While Bishop survives, the ALP thrives

The Political Weekly: The PM can’t shake Choppergate, while Labor continues to refuse to implode, rather unhelpfully.

The Political Weekly: The PM can’t shake Choppergate, while Labor continues to refuse to implode, rather unhelpfully.

For The New Daily.

ALP conference: Labor’s left grapples with reality

As the Labor left discovered at the party’s conference this weekend, it’s much easier to advance progressive policies while in a successful government than it is in a barely-trusted opposition.

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.

Greens circling as Labor dives into treacherous waters

If Labor gets its boats policy wrong, there is one party waiting to scoop up the unhappy voters, and it’s not led by Tony Abbott.

If Labor gets its boats policy wrong, there is one party waiting to scoop up the unhappy voters, and it’s not led by Tony Abbott.

Analysis for The New Daily.

Liberal right is all bark, no bite on same-sex marriage

It’s time for Tony Abbott to recognise the hollowness of the Liberal right’s threats and to call their bluff on marriage equality.

News last week that a cross-party bill is being prepared to legalise gay marriage has unleashed the hounds of the conservative right. The baying beasts are doing their best to keep the Prime Minister in check, even going as far as to threaten his leadership, but what happens once Tony Abbott realises the hounds have no teeth?

It’s no secret Abbott owes his initial election as Liberal Leader to the hard right of the Liberal Party. Led by the godfather of the right, then Senator Nick Minchin, the arch conservatives backed Abbott in 2009 to bring down then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and prevent any moves to support Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Yet the right have never really considered Abbott to be one of their own, partly because of his early days as a devotee of Bob Santamaria; then because of his proposed paid parental leave scheme; and later because of his refusal to go hard on IR reform, his backdown on reforming the Racial Discrimination Act and his continued support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

At times, the conservatives have gone as far as to warn the PM through the media to stay true to their Faustian pact. As News Corp journalist Dennis Shanahan wrote just last week:

Liberal pragmatists can remember it was a Liberal Party branch revolt over supporting Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme that brought down Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately put the Liberals back into government with an anti-carbon tax campaign.

Leaders need to know that you go home from the dance “with the one that brung you” no matter how nice you are to the others at the dance.

However, this time the right aren’t threatening to take the leadership from an uncompetitive opposition leader who is dangerously advocating progressive views. This time they are warning off an incumbent Prime Minister who still has a good chance of winning the next election to step away from another of the progressives’ totemic issues.

Until recently, the PM appeared relaxed about the prospect of a marriage equality bill successfully getting through the Parliament. He’d likely been comforted by the knowledge that Labor harboured its own objectors and that the numbers just weren’t there, even if Liberal MPs were granted a free vote on the matter.

And so Abbott had toyed with the expectations of moderate Liberals, reportedly agreeing with marriage equality supporter and Liberal MP Warren Entsch after the Irish referedum to “do something this year”. Abbott reportedly told Entsch to “talk to like-minded individuals, come back and have a yarn to me and we will say where we go with it”.

Meantime, the marriage equality lobby had gotten on with the job of persuading MPs to declare their hand – or even change their mind – and brought the numbers much closer to the line, thereby making the successful passage of legislation a real possibility.

It seems the Liberal right were initially as complacent as the PM, but once Abbott seemingly gave Entsch the nod to proceed and the numbers tightened, the conservatives became nervous about the PM’s perceived dalliance with the issue.

Columnist Miranda Divine wrote last month that the conservatives were “furious at what they see as an orchestrated campaign, with (Abbott’s) blessing, to sneak a change to the Marriage Act through parliament” and that they would withdraw their support from Abbott if he “doesn’t hold the line”.

Entsch nevertheless followed through with what he understood to be the PM’s imprimatur to obtain cross-party support for a new private member’s bill. This would fulfil Abbott’s declared requirement for any such legislation to be “owned by the Parliament” and not one party.

But once news of Entsch’s cross-party bill was leaked to the media, the PM took note of the warnings from the right and made it known that such private member’s bills rarely reach the voting stage in Parliament (remember Bill Shorten’s bill?) and so there was no need for a party room decision to allow a free vote.

Labor’s Penny Wong helpfully tweeted that six private member’s bills not only reached the voting stage but were also passed by the previous parliament. And that five were passed under John Howard’s government.

As the possibility of the proposed law being passed has moved from highly unlikely to not beyond the realms of possibility, the Liberal right have become increasingly shrill. So shrill in fact, that they’re beginning to rival the Great Unhinging of 2010. Since news of the Entsch bill has emerged, the lieutenants of the right have lined up to variously denounce gay marriage as the harbinger of bulk lot matrimony, our loss of face in Asia, a reason for ministers to walk the plank, an issue without momentum, and a distraction from the real issues of concern to everyday voters.

There is but one small problem with the arch conservatives’ determination to hold the PM’s hand to the fire on gay marriage – their capacity to punish him.

They could arrange for his removal, in the same way they dispatched Turnbull, but who would they replace him with? Some voters of the right have already made it known they’d rather lose the election with Abbott than win with TurnbullJulie Bishop fancies herself a contender, but it’s hard to see the party described by Peta Credlin as having entrenched inequality in its ranks and processes putting a woman in the top job. The right also have their man Scott Morrison lurking in the wings, but he is not yet ready for the ultimate political promotion.

And even in the fog of their self-indulgence the right must also realise that, having been recently reminded of the Rudd-Gillard turmoil, the last thing voters want is another round of leadership musical chairs.

In short, there is very little the right can do to the PM, other than speak sternly to him. However, they can – and do – exert and maintain the very influence castigated by Credlin by pre-selecting candidates who toe the conservative line. This makes it risky for moderate MPs and potential candidates to speak out in support of marriage equality.

Liberal Teresa Gambaro is reportedly one such MP. According to Dennis Shanahan, she is “torn between appealing to a large part of her marginal electorate that supports same-sex marriage and an equally large Liberal stronghold that does not – and that includes the members of her federal electorate council”. Despite facing this risk, Gambaro is backing the Entsch cross-party bill.

This brings us to the voters, an overwhelming majority of whom support marriage equality. If there was to be an electoral backlash from the minority, which party would the Liberal supporters who oppose gay marriage vote for if Liberal MPs helped the law to be passed? The ALP, which has a policy supporting marriage equality? Or maybe the Greens, who also support gay marriage?

For all the talk (through the media) of the “absolute necessity” for Abbott to “be seen to be standing up for his conservative base” after “disappointing” them on free speech, there really is nowhere else for those voters to go. They’ll begrudgingly vote for candidates like Gambaro rather than give their vote to lefties like Labor and the Greens.

It’s time for the PM to recognise the hollowness of the Liberal right’s threats and to call their bluff on marriage equality.

The conservatives have no viable options to replace him, and their determination to pre-select candidates who reflect their own minority views could lose more votes than it wins. Conversely, the right should wake up to the fact that, at least until Morrison is ready to step up, the mostly-conservative Abbott is the best option they have to remain relevant and dominant in today’s Liberal Party.

Is a cabinet reshuffle worth the instability?

Talk of a cabinet reshuffle is ramping up in Canberra, but is that just wishful thinking from ambitious MPs, and can the PM risk the appearance of instability by rolling senior Liberals?

Coalition MPs have woken this morning to an opinion poll that suggests voters are pretty unimpressed with the Government’s untidiness over the past week.

Today’s monthly Ipsos Poll is the first to be published since Treasurer Joe Hockey dug himself into a Sydney mortgage-sized hole over housing affordability, and the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister couldn’t get their answers straight on whether people smugglers were paid hard cash by Australia to turn their boats back to Indonesia.

Iposos has recorded a 3 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote (to 40 per cent) since last month, and an increase in Labor’s vote of 2 per cent (to 37 per cent), which after the allocation of preferences gives a two-party preferred result of 53:47 in Labor’s favour. Ipsos’s post-budget poll found the major parties to be at 50:50, and this latest poll brings it into line with the other published pollsters Roy Morgan(53:47), Newspoll (52:48), and Essential (52:48).

Whether or not these other polls will show a similar deterioration in the Government’s position when they are revealed in coming days, it’s fair to say voters don’t like it when ministers look incompetent. And while Treasurer Hockey might have kept it together for the initial salesmanship of this year’s budget, he’s been all over the place since then.

Even setting aside the mishandling of changes to paid parental leave by suggesting new mothers were rorters and frauds, Hockey has reverted to the Sloppy Joe of old, making up tax policy on the runcasting doubt on the PM’s iron-clad commitment not to tamper with superannuation, and opening up a debate on housing affordability that the Government really could have done without.

According to today’s Ipsos poll, 69 per cent of voters living in capital cities say homes in their area are unaffordable for first-time buyers. This amount increases to 80 per cent for Sydney-based respondents.

While the Treasurer hasn’t yet resorted to complaining about his lot, as he did last year when things got tough, his position is again being eyed by the more ambitious and impatient among his parliamentary colleagues.

Talk has already emerged about a possible ministerial reshuffle prior to next year’s federal election. However, just like the last time such talk surfaced in the media, this is more likely the work of ambitious MPs pressuring for change and jostling for positions than the PM flagging his intentions.

The fate of wholly-unimpressive Attorney-General, George Brandis, has been placed in the media’s sights by at least one anonymous backgrounder, while the extended absence of Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz to deal with a family matter has prompted others to suggest Finance Minister Mathias Cormann should be placed in the leadership role.

According to one commentator, “Abbott had always planned a big reshuffle in the second half of 2015, to take a fresh team into the 2016 election.” But that statement is more likely the wishful thinking of an over-looked backbencher than a reflection of Abbott’s current thinking, particularly considering the PM essentially brought forward the traditional pre-election ministry reshuffle to the end of last year.

Whatever the Prime Minister ultimately does about his ministry, the move will be inextricably linked with the state of his leadership within the Liberal Party. The hardliners within the party are reasserting their dominance, having seen off the leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull at the failed party room spill in February, and split the Turnbull-Bishop dream-team vote by cultivating the Foreign Minister’s own leadership aspirations.

Meantime, the hard-right’s heir apparent, Scott Morrison, has essentially swung in behind Abbott to bolster the PM’s position on two of the right’s emblematic issues: national security and same-sex marriage. The former Immigration Minister publicly backed the national security proposal, which divided Cabinet but has strong backbench and community support, to strip Australian citizenship from sole nationals who were found to be terrorists. As a possible alternative, Morrison also proposed suspending their residence rights rather than cancelling sole nationals’ citizenship altogether.

In doing so Morrison has clearly set himself apart from the Turnbull-Bishop “legal eagles” on the matter, and aligned himself with the majority of the backbench and the populace. He has also differentiated himself from Turnbull on gay marriage, an issue the hardliners are reportedly claiming could destroy Abbott’s leadership if he allows a free vote. Interestingly, Bishop has not yet declared her hand on the matter, although she has said in the past she’d consult her electorate if Liberal MPs were given a free vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage.

It’s hard to see how the pragmatists in the Liberal right would tear down a prime minister on an issue that has such strong support in the community, even if there are claims the Coalition could lose Senate seatsif it stops resisting the change.

Focus group research conducted last month showed that voters take a dim view of political instability. Given the choice between Turnbull, Bishop or Abbott, “Abbott is a long way last,” according to the market researcher who conducted the focus groups, Tony Mitchelmore. But if asked whether they wanted Turnbull, Bishop or stability, then “stability wins”.

This antipathy for government sloppiness and instability will be driven home as the televising of The Killing Season reminds voters that this was what they most despised about the Rudd-Gillard years.

Today’s opinion poll results are sure to cause anxiety in Government ranks, and throw fuel on the smouldering ambitions of ministerial and leadership aspirants.

But if there is anything to be learned from the poll dip, to the extent that there is one outside the margin of error, it is that voters want stable government. Any thought of throwing out an accident-prone Treasurer, who has privately threatened to cause havoc if demoted, must be carefully weighed against the public perceiving the Government as not being able to keep its house in order.

Just stop digging! Joe Hockey’s housing hate spiral

The Political Weekly: The Abbott government bangs the conservative drum on a range of issues to make sure all the talk of legalising gay marriage hadn’t made Coalition voters think the government had gone soft.

The Political Weekly: The Abbott government bangs the conservative drum on a range of issues to make sure all the talk of legalising gay marriage hadn’t made Coalition voters think the government had gone soft.

For The New Daily.

Labor’s same-sex marriage ploy: cynical, naive or just poorly timed?

Timing is everything in politics, and recently Labor has been missing the mark on same-sex marriage. Perhaps part of the problem is a dearth of guidance from wiser heads who have come before.

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.

Sloppy Joe’s loose lips land the PM in hot water

The Political Weekly: Overnight sensations, sloppy rhetoric and a spectacular own goal. Analysis of the week in politics.

The Political Weekly: Overnight sensations, sloppy rhetoric and a spectacular own goal. Analysis of the week in politics.

For The New Daily.

The best of times, the worst of times

The Political Weekly: Bali Nine executions, Anzac Day and marriage equality captured the attention of Australia’s politicians this week.

The Political Weekly: Bali Nine executions, Anzac Day and marriage equality captured the attention of Australia’s politicians this week.

For The New Daily.