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.

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.

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.

Rudd’s tears before bedtime

Wobbling trainer wheels, name-calling, and testing the limits of the yard duty teacher were all on show for the first working day of the new parliament, ending with a spectacular dummy spit – and tears – later in the day.

While Tony Abbott announced in Sunday’s videogram that the adults were back in charge, the first real business day of the 44th Parliament more closely resembled a first day at primary school.

Wobbling trainer wheels, name-calling, and testing the limits of the yard duty teacher were all on show, ending with a spectacular dummy spit – and tears – later in the day.

Kevin Rudd’s emotional resignation from politics last night ensured the news of the day’s business would be relegated to second place, but it wouldn’t have been a fitting first day in the schoolyard if it didn’t conclude with someone crying in frustration or exhaustion.

Rudd declared it was finally time to give back to his family who had supported him over the years. The announcement met with a standing ovation and acclamation… though many will be relieved to see him gone.

Before the climactic ending, the day had been jam-packed with new legislation, procedural skirmishes and petty point scoring. The inaugural Question Time presented the first real opportunity for Labor to hold the Coalition Government to account under the collective gaze of the parliamentary press gallery.

No-one knew who would show a natural aptitude and who would wobble. The new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, had an unexpectedly shaky start, ignoring Abbott’s concession on Monday that his new moniker for Bill Shorten would not be appropriate parliamentary language. In ruling that “Electricity Bill” could be used because it was a ‘descriptor’ and not a name Bishop failed an early test, if not of her impartiality, at least of her determination to raise the standards of parliamentary discourse.

The Speaker’s precedent was quickly tested in Question Time. Although Adam Bandt prefaced his question with the observation that the Greens had taken to calling Abbott “Typhoon Tony”, Madam Speaker did not demur. Undoubtedly Labor will also test the boundaries of Bishop’s tolerance on this.

While the new manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke clearly swotted up on parliamentary practice over the break, other recently ex-ministers had trouble grappling with the finer detail during Question Time. Several reasonable points of order were rebuffed by the Speaker for not being presented with the relevant clause of The Practice, as Bishop herself was famous for doing. Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whose repeated attempts to raise points of order were meek and unfocussed, will have to sharpen her game if she is to have any impact with this tactic.

The Government used the first Question Time to showcase the breadth of their agenda. One by one, new Ministers strode to the dispatch box to outline how they were righting the previous government’s wrongs, with Hockey likening Labor to a bad tenant who had had trashed the joint and was obstructing the clean up.

Curiously, the Opposition took a similar approach, peppering a range of questions at Abbott, Hockey and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison instead of pursuing one line of inquiry at depth.

First it was climate action and the scrapping of the carbon price, then the need for the Government to justify raising the debt ceiling, and finally the asylum seeker no-information policy. History has shown that sustained questioning of one minister tends to bear more fruit than a scattergun approach.

The Coalition looked self-assured, as one would expect of a party that had been returned to government with a strong result after only two terms in the wilderness. Abbott’s determination to keep former Howard ministers in his own ministerial lineup paid dividends, with most demonstrating workmanlike oratory skills and the capacity to reel out the approved slogans (toxic taxes, the boats are stopping, who can you trust?) while being berated from the Opposition benches.

Health Minister Peter Dutton was the weakest performer, at one point calling the former Minister for Health “nasty Tanya”, which he then guiltily withdrew even before the Speaker had directed him to do so.

Question Time ended with no real sense that the Opposition had identified the strongest line of attack. There were looks of relief on ministerial faces that they had survived their first day. And a growing realisation that the Speaker may not live up to the expectations of impartiality she had so recently created.

Overall, the Abbott Government got what it wanted out of its first ‘working day’: an opportunity to showcase its wares to the Australian people and limited scrutiny from the Opposition. In a moment of biting candour during the inaugural Question Time, Joe Hockey told the vanquished opposite him “this is your best day in opposition – trust me.”

Hockey might be right, but it’s going to take a better day than yesterday from the Opposition for Australian democracy to be fairly served.

This is the first of my regular posts on federal politics for The Hoopla.