Labor Bill Shorten national conference

Last week we looked at all the ticking time-bombs the Liberal Party had neatly surrounded themselves with in the last week of parliament. Through contemptible tactics and opposition cowardice, the Coalition were able to pass their anti-encryption bill and avoid defeat on votes concerning the welfare of refugees. The shambolic, skin-of-the-teeth finale will feel like a victory.

Now we turn our focus to Labor and the possible crises facing leader Bill Shorten in the lead-up to this weekend’s Labor Party National Conference. Which of these pots will boil over before the weekend is through?

Encryption

Many were furious at Labor for its last-minute capitulation on the government’s anti-encryption bill. Despite eloquent arguments being made against many elements, the bill was passed in its original form with precisely zero amendments. Labor has been condemned by privacy advocates, the tech industry, our own Bernard Keane, and now its own MPs. Nine has reported a “widespread” disgust for the move:

One senior figure said the backdown made Labor look weak and confused for supporting legislation it had conceded was flawed. Dissatisfaction in the party was ‘substantial’ and ‘pretty widespread’, they said. 

The encryption debate was used by the Coalition for a series of attacks on Labor’s supposed weakness on “terrorists and paedophiles”. Clearly, it worked. This tension for Shorten is unlikely to go anywhere before the next election; the Coalition clearly feel it’s an area they can make inroads.

Refugees

In the lead-up to the passage of the anti-encryption bill, it was being argued that Labor were attempting a quid quo pro; that they were caving on a less than ideal reform (that they would later amend) and in return they would be able to pass a bill easing the passage of sick refugees to Australia to receive treatment. That was successfully stalled by the government and its allies in the senate, meaning Labor came away with nothing.

Despite a general softening of public opinion, refugees are another perceived area of vulnerability for Labor. The Australian darkly reported on Monday that Labor’s Left faction (with former ACTU president Ged Kearney as the figurehead) is pushing for a series of reforms across the board, most notably on refugees, with Kearney writing in Challenge:

We are determined, though, to delive­r a national platform that resets the awful practice of punishing asylum seekers for seeking our safety and protection. Labor’s goal must be to get everyone held in offshore detention to safety and build a framework that could mean nobody actually has to go to offshore-­processing facilities.

Shorten has made some concessions already. On Tuesday morning it was reported that 10,000 asylum seekers still being processed a decade after their arrival would be granted permanent residency through the abolition of the government’s temporary protection visa system. This won’t entirely ameliorate the concerns of refugee activists within the party, who are calling for an end to offshore processing and boat turnbacks. 

That particular path has been publicly shut down by Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke: 

If you stop the turnbacks policy, I don’t think there is any doubt that the drownings would commence again. I don’t mind that there’s some delegates who have that view and they push it, but they haven’t been in the majority in the past.

Newstart Allowance 

Another issue which Shorten has been, shall we say, equivocal about, is the Newstart payment, which is roughly $40 per day. He’s admitted that no one in parliament could live on that amount, and has promised a “root and branch review” of the program in the first term of a Shorten government, but has as yet refused to actually commit to an increase.

That hasn’t been nearly specific enough for many, with Anthony Albanese ally and NSW delegate Darcy Byrne renewing his long-time push for an increase

So far federal Labor has only committed to reviewing the rate of Newstart in the first term of government. This is not good enough. Giving the lowest income Australians a decent standard of living is a moral issue and quite obviously should be an immediate priority, not a second order concern, for an incoming Labor government.

What else could cause Bill Shorten headaches over the Christmas break? Let us know at [email protected].