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Ahead of the ALP’s national conference, the party’s factions are manoeuvring on metadata, climate change, same-sex marriage – and the future leadership. By Sophie Morris.

Factions jockeying over key ALP policies

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and leader Bill Shorten.
Credit: AAP Image

Earlier this year, as the government was preparing to legislate its new metadata retention laws, Labor leader Bill Shorten received a message from left-wing factional chiefs, threatening a caucus revolt.

In a display of factional muscle that is rare these days on questions of policy, the MPs of the Left had met and moved a formal resolution to oppose shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus’s recommendation that Labor support the government’s legislation, unless there were further safeguards.

This was conveyed to Shorten, who sought extra time to pursue a compromise before bringing the legislation for a caucus vote. If the Left had voted as a bloc against Dreyfus, it would have been embarrassing for him and Shorten, both from the Victorian Right. The Left does not control enough caucus votes to roll the leader, but it would have been interpreted as a serious act of defiance.

It must be noted that some on the Right say they were already pushing internally for changes and the Left’s threatened revolt was symbolic and self-serving posturing. Nevertheless, by agreeing to insist on further amendments to protect press freedom and to raise other concerns about data storage and the oversight of intelligence agencies, Shorten avoided the caucus split.

Now, in the lead-up to the ALP conference in Melbourne on July 24-26, an event that happens once every three or four years, Shorten is again facing a potential showdown with the frustrated Left in the party, albeit this time mainly among the rank-and-file membership. Resolutions are being prepared that will challenge Shorten’s position on climate change, refugees, same-sex marriage and Palestine.

The role of the factions is not always clear-cut. For instance, while the Left dominates the Labor for Refugees movement, some Catholic-affiliated right-wing unions share their concerns. Similarly, recognition of Palestine has long been a cause of the Left but in recent years it has gained traction with the New South Wales Right, particularly with MPs in Western Sydney seats. Frontbencher Tony Burke, from the Right, is preparing a resolution on the issue, which is also championed by former NSW premier Bob Carr.

And the Left is facing the prospect of a split on climate policy strategy, with environmental activists within the party taking issue with the removal of references to specific emissions reduction targets from the draft national policy platform.

Although Shorten has pledged action on climate change, he and environment spokesman Mark Butler are resisting pressure from some rank-and-file members to inscribe in the platform ambitious emission reduction targets that could expose Labor to a cost-of-living scare campaign from the government. Butler comes from the party’s Left and is contesting the ALP presidency.

Some 90 ALP branches have endorsed a motion that would bind Labor to adopting targets of a 30 per cent cut in emissions by 2025 on 2000 levels, rising to about 50 per cent by 2030. These targets are based on the recent recommendations of the Climate Change Authority. The changes are being pushed by the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN), which argues the party must demonstrate the courage of its convictions by pledging big emissions cuts, as well as calling for a commitment to delivering 50 per cent of electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

The dispute over whether to include emissions reduction targets in the platform amounts to party members trying to deprive Shorten of the risk-averse option of making Labor a “small target” on climate change.

LEAN’s national co-convenor, Felicity Wade, a former Wilderness Society campaigner, says the party cannot afford to be seen to be weakening its platform on climate change.

“The only way for Labor to be really credible on this is to adopt credible targets,” says Wade.

“The politics may be hard, but the only way to handle it is by taking a conviction-based approach. The seeds of disaster for Labor on this issue came when we flipped to a tactical approach, rather than a conviction-based approach. Australians are concerned about climate change. Abbott’s success was only a reflection of our mistakes.”

Wade presented the LEAN proposals at Labor’s recent National Policy Forum, but they have triggered a backlash from the mining union, which argues the push for a more ambitious renewable energy target will cost manufacturing jobs.

General president of the mining and energy division of the CFMEU Tony Maher, who has long been a supporter of emissions trading, describes LEAN’s proposals as “politically naive”.

“It’s a pitch to the part of the electorate that’s interested in the Greens. That’s fine, but the chances of Labor in government doing some of these things is pretty small,” he says. “Why would Labor at its conference nominate targets when the government hasn’t? We need to give the political leadership some flexibility.”

Maher has written to all Labor MPs and to trade unions warning that LEAN’s proposal to aim for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 would “increase the cost of electricity for manufacturing and ordinary households while being a poor tool to reduce Australia’s overall global warming emissions”.

When asked about the Climate Change Authority’s recommended targets recently, Shorten was noncommittal, saying Labor would be guided by the science and was interested in the outcomes of the Paris conference in December. He refrained from endorsing a specific figure.

Shorten is also facing a backlash over plans to declare the opposition’s support for tough refugee policies.

A consultation draft of the policy platform includes a clause formalising Labor’s support for offshore processing of asylum seekers.

The draft, formulated with input from immigration spokesman Richard Marles, says: “To support Australia’s strong border security regime, Labor will maintain an architecture of excised offshore places; and the non-statutory processing on Christmas Island of persons who arrive unauthorised at an excised place, except where other arrangements are entered into under bilateral and regional arrangements.”

Refugee advocates within Labor interpret this as endorsing the continuation of detention facilities on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island, where 23-year-old Iranian Reza Barati was killed during rioting last year after being attacked by workers at the centre.

It was a Labor government that reopened the Manus Island centre. Former house of representatives speaker Anna Burke is one of several Labor MPs who have been outspoken against the policy. “If this proposal is included in the draft national platform, then I expect there will be a vigorous debate at conference and I hope that the prevailing mood of conference will be to reject it,” she says.

An underlying theme of the ALP conference will be jostling over who could replace Shorten as leader if Labor loses the next federal election. The new regime for choosing a leader, introduced by Kevin Rudd and deployed for the first time in 2013, has quarantined Shorten from a challenge at this stage by making it difficult to oust a leader. “It’s brought stability, perhaps too much,” says one Labor MP.

Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek fuelled speculation about her ambition this week by publicly arguing that Labor MPs should be forced to vote in favour of same-sex marriage. “Conscience votes in the Labor Party are reserved for issues of life or death,” she told the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday. “I don’t think this is an issue in that category.”

This reflects her long-standing views on an issue that is significant to constituents in her seat of Sydney, but it is at odds with Shorten’s preference for a conscience vote. On Thursday, Shorten reaffirmed this, saying: “The best way to win the argument on marriage equality is to convince people, not to force them.”

Following Plibersek’s intervention, some MPs questioned her political judgement in raising this two weeks before the federal budget and accused her of jeopardising gains the party had made, for instance in conservative migrant communities that oppose same-sex marriage.

Her push for a binding vote is also at odds with another senior figure from the Left, Anthony Albanese, whom Shorten defeated in the 2013 leadership ballot. In the lead-up to that ballot, Albanese said he believed marriage equality “can best be achieved when all members and senators are given a free vote”.

With right-wing factions likely to rally against a binding vote on same-sex marriage, Plibersek’s push may struggle.

But the Rudd rules for choosing a party leader enhance the chances of a left-wing candidate succeeding by giving rank-and-file members, who are traditionally more left-leaning, an equal say with caucus. Albanese and Plibersek are the next logical leadership contenders from the Left and their positioning on issues at the national conference will be seen in this light.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, who has pushed to have the “socialist objective” removed from the party’s draft platform ahead of the conference, is seen as a potential future contender from the Right, as is Tony Burke, the shadow finance spokesman.

For a while, it seemed the Right might lose the numbers at conference for the first time since 1984. That now seems less likely, though the composition will not be clear until NSW finalises its delegates in the weeks ahead.

These days, even factional organisers admit that the groupings can be largely seen as “executive placement agencies”, which MPs need to join in order to advance their careers. Yet they do still wield power, if in a less predictable fashion than in decades past. A recent shift in the Victorian Right, with a new Moderate Labor group breaking away from the conservative shoppies’ union to sit with the Centre Unity faction, is seen as shoring up Shorten’s support.

Some of the disputes that are brewing will be resolved in backroom deals designed to avert confrontation and ensure Shorten’s views prevail. Others will result in passionate debate on the floor of conference.

Come July, it should become clearer what Bill Shorten stands for and whether he can stamp his authority on the party or if the factions will rule the roost again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Factional calculus". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.