The Politics    Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Debates that shouldn’t matter sometimes matter anyway

By Sean Kelly

Debates that shouldn’t matter sometimes matter anyway
Inner-city suburbs voting for the Greens will have consequences for the whole country

I said yesterday that trying to explain why elections turned out the way they did is a mug’s game. And it is. But the debates that people insist on having on this topic are often enormously influential in shaping the nation’s politics. In particular, the losers will wonder why they lost. NSW Labor will be asking themselves not just why they lost to the Liberals, but why they lost seats to the Greens.

The trend of Greens MPs picking up inner-city seats is not new. But it does seem to be gaining momentum.

At the weekend in NSW, we saw the Greens’ Jamie Parker hang on in Balmain against popular Labor figure Verity Firth, and Jenny Leong win the newly created seat of Newtown. In the Victorian election last year, the Greens took the seat of Melbourne away from Labor, and Prahran from the Liberals. And, of course, in 2010 Adam Bandt took the jewel of Melbourne from Labor in that year’s federal election.

Not every reader will give two figs about Labor losing seats, nor should they. But the ALP is worried, and its response will affect everyone, regardless of how they vote.

Darcy Byrne, former Leichhardt Mayor, pinpointed Labor’s fear for Troy Bramston in the Australian today: “We will either defeat the Greens or fall into the poisonous position of relying on their support to form coalition governments, an idea that would have the Liberals salivating.”

Sam Crosby, head of the McKell Institute, will tonight tell the Fabian Society that it is not internal reform that Labor should be focusing on, but policy: “The Labor Party has chronically underinvested in its policy development.”

Crosby is dead right about policy.

And because this isn’t my first rodeo, I can guarantee that argument will immediately prod others to ask the question: why haven’t Labor’s leaders been investing in policy development? Is it something fundamentally to do with the parlous state of politics right now? Or is it because Labor hasn’t had the right leaders? And if they haven’t had the right leaders, doesn’t that take us inevitably to the argument that internal reform is exactly what is needed?

In turn, those who say Labor doesn’t have the leaders it needs will be met with the entirely reasonable argument that neither NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley nor his federal counterpart Bill Shorten has yet had much time to lay out a clear policy agenda. The next 12 months will be telling.

Then there are the coming (also old but important) arguments about whether Labor is losing progressive votes because it’s not progressive enough, or whether any attempts to move further left will destroy the party’s ability to represent “middle Australia”. Or whether Labor should accommodate the Greens in some way.

Wait for these debates to explode as federal Labor grapples with its asylum seeker policies later this year.

And the merry-go-round keeps going.

There was a time when Christopher Pyne looked like a halfway competent minister. As of last night, even the country’s richest universities have now withdrawn their support for his university fee deregulation package.

Everyone who lives in cities that aren’t Melbourne will be amazed that people who live in cities that are Melbourne have not until now been able to use Google Maps to work out how to get from A to B by public transport. Late yesterday Premier Daniel Andrews released the data – on Reddit, because he’s so internet savvy – so Melburnians can stop using a combination of witchcraft and long division to figure out which combination of trams and buses and trains to take.

Moving to electronic voting seems like a no-brainer to me (though I suppose there are libertarian arguments to protect people’s right to draw genitals on their ballot papers) but proponents can’t afford to keep making errors like this one if they want to gain the community’s trust.

Here are actors Martin Freeman and David Tennant in a longish ad for the British Labour Party. I have no idea whether election ads like this are effective, but they’re an interesting contrast to the local scene’s 15-second warnings of cuts and L-plates and crumbling civilisation. (Don’t worry, the UK also gets the sensational Aussie-style ads – carbon copies in some cases.)

I’m one of those quaint people who believe the way a nation chooses to see itself through its literature is political, so here’s this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist, including, remarkably and wonderfully, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, just published but written more than 40 years ago.

Finally, I am desperately sad that nobody thought to get a photo like this of the assembled Abbott government the day after the 2013 election. 

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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