The Australian Labor Party’s national conference, representing trade unions, party branches and parliamentarians, has decisively backed the AUKUS nuclear submarine treaty. While AUKUS was the most controversial question internally, the conference was largely silent on the pressing cost-of-living crisis, particularly on housing.
As the first ALP national conference to meet while the party has been in government since 2011, the gathering was always going to be a flashpoint for discontent with Labor. In 2011, there were protests of thousands against Labor’s opposition to marriage equality and against the mandatory detention of refugees.
This time, smaller protests were held on the issues of opposing AUKUS, calling for genuine action on the environment, in particular ending native forest logging, and for real action on housing affordability. By and large, these protests, while not massive, indicate the breach between left-wing, even majority sentiment, and the Labor Party’s commitment to ruling for the rich. Outside the conference, people called for justice, whereas inside the heavily fortified convention centre, such calls were either ignored, mocked or watered down.
The first day started with a bang, with a sizeable work stoppage organised by the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) at city construction sites, marching on the conference to demand a ban on silicosis-inducing stone cutting and in support of the union’s call for a super-profits tax to fund affordable housing.
While conference did amend the ALP platform to ban the engineered stone responsible for the fatal silicosis disease, every day that either a union or government ban on this stone is not implemented means workers being exposed to a slow and painful death. Yet another paper commitment isn’t worth much.
On housing, as well as the CFMEU demonstration, the Greens organised a rally of 300 people on the final day of the conference. The rally called for significant investment in publicly owned housing, as well as a rent freeze. Greens housing spokesperson Max Chandler-Mather told the demonstration, to cries of “Shame!”, that the ALP has “locked in $368 billion for the nuclear attack submarines, and they tell us all they can spend is at most $500 million a year, at most, from 2025, on social housing”.
On the inside, Zach Smith, CFMEU national secretary, watered down the union’s call for a $290 billion super-profits tax to fund housing to a mealy-mouthed motion “committing” the ALP to a progressive tax to fund housing. Smith told Michael West Media, “We had to make a decision, whether we ... run up a more rigid position that we know will get defeated, or take a position which shifts the dial on corporate tax”. How exactly it shifts anything for the ALP to say it supports progressive taxation, who knows.
This is a double shame for the CFMEU to try to sell, not only because of the current political contest between Labor and the Greens over the government’s Housing Australia Future Fund, but also because of the other elephant in the room at the conference: Labor’s support for the “stage three” income tax cuts. This $250 billion handout to the rich was legislated under the Liberal Party but is set to come into effect only from July next year. When the ALP is actively undermining progressive taxation, it is a farce to say a conference motion is a step forward.
It was AUKUS, discussed on the second day of the conference, that was most anticipated as an issue of internal dissent. Several unions, particularly the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), have opposed the deal due to it involving Australia in the nuclear industry. Other voices in the ALP, most prominently former Prime Minister Paul Keating, have criticised it for signing up Australia to a US war against China.
A protest of around 150 people, including a contingent of ETU delegates, took a stand outside and heard from Peter Ong, ETU state secretary, and Arthur Rorris, South Coast Labor Council secretary, who condemned the treaty.
On the inside, however, a vote wasn’t even taken on AUKUS. A 1,300-word motion thoroughly endorsing AUKUS was passed “on the voices”, indicating that among the 400 accredited ALP delegates, few disagreed. This followed a carefully stage-managed debate featuring Prime Minister Anthony Albanese taking to the podium to make clear the full-throated commitment of the ALP to US imperialism. Albanese argued that obtaining submarines capable of attacking targets anywhere in the world is necessary for Australia to “promote peace, security, stability and prosperity right across the Indo-Pacific”.
Following the conference, anybody paying attention cannot retain any illusions in Labor’s “Socialist Left” faction. It was members of the left—Pat Conroy, Albanese and Penny Wong—who defended AUKUS. As chronicled in the Guardian’s live blog of proceedings, despite a left majority of delegates, the conference couldn’t even be moved to ban the logging of native forests, which 360 ALP branches had backed prior to the gathering.
The total capitulation of the left to the priorities of capitalism was capped off by the election of the national executive of the party, during which sections of the left voted with the right to ensure factional parity on the highest leadership body.
For any real action opposing the drive to war, for environmental justice and in defence of workers’ living standards, the struggle continues.