Protesters are seen at the front entrance of the Labor Party National Conference in Adelaide (Image: AAP/Kelly Barnes)

Labor received a blessing in disguise in the form of a delayed national conference this week. Only #auspol diehards were likely to still be paying attention so close to Christmas, and if the party downplayed their divisions effectively it could end the year merrily on high.

Accordingly, press gallery veteran Michelle Grattan (who has seen her fair share of these affairs) said the conference felt like it was “managed to within an inch of its life”. But, despite those best efforts, widely-reported interruptions to Bill Shorten’s keynote on the first day shook organisers and security.

Crikey understands the guerrilla strategy had been planned for months. Apparently the demonstrators used a colour photocopier to replicate a number of delegates’ passes. Security were on high alert after the intrusion, with guards spaced about every two metres on the conference floor for the next session.

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Kate Ellis ran “everything is fine” morning and afternoon media briefings, while a WhatsApp group run by Labor staff provided other updates and technical support. The media were rammed into a room which felt like the love child of a cattle shed and a doctor’s waiting room. Online, print and radio journos shared long desks which looked out to two screens broadcasting the conference. The TV crews had cubicles for production but less than desirable soundproofing saw Nine’s Chris Uhlmann shroud himself in a curtain at one stage to do a voicer.

Similar national meetings of the Liberals are far more closed-off, and in the case of the Greens completely closed. Labor runs an open shop but it is more like a display window then a factory floor. Labor sources told me that often as soon as a caucus ends, stories leak like a sieve to media and onto social media.

Three days, 400 delegates, 1000 observers, about 35 international diplomats, around 100 business people and about 140 media, we were told. The initial briefing began with these numbers. The next time things got numerical was was for the first and only count at conference — over a Left motion for a human rights charter which they lost. There was a heavy hush over the hall as the votes were tallied.

The rest of the big issues — environment, reconciliation, industrial relations, Newstart, abortion, Israel-Palestine and refugees — were contained in closed-door compromises done by caucus. Delegates’ were driven from absolute wins on their motions, as well as general optimism about the prospect of winning government.

Labor’s Environment Action Network, who had perhaps the biggest win of the conference, wrapped up the first day with drinks at a pub across the road. Crikey was told the Left faction members had converged there instead of coughing up at least $100 or so for the multi-course dinner in a ballroom-style venue. They hadn’t got everything on the wishlist, but were proud of the environmental protections they had pushed for branch by branch and took the concession for the greater good of an ALP government.

The sharing of celebratory sparkling wine among the jubilant members of LEAN slowed as the Right of the party entered the pub. They quickly dominated the space. Later, the crowd thinned as Labor unity folks stumbled off to the call of karaoke but a pack of CFMEU and ETU members remained out the back, sipping scotch and sodas and defending their stance on refugees. 

These pub chats were echoed on the second day of the conference where pro-refugee protesters defied the careful choreography of security once again. The sit-in of young people, — some with raised fists, others with arms crossed in front of their bodies — encircled a #CloseTheCamps sign. Staring at onlookers, a few addressed them with monologues. A young man with a mullet told cameras he wanted the ALP to realise “young working class people like me aren’t racist dickheads”.

Next to me in the foyer, some loose-lipped staffers remarked that the protesters, having received the media attention they came for, should be allowed to stay until they got sore, “just let them hold their arms up all day”.

After about half-an-hour of demonstrating, they negotiated their exit from the building with security, which would be peaceful on the condition they didn’t chant as they walked out. Much like many Labor party members did with their motions, they took the quiet compromise.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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