It is a ritual as regular of the arrival of the first cold snap of winter, and usually about as welcome.
At every ALP National Conference the media commentators announce portentously that there will be a make or break issue: a test which the leader must survive to determine whether he succeeds or fails.
For Doc Evatt, it was simply preserving his leadership against both left and right; for Arthur Calwell it quickly became fending off the rise of Gough Whitlam. For Whitlam himself it was to beat down the left-dominated delegates.
For Bill Hayden, it was to counter the influence of Bob Hawke. For Hawke, it was to win the debate about mining Australian uranium. For Kim Beazley it was simply about establishing himself as Kim Beazley.
For Simon Crean it was to reform the party rules and structure. For Kevin Rudd, it was to devise a viable alternative to John Howard’s WorkChoices. For Julia Gillard it was to explain that while she was her, we were more than just us.
And for Bill Shorten, of course, it has been about turn back and asylum seeker policy. And in every case, the leader prevailed: a cynic would say that this is what the conference is for.
Through backroom deals, sweeteners and threats the party’s movers and shakers (mainly, but not entirely, the factional bosses) conclude that the leader must not be humiliated in public: if he is, to be humiliated, it will be in the privacy of their own councils. The debates may be passionate, even lachrymose, but the numbers are seldom if ever if in doubt. The vote, if there is one, is passed.
So one might have assumed that the test was passed, the ordeal was over. But no; what happens next is that the commentators, especially the conservatives, move the goal posts. Well, they say, he might have won a technical victory, but that wasn’t exactly what we meant; all opposition was not crushed, annihilated. There are still dissenters; the leader’s position is not yet safe. Indeed, it might be even more perilous that the losers regroup and plot on, this time in secret.
And so it has been for Bill Shorten. Sure, he got over the line – but surely not on the merits of the argument. He could not count on the reliable right; he had to be propped up by his supporters in the loathsome left, by the unions, most especially the reviled CFMEU and its mad vandals. And this has put him in their debt – for a long time, if not forever. He is beholden to them: a mere puppet.
Shorten is weak, fatally exposed on economic policy, reprising the worst of the Rudd-Gillard era. That, at least, is the interpretation of the scribes of The Australian, and it will undoubtedly become the mantra of the Liberals, with Tony Abbott at their forefront. Situation normal.
All of which might lead the casual spectator to wonder what was the point of having the conference in the first place. And this is certainly the position the leaders themselves frequently bemoan. Why go through all that public time and effort, and then have to put up with a campaign of denigration and vilification if the outcome was essentially predetermined?
Life would be so much easier if they and their trusted cohorts could simply get on with it and dispense with all that biennial democratic nonsense. After all, that’s what their opponents do; why are they the ones who have to suffer the travails of inclusion and transparency?
And when they do so, there are always demands for more: extra delegates with greater independence, increasing power to determine the policies they would far rather keep to themselves. The same commentators who rail about the need for the Labor Party to become more open and democratic are the very ones that praise the Tories for being tough, for keeping their organisational wings and their parliamentary wings as far apart as possible. It’s just not fair.
And indeed it isn’t; but that’s the ALP for you. Like it or not, Labor has always been a bottom-up party; there have been distortions and disruptions, but in the end the idea that the membership – the grass roots – is sacrosanct cannot be avoided. And in recent times the push to enhance that movement has accelerated: thus an expanded national conference with greater rank and file participation and more possibilities for dispute and dissent.
The Libs boast that they are the party of individual freedom and choice, that any parishioners in their broad church are able to cross the floor of parliament, while Labor is bound and constrained. But in practice the parliamentary discipline by both sets of whips leaves little if any room for genuine rebellion. If people want to let out a bit of steam they can only do so well away from Canberra.
Labor’s national conferences produce the odd outburst, but it seldom leads to any substantial change, and almost never when the leader is involved. So Bill Shorten survives, as he was always going to. The question is: what has he survived for?
He has now crafted some serious ideas, the main one being his radical proposals for renewable energy as part of a broader, re-jigged climate policy. It has its risks, but also its opportunities.
Whether he can refine and develop it into a centrepiece for the next election will be the real test, and of course his opponents will claim that he has already failed it. But he has given himself a chance, and at least he will not have to worry about another national conference to contend with.
The government’s favourite funster, Christopher Pyne, notes that the Libs always enjoy Labor’s national conferences more than Labor does. But the real fun is only just beginning. Bring out the three word slogans, the gotcha lines, the scare campaigns. We know Tony Abbott rejected them last week, but don’t worry – they are only on probation.