October 2013

The Nation Reviewed

What Labor hasn’t learnt

By Richard Cooke

The delusion continues post-election

What does the Labor Party value most? We can answer that by looking back to the time before the election, when polling predicted not just defeat but catastrophe. The party responded by putting threatened senators into safe lower house seats, and David Feeney was the first man they chose. Feeney, the archetypal “faceless man”, had backed Kevin Rudd to take over from Kim Beazley as Opposition leader, then conspired to install Julia Gillard as prime minister. Once preserved, Feeney then showed his gratitude by switching support back to Rudd. Feeney was the person the ALP valued most. In its time of deepest crisis, it rushed to save the factional hacks responsible for almost destroying it.

“A lesson” is now the ALP’s shorthand for this election, with varying emphases on unity, conviction and the impulse to reform. There’s a tiredness to the words beyond the fact that they’re obvious and too late, a sense that the wrong lessons were learnt some time ago, and by the wrong people. Look into the ranks of the resigned – Greg Combet, Craig Emerson, Stephen Smith, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Peter Garrett – and it becomes clear that the truest expression of loyalty to the Labor Party is to leave it. It has become a surreal organisation where Bill “Kingslayer” Shorten lectures on unity, Stephen Conroy argues the case for civility, and new blood arrives in the form of union throwback Paul Howes.

Dwindling union membership and sclerotically factional executives mean Labor’s talent pool is now a talent puddle. The NSW Labor right faction, furnishing bright young stars like Howes, Senate debutant Sam Dastyari and state Labor train-wreck conductor Matt Thistlethwaite, was described as little more than a “job agency for hacks” by one of its disgusted former leaders. It’s no coincidence that both Howes and Dastyari have launched crude and noisy media campaigns against the Greens. Howes seems particularly obsessed with that party’s policies on competitive sport and mining. Even if he’s not in the Senate himself, he might have the Palmer United Party and Australian Sports Party’s presence to look forward to. What’s surprising is not that he and his ilk blame the Greens for Labor’s problems, but that this narrative should get traction with more progressive types.

There were many reasons for the swing away from the Greens this election: the inevitable disappointments that come when a protest party shares power, the retirement of Bob Brown as leader, batty local councils distracted by foreign policy and fluoride. But at the federal level the Greens held their nerve and represented their constituents more closely than any other party. They got their carbon tax, they agitated for same-sex marriage, and Scott Ludlam became a lone voice in Canberra on the government’s surveillance of its citizens. Their inner-city voters lacked the same conviction.

The recent conventional wisdom has described a Labor Party strung up between the Liberals on the right and the Greens on the left, vulnerable to bleeding votes to either. This election proved otherwise. As well as discarding Julia Gillard, Labor wavered on the carbon tax, made preference deals with Fred Nile, implemented Australia’s harshest ever policy on refugees and gouged higher education funding. They treated their progressive wing with contempt, yet were punished for these transgressions only in the Greens-held seat of Melbourne. Elsewhere, the protest vote from disgruntled progressives never materialised. Even in the inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler, strongly opposed to the Pacific Solution redux, the deputy prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was returned on an increased margin.

The threat of an Abbott government made the left panic, and sent them scurrying back to Labor. The effect, particularly as seen on social media, was bizarre. People simultaneously decried the presidential and personality-based change in politics and treated the election like a zero-sum Gore–Bush–Nader campaign where Greens votes imperilled the nation. Bleeding hearts who had spent the Howard years pleading for Australia’s soul suddenly became enthusiasts for the tech specs of the National Broadband Network. Above all, they raged: against Abbott, their fellow voters, and their humiliated selves.

That rage was the defining tone of the tabloid media as well, and it sprang from the same impulse: a sense of diminishing influence. The anger of the Murdoch press was confected and largely impotent, a caricature of its readers’ displeasure. The fearsome News Corp arsenal turned out to be a blunderbuss: noisy, but archaic and off-target. The Daily Telegraph looks like one of the biggest losers of the campaign. It set out to convince western Sydney not to vote Labor, and wound up convincing much of it not to vote at all, with some seats returning up to a 15% informal count. If this clumsy bias had any effect, it was to compound the already strong sense among Labor supporters that the election was somehow unfair.

The Coalition’s election might have been a foregone conclusion for 18 months, but that didn’t mean its adversaries were prepared for it. At times their whole campaign seemed to just consist of that name – Tony Abbott – and waiting for his unelectable nature to reveal itself. When it didn’t, they tried to amplify mild gaffes into cataclysmic revelations. Somewhere under the mask, they believed, was the “real” Abbott, the racist homophobe who only had to show himself to flame out. But as the gap between the “real” Abbott and the real Abbott grew wider, the forced outrage became a serious liability. Abbott himself began to use it to his advantage, making calculated old-fashioned comments, then watching his opponents lumber into the elephant trap.

The belief that Tony Abbott is unelectable has even survived his election. For much of the left, there’s been a retreat to a kind of Fantasy Island, a world where the Australian people are only one gaffe or austerity cut or Turnbull leadership challenge away from realising their mistake. Labor parliamentarians like Richard Marles and Nick Champion have even suggested the Senate should help pass the Coalition’s agenda, so it can be proven unpopular. It’s difficult to know where to start with this level of delusion, other than to point out that there is now a new nadir of popularity and electability, and the party that has reached it is not Tony Abbott’s.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke


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