Shortcuts / 17 August 2023

Political conferences

Mark your diaries – over the next few days, you’re going to be hearing a lot about the Australian Labor Party’s national conference, where the party’s policies are discussed and set. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we get you across how the conference actually works, what might happen this time around, and how conferences work for the Liberals and other political parties.

So is this kinda a big deal?
It is for Labor, especially because they’re in power at a federal level as well as in every state and territory except Tassie. So it’s definitely something we should pay some attention to.

When was the last conference?
Labor holds their conference every few years, and it’s their first in-person conference since 2018 after the pandemic derailed the last one. It’s also the first get together where Labor’s been in government since 2011, when Julia Gillard was PM.

Who goes to these big events?
A lot of people… More than 2,000 people will be at this one in Brissie including Labor ministers and MPs, state and territory leaders, ordinary party members, business leaders and even diplomats from other countries who go along to observe.

Are they just there to talk up the Labor Party?
Not quite – it’s at these conferences where things can happen that can change the direction of Labor policy.

How does that work?
So the main players involved in this are called delegates. At this conference there will be 402 of them in attendance – they’re Labor members who get voted into that role by their state or territory branch and they are the ones who actually get to vote on the policies.

Doesn’t all the policy making happen in Parliament?
That’s what you would assume but for Labor, a lot of it actually happens on the conference floor. The 3-day conference agenda is actually designed around what’s called the draft national platform.

The what?
That’s just a collection of policy ideas. Then at the conference, the relevant minister speaks to what they think is important in their portfolio, and then the delegates are allowed to propose amendments to the platform or make resolutions which are more general statements of support or opposition.

Have any significant policies come out of these conferences before?
They have – it was actually at the 2007 national conference that then-Opposition leader Kevin Rudd promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050 – that was roundly endorsed by delegates. And at 2011 event, the party voted to support same-sex marriage.

And what happens after the vote?
Once a policy is decided they are binding on the Labor party in Parliament.

What’s on the agenda at this year’s conference?
There are a few controversial issues threatening to rear their heads, like Australia’s position on Israel and Palestine, as well as our AUKUS submarines deal.

How could those issues play out?
They’re both issues that Labor has actually been building up to in the lead up to the event. Just last week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced the Labor government will now call Israel’s settlements on the West Bank illegal.

Why was that brought up before the conference?
A lot of observers are saying it was to avoid a messy fight over these next few days. That’s because a lot of Labor delegates were pushing for the party to go further and recognise Palestine as a state in the near future. So this is actually a kind of compromise…

What about AUKUS?
So that $8 billion deal to buy and build nuclear-powered subs was made by the previous Morrison Coalition government, but it was enthusiastically endorsed by PM Anthony Albanese. It’s been criticised heavily within Labor – former PM Paul Keating called it the “worst deal in all history” – so we can expect some sort of dissent about it during the conference.

Could that reflect badly on Albanese and the government?
It depends how it plays out – the key thing for bosses within the different Labor factions at these conferences is to try and make sure nothing too unseemly happens on the floors, so it doesn’t embarrass the PM or undermine any ministers.

They need to keep their eyes on the prize…
And that’s essentially the gist of what Albanese said ahead of the conference. He urged delegates to think of the big picture, saying they can only get what they want as a party if they get re-elected, because “enduring reforms that change a country for the better – take time”.

Right. Anything else happening behind the scenes I should know about?
There’s a couple of things to note… First is that some of the union delegates have really been challenging Trade Minister Don Farrell about the impact on Aussie jobs when we sign free trade agreements. Farrell has just announced there will be a parliamentary inquiry into how we do those deals.

And the second?
That Immigration Minister Andrew Giles has announced Australia’s annual refugee intake will increase to 20,000 next year, up from 18,000. That’s an issue that normally comes up at every ALP conference.

So what’s the difference between a Labor and a Liberal conference?
The big one is that while the policy that gets decided at an ALP conference is binding on the parliamentary party, that’s not the case for the Libs.

Why not?
It’s written into the Liberal Party’s Constitution that the organisational wing of the party cannot dictate policy. So we’re talking about members who make up local branches and get elected into state branches – not the MP’s who sit in parliament.

So there’s not as much chat about policy?
Yes and no… There’s still plenty of vigorous debate in the Liberal’s annual forums, which go by the name of the Federal Council of the Liberal Party. Back in 2018, the Council passed a motion to privatise the ABC. That was pretty newsworthy at the time, and even though it didn’t become party policy, it arguably did influence how some MPs and ministers engaged with the ABC.

What about the Greens?
It has 2 national conferences every year, so they’re pretty important to the party. Its constitution calls the national conference “the supreme governing body of The Greens” and consensus at their conference immediately informs the party’s policies.

So their conferences are more similar to Labor’s than the Liberals’?
Yes, but the main difference is that the Greens also have delegates that get to vote at their national conferences that are drawn from all the state organisations. That’s a pretty big deal for them given how much influence they have over the party’s policies.

Sounds like a lot to wrangle…
Yep, and we’re glad we’re not the ones who have to do it.

Squiz recommends:

Labor’s greatest hits: Memorable moments from ALP national conferences – ABC News

Political Lives* by Chris Wallace

*Buy using this link and The Squiz may earn a little commission

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.