Several hundred metres down from the Sanctuary Hotel, that favoured watering hole of UNSW Commerce students, about 200 men and women sat in front of two projector screens in a basement.
The Labor Centre-Unity Caucus took place today, in an auditorium beneath the Trades Hall building off Sussex St in the Sydney CBD. (Facebook event) It was a gathering of the Right faction of the New South Wales Labor Party, to identify areas of contention to their delegates before their show of scripted unity before the cameras at the State Conference tomorrow. I am told these faction meetings take place regularly – but I wouldn’t know.
Addressing the crowd, the party Secretary and Great and Venerable Ruler Of All Things, Kaila Murnain, joked, “the left have so thoroughly abandoned the ideological debate that they are arguing whether the best lattes are in Surry Hills or Newtown”. That contempt, I think, encapsulates the relationship between the factions in the Australian Labor Party. Also present on the table facing the crowd was Wayne Swan, recently elected as the Right faction’s preferred candidate for party President following his departure from federal politics. Such senior figures as the Bob Carr and Tony Burke had suited up for the occasion, and were having furtive conversations on the sidelines. No doubt there were numerous state MPs, councillors and union representatives also in attendance – I spotted Jihad Dib, but I’m not yet in a position to recognise all the warriors by their faces.
That morning, the federal finance team – Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers – had fronted the media in a park in Perth to announce a critical policy backdown. The Labor Party would no longer reverse company tax cuts for companies with a turnover between $10 million and $50 million, as Shorten had promised a week earlier. A few weeks earlier, Anthony Albanese (a stalwart of the Left) had made a speech that seemed to criticise Shorten’s approach on businesses. Addressing the crowd, Tony Burke said the media would be looking for signs of disunity and conflict, and that “we need to shut that down, we need absolutely to shut that down.” He flagged that the Left faction would attempt to bring an urgency motion on requiring Parliamentary approval for declarations of war, as is required in the US and the UK. Whilst acknowledging the policy debate that individuals in the Right were having on this issue, Burke pronounced nonetheless, “this is not the weekend to engage in that particular indulgence”.
In their totality, the policy suggestions debated at Labor Conferences sound like a wish-list of the UNSW Law Faculty. In drug reform, the Left will push pill testing and safe injecting rooms – two points on which the Right say they are still waiting for evidence, including the results of a review into pill testing at the Groove in the Moo festival in the ACT. Why, then, weren’t these professors – Luke McNamara, and so on – at the caucus? And where were all the thousands of politically engaged young people who place their stock in identity politics and social liberalism? Indeed, what about all those people in that hotel up the street? The lawmaker in this country is neither the Australian Law Reform Commission, nor the vicissitudes of social media. It is the Parliament.
Carr was there to flog his new memoir, ‘Run for Your Life’. $35 for a signed 300-page book – and all copies were gone by the end of the evening. I admit was surprised to see, at this Machiavellian caucus filled with red Centre-Unity banners and balloons, that pale blue UNHCR tablecloth at the door. If I had had more presence of mind, if I had been braver, I would thought to take a photograph. It turns out that the iconography was there because Carr will be donating all his author proceeds to children victims of the Syrian Civil War, through the charity ‘Australia for UNHCR’. Carr said to me that he chose that charity, over UNICEF, because Australia for UNHCR delineated concrete actions to which the funding would contribute. I hear he’ll be doing another book launch of the University of Sydney in early August.
I’ll have to end it there, it’s 11:30pm; I’m to be at Sydney Town hall at 6am to help with setting up for the conference. I confess I’m still working through what it means for something to be off-the-record. I haven’t yet figured out what information, gleaned from conversation, is admissible, and what will turn a rickety wooden bridge into a matchstick inferno. Funny, isn’t it, how Bob Carr can write about how Paul Keating once said to him, “Listen, Robbie, journalism is a rat-shit profession. You’ll be coming down here, feeding off the Labor Party, all your sources will be in the Labor Party, you’ll have none in the Coalition.” (p. 35) Apparently, Carr also made a stir by revealing Malcolm Turnbull’s desire to become the Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union!
But, as ever, I haven’t read up to that bit yet.