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It’s hard to see how much benefit Julia Gillard got from the Labor conference. Indeed, there’s a real question about whether it wasn’t a quiet debacle for her.

Let’s put all this into a bit of context: after all the media complaints about an ALP bereft of values indulging in sanitised, heavily controlled conferences devoid of spirit, it’s a bit rich to flip the criticism around and lament that the Prime Minister’s authority has been damaged by how she was rolled — by her own nominal faction, better yet — on same-s-x marriage. Finally we saw a party passionate and having serious stoushes over substantive policy issues, which is exactly what everyone believed Labor needed. But the problem was never about where Gillard stood on an issue like same-s-x marriage, so much as her bizarre decision to use her prime ministerial authority to try to fight what in the end looked like a losing battle over an issue that isn’t of particular concern to voters.

There is, as Andrew Crook correctly noted on the weekend, more than a little inconsistency on the side of some same-s-x marriage advocates, for whom not so long ago an ALP conscience vote was the escape hatch from a party unwilling to embrace the late 20th century. Now that the party has boldly stepped forward into 1998, a conscience vote is suddenly a dud outcome for some. Conscience can be a funny thing, and looks an awful lot like bigotry when it’s inside someone else’s head.

But in any event, the Prime Minister finds herself aligned, through her own efforts, with trilobites such as Joe De Bruyn, the sort of man for whom the Counter-Reformation was a disastrous plunge into liberalism.

Gillard did have one success, in overriding her own faction’s objections to uranium sales to India, albeit at the expense of trashing what’s left of the party’s consistency on the issue. Does Labor have any coherent policy left on uranium? But at least it has some sense of realpolitik rationale. In contrast, the issue of party reform was, more or less, an unmitigated disaster, not merely or even particularly for Gillard, but for Labor.

Possibly, in the crowded confines of the convention centre at Darling Harbour, with vigorous debate and tight votes, Labor thought itself relevant beyond the 0.1% of the population who form its base. But at some point in the next couple of years, Labor’s base will form less than one in a thousand Australians, if it even reaches such great heights right now. The 2017 conference might be able to entirely avoid the issue of whether members can elect national conference delegates by having the conference made up of the entire membership itself, so small will it have become.

The failure of the party reform proposals was a failure of leadership by Gillard and the party’s factional leaders and a failure of vision by the conference as a whole. Not merely was it agreed not to do anything about the fact that the party is driving towards a cliff, but it elected to throw the steering wheel out the window. Possibly Gillard feared the fate of Simon Crean, a worthy leader who expended most of his leadership authority on winding back union influence at conferences, but it seems a perverse decision to put her authority on the line over same-s-x marriage rather than trying to address the terminal — literally, terminal — decline of her party. The only option now is for the Labor grassroots to seize the initiative and start building structures that route around the party hierarchy as so much damage and connect together.

In the meantime, as if to demonstrate this government’s remarkable capacity to shoot itself in the foot, the confidential sections of the Bracks-Carr-Faulkner report were leaked with the goal of damaging Kevin Rudd. Rudd had a good conference by dint of keeping his head down, having a few good lines about Tony Abbott, and being gracious about Gillard. Plainly, people in the Gillard camp aren’t feeling as secure as they might, given the momentum Labor has developed at the end of this year. After her performance at the conference, maybe they’re right to feel that way.

Peter Fray

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