Last night in London, Liberal-Democrats leader Nick Clegg learns what it’s like to be the junior member of a coalition … again. Speaking to try and keep open his doomed House of Lords reform bill, he was all but drowned out by a wave of abuse from both Labour MPs and conservative rebels, whose numbers will probably kill it.
It was a pretty strange sight — especially given that the Tory rebels were arguing that changes to the Lords would challenge the legitimacy and authority of the Commons.
But for all the roasting Clegg was getting, at least it was coming from the rebels. The bizarre ALP attack on the Greens is on another level entirely, because it is coming from the heart of the government which the Greens support.
It seems strange to be pointing this out, yet the essential absurdity in this last desperate strategy by the ALP seems to be little discussed. It’s a measure of how cynical many of the party are about their own electorates that they have no problem bitterly denouncing a party that they are practically in a civil commitment with, if the Julia/Bob Brown/bloke from The Big Bang Theory photo is anything to go by.
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Who knows? Perhaps the strategy will work in the short term, among a section of the terminally confused. It relies on Sam Dastyari’s argument that the ALP had to treat the Greens like One Nation and define them as an enemy. That was to be expected. What was depressing was to see the move being taken up by usually decent people such as Greg Combet, announcing that the Greens did not share “our values”.
But in the longer run, such a strategy is more contradictory than the ALP realises. The ALP didn’t have to “make” an enemy of One Nation — it was an enemy of One Nation. There was a genuine underlying division between the philosophy of the two parties, with the ALP being, however vestigially, a progressive humanist outfit, with an implicitly universal standpoint. One Nation was conservative/reactionary, chauvinist and racist, paranoid and resentful. Putting One Nation last was a no-brainer — the ALP has always preferenced hard-right parties behind the Liberals. And putting One Nation last was a “popular front” strategy as well, in which the Libs also participated. One Nation defined themselves against the universal values of enlightenment modernity.
In that context, the term “enemy” is literal — there’s a point in relations with a party like One Nation where dialogue ceases (all the more so when pointing to examples with fully fascist parties such as Greece’s Golden Dawn), where it would be improper to continue dialogue, where all that one can decently do is oppose. To have a genuine enemy is a source of energy, self-definition and clarification.
To define the Greens as an “enemy” is to do something entirely different. It is to take a party which has the same values — equality, self-flourishing, universalism, scientific rationality, etc — put together in a somewhat different constellation and emphasis, and try and define it as radically “other”. Mainstream social democratic parties have done that to parties to the left of them before of course — but that usually involves literal extermination. When the more leftish party keeps hanging around, the shared nature of the values tends to become obvious.
How, for example, is the ALP going to make an “enemy” out of Adam Bandt’s campaign to have Medicare extended to the dentistry through the “Denticare” program? Or of a campaign for a better work/life balance? Or for a sovereign wealth fund? Of course they can’t and won’t. They’ll try and paint the party as a “deep green” outfit, out to de-industrialise the world. Which happens to support them in government. Which, etc, etc. Turning the Greens into a political enemy demands an extraordinary degree of fabrication.
One danger for the party centre in trying this malarkey is that they won’t be able to enforce the strategy and lose the loyalty of local rank and file, such as they are. Asking voters to put the Liberals ahead of the Greens in certain electorates will expose the fabricated nature of the “enemy” relationship. If this ludicrous campaign continues, the ALP may well find itself in a worse position.
Even worse than Nick Clegg. And that takes anti-talent.