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Jul 17, 2012

Rundle: Labor's genius war ... cunning plan or just madness?

A week in and the Labor Party’s genius war against the Greens has gone exactly as could be predicted, i.e. it’s a total shambles and something of an own goal.

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A week in and the Labor Party’s genius war against the Greens has gone exactly as could be predicted — that is, it’s a total shambles and something of an own goal.

No sooner had the attack been launched last week by Sam Dastyari — “the Greens are our enemies” — and Paul Howes — “the Greens are an enemy of democracy” — with a pile on from others such as Greg Combet — “the Greens don’t share our values”.

So far, so good, but as your correspondent pointed out last week, it was a confected enemy, not a real one. However much they wanted to define the Greens as a total enemy, the shared underlying values of progressive parties would not allow such a definition to be totalised. Sooner or later someone had to crack.

Bob Carr was first. Though he said that Greens policies on security and the economy “weren’t in the national interest”, he nevertheless remarked that Labor could work with the Greens on environmental and social policies.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he, having enacted a pretty Green national parks policy as premier, and being identified with the bushwalking cult usually identified by the Right as the hallmark of the “greenshirts”.

By the weekend it was getting ridiculous. Tony Maher, president of the CFMEU, came out to say that he agreed with Howes, and Labor must “turn on the Greens”. Given that the Greens had been the only party to call for the complete abolition of the Howard government’s draconian “special powers” applied to building workers, Maher’s members, that is pretty rich.

It’s especially so when the Gillard government has preserved some of those powers, making CFMEU and other site workers second-class citizens in their own country. What a great way to stand up for your members.

There was a bit of sooking as well. Jane Garrett, state MP for Brunswick, appeared to be complaining that the Greens were running hard against Labor, in seats they had a chance of winning. The horror. They “accepted Liberal preferences”. The horror. Were they serious about replacing Labor they would run in every seat — which, erm, they do.

By then, a note of sanity. Fremantle MP Melissa Parke — who like all three WA Labor MPs, relied on Green preferences to get across the line — labelled the attack a bout of “mutually assured destruction”, which was only going to help Tony Abbott.

By the weekend’s NSW conference, the united front had fallen apart. John Faulkner told Paul Howes to “put a sock in it”, and that he’d fought more Greens than Howes had, while Doug Cameron said that “[the ALP] should not attack any party that takes progressive positions”, noting that the Greens had pretty much taken up the AMWU’s position on the IMF and the WTO word-for-word.

The result, as Faulkner said, was the spectacle of a party spending days debating a motion on preferences, “which is why the ALP is ceasing to be the preference of most Australians”.

It was also the spectacle of a party demonstrating that it had not the slightest capacity to sort out its own philosophy and values, save by defining itself against another party whose philosophy and aims are abundantly clear.

Whatever short-term gains the fatwa against the Greens may achieve in the Melbourne state byelection and beyond, the more substantial result is to further divide the ALP, both in fact, and in the eye of the electorate. The lack of skill involved in this is stunning.

At the heart of the ALP’s stuff-up is a refusal or an inability to differentiate between philosophy, values, politics and policy. The Labor Right’s attack on the Greens have been couched in terms of “values”, but they’re mostly attacks on politics — on the prioritising of one value over another.

Labor, for example, has suddenly discovered that “jobs” are a value – one that the Greens are allegedly willing to sacrifice on the altar of sustainability. That’s not true, but in any case Labor, in its Hawke-Keating bloom, was more than happy to sacrifice “jobs” to the larger purpose of restructuring the economy.

But at that point, Labor did have a genuine philosophy and value system it was putting in place — the modernisation of the economy, in such a way that would allegedly open up greater opportunity and equality.

Labor had an idea of what it wanted to do, and it was willing to alter the particular cherished policies such as full employment in pursuit of the general aim, in fulfilment of its values.

It is that utter inability to sort out the particular and the general that has led Labor into its current comical predicament. The idea that it can give itself an identity by defining itself against a party whose identity is crystal clear, is pure madness.

The attacks merely reveal that disparity, to Labor’s disadvantage. Furthermore, there is an impasse ahead — when Labor has to bite the bullet, and actually ask its followers to put the Lib/Nat coalition ahead of the Greens.

They will have to sell the idea that Scott Morrison, George Brandis and Cory Bernardi are somehow less of an enemy of the labour movement than a party that is further to the left on labour rights than Labor.

Perhaps it is all part of a cunning plan, in the knowledge that the preference swaps won’t greatly change. Or maybe the likes of Howes — whose guests at his glittering 30th birthday included such luminaries as Janet Albrechtsen and Michael Kroger — have lost the ability to tell who their real enemies are.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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36 thoughts on “Rundle: Labor’s genius war … cunning plan or just madness?

  1. michael r james


    I remain unconvinced you have identified an actual “loopy” policy.

    I disagree with you about the original CPRS which was a total dog and would have locked in failure. The new ETS is much better but in fact also heavily compromised–which I think rather belies your claim that the Greens never compromise. As shown by the fact that most commentators think it will survive a LNP government (whether it will survive Abbott is another matter).

    I do agree about the asylum seekers issue, and have written to that effect on Crikey. I believe after all the agony and time and effort put in by the government, in a sincere effort to solve the problem, it was time for the Greens to bend in the Senate, not least to allow the government to govern. The 12 month Sunset clause proposed at the last minute by Wilkie (and which I believe I was the first to propose, again here in Crikey) was an entirely reasonable approach to the issue. (OTOH I suspect Gillard might have put more effort into trying to convince the Greens on this strategy instead of the Labor party’s astoundingly stupid war with them; one of my suggestions was that Labor throw in a bribe such as Gay Marriage!)

    Given the political panorama in Australia, it seems to me our only choice–if one rules out any likelihood of changing Labor–is to create new political entities. This is not impossible with the Greens who have plenty of room to grow and mature. The recent batch of elected members such as Larissa Waters, Richard di Natale, Adam Bandt and Peter Whish-Wilson, shows that it is happening. All these newbies are top professionals is an extremely healthy sign–too many lawyers for my liking but oh well, at least lawyers are trained to work towards compromise (unfortunately they are also born Sophists).

    Finally, if you give up on the Greens then we truly are f**ked.

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