Bill Shorten defends shutdown of refugee debate at Victorian Labor conference | Australia news
Labor left MPs have expressed disappointment that the Victorian conference shut down a debate on imposing a 90-day time limit on offshore detention.
The procedural move to close the state conference early by the industrial left has been interpreted as protection of Bill Shorten’s position by the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, and indicates that any major change to the party’s platform on refugees at the national conference is unlikely.
The national conference will be rescheduled after the surprise announcement that five byelections are to be held on 28 July, with September and January now under consideration.
On Sunday the industrial left teamed up with the Labor right to close the Victorian state conference, shutting down urgency motions on live exports, gender inequality in superannuation, closure of offshore detention centres, the right to strike, the rate of Newstart and recognition of Palestine.
The same grouping also combined to vote against senators being preselected by an equal vote of rank and file members and affiliated union delegates to state conference.
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In a statement on Facebook the Labor MP Andrew Giles, the shadow assistant minister for schools, said it was “beyond disappointing that some delegates chose to shut down debate on important issues”.
“In Labor we pride ourselves on our culture of debate – of working through tough questions respectfully and openly, not hiding from these or from scrutiny of our positions,” he said.
“We can’t take this for granted. This goes to the heart of our challenge, which isn’t just to to set out an alternative policy vision but to reject cynicism towards politics by building a movement in which all of us can have a say in shaping our future.”
A Labor MP told Guardian Australia that “clearly the industrial left and CFMEU in particular are very focused on supporting Bill Shorten, even at the expense of progressive causes”.
The MP said it was clear the industrial left was now a reliable source of numbers for the Victorian right when it came to opposing organisational changes to democratise the party in Victoria.
Since the CFMEU provided crucial votes to Shorten at the 2015 conference, Labor’s policy has been to support boat turnbacks and offshore detention of refugees, with the proposal for a 90-day time limit now the most progressive option under serious consideration.
At a doorstop on Monday in the marginal Tasmanian seat of Braddon, where Labor is fighting for the re-election of Justine Keay, Shorten said the party had a “very good conference over the weekend”.
“When it comes to offshore processing, I’ve made it clear that we will make sure the people smugglers don’t get back into business,” he said. “But I’ve also made it clear that I think this government hasn’t done enough to help resettle the people in these facilities and indefinite detention shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid regional resettlement.”
On Sunday the Victorian special minister of state, Gavin Jennings, compared the last-minute vote to defer the motions to Labor’s administrative committee to “student politics”.
“The disappointing thing is there was a strange alliance of people who actually decided rather than to deal with important issues … they’d rather go home,” he told reporters.
Even Labor right powerbroker Adem Somyurek backed Jennings, labelling the intervention “courageous” and expressing his personal opposition to indefinite detention of asylum seekers.
The CFMEU Victorian construction secretary, John Setka, defended the move to defer the refugee debate, labelling it “democracy at work”.
The Greens immigration spokesman, Nick McKim, said Shorten and Labor factional bosses had “decided yet again to lock in behind Peter Dutton’s campaign of misery” by refusing debate on offshore detention.
“People have died and suffered immensely because of the bipartisan cruelty on Manus Island and Nauru,” he said. “That Mr Shorten won’t even allow party members to debate the issue shows how much Labor has abandoned its moral compass.”
On Monday Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, told Radio National it was “not unusual” for motions to be referred to committee and the immigration policy would be discussed at the national conference.
He noted the conference’s achievements including to call for criminalisation of wage theft and industrial manslaughter.
On Wednesday Labor’s national executive committee will meet to reschedule its national conference. It is considering dates in September, which could be complicated by the possibility of an early election, or January.
The right believes it will have a majority at the conference, a claim disputed by the left, who are waiting for further results in Queensland and believe the delegate numbers will be finely balanced.
But with the CFMEU consistently voting with the Labor right on asylum seeker policy, it is expected that measures to boost collective bargaining and progressive economic reforms will be the most substantive reforms with a chance of being passed.