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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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

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.

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36 comments

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

  1. Nudiefish

    The last paragraph pretty much sums up the whole pitiful mess beautifully.

  2. paddy

    Fine work with the scalpel today GR.

  3. Gavin Moodie

    I may not remember it very well, but I thought the Coalition governed with the support of the DLP which it tolerated rather than attacked. Why can’t Labor adopt a similar attitude to the Greens?

  4. jeff holland

    Yes Baldrick, I have a ‘cunning plan’.

    Perhaps Rowan Atkinson should do another series of Blackadder set in the Labor halls of power. Plenty of easy comedic material.

  5. Jan Forrester

    Nice summary GR. Yep, ALP bruvvers have truly convinced me this week that they will bury Julie as unceremoniously as possible, the gulf between ALP left and right will get bigger – both would rather talk to aliens than pragmatically consolidate, they will continue to yelp like helpless dogs against the leader rather than doing the work in their electorates. Even the thoughtful Combet weighed in. This is happening whilst the Libs have internal problems but the ALP’s genius is to push their own destruction into the spotlight. If you are going to bury the steely Julia then forget Rudd, give the next generation a chance and in that area Bowen, Combet and Plibersek get my gong. Its not about the ALP in the end, its about democracy in Oz.
    I really feel for John Faulkner, implacable honesty in the face of self-serving warlord politics. He was what my father called real in the ALP. And I miss Paul Keating and what he stood for more than ever. The next election is really over – this week.

  6. pritu

    Well put. I once was a card-carrying ALP member. The more I hear from the NSW Right the less I want to have anything to do with that party. Any progressive thinking remaining in the ALP must surely be wondering what’s happened to their party. Why don’t they just pack up and join the Coalition. We’d then have the chance to form another real left party. Perhaps the Greens will be that party.

  7. DF

    Politics certainly brings together some interesting, ahem, bedfellows. Last I heard, Mr Combet and Ms Parke were each other’s current main squeeze, yet he is needlessly weighing in against her (other) preferences. As with Chris Uhlmann and Gai Brodtmann, I suppose we can guess who sleeps on which side of the bed.

    In the interests of transparency, the NSW ALP should be renamed “Jack Lang TAFE” since its primary function appears to be providing apprenticeships in “Career Self-Interest 101” for insatiably ambitious young mediocrities with unwarranted delusions of adequacy about their career prospects?

  8. Nightingale John

    Has anyone else noticed the likeness that Mr Dastiari has to Mr Bean? Any othe likenesses?

  9. JamesH

    The last paragraph assumes that Paul Howes is not setting himself up for a comfortable transition from left to right later in life, aka the Windschuttle Shuffle.

    PS DF: Jack Lang would have tossed the current lot off Sydney Harbour Bridge (which he was responsible for building). Lang stood up against the austerity-pushing toe-cutters of his day in a way that it seems labor is incapable of now.

  10. Tom Greenwell

    Something that hasn’t been remarked on a great deal is the way the ALP-Greens spat has coincided with the advent of a carbon price. It’s sad in a number of ways. 1) The oxygen has been completely sucked out of any last-ditch attempts to effectively articulate the case for a carbon price. 2) When ALP right apparatchiks attack the Greens, their values and their supposed antipathy to jobs, the first thing anyone slightly inclined to listen to them is going to think of is… the carbon price. So, worse than sucking the oxygen out of an attempt to regain support for action against climate change, the ALP right has effectively advanced the opposite position. 3) The Labor Government has, despite itself, introduced a carbon price! This having been done, fluoro-collar voters who don’t like Labor’s proximity to the Greens are hardly going to be placated by a bit of “we really hate the Greens” rhetoric. Message to the geniuses: it’s really hard to be won over by a party disowning itself.

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