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.

Peter Fray

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