Exactly 40 years ago a disgruntled ALP delegate challenged his parliamentary leader with the question: “Whose party is it anyway – his or ours?”

The delegate was the left’s hero Jim Cairns and the question was written for him by his then script-writer Phillip Adams. The leader was of course Gough Whitlam, who was attempting the crash-through-or-crash reforms to the party’s structure and policy which finally made Labor electable after 23 years in opposition. It is now a matter of history that Whitlam won, a win for which both Cairns and Adams became belatedly grateful.

But he did so without providing a definitive answer to the question: does the ultimate control of the ALP rest with the rank and file membership or with the elected parliamentary leader? The vote against New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma’s move to privatise the state’s electricity industry at the weekend is another attempt to find out.

The rules are clear enough: the ALP conferences, state and national, are the supreme policy making bodies of the party and all members of parliament are bound by their decisions. No ifs, no buts. But rules are made to be broken and strong leaders over the years have frequently interpreted conference decisions to suit themselves.

Recognising this political reality, conferences these days usually try to restrict themselves to statements of principle and long term goals which leave the leader plenty of room to manoeuvre. But there are times when they assert themselves in an attempt to establish, as one delegate put it on Saturday, who has the biggest dick in the Labor Party.

The current stand-off is one of those occasions. If he is to crash through Iemma will have to defy a specific direction from conference, and one with overwhelming support. The vote of 702-107 means that it was not only the union delegates opposed to the sell-off; nearly three-quarters of the branch delegates joined them.

There are times when a leader can get away with a deliberate breech of party rules; Kevin Rudd did so when he announced that he alone, and not caucus, would appoint his ministry. But Rudd was a leader newly triumphant, the saviour who had led his party back to power after nearly 12 years in the wilderness. Iemma heads an old and tired government rampant with cronyism and suspected of more serious corruption. He himself is reasonably popular, but the leader of the privatisation push, treasurer Michael Costa, personifies everything the voters dislike about the Macquarie Street mafia. He has said in so many words that he is going ahead and his critics can get f-cked: he doesn’t care if they expel him.

This of course is the ultimate sanction. It has actually been used: Premier William Holman was expelled for breaching party policy by supporting conscription during World War I. Admittedly that was nearly a century ago, but the precedent is there. Iemma, more cautious than Costa, is still hoping to avoid it. He can point to caucus endorsement of his plan, and also to the finding by a committee headed by former Premier Barrie Unsworth – a much respected figure in the party – that it is in fact in accord with broad Labor policy. It also has the support of Rudd and the feds, not to mention the business community. But it has been decisively kyboshed by the representatives of Labor’s membership.

So: whose party is it – his or theirs? Perhaps this time we will find out.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.