Well we are all about ready to dig a hole, and have the preacher “read the words” over Labor, are we not? Never say never, of course, and Tony Abbott can always be relied on to snatch defeat from the gullet of victory, and yes there are two years to go in principle … but still.

Labor’s leaders would have to be political geniuses to manoeuvre themselves out of the current fix — and they ain’t no geniuses. This is the B-team, and even those doing their best to take the fight to the other side are being dragged down by the chaotic collapse of the Labor right — both personal corruption, and the vicious wars being conducted by grouplets centred on powerful and deranged personalities.

There was a point, and even some gain to be had from the epic battles of Labor right and left — there is none to be had from the deranged vendettas of Labor’s rightoid fragments. The party now resembles Somalia, a realm of warlords, ancient hatreds and territorial grabs with only the external appearance of an ordered state. Personal sleaze is never a mere matter of individual failing — when the taking of perks and freebies has become compulsive and widespread, it marks the internal, moral, collapse of a whole movement.

Worse than the right’s hacks has been its ideologues — those, such as Craig Emerson and Michael Costa, who have argued for a relentless push of laissez faire economics, far ahead of the Australian public’s appetite for it. Though Labor’s right places the blame solely on its accommodation with the Greens, the dismal polling of the Bligh government — which identified itself with a relentless campaign of privatisation — shows the obvious truth; when Labor abandons its heartland groups, they become free agents, and change their whole approach to politics, from fealty to fee-based, giving their vote to the higher bidder.

Craig Emerson’s blast at Tony Abbott for making some noises about maintaining heavy industry — “he’s an unreconstructed protectionist!” — is either a piece of desperate sycophancy to News Limited or a genuine cri de coueur, or both, but in either case it ignores the obvious fact that many of Labor’s core supporters are “unreconstructed protectionists” as well. They never drank the Kool-Aid, and so they have not yet been indoctrinated with the idea that ‘protection’ is the worst thing in the world.

In the vexed discussion of Labor’s estrangement from its base, and its cave-in to the inner-city “elites”, the party centre ignores the obvious fact that it is figures such as Emerson who are the true elitists, products of University economics departments wholly devoted to neoclassical ideology, and who look on the values of rank-and-file members, with arrogance and disdain.

Indeed part of the problem for Labor is that figures such as Emerson and Costa would prefer to win the argument in the party and lose the election, than the reverse. Their commitment is to the idea and practice of neoliberal economics, and they see the party as a host body for those ideas to propagate through. When such policies deliver a relentless decline in Labor’s base, they blame the relatively marginal role of social issues politics associated with the Greens. Given all these factors we can say that Labor is not fit for purpose, and it seems prudent to work on the assumption that the rest of the ‘teens is Tony Abbott and the Coalition’s to lose (and if anyone can do that, it’s Abbott).

Given that, an interesting situation emerges. Though Labor may collapse in the House and give the Coalition a substantial majority, it is unlikely to win control of the Senate. The relentless News Ltd and general right campaigns against the Greens have had stunningly little impact on their overall support levels, given their sheer volume, and the threat that the Liberals will not preference them has little effect on their Senate prospects. The Greens will most likely continue to hold the balance of power, and do so as a party not of the left-centre, as the Australian Democrats were, but of the left — and as a far more efficient an organised outfit than the Democrats managed to be or as Labor is likely to be for quite some time.

Thus not only will power be split between the two houses in such a scenario, but they will be oriented in fundamentally different directions — more so than they have been since the DLP’s six senators were up against the Whitlam government in the early 1970s. Nor is there any likelihood that the Greens will be a flash-in-the-pan. The Australian Democrats were a hybrid of three or four groupings, one of those being Don Chipp’s ego, and the party changed its character several times over the decades, its identity determined not by an underlying philosophy, but by the people who drifted into it.

The Greens are part of a rising global movement, they have a solid class base, and Labor is in no position to win back many of the people it has lost to them — their stunningly stupid idea that they can do so by offering a sort of gung-ho pro-industrial environmentalism requires one to break out one of the good doctor’s best quotes: junkies trying to build a rocket to the moon to check out a rumour that it’s made of smack.

But the prospect of a substantial and enduring Greens party — in the Senate, it is now three times larger than the National Party, which is well on the way to the killing bolt — will inevitably focus many people on the structure of Australian government and its legitimacy. The Right has already spent years laying down the idea that the Greens are, by definition, illegitimate, that their voters aren’t “real” Australians. With the prospect that such a fifth column would be able to limit the expression of a government’s political will in the House, the Right may well contemplate a campaign to change the method of voting for the Senate, arguing that it should be structured in such a way that un-Australian reprobates should not be able to use the voting system to pervert blah blah mung beans watermelons etc.

Far-fetched? Not at all. For no referendum is required to change the method of choosing senators, simply a bill in parliament. It has been done twice before — once in the 1920s, when it was realised that first past the post block votes created large majorities not reflecting the proportion of votes. Preferential voting was adopted, which made that much worse, and the current quota system was adopted in the 1940s.

From the 1910s until the change in the 1940s, the Senate had been a largely pointless body since its original purpose — to represent States — had been overtaken by the growth of a national party system. The proportional change in the late 40s changed its function completely, making it a place where small parties could be represented nationally. The ideal solution would be to make the lower house a proportional multi-member electorate system, and abolish the Senate altogether, but that ain’t gonna happen.

What could happen is that someone could propose a change that looks small — a weighted quota system benefiting larger votes for example — wrap it up in talk of “minimising obstruction” etc, and then get it through, even though the howls of outrage raised the grass roof. Paradoxically of course, that could only be achieved if the Coalition managed to gain a Senate majority, as it did in 2004 — i.e. it would only be when the system “worked” that the fix could be put in on the grounds that it doesn’t. The strategy would be based on the peculiarity of Australian politics — that when a structural change is put before the people at a referendum, they will inspect it very carefully, and chuck it out if they smell a rat.

But as far as legislation in parliament goes, you could make Finnish the national language and mandate hourly changes of underwear, and have it at the government printers before anyone raised a peep. It’s bananas.

Should the Coalition get a chance they will undoubtedly try it. With Labor in a heap on the floor, and Australian politics polarised, the struggle for total control by the Right would move to the structural level. They would go for broke — hell for all we know they could resegregate the rail gauges. Dig a hole and read the words, there are tough times ahead.

Peter Fray

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