Monday, September 4, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Olive branches
Is Labor capable of changing its approach to Opposition?


Labor is at an interesting inflection point.

In the life of a party in Opposition, there usually comes a point when it begins to realise that getting into government is an actual possibility, and that it may require a different approach than the one that’s guided it thus far.

So it has been interesting to watch the Opposition’s climate change spokesperson, Mark Butler, respond to the likely governmental chaos on adopting a Clean Energy Target (CET).

Early on, after the release of the Finkel review recommending a CET, Labor said it was open to being bipartisan. I was pretty sceptical about this. It smacked of an attempt to look bipartisan without actually being bipartisan, an impression cemented by Bill Shorten’s fairly constant attacks on the government at that time.

It also became clear pretty quickly that Malcolm Turnbull was unlikely to be able to win support for the CET from his party – or from the Nationals – unless its design allowed for at least the possibility of the construction of coal-fired power stations.

And so, when Butler stood up just after the Finkel release to knock this possibility down, it sounded a lot like a death knell for bipartisanship or for any government hope of getting an energy policy passed: “you can’t have a definition of clean energy that incorporates new coal-fired power stations. It makes a nonsense of the whole process. I think the sooner Malcolm Turnbull makes that clear and stares down this uprising within the Coalition to try and rig the definition of clean energy, the sooner we can start doing some sensible work.”

A month later, in mid July, Butler had become more open. He now said Labor would not rule anything in or out, though he still felt the need to make the point about coal-fired power stations: “trying to have a definition of clean energy that brings in every energy type short of burning old tyres does make a nonsense of the thing”.

Labor’s position now – and Butler did make this point in July – is that there is a snowflake’s chance in hell that a new coal station will be built, based on simple economics. Therefore, he says, Labor is open to compromise on the CET. “The chief scientist said, to use his words, it would be ‘surprising’ if a Clean Energy Target provided incentives for new coal-fired power. We’ve been very careful not to rule anything out with our discussions with the government because we simply cannot let the opportunity of finally getting a bipartisan energy policy, we can’t let that slip.”

Phillip Coorey wrote of Butler’s olive branch [$], “He was not doing it to be kind to the enemy, or mischievously trying to foment division, but out of realisation that the energy crisis is just that, and no longer an academic argument.”

The greatest significance of this is the possibility of a legislated bipartisan energy policy, with the potential to last into the future, providing certainty to a beleaguered industry. This could do far more to lower power prices than Turnbull’s recent haranguing of industry chiefs.

But it is interesting at a political level, too.

Partly, it is a reflection of Labor’s own interest in taking away carbon taxes and all their offshoots as political weapons. The same logic, seen from the other side, is why Tony Abbott wants so desperately to kill off Coalition support for the CET: he sees opposing it as his best chance of tearing down both Turnbull and, eventually, Shorten.

But it is almost certainly an indication of Labor’s rising recognition that a Labor government is likely.

A sensible Opposition within reach of victory begins to think differently. The realisation dawns that the government’s problems may soon be your problems – and that they may be equally intractable for you.

Not every Opposition is sensible. Abbott acted like an Opposition leader all the way up to election day, and continued acting like an Opposition leader for the two years he was prime minister. If he had switched attitudes earlier perhaps things could have been different. The way people campaign is often a pretty good indication of the way they will govern.

For those that are sensible, it is still a difficult balance. Agree with the government on too many things and you might find they’ve ended up looking pretty good, and that government, for you, has moved further away. This is an omnipresent fear for any Opposition, and is why Opposition leaders often look obtusely oppositional.

By this stage in the life of the Turnbull government, though, it has become very difficult to see a path to recovery. This should provide Labor with some latitude. At the same time, Labor’s one constant issue is Shorten’s lag on the preferred prime minister rating (he went further backwards [$] today). This is partly why Abbott is attacking Shorten on his citizenship [$]. Look, he’s saying to his party, I can do this better than Malcolm.

It is incredibly hard to break habits that have served you well. And Shorten’s approach to Opposition, which has never garnered jubilant praise, has certainly been effective, at least as far as hurting the government goes. He may therefore be unlikely to shift. Labor’s blunt approach to the budget, refusing to meet the government on schools policy and, largely, on the Medicare levy, certainly suggests this. 

But Labor’s approach to energy might be a sign that attitudes are shifting.

In terms of public attitudes, much as Turnbull has found his policy forays overshadowed by the grand political crises of citizenship and marriage equality, Labor’s actions on energy take a poor second place to its sotto voce threats to disrupt parliament over the citizenship fracas.

I understand the temptation here: why wouldn’t you take the chance to emphasise your story of a government in crisis? But it’s also true that that story has been told, and continues to tell itself. At some point there may be more gain for Labor in extending more olive branches. Labor is right to reject the possibility of a walkout in response to Barnaby Joyce taking on the acting PM mantle. Could Shorten go further still, and say that the Opposition has made its point, and that it will now wait for the High Court? The story Labor chooses to tell about the government is important, but the story it chooses to tell about its leader is just as crucial.

In other news


A certain madness

Beneath the surface comedy of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Watt’ lies a metaphysical quest to know the unknowable

JM Coetzee

“The ambivalence of Beckett’s feelings about the book can to an extent be attributed to the circumstances of its composition, in the remote countryside, in enforced and wearisome isolation. It is hard to believe at any other time in his life Beckett would have had the energy or the interest to list laboriously the eighty different ways in which four items of furniture can be arranged in a room over the course of twenty days, or to describe the twenty individual glances that have to be passed before the five members of a committee can be sure that each has glanced at each of the others.” READ ON


‘Socialist’ Shorten and the small businessmen

The government is becoming increasingly desperate to paint Labor as a poor economic manager

Mungo MacCallum

“After the past fortnight, Bill Shorten will have to update his Wikipedia entry. It appears that apart from being, as he insists, a Victorian, he is also a Cuban, an East German, a member of the Taliban, a Stalinist, a New Zealand double agent and, perhaps worst of all, a hereditary Pom. Is there no end to the man’s iniquity? Well, apparently not, because now Malcolm Turnbull has managed to draw enough breath to point out that the Opposition leader and his colleagues are not small businessmen.”  READ ON  

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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