State and federal issues upset WA Labor State Conference

Aug 30, 2019

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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