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Carmen Lawrence in 2003

The President of the ALP

Former WA Premier and Labor MP Carmen Lawrence talks to Laurie Oakes

Until 2007 Dr Carmen Lawrence was the Member for Fremantle for the ALP.

She is a former premier of Western Australia and at the time of writing (2003) she was President of the Australian Labor Party.

In 2002 she quit the ALP's front bench over her dismay with the Labor asylum seeker policies.

"Well, I think what I was trying to say, perhaps in a clumsy kind of way, is that a lot of members of the party, as I've gone round talking to them about issues like asylum seekers and the War on Iraq and so on, have said that they didn't recognise the Labor Party."

"They were worried that we were betraying our core values."

"So I hope that by making the statement I did, and then by standing as president, I could act as a bit of a lightning rod, I suppose, for people's views to be expressed, and they've expressed them pretty clearly, I think."

Related pages

1 January 2007: The Gifts of Carmen Lawrence - The number of contributions from Carmen to the national debate, also but not only about Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, has kept growing, also on our website - this was the reason we constructed this page to bring all pages, all gifts from Dr Carmen Lawrence together.

14 January 2004: Carmen Lawrence: Ideas to save our withering democracy - a manifesto to protect and enhance our democracy: Despite the otherwise general equality in voting power, many are suspicious that not all citizens are equally able to influence their representatives; the health of our democracy requires greater involvement and participation from party members and the community at large.

7 October 2003: Dr Carmen Lawrence, What is social justice? - "The UN ... has added crucial social, economic and cultural rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to education; the right to work and to equal pay for equal work; and the right of minorities to enjoy their own culture, religion and language. These are all objectives of social justice policies."

4 August 2003: Dr Carmen Lawrence, Fear and Denial in Public Policy - "Fear always serves the real elites - as opposed to those concocted by the conservative commentators; the privileged who throughout history have claimed to be uniquely positioned to identify the "dangers" from which they must protect us - witches, Jews, blacks, Muslims, communists, terrorists, illegals. Fear sells and it gets people elected."

1 August 2003: The plight of the Mandaeans: A new Iran contra deal - "The Government wants to test the resistance of Australians to this indecency. I hope they are unpleasantly surprised and that Australians will draw the line at forcing people back to situations where their very lives are at risk." In this piece, which appeared first in Margo Kingston's Web Diary, Carmen Lawrence discusses the Mandaean issue.

5 December 2002: Carmen's cry from the heart - Everyone knew it at the time, when Dr Carmen Lawrence, ALP member for Fremantle, resigned from the ALP front bench: it was over her dismay with ALP policies on asylum seekers and refugees. This is the text of the December 5 2002 press conference called to announce her resignation from the Labor frontbench.

The President of the ALP

Interview: Carmen Lawrence
November 16, 2003
Reporter: Laurie Oakes

Carmen Lawrence has just made history in the Labor Party - she's become the first female national president of the ALP and the first person to be elected to that post by the party members. Dr Lawrence talks with Laurie Oakes ...


JANA WENDT: In another set-back for Simon Crean, his nemesis on the Labor left will soon take over the national presidency of the ALP. Carmen Lawrence resigned from Labor's front bench a year ago in protest against the party's policy on asylum seekers.

The outspoken former West Australian premier this week became the first female to preside over the Labor Party, and the first to be elected by the rank and file party membershipDr Lawrence spoke from Perth with Sunday's political editor, Laurie Oakes.

LAURIE OAKES: Dr Lawrence, welcome to SundayDR CARMEN LAWRENCE: Thank you very much.

LAURIE OAKES: When you resigned from the front bench a year ago, you said your aim was to take back the heart and soul of the Labor Party. Who are you taking it back from?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, I think what I was trying to say, perhaps in a clumsy kind of way, is that a lot of members of the party, as I've gone round talking to them about issues like asylum seekers and the War on Iraq and so on, have said that they didn't recognise the Labor Party. They were worried that we were betraying our core valuesSo I hope that by making the statement I did, and then by standing as president, I could act as a bit of a lightning rod, I suppose, for people's views to be expressed, and they've expressed them pretty clearly, I thinkLAURIE OAKES: So as president, do you now have charge of the heart and soul of the party?

DR LAWRENCE: Not at all. I mean, it's very much a collective effort. It sounds very pompous when you put it that way, and I must say I regret now having said it in quite that form. But what we have to see, I think, in the Labor Party is that the members' reasons for joining are respected.

Members join to have a say. They join because they have a view about the sort of society they want Australia to be. And I'm not sure that they've been heeded. That's certainly what the Hawke-Wran review showed as wellLAURIE OAKES: The views of the people who elected you, though - the six-and-a-half-thousand people - don't represent the views of the wider electorate, do they?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, no, I wouldn't say that they do. Absolutely. But the Labor Party doesn't seek to represent all the views of the community. It tries to put together a series of values and principles and political objectives, some of which will be immediately appealing to the wider community, some of which will require persuasionAnd I think that's what people were worried about - that we were not asking the question what is right for the society, why do we want power - before we then went out to seek the approval of the community.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, let's look at the issue that sparked your resignation from the front bench, and which was again dominating politics on the day you were declared - elected president - asylum seekers.


LAURIE OAKES: Do you think your view on this represents the view of Australia - the wider community in Australia?

DR LAWRENCE: It almost certainly doesn't. I mean, I think the Government is very well aware of the fact that Australians at the moment are supporting their actions. But that doesn't mean to say that a Labor Party worthy of the name wouldn't object to that policy. And develop a humane policy.

It's important, I think, that political parties don't sell their souls, and that they don't recognise that people sometimes discount the vote because they don't like your policy, say, on asylum seekers or indigenous issues. But if you offer them hope and decent policy in other areas, they'll vote for you anyway.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, the Liberals are saying that your election plays into their hands, because of your views on asylum seekers and border protectionDR LAWRENCE: I don't think so. If you think of what happened between '96 and '98. John Howard was out there, Pauline Hanson was out there beating the drum on Indigenous issues, making people afraid that the backyards would be taken over on the native title. There was a lot of fear-mongering - in fact, it's the hallmark of the current governmentAnd yet people voted for us in the popular vote. Our marginal seat campaigning meant we didn't win the election. But they were interested in Medicare and the GST. The other issues. People don't vote on single issues, and they respect political parties and political leaders who stick to their guns, and I'm pleased to see that's very much what Simon Crean has heard too and that's what he's doing.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, on the day you resigned, over the new policy Labor adopted on asylum seekers, Simon Crean said that policy would be the one that went to the national conference next January, and he expected it to be approved. Now you want to roll it, don't you? You want to change it.

DR LAWRENCE: Well, I think what's going to happen is that the people around Australia who voted for me, but are the same ones who put up conference resolutions in every state now - the Labor for Refugees agenda will be debated, and fully debated, at the conferenceNow, we can't be certain what the outcome of that will be, but it will be debated in the long, honourable tradition of the Labor Party, there are differences in point of view, and the platform, obviously, will seek to guide the parliamentary party. But ultimately it will be up to the parliamentary party precisely the detailed policy that goes to the electionLAURIE OAKES: But you as president will be trying to roll the leaderDR LAWRENCE: No, I won't be trying to roll the leader. I'll be trying to reach an accommodation with all the various points of view in the party, so that we have a decent policy, so that we are consistent with our own core values, and with our obligations under the United Nations conventions.

And I think that's what everyone's trying to do. But also to be, you know, realistic, about the views of the Australian community. I think the Australian community at the moment are a bit sick of the fear-mongering. I get the very distinct impression that's wearing off. And they are also a bit tired of being taken for fools and being lied to by the current government. So those things will play against the government, in this policy and in others.

LAURIE OAKES: Can I ask you specifically what changes you want? For example, do you want an immediate end to administrative detention?

DR LAWRENCE: No, I think everyone recognises that people need to be checked for identity and health and security. There's no jurisdiction in the world that doesn't do that. But that needs to be done reasonably quickly, and close to the centres of population.

Holding people there week in, month out, and indeterminately, I think, is what many people object to. And the fact that they've been held in remote centres in pretty cruel circumstances. If most people in Australia, I think, saw what was - what it was really like in those detention centres, I'm confident in Australians that they would change their minds overnight. It's no accident that these centres are away from people's gazeLAURIE OAKES: Do you want ALP policy to promise permanent residence to all refugees who are currently on Temporary Protection Visas?

DR LAWRENCE: That's the way it used to be, and I think a lot of people are now seeing the consequences of those Temporary Protection Visas. For instance, in Albany, here in Western Australia, there's a group of Hazara Afghani citizens, who are persecuted under any regime that's ever existed, really, in Afghanistan. Now they're confronted with the threat of being sent back, and their local community, including their local shire council - a conservative political council - are saying leave them here. We want them in our community. They're making a tremendous contribution, don't uproot their lives again. It's not reasonable. It's not decent. So when Australians see the reality of the policy, I think they say don't do it.

LAURIE OAKES: So that's a 'yes' to my question?

DR LAWRENCE: It is - sorry, Laurie. But I just wanted to give you the reason why.

LAURIE OAKES: Yeah. I understand. Yeah, yeah. Do you believe Labor should advocate the immediate release into the community all asylum seekers who are not a health or security concern?

DR LAWRENCE: They should be managed, and that may mean in the community. It may mean in hostel accommodation. And they may need to report at a regular interval, a bit like being on parole. They're the things - the details we need to discuss out. But I think if we asked the principle question - what is gained by keeping people in detention for long periods of time, apart from their destruction, and, I think, the destruction, ultimately, of the Australian soul. The idea of a fair go.

LAURIE OAKES: What about The Pacific Solution?

DR LAWRENCE: Oh, well ..LAURIE OAKES: Keep it, or let all asylum seekers come to Australia to be processed?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, I think it's crazy, and we're now seeing just how foolish it can be, with you know, the decision to retrospectively excise Melville Island, and to push boats back out into the ocean. And again, some people may say, "Well, that's fair enough". But if every nation took that view, people fleeing persecution could never take the first step. They would never have been able to flee Saddam Hussein if, for instance, the countries surrounding, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, had said, "No, no, you can't come across our border, because you haven't come through an orderly queue". If you do the thought experiment you can see that it's nonsenseLAURIE OAKES: Now, the Government would say in response to that, "Why should we allow people smugglers to determine who comes to this country?"DR LAWRENCE: Well, if they're serious about people smuggling, they need the co-operation of our neighbours, including Indonesia, and they seem to have been taking a flame thrower to that this week. The Indonesian response has been to be very unimpressedLAURIE OAKES: So you say you're not trying to roll Simon Crean, but you want those changes. Do you think he'll accept those before the conference?

DR LAWRENCE: Look, I'm one of many people arguing this cause. As I say, there have been conference resolutions in every state and territory. There's a strong Labor for Refugees agenda, and every single candidate, Laurie, for the presidency, signed up to that agenda, pretty much.

LAURIE OAKES: So Simon Crean will have to adapt ..DR LAWRENCE: So I think, you know, there's a ..LAURIE OAKES: ... to it, won't he?

DR LAWRENCE: There's a message. And I - well, I hope that the parliamentary party will make those accommodations, and I'm confident that there can be an accommodation. The party's grown up. We've been doing these sorts of things for over a hundred years now. I don't see why it would be impossible on this issueLAURIE OAKES: When you resigned, you also said you were disillusioned with the general disposition and direction of the Shadow Ministry. You said you didn't see your views and values reflected in its decisions. Now you're president, how will you assert those views and values?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, it's very much the views and values rather than the detail of policy. Because I think it's important that the party president represents the members' attitudes as best we're able to discern them. And having just had a small experiment in democracy, I think, you know, it's fair enough to say - say Barry Jones and myself, and Warren Mundine - that we've gone 'round the country, checking what people's views are, looking at the attitudes that they want to see reflected in policy. And so my task will be, as - as with the others - to try and represent the party to the Parliamentary and Executive wings of the partyLAURIE OAKES: Don't you think it's disruptive - or potentially disruptive - to have a president who's intent on ensuring that the parliamentary party sticks to her interpretation of core Labor values?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, no, I don't see it as egocentric as that. What I'm trying to do is find out what those values are. I took, I suppose, a punt when I stood for the presidency, that some of what I was saying was certainly supported by a significant portion of the membership, and I think it's fair to say if you look at the statements of Barry Jones and Warren Mundine, the other two who've been elected, that they've all come to much the same conclusion - that there needs to be more democracy. We heard that. People want more say in who's elected to executives round the country. And they want the policy process to be one that they have a part in. Not necessarily that every bit of it will be agreed by them, but that they - they can participate. It is after all why they joined the party in the first placeLAURIE OAKES: It's also been said that it's potentially divisive to have a party president who voted against the current leader in the Beazley challenge a few months ago. How do you respond to that?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, we're all grown up people. And Simon and I have had a sensible discussion, and I've indicated to him that my key role will be to support him, and make sure that we see the election of a Crean-led Labor government. Simon understands that. This is - there's no personal animosity. I've got a great deal of respect for him. He's hard working. He's diligent. And he's now carving out a place for the Labor Party quite distinct from the conservatives. And that's what a lot of people have wanted to seeLAURIE OAKES: What will your role be as president in the event of any future leadership challenge?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, I don't see there being a future leadership challenge. We've had that challenge. Simon is in the position. And he has my support. And I would want to see the party knuckle down now, to get on with it and to make sure we get rid of Howard. He's a very divisive force in this societyLAURIE OAKES: You had a disastrous Newspoll less thank a fortnight ago. If that sort of poll continued, are you saying that Simon Crean would still be in no danger - you wouldn't move to change the law?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, I think the reality is that there isn't any serious contender. I mean, some of the other younger ones who ..LAURIE OAKES: But Kim Beazley's still thereDR LAWRENCE: ... might have put their hand up didn't. And I think Kim, frankly, would be - I'd be very surprised if he went again. So I think, you know, we've got to throw our weight fully behind Simon, and I'm doing that. And I'm urging as many members of the party as I speak to do exactly the same.

Howard is beatable. I mean, he's now starting to revise positions on higher education, Medicare, because he knows how unpopular they are. And I think you can only push the fear button so many times before people start to say, "Whoah, we've had enough of that, thank you very much. We want a positive vision for the future"LAURIE OAKES: So you don't think it's a bit lemming-like to say no matter how bad the polls get, we stick to the current leader?

DR LAWRENCE: No. But I mean, the polls come and go, as you know. I'm not trying to - you know, that's a terrible cliché in many respects, but that big leap that we saw post the Bush-Chinese Premier visit has to be an aberration. It doesn't make any sense. I've got a lot of respect for Sol Leibovic, but I don't think that was a very good poll. I don't know what they're doing, but it's weirdLAURIE OAKES: Do you have strong views on - on - on other issues? For example health insurance, taxation? Where do you stand on those?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, I'm very keen to make sure that again we understand the party's core commitment to equality. Because I think every member I talk to, left, right, and centre, wants us to focus on reducing inequality in Australia. And that means using the tax system, the social security system, and the redistribution effects of health and education in particular, to narrow the gapWealth and power are being concentrated in too few hands in Australia these days, and I think if we can get those principles right, it will be reflected, then, in the more detailed policy that shadow ministers bring out in the lead-up to the electionLAURIE OAKES: You said the other day that you didn't want to get involved in the kafuffle about taxation, but given you've - what you've just said, you can't stay out of that debate, can you?

DR LAWRENCE: Well, as I say, reducing inequality has to be the objective, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I mean, ours is a fairly progressive tax system, but we don't use much money in that cause. If you look at us compared with a lot of other nations, we don't spend very much money redistributing the income.

And the gap is growing wider, in wealth and in income. And it's partly the result of inequalities to job opportunities, to part-time and casual work. So there are lots of ways you can address inequalities of wealth and income, aside from tax. But that's certainly one method, and we'll no doubt use it, particularly at the lower end, where people are paying very high marginal tax rates. I think we're all agreed about thatThe question of how far that goes, then, is a matter for further debate. But I think everyone's agreed that we need to put more money into education and health, particularly to reduce those inequalities. Australia now has the widest differences in achievement in education at school level of any of the developed nations. It's actually a great scandalLAURIE OAKES: Dr Lawrence, we thank youDR LAWRENCE: Thank you very much, Laurie.

Transcript produced by Media Monitors