“Few people accept each other and most will never do anything properly…” — Auden

With the collapse of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s personal poll ratings — Kevin Rudd is preferred Labor leader by a two to one margin; Gillard leads Abbott as preferred PM only by single figures — the great write-off is beginning. Last week a lot of people simply, silently adjusted their thinking about the future, to take account of its most likely outcome — an Abbott government in the lower house.

They did so as Labor lurched into a fresh round of incompetence, one that was impressive by covering all bases: macro policy, incidental remarks and internal party debate.

The already absurd Malaysian solution policy was taken into a realm beyond description when the Labor Left voted to withhold approval of it, unless the policy was approved by the UN — thus taking a position that, while demolishing any sense of decisiveness on the government’s part, did so without advancing any genuine moral objection to shipping people around like cattle (sorry, meat industry: auto-ambulant juicy steak units).

That was the big one. After that came Nick Sherry, the Small Business Minister, who told booksellers they would be gone in five years, thus pissing off one of the few small business sectors who could be relied on to have Labor sympathies. Sherry may well say he is calling it as he sees it, but the fact remains a minister’s words have greater weight than mere opinion — they become ex cathedra, giving the appearance the minister misunderstands the nature of his title; he is not employed to make businesses smaller.

The capper was Kevin Rudd’s proposal for a party to “celebrate” the first anniversary of being knifed, an occasion that everyone should have been doing their best to draw attention from (perhaps that was the point of the above two screw-ups). Rumours are the party was cancelled due to lack of RSVPs for what sounds like the equivalent of a Malthouse Theatre production of Marat/Sade in a vat of offal.

Labor was always going to have trouble with a whole lot of things it had to do, or not do, like the carbon tax and gay marriage; the fact these small things are getting away from it, or can be so easily bigged up by a hostile media, is evidence of its crucial disarray.

Had Labor committed to a simple progressive policy, right from the start, and enunciated it as the core position underlying its rejection of WorkChoices, mainland “processing” of boat-borne refugees, and other matters it is getting pinged on, then the fight would have been much simpler — and would more likely have played to Gillard’s strengths, a certain expression of doggedness.

But instead, Labor has kept the issues isolated, hoping it can deal with them as discreet entities. The unintended effect has been to create a broad front it must fight on, its parts disconnected from each other, with no central position to retreat to, and advance from afresh. The effect is that each crisis surprises them anew.

Take the live cattle exports issue — stirred up by a single TV show, and creating, in sections of the Australian public, an active outrage it seems unable to bring to the issue of refugees, Aboriginal health or other matters concerning human beings.

A party and a leadership that knew why it was progressive would have been able to either decisively and immediately stop the exports, and talk up the general angle, or decisively continue them while pushing for immediate reform, and remind voters of the humans who would lose out from a suspension of the trade.

The difference would be that such a decision — which ultimately involves a leap one way or the other — would come from within a grounded and centred approach, and could be relayed as such, not from focus group-fuelled backbencher panic.

The absence of leadership by Labor has created a weird political effect: though Abbott, in concert with his media lickspittles, appears to be running the board, he too is being reactive to a political agenda that is largely being set by the Greens.

The Greens wanted to kill the emissions trading scheme, and they did. Abbott’s reaction — to abandon denialism as a position and fight instead on the ground of (in)direct (in)action verses a carbon tax — has brought him great short-term political gain, but its overall effect has been paradoxical. He was not merely the highest-profile figure in Australia to support climate change denialism, but the last potential party and national leader in the non-US anglosphere to do so.

His willingness to discuss tax verses government programs in strategic terms has effectively filled out the Australian political spectrum as accepting of climate change. Abbott’s capitulation to the science was not merely a national but an international moment of victory for the Left and the Greens. Denialism now lacks real political agency in the mainstream — its most powerful advocate is now Bob Katter, ’nuff said.

When the history of this period comes to be written, it is this move that will be seen as the true moment when the spirit of the age entered the body of politics. Right-wing forces within and without Labor knifed a creative but erratic prime minister, hoping to hurry Labor onto burial; they created what they never wanted, a government reliant on a Green and a green-independent; that shift killed denialism as a mainstream political force, and shifted the terrain.

Now the government’s minority supporters set their agenda — on carbon tax, on social issues like gambling — because they know who they are, and what they want, and Labor has no program — the absence of such largely a product of the manner in which the leadership was changed in the first place.

The Greens may well lose their lower house seat in the next poll — though if anyone can hold on, in the face of the withdrawal of Liberal preferences, it is Adam Bandt in Melbourne, who has managed to sell the carbon tax policy better than anyone currently on the front bench — but it is cemented into the Senate, and the historical moment has already occurred in any case. The Greens currently succeed, within their socio-cultural limits, and Labor fails, because the deep progressive urge — to use collective will, of which one expression is the state, for categorical human betterment — resides with them now, and ain’t going anywhere.

Labor has to find a different but complementary articulation of that spirit, or it will remain permanently suspended between the Greens and the neoliberalism/neoconservatism of the Coalition, expending enormous energy thinking each issue up from scratch, and thus being immediately and always outflanked.

God knows how long it can avoid that reckoning; it is now into its 15th year of muddling through, with the occasional outburst — Mark Latham, a bit of Rudd — of ideas-driven policy rendered in hysterical fashion.

Perhaps it needs defeat, a decade out of power, and a brush with extinction to do it. For in recording this period as the rising of the Green, history may also include that Labor was never in it at all, that 2007 was a fluke masking the way in which the spirit was moving elsewhere.

Peter Fray

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