7.30 Report – ALP National Conference 2004: delegates debate immigration policy
Friday 30 January 2004
KERRY O’BRIEN: Mark Latham’s honeymoon as the new Labor leader continued today, with overwhelmingly positive exposure of his speech to the ALP national conference in almost every daily newspaper.
The new leader also comfortably survived a passionate argument over refugee and asylum seeker policy that saw the policy platform he embraced heavily criticised by the group known as Labor for Refugees.
Given the almost dream run Labor’s new leader has enjoyed, it’s no surprise that the Prime Minister, too, has been stung to attack his latest Labor opponent.
But as political editor Michael Brissenden reports, the party has now rallied around the man they believe is their best chance for victory at the next election.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Labor faithful, the comrades – and yes, some do still use the term – can hardly believe it.
MARK LATHAM, ALP LEADER: Well, thanks to Julia, Craig, and all the comrades here today —
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: In just a few months, Mark Latham, the man some of them had believed was simply too unpredictable and erratic for the leadership has transformed their political fortunes.
GEOFF GALLOP GALLOP, WA PREMIER: I think that was a very, very comprehensive political speech and Mark set out a very clear direction for Labor.
STEVE BRACKS, VICTORIAN PREMIER: I thought it was outstanding and I think it has set the tone really for what is going to be a very heavily contested election.
REPORTER: Do you think Labor is back in the race?
BOB CARR, NSW PREMIER: Absolutely.
Labor is back in the race.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: If the mood after the leader’s speech yesterday was ebullient, it’s now positively effervescent.
Mark Latham is said to be reasonably happy with the coverage.
He should be.
He’ll probably never get press this good again.
If Labor’s finding it hard adjusting to the change of circumstances, there’s a few players on the other side who’ve been taken somewhat off guard as well.
The Prime Minister says he’s not rattled but the Government appears to be paying a lot more attention than it used to the inner workings of the Opposition and the policy positions put by its new leader.
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER, ON RADIO: I read the speech and there were a lot of glib generalisations in it, but when you get to detail this man is very sloppy with the truth.
In his speech yesterday —
INTERVIEWER: Sorry, he’s sloppy with the truth?
JOHN HOWARD Sloppy, sloppy.
In other words, he didn’t tell it as it is.
DR CARMEN LAWRENCE, ALP PRESIDENT: Well, that’s rich coming from John Howard.
He should look in a mirror some day.
Really, that’s amazing.
MARK LATHAM: If you live long enough you’ll hear everything.
Getting a lecture from John Howard about truth in public life.
Goodness gracious, what next?
I understand he has had a bad hair day … problem with the ear piece and all that, so that can happen, and we’ll excuse him on this occasion.
REPORTER: Do you think the PM is rattled?
MARK LATHAM: John Howard is a very tough and experienced competitor.
I would never be so bold to make such a claim.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Mark Latham’s momentum has been propelled with a calculated and carefully crafted new vision heavily reliant on the rhetoric of generational change.
It also helps that his own personal history is a Labor fairytale, a deep well for a party with an emotive need to remain faithful to its roots.
John Howard, though, says there’s nothing unique in the Latham experience and he says he’s been selective about his past.
JOHN HOWARD ON RADIO: Whenever there’s anything embarrassing about what he’s said in the past, such as his attacks on George Bush or his attacks on female journalists, he says this election is about the future.
Yet when it suits him he likes to talk a lot about aspects of his own past.
Now, I don’t mind him doing that.
He’s not the only person in Australia who started in a housing commission home.
He’s not the only person in Australia who has ended up better than he was financially and in an achievement sense.
INTERVIEWER: But he’s promoting himself as a battler made good, isn’t he?
JOHN HOWARD: I know.
But he’s entitled to promote himself in any way he wants to but he can’t be selective about the past.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But in politics, as John Howard knows well, often the past is rewritten to suit the times.
So far history is treating Mark Latham relatively well, but it hasn’t all gone his way here today.
ALP conferences over the past few years have become relatively stage managed affairs, but they do offer a rare public insight into the continuous internal struggle over policy formation, and there’s no struggle bigger at the moment than over the policy on refugees and asylum.
The policy already put forward by the new leader maintains mandatory detention but puts the onus on the Government to prove that the asylum seeker’s country of origin is safe enough to return to if their asylum applications are rejected.
It also brings in tougher penalties for people smugglers.
A victory for the policy was always assured, but this afternoon’s debate provided some of the few outbursts of passion that used to be the hallmark of what Labor likes to call its democratic process.
STEPHEN SMITH, SHADOW IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Do you want to excise Christmas Island … yes or no?
Do you want a system, sensibly, of temporary protection visas … yes or no?
Do you want a system of mandatory detention … yes, or no?
DR CARMEN LAWRENCE: What is proposed in this platform is far too close to John Howard’s policy for comfort.
BOB CARR, NSW PREMIER: Delegates, you cannot combat people smuggling without recognising the reality of the need, in some circumstances, for mandatory detention.
And that’s the position that the Blair Government has reached.
LINDSAY TANNER, SHADOW COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER: Racism is a word that is perhaps too easily bandied around in public debate these days.
I concede that.
But in spite of that, we should never forget what it means.
It goes to the very core, the very essence, of an individual’s being.
It’s right at the heart of people’s human rights and, dare I say it, it is right at the heart of opportunity for all.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER:
Does any delegate here believe that we would have had the rhetoric from the Government if they were Irish Catholics coming here on boats?
It’s because they’re Muslims.
That is why we have had this debate.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The vote to support the Latham policy was won comfortably.
Mark Latham is having a good run.
He should soak it up because as anyone in politics knows, fortune can be a fickle thing.
MARK LATHAM: We have a very good policy, strong on border protection and a fairer treatment of genuine refugees.
So I’m very happy with the result.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Winning over the party is an important first step, but after all, he is still only the Leader of the Opposition.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.