Weekly column for The New Daily.
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 treatment. The 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.
The questionable loyalty of Anthony Albanese. For Guardian Australia.
Commenting to the assembled media on this week’s fatal Manus Island detention centre riot, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young started to say “all Australians would be horrified by what happened”. The she corrected herself to say “most Australians”.
That’s because some Australians would not particularly care; their insecurity and xenophobia has been twisted into something so hateful and ugly by successive governments and oppositions that they now want asylum seekers to be treated more harshly.
Those who ARE horrified – at the events as well as the callousness of their fellow Australians – struggle to understand how everyday pressures brought on by strained government services and infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals can manifest as such bigotry.
Both the Government and Opposition understand – the former having mostly crafted the prejudice during the Howard government and Abbott opposition years, and the latter with Gillard and Rudd having capitulated to it in order to woo back marginal seat votes.
So while the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continues to secure votes from mainstream Australia – yes, even when riots and gunshot injuries and violent deaths are involved – it appears neither of the major parties will shift from the horror that is of their own making.
Yet a circuit-breaker is within their reach.
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.
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.
Like so many of Kevin Rudd’s other hare-brained initiatives, this one must have been a good idea at the time.
The thinking may well have been that by changing the rules for electing the parliamentary leader to incorporate the popular vote from party members, Rudd could capitalise on his broader public support in the face of any future caucus antipathy.
The move was audacious at the time of announcement: in a single move the re-invented Prime Minister bolstered Fortress Rudd while giving disaffected Labor Party members and wavering supporters a reason to stay.
Much was made of Rudd’s democratisation of the party but – in perhaps the strongest sign that Kevin truly believed he would win the election and a leadership vote would be redundant – it seems little thought was given to how it would work in practice. The warm inner glow generated by the reform has dissipated in the dark days since the poll.
Now the party’s National Executive appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.
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