delegation and of branches as an elaborate lie to hide the fact of its true intentions.
          Or, you could spend three days at conference and see how they couldn’t organise a sex panto in a brothel and that all things, including votes, are influenced by a range of factors other than the “faceless men”.
          It’s not a perfect party. I just don’t see it as imperfect in the way others popularly do.

          1. I reckon anyone who sees the painfully slow and open road to consensus as somehow more “totalitarian” that the closed shop of the Libs has an odd view of boot rule. Better to be led by excruciating debate than by Rupert and Gina.

    1. Now the ALP might seem bad but no party in Australia’s political history has FUCKED UP as much as dumb Abbott and co.

      1. I’d say Howard gave it a pretty good turn. Although this was not out of a lack of intelligence, AKA DUMB. And I’d say it’s dangerous to ascribe the Coalition’s failing to the same lack. They may fail to understand that trickle down economics doesn’t create befit for all or, they may not care. But they are certainly intelligent enough to know how to run a campaign. Don’t underestimate your enemies! (Except, obviously, Erica Betts.)

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