ALP conference: Labor’s left grapples with reality

ALP conference: Labor’s left grapples with reality

Over the past weekend, Labor’s progressive wing was forced to grapple with a political reality – the uncomfortable truth that the party must first get elected if it is to implement the fine words and sentiments embodied in its policies.

This is by no means a revelation, but the news that Labor’s right faction lacked an outright majority of votes on the national conference floor this year had brought hope that some of the left’s progressive proposals for Labor policies and processes would prevail.

However, this was mostly not to be, predominantly because Labor put pragmatism above the left’s principles to remain electorally attractive to mainstream voters.

The vaunted battle over asylum seeker boat turn-backs was a case in point. The conference debate was ostensibly about a future Labor government having a range of measures to deter asylum seekers from taking the sea trip from Indonesia to Australia’s northern shores. But in reality, the inclusion of boat turn-backs in the policy options was more to fend off accusations from the Abbott Government that Labor was soft on asylum seekers.

Labor can ill afford to be seen to be weak on “border protection” when the majority of voters either support the Government’s handling of asylum seekers or want even tougher treatmentThe reasons for this support are admittedly complex, and tied just as much to economic anxiety as they are to xenophobia, but they constitute a vote-loser for Labor if not carefully taken into consideration.

As former Labor state secretary and Gillard adviser Nicholas Reece wrote last week, “Labor will be politically disembowelled by Tony Abbott and the Liberal attack machine if it goes to the next election opposing boat turn-backs“.

Nevertheless, the warriors of Labor’s left – Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong – stuck with their principles and opposed turn-backs at the weekend event. Labor’s deputy leader Plibersek and senate leader Wong gave their votes to proxies rather than be seen to be voting against their leader, but the deflection did little to diminish the MPs’ perceived dissent with Bill Shorten and the shadow cabinet.

This vignette highlights another political reality for Labor – the party’s electability is not just about policies that are attractive to mainstream voters, but proving that Labor’s days of instability are past.

Yet all three shadow ministers risked party solidarity to make their (albeit important) point. And in the cases of Albanese and Plibersek, they did so also to fend off the electoral threat posed by the Greens against them personally.

This determination to ignore Labor’s reality on asylum seekers sat strangely with the left’s subsequent acquiescence to a politically pragmatic approach cobbled together to handle the vexed question of marriage equality.

Despite having the majority of Australians onside and reportedly the majority of votes on the conference floor, Plibersek abandoned her demand for Labor MPs to be bound to vote in accordance with the party’s already-established support for same-sex marriage. She agreed instead to a deferral of the binding vote for two parliamentary terms, and accepted a commitment from Shorten to introduce a bill to legalise gay marriage within 100 days of winning government.

Plibersek apparently also yielded to a tactical argument that maintaining a free vote for Labor MPs would increase pressure on the Prime Minister to allow the same conscience vote in the Liberal Party. And even more importantly it would avoid an ugly split within Labor by those who still vehemently oppose gay marriage.

So the left again chose pragmatism over principle.

Only when the conference came to consider affirmative action did the left’s principles prevail. Following a push by the left-aligned Emily’s list, the conference agreed to a minimum requirement for 40 per cent of party positions to be held by women, matching the already existing requirement for women to be pre-selected for at least 40 per cent of winnable seats. This minimum will be raised to 45 per cent in 2022 and 50 per cent by 2025.

And most importantly, the party executive was given the power to step in when the quotas are not met, thereby meeting Plibersek’s requirement for Shorten’s 50 per cent aspiration to be enforceable.

Given its other concessions on the weekend, this was no small win for the left, even with the support that right-wing women have lent to the cause. It could even be argued that if the left was going to win any debate at the weekend’s conference it should have been this one – for the party will be soon be irrelevant and moribund without more women in its ranks.

However, the weekend’s conference was nothing like the progressive vanguard that the left – and its supporters – had hoped it would be.

Progressive voters are likely bewildered and disheartened to see the principles they hold dear being sidelined for more electorally palatable policy options. One bemoaned on social media that Labor thinks voters in western Sydney are more important than asylum seekers.

Regrettably, that’s the political reality: Labor can’t win government by adopting policies that are disliked by swinging and undecided voters. That’s not to say the party shouldn’t have progressive policies or try to bring the community around to more progressive points of view. But as the Labor left may have learned over the weekend, being a progressive in a successful government is much easier than it is in a barely-trusted opposition.

Shorten must break the union stranglehold

There’s no way to put a gloss on it: the Labor Party is on the nose with voters.

The Liberals and Labor both suffered swings of about 5 per cent against them in the weekend’s Western Australia Senate election re-run. But given the chance to protest against the Abbott Government for its litany of flaws and failures, voters chose to flock to the bombastic Clive Palmer and Greens social media hero Scott Ludlam instead of Labor’s alternative prime minister, Bill Shorten.

Shorten didn’t really need the rejection to know he has a problem. The unwillingness of some Labor supporters to choose either the gay marriage advocate Louise Pratt or the Neanderthal Joe Bullock likely reinforced his existing view that the ALP needs to reconnect with voters in the middle ground in order to survive.

The Labor Leader foreshadowed this last month at the National Press Club when he announced that he wanted to mainstream the Labor Party by opening it up to non-traditional party members and “modernise” Labor’s relationship with the union movement. By integrating middle Australia into the party’s ranks, Shorten clearly hopes Labor will better reflect the needs and aspirations of the broader political centre and thereby secure their elusive votes.

Shorten was expected to announce his proposed reforms today.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the anticipated changes will be resisted more by the unions: those that affect their ability to influence Labor’s policies or those that curb their right to gift seats in Parliament.

Both powers are responsible for driving voters away.

The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), for example, continues to influence its faction members’ position on same-sex marriage, ensuring that even a conscience vote on the matter would not produce a majority of supportive Labor MPs. Meanwhile the CFMEU has no qualms about whipping up xenophobia to further its campaign against 457 visas for foreign workers, giving little regard to how that exacerbates community prejudice against asylum seekers.

Equally alienating for centrist voters is the ALP’s all-too-common practice of relegating high quality candidates to tenuous positions on Senate tickets or unwinnable House of Representatives seats while lesser quality candidates are given safe positions as a reward for their time served in the union movement.

It seems nothing was learned in 2012 when the faceless man, SDA member and factional heavyweight, Don Farrell, gained and then gave up the number one Senate spot in South Australia to then Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The practice continued in 2013 when right-wing unions muscled in longtime SDA official Joe Bullock as the number one WA Senate candidate for the upcoming federal election. They did so again for last weekend’s Senate election re-run, both times consigning the more politically prospective but left-wing Louise Pratt to the challenging second position on the ticket and possible defeat.

Granted, Senate sinecures are not the sole province of Labor; the Liberals are also good at slotting former party operatives into winnable senate positions. But in the case of Senator-elect Joe Bullock, who cruelly ridiculed his running mate and called all Labor members crazy, this may well have been the last straw for Western Australian Labor supporters on polling day.

In a perverse way, the poor Senate result may be just what Shorten needs to take the edge off resistance to his proposed weakening of the unions’ hold on the party.

Following last month’s Press Club address the Labor Leader has reportedly been calling party officials and union leaders to talk them through his proposal. Trusted others such as Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek and former Senate leader Chris Evans have been singing the same tune. And today’s announcement is the next step in creating a sense of momentum and inevitability for the changes.

Yet if he is to succeed, Shorten will need something that evaded the two previous Labor leaders who tried to sever the nexus between the ALP and its labour roots.

He will need unions to be willing supporters of the reforms, or at the very least for them not to plot against him as they did with Crean and Rudd. Thanks to Rudd’s antipathy for the unions and the rules he imposed to make it harder to change the party leader, it will at least be much harder for recalcitrant unions to remove Shorten before he attempts to save his party from future electoral oblivion.

Albo, Shorten and the Democracy Baby

Albo, Shorten and the Democracy Baby

Until the declaration of the Labor leadership ballot result on Sunday afternoon, the shiny-eyed idealism generated by the process was a delight to behold. It was something I hadn’t seen since my teens when I was involved in the youth wing of a political party.

Democracy, apparently, was what it was all about.

But you see, no it wasn’t. The leadership ballot was only ever about survival: the survival of one K. Rudd. And now the process is over, there are arguably more disgruntled Labor members than before thanks to Rudd yet again creating expectations that could not be met.

Much to the consternation of Albo supporters throughout the land, it turns out having ‘a’ say in the Labor leadership is not the same as having ‘the’ say. Albanese’s just under 60 per cent of the popular vote wasn’t enough to beat Shorten’s almost 64 per cent of the Caucus vote.

Rudd’s decision to give Labor members a say in the election of party leader was just one element in the package of reforms he designed to take power away from the faceless factional foes that tore him from the big chair. A bonus feature was that it would draw new blood (and thereby money and physical resources) to a party haemorrhaging members because of four years infighting over Rudd, Gillard and their increasingly non-Labor stance on some issues such as asylum seekers.

The promise of potential new members and a reinvigorated party helped to take the authoritarian edge off the other part of Rudd’s reform – its true purpose – which was to make it almost impossible for the party leader to be removed from office between elections. Having assessed the pros and cons, factional leaders bit the bullet and approved the changes in the hope they would assist in Rudd’s ‘saving the furniture’ strategy.

But once the election was over, and Rudd despatched, it became quickly clear that the reforms could not quietly be reversed by Caucus (as was being canvassed by some in the party). Labor MPs were left holding the Democracy Baby, and decided to make the best of it.

They did pretty well too, kitting the baby out in fine democracy clothes. Hastily redrawn rules by Labor’s National Executive opened the vote to all party members regardless of time served. Nationally televised festivals of agreement, or ‘debates’, showed the nation how durable and decorative was the wallpaper covering the party’s Rudd-Gillard cracks. And real party members got to ask real questions at real party events around the country – although few received real answers in return.

But behind the scenes, factions were being factional, which is hardly surprising given Albanese and Shorten are both ideological warriors. The party’s factional tectonic plates did not fuse overnight once the Left’s Albanese decided to make the Right’s Shorten work for the leadership (thereby automatically entrenching the leadership ballot process for future years and giving the Left a better chance to compete against the Right-dominated Caucus).

Stories emerged of unions and factions attempting to impose bloc voting on party members. While less successful at the party level this tactic worked in Caucus where members of the Right used the buddy system to show colleagues they’d followed the ticket.

And as at least one political observer on Twitter has pointed out, the leadership outcome is the same as if Caucus had made the choice on its own (as it would have done before the Rudd-survival reforms).

Sadly, Albanese’s claim that a horse’s head has been delivered to factional leaders is nothing more than a gracious loser’s empty rhetoric. This may become more evident as the shadow ministers are elected by Caucus and then allocated portfolios by the Leader.

The tectonic plates remain disparate but constantly agitating. The remaining MPs who supported Gillard or at least opposed Rudd will not easily set aside their condemnation of the colleagues who plotted for his return despite claims of furniture saved. Some make a distinction between Shorten’s ‘honorable’ change of heart in support of Rudd (similar to that of Penny Wong) compared with Albanese being a long-term Rudd lieutenant while standing at Gillard’s side.

While the usual post government election loss recriminations and blood-letting have been avoided by virtue of the leadership campaign, the temptation to hold the Rudd spoilers to account is strong and may endure, damning Labor to many years in opposition.

On the bright side, Labor party members have had more access to, and attention from, senior parliamentarians in the past month than any other time on record. The party machine and parliamentarians can either build on that initial engagement by including members in activities were they can observe their influence on the party, or treat them like mushrooms until the next leadership ballot.

It’s not as easy a choice as it looks, considering that giving members a ‘real’ say in other party matters necessarily means reducing the influence of the unions and factions that just helped Shorten get elected.

Shorten no longer has to worry about the Democracy Baby, but he does now have a grumpy Minority Toddler on his hands – the rump of Labor members and MPs who did not prefer him as leader.

Having a convincing majority of the Caucus behind him, Shorten has the potential to emerge as a strong and compelling Labor leader.

A few favourable runs in the media and resulting modest recovery in the polls may yet be enough to assuage the disappointment of Albo supporters and rally them to Shorten’s cause.

As the excellent blog, The Conscience Vote, says elsewhere:

If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.

This post also appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Not Leigh Sales’ job to save Labor

I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.

Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.

Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.

The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.02.27 AMThe interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.

The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.

But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.

From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.40.25 AMThe mob was just getting warmed up. I made a fairly obvious comment about the invidiousness of Sales’ position and was called an MSM apologist.

Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.

When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 10.51.17 PMAbbott had minutes before tweeted about the interview, making it clear it was pre-recorded.

Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)

The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.

Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.51.35 PM

An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)

The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:

Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?

Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.

Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.

Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:

  • Abbott refused to put firm timing on business tax cuts and the paid parental leave scheme
  • He continued to move away from promising a surplus and spoke instead about a “pathway to returning to surplus”
  • He claimed the Coalition had to find much less than $70 billion in savings
  • He attempted to portray commitments being made by Gillard, which dont have to be fulfilled until after the election, as ‘booby-traps’.

Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.52.52 PMOf course, this fascinating point was lost amongst the wailing and rending of clothes on Twitter by Labor supporters.

Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:

There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well –  with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.

It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.

We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.

We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.

Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.

After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.

If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.