Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Kearney shortens in Batman
Labor’s star candidate says she can beat the Greens this Saturday


The vibe on the ground may not be the same as the vibe in the media, but with a small number of local Greens determined to wreck the party’s chances in Batman, in what can only be described as a vicious smear campaign against candidate Alex Bhathal, Labor may yet pull off an upset victory in the by-election this Saturday.

Today Sportsbet has Bhathal favourite to win at $1.45, but Kearney is priced at $2.50. Having started out at $4.70, Kearney admits happily, “I have shortened!” Asked what she thinks of the Greens, Kearney opens with, “I think I can beat them.”

For the last eight years Kearney has been president of the ACTU, and she is well known to Australians as a three-time veteran of Q&A. She is a formidable opponent for the Greens in Batman: as a 30-year resident of the area (though currently living just out of the electorate) and a former nurse, Kearney sits squarely on Labor’s Left, much more in line with the values of Australia’s most progressive electorate than her Right faction predecessor David Feeney.

There is a well-trodden path from the ACTU presidency into Labor politics, with Bob Hawke, Simon Crean, Jennie George and former member for Batman Martin Ferguson all having made the transition. But Kearney says she is “not at all” a machine politician. “This is the first time I have ever run for office,” says Kearney. “It’s true that I was literally asked a few days before it was announced, and I had to make a decision very quickly.” Could she go all the way to the prime ministership? “You’ve got to be joking.”

This may be Kearney’s first campaign, but she has been tapped by the party twice before: to run for Batman when Ferguson stepped down, and to replace Jane Garrett in the state seat of Brunswick. She decided to stay at the ACTU, a decision she has no regrets over, and says she did absolutely no work on her preselection in the meantime. She will be unemployed come Monday, should she lose.

Kearney won’t be drawn on the mess that is Victorian Labor politics right now, as the Socialist Left does battle with the upstart Industrial Left, attempting to broker a new power-sharing deal with the insurgent Right leader, Adem Somyurek. It’s an all-in brawl that has seen butter knives wielded in anger at state parliament. “I stay out of all of that,” she says. “I keep myself busy here in the campaign.”

She is equally reluctant to define her own politics. Would she describe herself as a socialist? “How do you define a socialist, Paddy? I believe there is a role for the state in the provision of public services and that great social compact that we have, where people work hard and pay taxes, in return for social services, is incredibly important. I believe in the public provision of healthcare, the public provision of education, and the public provision of social services, and I believe that everybody has the right to freely associate and join a trade union. I don’t know where you want to put me on the political spectrum if I believe in all of those things. I believe in the distribution of wealth through the tax and transfer system. I don’t really come from a hard political background, so it’s not that I’m afraid to say I’m a socialist, it’s just that I’ve told you the things I believe in and people can take that at face value, and if they want to put a label on that then so be it, but I’m very much … on the left of politics.”

In short, she is not ideological. “To say you oppose all privatisation is a bit silly, because you know there was a time, for example, in Queensland where the state owned all the butcher shops, and it was clearly much more efficient for those butcher shops to be privatised and run as small businesses. But I certainly think that privatisation has not delivered all the things that it promised.”

One thing is clear, of course: Kearney is pro-union. Unionism in Australia is at an interesting juncture, with ACTU secretary Sally McManus ramping up campaigns on the minimum wage, penalty rates, the right to strike, and overhauling unfair workplace laws, including union TV ads reminiscent of the campaign against WorkChoices in the Howard era.

Kearney was ACTU president when then Labor workplace minister Julia Gillard rewrote the rules, introducing the Fair Work Act, and she is ready to admit they got a few things wrong:

“I think that there was not a proper anticipation of the changes that would happen in the workforce when those laws were made. You know, unprecedented levels of precarious work and insecure work. Unprecedented levels of exploitation of migrant workers because of the temporary immigration system that we have. It was not anticipated that employers would exploit some loopholes that would allow them to trash EBAs, and throw people back onto awards. There’s unprecedented employer militancy in the industrial landscape now that is saying the laws we settled on are now no longer fit for purpose.”

Australia now has some of the most onerous industrial laws in the developed world, Kearney says, and Labor is preparing to fight the government on industrial relations, all the way up to the next election.

The Greens’ best line of attack on Labor in Batman was from Adam Bandt, who said it doesn’t matter how good the candidate is, or what they say during the by-election, when they get to Canberra they will toe the party line and will vote for Adani and vote to detain asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru.

Kearney has preferred to focus on local issues – schools, housing affordability, public transport – but hasn’t ducked the national issues either. Kearney spoke well at a Darebin climate action forum last week, about making sure that the transition to a clean economy is fair, and that it brings everyone along. The contrast with Feeney was evident: at a similar function during the 2016 election, he didn’t even turn up.

On asylum seekers, Kearney is determined. “What I say to the people of Batman is that they will have a very strong progressive voice that I think will reflect their values on this issue, and I will be fighting hard at Labor conference to get more humane and progressive policy, like I always have done. I also say that on March 17, whether they elect me or they elect Alex, nothing will change for asylum seekers, nothing. It’s this government that is keeping people languishing on Manus and Nauru for years on end, it’s this government that can get those people off those islands right now, it’s this government that is using those poor people to drive a toxic debate around asylum seekers that is hate-bound. What they will get with me is a member who will be in a party that can form government.”

Even with a demographic tailwind, and with the Liberals not running, Bhathal will find Kearney is a much tougher opponent than Feeney.

since this morning

The SMH reports that Treasurer Scott Morrison has lashed out at Labor’s proposed termination of cash refunds for investors, worth $5.6 billion a year, describing the new policy as “brutal” and a theft of people’s legitimate tax refunds.

ABC business reporter Michael Janda is live blogging from the Hayne banking royal commission, while the SMH reports that the Commonwealth Bank has been lashed for providing the commission with an incomplete submission and then flooding the commission’s offices with meaningless spreadsheets.

Nick Xenophon’s bid to return to state politics is in danger of failing, according to The Australian [$], with a Galaxy poll showing that the former senator is suffering a five-point slump in primary support in the South Australian seat of Hartley, which he is trying to wrest from sitting Liberal MP Vincent Tarzia.

Government sources have told the ABC that a review has recommended that Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg should be sacked.

in case you missed it

An article on The Conversation outlines new RMIT research suggesting environmentally friendly “proton batteries” – rechargeable batteries that store protons from water in a porous carbon material – could be capable of storing more energy for a given mass and size than lithium-ion batteries.

The Guardian reports that internationally renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei believes the US and Australia are engaging in a slave trade with their refugee deal.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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