JERRY ROBERTS-State and federal issues upset WA Labor State Conference

A long-running dispute within the West Australian Labor Party about the future of Fremantle Harbour was the issue behind the rocky start to Labor’s State Conference but the fight between Anthony Albanese and union leader John Setka added spice to the political weekend in Perth.

The iron-clad, military discipline driving Labor’s massive victory in the 2017 West Australian State election collapsed within five minutes of the start of the Party’s State Conference in Perth on Saturday in a good, old-fashioned stoush between Left and Right. Delegates stormed out of the auditorium after a move by the Left to disqualify a delegate from the Maritime Union of Australia on a technical point. WA Premier Mark McGowan found himself addressing a vastly depleted audience.

On Sunday federal leader Anthony Albanese addressed the conference and members of the CFMMEU and MUA made a point of not joining the standing ovation. Albanese began his Labor leadership with an attack on Victorian union leader John Setka that was remarkably foolish and hypocritical, bearing in mind that honourable members dutifully attended a State funeral for multi-millionaire former union leader Bob Hawke.

The Saturday walk-out occurred during the welcome to country introduction and the Bob Hawke tribute session. This was an unfortunate coincidence. Behind the discord there is a significant matter of State development centred on the port of Fremantle at the mouth of the Swan River
The inner harbour, opened in 1897, has a North Wharf now the location of a busy container terminal. Victoria Quay on the south side has the passenger terminal and the offloading facility for motor vehicle imports.

The State Government is proposing to build a new port south of Fremantle at Kwinana on Cockburn Sound with a land-backed container terminal designed to eventually handle the four million or so containers annually expected to arrive in Perth 50 years hence. Maritime unions concerned about the loss of jobs in Fremantle want a 20 year extension on leases in the existing harbour. The issue was discussed for two hours at the State Conference and the government carried the day narrowly.

This is not a new issue. In late 2016 I attended as an observer the last meeting of the Labor State Executive to be held before the March 2017 election. It was an excellent venue — a soccer ground behind the Italian Club within walking distance of central Perth — and it was a most impressive meeting. Candidates strutted their stuff before the delegates and they knew their lines word-perfect.

State Party President and now Housing Minister Peter Tinley chaired the meeting. Peter was one of the two architects of Labor’s election walk-over. The other was Parliamentary Leader and now Premier Mark McGowan. Both are military men, Peter is ex-SAS and Mark is ex-Navy legal.
At the soccer club meeting delegates from the Maritime Unions attempted to raise the Fremantle Port issue and circulated a flier. Peter ruled from the chair against hearing the matter. This was not a fight Labor wanted before the election but there was no stopping it last weekend.

A significant town-planning complication in the harbour issue that has divided the Parliament on party lines is the proposal to improve traffic flow to
Fremantle port by a project known as the Roe 8 highway extension. Labor in Opposition joined the local environmental objections to this proposal. The point remains contentious with one argument saying the highway extension would make the Kwinana facility unnecessary.

There will be no shortage of environmental arguments at the Kwinana end. Cockburn Sound is a substantial area of shallow water sheltered by the mainland and Garden Island from prevailing easterly land breezes and south-westerly sea breezes but wide open to the north-westerly winter storms that often whip off a roof or two in Perth’s coastal suburbs. The new harbour will require a substantial hard-rock mole and constant dredging. This is not too difficult a challenge but the fate of sea grasses on the bed of Cockburn Sound will be a major environmental concern.

I attended as a delegate a State Conference when Labor in WA was in Opposition. It was another excellent venue — Belmont Race Course on the banks of the Swan River upstream from the Causeway — and it was impressive. The conference ran like a Swiss watch. The star from the East, Tanya Plibersek, received a rapturous reception from her West Australian fans. It was the delegates from the United Voice union who made the greatest impression on me. With their youth, enthusiasm and organisation I thought they were the most hopeful sign for Labor.

But life wasn’t meant to be easy. There are two coalitions in Australian politics — the formal link between Liberals and Nationals and the informal bond between Labor and the Greens. Labor has no chance without Green preferences. With the benefit of hindsight I’m thinking the disaster for Labor in Queensland on 18 May was unavoidable.

Why Anthony Albanese should begin his leadership with an internal fight is beyond me and we can do without Paul Keating’s claim that he and Bob Hawke created modern middle class Australia, not that modern middle class Australia is anything to brag about. Only one Labor icon should occupy the thinking of Labor members and that is John Curtin whose writings on economics from the time of the 1930s Depression should be their bedtime reading, along with the work of Keynes and Kaldor.

And please, no more waving through tax cuts. There is even a whisper that legislation to penalise users of cash will be waved through. How this evil monstrosity could get past Liberal backbenchers let alone the Nationals strains belief. Please, boys and girls in the Parliament, start working for the people and the country, not the banks.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP


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9 Responses to JERRY ROBERTS-State and federal issues upset WA Labor State Conference

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    As they say in the USA: Back at Ya, JR.
    You see why I posted that about Daisy, of course… the irony. The devilish inscrutability of people of few words- and resonant ones. Boggy – was her way of warning…

  2. I forgot Daisy’s advice about the edges and bogged a 12 tonne truck in the mud one wet summer. It went down to China. Fortunately there were plenty of helpers or it would still be there. I like all your comments, Rosemary, long or short.

  3. Chris Lewis says:

    Keep on Jerry, add to your list the vital requirement that Labor’s only way out of the wilderness is serious engagement with the 20-40 age group who have no patience for the internal party politics that currently dominates everything. Without a visible youth policy Labor as we know it in Australia has no future.

  4. Jocelyn, I was afraid your book on central banking would be heavy-going but you strike a lively pace from the opening chapter. Nugget Coombs was a Chifley man. They all were because of Chifley’s personal warmth. But Coombs admitted Curtin had the brains and it was his planning that produced the post-war reconstruction.

  5. Charles Lowe says:

    Jerry – I confess I have not read the economics contributions of the great John Curtin.

    Nevertheless I must disagree with you concerning your nomination of Curtin as the only Labor icon worth noting.

    Whitlam is at least equally iconic. He was the implementer. “More matter, less art.”
    (Although it can be argued that Hayden’s 1975 Budget presaged Hawke’s addiction to neoliberalism – as could Whitlam’s own tariff reductions in 1973, though I disagree that they were).

  6. That was a fine piece on Tim Fisher and the Pell trial, Rosemary. Planning issues like Fremantle port are not black and white and I’m glad it is not my problem but I do like working ports rather than coffee shops and home units. The huge ships steaming within a stone’s throw of Port Hedland’s main street are a great tourist attraction.

    I have just managed to pull out a car full of Aboriginal women who got bogged in the Pilbara dirt and knocked on my door at 4.30am. To add a degree of difficulty there was heavy dew and one of those pea-souper fogs we get every now and then so I had to take care not to bog the rescue ute. Fabulous weather this time of year in the north.

    I have been up to my neck in the politics of Aboriginal affairs in Australia all my life. It needs an extra dimension now that so many of the old folk have passed on. For governments and mining companies, native title is just another overhead factored into the budget.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Thank-you JR. I guess you not-so-keen on my long comment herein?
      Well, being up to yr neck in Aboriginal politics is not for the short-lived, or impatient. I stipulated at the outset with my Kimberley clients that I do Law – not Politics. I was not being Naieve (of Course they can’t be Separated, least of all There) – just Practical: One (whitefella) can’t do it. That was their (clients’) job, as was dealing with (Their) Families. Lawyers’ Rules.
      But, of course, you know all the rest: Human rights, humanitarianism, poverty, corruption, starvation… My late client, poet Daisy Utemorrah, published a short book: “Don’t Go Near the Edges”… and she’d impart that particular advice quite succinctly: “Boggy”. Good on you for maintaining the dignity of the human race, JR.

  7. Jocelyn Pixley says:

    I completely agree that John Curtin should be read and understood. In my view he was Australia’s finest Prime Minister ever. My favourite and still relevant quote of his was from 1917, during WW1.
    “Governments which could raise millions for the prosecution of this fearful war merely by lifting their little finger, when confronted with the problem of saving from semi-starvation the many millions of their people existing in abject poverty could do nothing but unearth reports from pigeon holes to prove their utter inability to improve the situation of the people.”

  8. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Thanks for this explanation, JR – I saw the walkout on TV but lacked context.
    I am glad, too, that you mention the Keating claim that he & RJH ‘created’ modern middle-class Australia. Is that terminology still current?
    He – PJK – also claimed credit for having created the Aboriginal/ ‘indigenous leadership’ – A & B-Team consultees absent any taint of legitimacy from their ‘elders’ / traditional ‘leaders. This is ‘ not a proper term but who cares? – the manufacturers of the wholly inefficient, inauthentic and fundamentally illegal legislation authorizing by Parliamentary fiat, absent the consent of the true owners, a nationwide land-grab: The Native Title Act 1993. The confusion thus-created is still causing unhappiness as indigenes come to understand that what they’ve now got is not, actually, land rights.

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