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.

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.

Rudd’s doublespeak on marriage equality

It was the first time my attention had been drawn to the careful positioning of Rudd’s support for same sex marriage. It was the first time I realised his support was not unequivocal. He gives the churches a free pass.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
George Orwell, Animal Farm

While the rest of the known universe was boggling at the audacity of Tony Abbott uttering the question that is on everyone’s minds but apparently must not be asked, I was struck by something different altogether.

During the Peoples’ Forum last night, Kevin Rudd said:

My view and a position I took some time ago was that to properly reflect what I think is the dignity belonging to all people, irrespective of their sexuality, Australia should now move towards laws for the secular state which support marriage equality… However, there are different views and certainly my view with the Christian church is the Christian church should be fully free into the future to conduct its own traditional marriage services relying upon the traditional definition of a marriage between a man and a woman…

It was the first time my attention had been drawn to the careful positioning of Rudd’s support for same sex marriage. It was the first time I realised his support was not unequivocal. He gives the churches a free pass.

Apparently this isn’t the first time Rudd has carefully draped this caveat around his Damascene conversion to marriage equality.

While Rudd’s original statement is no longer available on his personal website, it was reported as saying:

“I have come to the conclusion that church and state can have different positions and practices on the question of same sex marriage.”
“I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage.”

It’s quite clever really. This positioning allows Rudd to present a modern, progressive face to some voters and a traditional, conservative face to another.

Clever indeed. See also duplicitous.

I’m not suggesting that Rudd, his government, or any other government should impose same sex marriage on churches. I support the separation of Church and State.

But it is the blurring of this line that is the problem.

Religion has hovered quietly over the recently-dissolved federal parliament, as it does over this election. Much is made of Tony Abbott’s Catholicism and its potential influence on his political and policy decisions.

Conversely, little is made of Rudd’s religious beliefs despite his weekly visits to church, which are ruthlessly exploited as photo-ops and force-fed to voters each Sunday night on the news.

Equality is equality. It can’t be trimmed with politically expedient caveats.

While there is no role for the State to force the Church to do anything, I believe there IS a role for politicians to support and promote the views of the broader community and – at times – encourage the Church to embrace these modern views.

Former US President Jimmy Carter’s recent intervention on the ordination of women is a good example. It has nothing to do with the State interfering in the Church’s business, but everything to do with a secular community leader encouraging a deeply conservative, patriarchal institution to also take a leadership role in promoting equality.

If Kevin Rudd was fair dinkum about same sex marriage, he would follow Carter’s example.

Muttering “marriage equality for everyone” out of one side of his mouth, but “not in a Church” out the other is the epitome of political doubletalk.

If Kevin Rudd truly believes in equality for gay people, it should be unconditional.

If Kevin Rudd truly believes in gay marriage he should stop playing both sides and instead state unequivocally that he “looks forward to the day when the Christian church reflects the views of the broader community and recognises same sex marriage.”

Were we trolled by Bernardi today?

There’s an episode of the politico-drama television series Boss where Chicago Mayor Tom Kane must deal with evidence of his involvement years before in the cover-up of a chemical spill. Kane’s political enemies have leaked the documents to link him with the cancer-riddled cluster of children living unknowingly near the spill site.

Kelsey Grammer, previously the master of grown-up tv sitcoms, deftly plays the deadly-serious, saurian Kane. He wields his political might like a grandmaster: strategically placing, threatening and if necessary sacrificing and removing his opponents, allies and even family members to maintain his dominant position.

Tim Dunlop aptly described Boss the other day on Twitter as being “unSorkin”, lacking as it does Sorkin’s “optimistic, uplifting approach to politics”.

Uplifting it’s not, but Boss is certainly mesmerising. And while it’s merely a dramatisation of the grubby political world, its depiction of that world is still close enough to make me uncomfortable, in the same way that The Hollow Men or The West Wing makes me cringe or laugh or sigh.

I was reminded of Kane today when I witnessed my corner of Twitter having a meltdown over Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi suggesting last night that marriage equality could lead to bestiality. Being the type who tends to suspect conspiracy over stuff-up, I wondered why Bernardi would say that at this particular point in time.

Sure, it was straightforward on the face of it: parliament would vote today on proposed same sex marriage laws, but Bernardi’s intervention would make no difference to the bills’ passage. There was little chance the bills would pass with the Coalition voting in a bloc against them and the Government’s vote being split through a conscience vote.

It was then I recalled the episode where Mayor Tom Kane managed to transform himself from a villain to a hero by playing sleight of hand with the media. Now, I know, television is not real but what occurred in that plotline was reasonably plausible.

The main objective of the Mayor’s team was to reframe media coverage of the chemical spill cover-up so that it no longer focussed on Kane but on the crisis being faced by the affected community. They provided individual journalists with various off-the-record leads that diverted attention from the Mayor to the local community’s (orchestrated) bottled water drought and (confected) housing value slump. The journos rushed to publish the stories, giving the details minimal scrutiny in the name of the all-important exclusive. Other media outlets were forced to play catch up and cover the same story. One by one, as each media organisation’s news cycle clicked over, Mayor Tom Kane’s role disappeared from the day’s headlines and lead stories.

Before long, the community and media had whipped themselves into a frenzy of outrage fed by powerlessness and fear. Mayor Tom Kane re-entered the fray as their leader and protector, offering clean water and a speedy restoration to the spill site. He went from villain to hero purely by exploiting the speed and ravenous nature of the media cycle.

Which brings me back to Cory Bernardi… well actually it brings me to Tony Abbott. Today was going to be the Leader of the Opposition’s first real public appearance (other than attending military funerals) since last week when Treasurer Wayne Swan accused him of “going the biff” and being a thug, on the back of David Marr’s wall-punch expose. Abbott has mostly avoided the media since then, minimising his safety-vest photo opportunities and sticking to interviews on soft news programs.

No doubt Swan’s jibes were an attempt to tap into the unease that voters felt about another pugilistic Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, almost a decade ago. It would seem Labor strategists are confident that if enough people say enough times that Abbott has a problem with women, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A possible return to the “Abbott is a thug” theme at Question Time today could well have been on the minds of the Opposition’s leadership team last night. While Abbott was given a period of grace during his funeral attendances, the Government could have generated considerable momentum between this morning’s early doorstops and Question Time – with the willing complicity of the drama hungry media – thereby preventing Abbott from regaining the political advantage he so desperately needs right now.

So I’m sure Abbott must have secretly been relieved when Cory Bernardi unleashed his inner Tea Party Animal in the Senate last night. The combined disgust and rage of free speech-loving tweeps, equality-loving MPs and scandal-seeking journalists created a torrent of condemnation that swept all mention of Abbott’s thuggery from our tweetstreams, RSS feeds and tv screens.

At the crescendo (and not coincidentally at exactly the same time Penny Wong was speaking on marriage equality in the Senate), Abbott re-entered the fray as the Liberal Party’s voice of reason and moderation. Abbott ameliorated our sensibilities by extracting Bernardi’s resignation from the Shadow Ministry as penance. While by most measures Abbott had been a villain for the past few weeks, at this moment he was the upholder of principles and morality. Like Kane, Abbott turned his own fortune around within a few short media cycles.  Whether Bernardi’s role in that turnaround was deliberate, we’ll never know.

Bernardi is nothing if not a loyal Liberal foot-soldier with one eye steadfastly locked on the main game: that is, the election of an Abbott Government in 2013. He’s lost nothing more than a fancy title in resigning as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary due to there being no additional staff or remuneration attached to the position. And now that he’s a backbencher, Bernardi is arguably less constrained to speak out than he was before today. Perhaps he’ll become Abbott’s equivalent of Howard-era henchman, Senator Bill Heffernan, whose controversial behaviour was privately considered to have more benefit than it had drawbacks.

For mine, I’m sure Bernardi deliberately trolled us last night to upset any momentum the Government hoped to gain with its “Abbott goes the biff” campaign. Today ended with Bernardi enjoying the pointy end of an international airplane, Abbott getting positive media coverage, and the marriage equality bill being soundly defeated in the Parliament.

All in all, not a bad day’s work if you’re a Tea Party Animal.

Postscript: This article notes that Bernardi has since been quietly appointed by the Coalition as a temporary Chairman of Committees, a role which attracts a 3% salary loading.