Like its cousins in the performing arts world, comedy and magic, skilful politics depends on getting the timing right.

A deftly timed word or action makes the world of difference between a clanger and a killer punch-line; a fumble and a feat of prestidigitation; or a partisan howler and an act of political brilliance.

And so it has been on the national political stage in recent weeks that the Labor Opposition’s performance has suffered from poor judgements of timing.

First there was Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek’s call in late April for Labor MPs to be required to vote in accordance with party policy, which is to support marriage equality.

Taken in isolation, Plibersek’s demand for the party to stop having a bet each way on the issue was an admirable one. But she did so at the same time the Bali Nine ringleaders were counting down the last hours to their execution, and the media was providing blanket coverage of their plight. As a result, Plibersek’s declaration during the death-watch seemed more a desperate ploy to steal some of the limelight from the Abbott Government, which was getting plaudits at the time for trying to save the condemned men.

In fact, Plibersek’s poor timing not only reflected badly on her, but also on her faction and her leader. Plibersek’s call for a binding vote, which was made while Bill Shorten was overseas and she was acting Labor leader, divided the Labor left faction and was perceived as leadership positioning. It also ensured a stoush on the issue will take place at the upcoming ALP national conference that Shorten has no hope of resolving and could well do without.

Which brings us to the second – and related – case of Labor’s bad political timing: Bill Shorten’s private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

The proposed legislation must have seemed to the Labor Leader’s brains trust like a clever solution; it would mop up Plibersek’s mess by resolving the issue before the national conference, and force the Prime Minister to allow a conscience vote for Coalition MPs. But it won’t and it can’t.

Once Shorten introduces his bill to the Parliament today, it will be the Government’s prerogative to bring on the debate – or not. Shorten’s bill will languish on the books along with other private member’s bills, probably including the one to be introduced today by Clive Palmer relating to the Bali Nine on Foreign Death Penalty Offences.

Without the numbers in the House of Representatives, a proposal to legalise same-sex marriage will never get the opportunity to be considered in the Senate, and vice versa.

Nor would the Liberal party room defy the Prime Minister by flouting the conditions he’s set for having a conscience vote on the matter, namely that the proposed legislation must be “owned by the Parliament, and not by any particular party“. What Abbott really means is that he won’t abide any other party or politician getting the kudos for the legislation when it is finally passed.

Meantime, Shorten and Plibersek’s timing on the issue – pursuing a controversial social justice change when they should be hammering the budget – suggests they’re either terribly naïve or supremely cynical. Naïve enough to think they can force a vote with the private member’s bill, or cynical enough to value the political capital gained from putting up a proposal that is sure to fail more than giving in to Abbott’s demands and taking the multi-party approach to actually achieving marriage equality.

Like comedy and magic, the deft delivery of politics not only takes skill but the wisdom and instinct that comes from many years of practice, often with the guidance of wiser heads who have come before.

Labor continues to suffer from a dearth of such guidance, following the exodus of learned parliamentarians from Labor ranks during and after the Rudd-Gillard years. One of the ALP’s best tacticians, Anthony Albanese, is still in the Parliament but is no longer part of the parliamentary tactics group since Tony Burke became Manager of Opposition Business.

While Albo might not have been able to prevent his Left faction colleague Plibersek from going rogue on same-sex marriage, he may have at least counselled Shorten to carefully think through the merits and risks of a quixotic private member’s bill. It’s also possible he would have counselled against politicising how a letter sent by the Sydney Siege gunman was handed by the Abbott Government.

An expert sense of timing is what sets skilled performers apart from the rank amateurs – be they politicians, comedians or magicians – and yet it doesn’t take an expert audience to pick the difference.

The Opposition is making a habit of getting the timing wrong on their political tactics, and Australian voters are starting to get impatient. If Labor doesn’t become more proficient, or bring in some expert advice, its poor timing could lead to the party being unceremoniously howled off the political stage at the next federal election.

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  1. Abbot’s response proves the PM can’t chew gum and walk at the same time unless Credlin is holding his hand

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About Drag0nista

Political blogger and columnist on the interwebs. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989. Otherwise known as Paula Matthewson.

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