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National Secretary of the ALP discusses the contents of the party's biennial conference including industrial relations, the 3-mines uranium policy, anti-gay demonstrations, privatisation, affirmative action and the presidency of the ALP -

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JIM WALEY: The heavyweights of the ALP are heading for Hobart this weekend for the party's biannual conference which opens tomorrow. A far cry from the feisty meetings of the past, this conference looks like being a stage managed display of Labor unity and purpose. The major differences within the party will be thrashed out between the factions today, including the plan to sell off Federal airports with all sides appearing to agree they'll be leased rather than sold outright. Labor's Federal Secretary, Gary Gray, is in our Sydney studio this morning and to talk with him, Sunday's political editor, Laurie Oakes. Good morning, Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES: Good morning, Jim. Mr Gray, welcome to the program. Has it all been stage managed?

GARY GRAY: No, Laurie, conference isn't stage managed. What in fact happens these days, conference is the coming together of over 100 delegates who've spent the best part of six or eight months discussing policy issues, and so by the time we get to conference it's no surprise that, in large measure, many of the controversial issues have really been resolved.

LAURIE OAKES: But will there be a brawl over anything or have you managed to eliminate that possibility?

GARY GRAY: I think that brawl is too strong a word for any of the discussions, as robust as at times they may be.

LAURIE OAKES: Obviously, there is an undercurrent of resentment at this conference about the Government's approach to industrial relations. Do you expect that will show itself in any way?

GARY GRAY: The industrial relations issue and Labor is one that always will be part of a relationship which sometimes is fractious, sometimes is harmonious. I think, just in the last week, the wages decision underlines the Government and the party's commitment to the accord.

LAURIE OAKES: But how much resentment is there on the union's side at the moment?

GARY GRAY: Resentment is, I think, too strong a word in some areas. The principal issue that we'll be looking at on industrial relations covers a whole range of different parts of the way in which the party and the Government work together on IR. In terms of the accord, which is the fundamental bedrock on which our relation rests, then I think that is now made stronger by the decision this week on wages, and in fact that in many ways revitalises our commitment to both the union movement and the industrial movement in general.

LAURIE OAKES: The main issue that people think is going to produce drama at the conference is the question of your three mines uranium policy. Now industrial relations affects that, doesn't it?

GARY GRAY: Uranium is a good question because it's one that's been around the party now for the best part of 25 years and one where the party has changed its position several times. The current policy of the three mines is one that may be up for review on Thursday or Friday or whenever that's committed for debate. My personal view is that we can look for a better policy in terms of uranium and that may mean some different mechanism for judging how mines are started up.

LAURIE OAKES: But to what extent will industrial relations intrude on this? The AWU, as I understand it, is opposing a change because they don't want to help CRA, which they regard as an anti-union company. Is that right?

GARY GRAY: I've heard that argument and I understand the complaints that the AWU has with CRA. But really in terms of unions and the mining of uranium, the most important thing for the party and for the Government, I think, is to make sure that those people who are mining uranium are protected as best as possible, and that probably means - in fact almost certainly means - that the way in which unions cover that industry has to be looked at very carefully and I think that's one of the issues that the AWU has raised.

LAURIE OAKES: But can the Labor Party afford to allow a big union to use its conference to fight out an industrial relations battle?

GARY GRAY: The Labor Party is not simply a party divorced from the trade union movement. They are part of the party, and in fact when debates are had on many different issues, unions bring with them their position, their baggage and their argument.

LAURIE OAKES: And don't you have to do something about that?


LAURIE OAKES: Well, because the uranium issue will be settled on grounds that have nothing to do with uranium policy. It'll be settled because the union doesn't like CRA's wages policy, won't it?

GARY GRAY: No, no. I don't think that's true. It'll be settled one way or the other on the basis of what the conference believes is good public policy.

LAURIE OAKES: And what do you think that will be? What will emerge from the conference on uranium?

GARY GRAY: I don't know. At this stage my hope is that uranium will be debated and my hope is that we can look for a better policy than the one that we currently have.

LAURIE OAKES: If you have managed to stage manage the conference - you don't like the term, but if you've managed to avoid rows - the Tasmanian anti-gay lobby seems to be going to solve the problem for you. How concerned are you at the likelihood of demonstrations in Tasmania about the Federal Government's legislation overriding Tasmania's laws?

GARY GRAY: Anyone has a right to demonstrate. Anyone has a right to have their voice heard if they can get themselves into the appropriate forum. In terms of our conference, those people who will be observers will be accredited observers. Many of them are party members. Occasionally, during debate, they will make their views heard. We have no problem with people doing that at our conference.

LAURIE OAKES: But what about people outside protesting it's a Federal Government decision? Won't there be an irony, for example, if the Tasmanian police have to protect Federal ALP delegates next week?

GARY GRAY: I don't think there'll be any irony in that at all, Laurie. You've been attending conferences in Hobart for as long as I have, and at every conference in Hobart that I can remember there's been, on every day, a gathering of people protesting about something. Usually it's about forests and woodchips, this time it may be about gay rights, it may not be.

LAURIE OAKES: What about the privatisation issue? Has that been sorted out?

GARY GRAY: The privatisation issue really does come to the surface in two specific areas, firstly, in terms of Australian National Line and, secondly, in terms of airports. Since April and May - in fact since the White Paper - discussions have been progressing with all the various different parts of the party, and I expect by the time they are committed to conference floor on Tuesday morning, an agreement will have been reached.

LAURIE OAKES: The most controversial one now seems to be the airports. Factional leaders reached agreement on Thursday night, I think, but will that automatically result in agreement at the conference or can factional leaders be rolled under your system?

GARY GRAY: It won't automatically translate to a conference floor majority, but it almost certainly will because of the way in which factions operate and the internal groups in the party operate. People do talk about issues and people go to those meetings knowing the people they represent, and so accommodation is reached by people having a long and fruitful discussion.

LAURIE OAKES: The proposals for affirmative action to ensure that 35 per cent of winnable seats are held by women by 2002, that's a pretty dramatic change. Is that now guaranteed of acceptance at the conference?

GARY GRAY: Again, there are no guarantees. I believe it will be accepted by conference and I think it should be accepted by conference. Our position on affirmative action is one about getting the best quality candidates into Parliament, and if you look at the record of our party over just the last 18 months - in terms of by-elections with Carmen in Western Australia, by-elections in New South Wales with Gabrielle Harrison in Parramatta, two important by-elections in South Australia where women won seats for us in very difficult circumstances - the best swings to Labor in the last 18 months in by-elections have been had with women candidates. We believe we are making a decision there that's about good political management and about an effective use of our available talent pool.

LAURIE OAKES: So you are saying that women candidates are likely to win more votes for you than male candidates.

GARY GRAY: I think there are two sides to that. I certainly think that's an aspect, but the most important aspect, as far as we are concerned, is to expand the pool of talent available to the parliamentary party.

LAURIE OAKES: Could you use this device to clean out dead wood?

GARY GRAY: I think it's a device which is really about improving the quality of our Caucus and the quality of our candidates.

LAURIE OAKES: But if the Federal Executive has the power, which it does under this proposal, to intervene in any preselection, won't that enable the Federal Executive to get rid of candidates who are not performing - Members of Parliament who have passed their used by date?

GARY GRAY: Laurie, that facility already exists through our various preselection systems.

LAURIE OAKES: So what's the Left Wing worried about? That's what they want changed.

GARY GRAY: The Left have been concerned, I think unnecessarily, that the way in which that amendment has been put together has caused them some concern. But I think now we've settled those concerns and let people know that in fact what we are about is expanding the pool of talent available to the party.

LAURIE OAKES: Can the Liberals learn something from this conference? I mean, would they benefit in terms of managing difficult issues from having a similar sort of national convention with binding effect?

GARY GRAY: I'm not about to give them advice because I think that would be pompous and wrong, but I do thing it's reasonable to say that our conference is a conference which is about making policy. It's a conference which brings together 100 people; it's a conference which is the culmination of many thousands of hours of discussion in our policy committees, and a conference which is about policy looking to the future. In Albury, in a couple of weeks' time when the Liberals celebrate their 50th birthday, you have a party that's effectively looking back to the 1940s. That essentially is the difference. We are looking to the future, they are looking to the past.

LAURIE OAKES: So would they be better off if they adopted your system?

GARY GRAY: I think our system works for us, and in fact we're going to make some adjustments to our system to make it more effective. They adopt their system, which is most appropriate to them. In many ways, their own structure makes it impossible for them to adopt a system such as ours.

LAURIE OAKES: Will Barry Jones be re-elected unopposed as President?

GARY GRAY: I expect so, yes.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, why did we have that fuss a few months ago? Why were there attempts to roll him?

GARY GRAY: The Labor Party is a party which from time to time goes through reviews and considers what people are doing within all kinds of positions. I think that the way in which that discussion was held a few weeks ago just reflected part of that position and part of responsible redistribution in Victoria, and also in terms of Barry, Barry has been a parliamentarian for now over 20 years and, reasonably, the question Western Australia has asked: Barry, do you want to stay on? In our culture, there's a legitimacy attached to going through a battle of some kind to hang on to your job.

LAURIE OAKES: Gareth Evans described him as the kind of president who stands there like a moo cow chewing its cud, watching the traffic go by. Is he really like that as President?

GARY GRAY: Barry's position is really at two different levels. In the community, Barry is very widely respected and within the party we have very high regard for his ability to communicate.

LAURIE OAKES: Is there one issue that you think could flare up this conference - one issue you are worried about?

GARY GRAY: I have a general concern across a number of different levels about making sure the conference works effectively. What conference and delegates prefer to do on particular issues is entirely up to them.

LAURIE OAKES: And what about the Prime Minister? Is it possible for the Prime Minister to be rolled at this conference or does he come there as a conquering hero who gets what he wants?

GARY GRAY: He doesn't come in as a conquering hero who gets what he wants. He comes in as, I think, a very strong leader of the party and a very effective leader in our time. He's a leader who has positioned our party on many issues for the future and that's his great strength and he'll carry that into conference.

LAURIE OAKES: Mr Gray, we thank you.

GARY GRAY: Thank you, Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES: Back to you, Jim.

JIM WALEY: Labor's Federal Secretary, Gary Gray, with Laurie Oakes.