Well, that didn’t last long. Week one, and Labor set itself back by six months in one morning yesterday.

On Saturday night the party swore blind that the years of division must be over, that they would have to act as a party — etc etc, blah blah, vamp ’till ready — and now, with the twentyeleventh preferences in the Senate still being counted, cannon-fodder MPs Richard Marles and Nick Champion have come out of the box arguing Labor should wave through the carbon tax and let the Coalition own it.

They did this in a series of considered policy meetings before presenting it to the full caucus for ratification as a unified Labor position. Sorry, that was a typo. They went on Sky News and spruiked it, in the full knowledge that a half-dozen other MPs would then have no choice but to came out publicly against it. Keen debate will then ensue — debate as to whether this is part of some cunning plan around gaining the leadership for the Right that we will later find out about, or whether Marles and Champion are just the same dills they always were.

What is known is that thousands of people who, with regret and a little trepidation crossed over to vote for Tony Abbott from Labor this time, will now feel their choice a little more confirmed, and be a little less likely to cross back over. The spectacle of these grey apparatchiks popping up on talking-heads TV brings to mind an almost identikit image from the mid-2000s: Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan sitting unhappily at some speech, partway through their endless ward against Simon Crean and Mark Latham on behalf of Kim Beazley.

Smith and Swan — the so-called “roosters”, now looking more like cocks — could at least defend themselves by saying they sincerely believed that only Beazley could win an election, mid-term doldrums and so on. But it is Day One, Day One, in opposition by a party that ostensibly has a binding caucus — and, together with the Conroy attack on rank-and-file voting discussed by m’colleague Bernard Keane — the party already looks a scattered rabble, 80-odd MPs and senators acting as free agents.

“If Labor imagines it can fight this all out in the open … then maybe they don’t have what it takes to regroup as an opposition.”

What is going on here? Are these jokers getting all their positions out early, on the grounds that no one is paying much attention at the moment, before some grand fusion, to march boldly forward in lockstep? Are they determined to position themselves factionally, with the carbon tax thing a simple proxy move in that? Or has something else happened? Has the ALP, a party founded on collectivist notions of politics, now become incapable of collective action?

Certainly seems that way. The party that was once so committed to collective action, that a prime minister might not be admitted to national executive decisions on policy, now seems incapable of committing to the most basic party processes. Labor was justly pinged for its “faceless men” half-a-century ago. Now, apparently, it is running so scared of being called on that again that it will not commit to the normal process of meeting as a party, arguing it out, and then sticking to the decision made.

Perhaps something else is going on, too. Labor is now all but entirely composed of life-long professional politicians, schooled in the micro-factions, lawyers from bitterly divided Labor firms and union “officials” who never did any of the collective labour of the people they “represented”. Have such people lost the ability to act collectively because they never had it in the first place? Time was the Liberal Party was the party of individualists. They manage to keep things in line by sticking close to power and interests, and not getting all fancy-pants (and, to be fair, their splits are now at the party level, with the Bob Katter and Clive Palmer parties and perhaps more to come).

Your correspondent noted earlier this week that things aren’t as bad for Labor as they’re painted, given the nature of two-party preferred politics. Many in the core of Labor believe that too, knowing that they can afford the luxury of fighting for their intra-party turf out in the open. But there’s refusal to panic, there’s confidence, and there’s delusion. If Labor imagines it can fight this all out in the open, like some endless episode of political Big Brother, then maybe they don’t have what it takes to regroup as an opposition.

And it’s only week one!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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