Lying is hard work. It’s not easy to invent things in a consistent and plausible fashion. That’s why most lies have some sort of basis in fact, and even the most committed fabulists rarely weave their stories entirely out of whole cloth, but work with a substratum of truth.

And so it is with News Ltd’s war against the Greens, and in particular its fantasy that federal Labor has gone into “coalition” with the Greens and handed over the agenda-setting to them, thus giving unjustified traction to all the fringe values (science, enlightenment, compassion, etc) that its readers hate.

This story has a core of truth to it; what makes it fantastic is that this is not a result of Labor’s scheming, but an unintended byproduct of its incompetence. Worst of all, Labor shows a complete inability to learn from experience.

The story starts last year when Kevin Rudd abandoned his emissions trading scheme. Opinion in the community was divided between those who wanted to do something serious about climate change and those who didn’t. With the Coalition under Tony Abbott firmly in the “do nothing” camp, having Labor join that side as well left a substantial body of opinion (perhaps a majority, but at least not far off) with only the Greens to represent it.

For the Greens, that was a quite unexpected bonus, suddenly elevating them to quasi-major-party status. It meant that when this year Julia Gillard finally fell into line with them on carbon pricing, they did indeed seem to be setting the agenda — but only because Labor had abdicated the field to them in the first place.

That also meant that when Labor did come around, they could get things done; the Greens provided a senate majority as well as political cover.

That didn’t stop Labor from copping political flak, but its only alternative was to get into a competition on denialism with the opposition, which it was never going to win.

So the lesson was twofold. First, don’t give up a big chunk of policy territory in the first place. Second, if you’ve already made that mistake, co-operate as best you can with the Greens (or whoever) to undo it at the first opportunity.

Neither lesson was learnt. Having displaced Rudd, Gillard immediately doubled down on the next issue, same-s-x marriage. Again, there was a reasonably even division in the community, the opposition was clearly anti, but Labor just gave it to the Greens, making them the only party standing for the view held by a majority of Labor’s supporters.

The most glaring case, however, came with asylum seekers. Gillard’s ascendancy brought an inexplicable conversion to the cause of offshore processing, despite the fact that Abbott had that territory well and truly sewn up. The Greens got to own what was probably the majority view (or at least the view of a much larger group than just Greens voters), while Labor alienated large swathes of its own base.

Worst of all for the government, without the Greens it lacked a parliamentary majority and so was unable to implement its (or rather the opposition’s) policy. It was left looking ineffectual as well as heartless. This surely was the time to embrace necessity as a virtue, defend onshore processing and try to duplicate the achievement on carbon pricing.

There are some small signs that Labor now realises that; Craig Emerson told Radio National yesterday that “We will never embrace Tony Abbott’s callous, mean, horrible policies on asylum-seekers.” But by and large Labor gives the impression of being dragged kicking and screaming into a humane position.

It’s possible, of course, that it’s all part of the plan, a grand Machiavellian strategy to get to exactly this position while being able to blame the Coalition for it. (Kerry Thompson suggested this in Crikey yesterday.)

But not only does this give Labor far too much credit for forward thinking (and understate the power of the far right within the party), it leaves unexplained why anyone would try to sell a policy by arguing how awful its consequences will be.

Labor was able to get a carbon price enacted by admitting that its previous position was wrong. And while confessing to mistakes is never pleasant, the sooner and more comprehensively it’s done, the better.

Offshore processing is a gigantic mistake, and until someone other than the Greens says that, Labor will continue to suffer.

But at the very time her fallback strategy on one front is shown to have worked, Gillard is fighting tooth and nail against pulling the same trick anywhere else.

Peter Fray

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