Letter to the Editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1983, p. 12.
Sir: In recent weeks confusion has developed concerning the interpretation of ALP federal policy and the extent to which that policy is binding on ALP members and ALP governments.
In particular, the controversies over policies on East Timor and aid to Vietnam have been written up as if there were some contradiction with what Federal cabinet proposes or is suggesting and what is binding on cabinet members as ALP members.
Hence Mr Michael Richardson writes (Herald, April 25): “The ALP platform on East Timor threatens to poison Canberra’s dealings with Jakarta.”
In fact Mr Hayden’s public announcements to date and those reports of Cabinet decisions on the relevant foreign affairs issues are not in conflict with the ALP platform.
A scrutiny of the publication Australian Labor Party 1982 Platform, Constitution and Rules shows that there are two types of ALP policy: (i) the platform, which is binding on ALP members; and (ii) resolutions of the national ALP conference which are simply resolutions of conference. These are not binding on ALP members, but are views on appropriate policy formulated by the national ALP conference.
Indeed in the publication referred to, these words can be found: “It is to be noted that resolutions contained herein are those adopted by the 1982 national conference, resolutions are entered immediately following each section of the relevant platforms.”
ALP policies on aid to Vietnam and on East Timor are of the resolution kind and are not part of the ALP platform. Thus an ALP government is at liberty to pursue policies in the light of the relevant resolution and is not bound to the letter of each resolution.
This is not merely a semantic distinction, as debate on whether the ALP government is ignoring the ALP platform is extremely sensitive within the ALP.
One reason why this confusion has developed is the national ALP’s fault. Beginning with their publication of the platform after the 1979 national ALP conference, resolutions – instead of being grouped at the end of the publication – were printed immediately after each relevant section of the platform.
Someone quickly flicking through the publication, therefore, might gain the erroneous impression that there was no distinction between the ALP platform and resolutions of the federal conference.
It is time, however, that this confusion stopped.
I used to think the distinction between ALP Platform and Policy was enormously important. Perhaps, still, from the inside of the ALP, for a potential minister, it still is. For one is supposedly binding and the other merely indicative of ‘good policy’.
I now think such distinction must appear overly theological to an outside observer.
My belief now is that Platform and Policy should both be indicative, with the minister given the discretion to exercise judgement within the spirit of ALP policy. I would rather that ministers have the discretion to do what they believe the right thing.