Pragmatism over purity as Labor goes for compromise at all costs
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Pragmatism over purity as Labor goes for compromise at all costs

There was a fair bit of eye-rolling at Labor's national conference when Scott Morrison tried to overshadow proceedings by announcing a new governor-general.

And they laughed when the sex scandal surrounding Andrew Broad provided a different kind of distraction.

"We are ready": Labor leader Bill Shorten used the conference to cement unity.

"We are ready": Labor leader Bill Shorten used the conference to cement unity.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But the people doing their best to keep Labor's national conference out of the headlines were Labor themselves.

Much work was done behind the scenes between negotiators to strike deals on contentious policy matters and prevent divisive and potentially dangerous fights on the conference floor.

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It's a rare occasion on which Labor MPs don't have to toe the party line: this is where the party line is formed, after all.

While Bill Shorten's Right faction had the numbers, it was only by a knife edge, giving the Left the opportunity to push hard for substantial changes.

They won key concessions on asylum seekers, including a commitment to massively increase funding for the United Nations refugee agency.

Foreign affairs matters don't divide neatly on factional lines. Anthony Albanese pushed to immediately ratify the UN nuclear ban treaty, opposed by many in the Right but also the portfolio holder, Penny Wong, on the Left.

The compromise was reached early Monday evening, just as Shorten was toasting Labor's country caucus at the 2KW rooftop bar. The party would agree to the treaty in principle, but leave it up to cabinet to decide, taking into account other matters such as whether other countries decide to sign.

It's a loose enough commitment that Wong, if foreign minister, need not sign the treaty at all. But it gives something to both sides and makes the party's intent clear, if nothing else.

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So comprehensive was the backroom dealing that only one amendment led to a division that had to be settled by a vote - a bid to bind Labor to creating a human rights charter. It was lost 192 votes to 195.

Prior to the conference, some on the Left were agitating for robust debate instead of a "stage-managed" affair. Arguably, stage-management is exactly what they got. Others said it was genuine goodwill.

But just a few months from an election, pragmatism took precedence over purity.

"You can't blame us for not wanting to tear ourselves apart three months before an election," one delegate said when exiting the building on Tuesday.

Even the decision to defer a debate about internal party rules barely raised an eyebrow. "People are sick of it - they just want to win government," an MP said.

Shorten has again shown that he and his team can negotiate to save themselves. They gave concessions to the base without compelling a Labor cabinet to any major policy reversals. And they wheeled out some new policies on housing, inequality and reconciliation.

"We are ready," Shorten stressed as he closed proceedings on Tuesday.

In a week where the government was yet again derailed by an MP behaving badly, Labor will consider this conference a decent win - even if few people noticed.

Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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