Well, full marks for audacity. Billy Bob Shorten has set the controls for the heart of the sun and promised to double our emissions-reduction targets. On Climate Action Day, as the COP 21 Paris climate talks begin, it’s a bold move, likely to earn the scorn and derision of the conservatoriat, who believe themselves to have a hotline to the people who live in the suburbs they drive through on the way to spa retreats in the Blue Mountains.

Audacity, yes, but desperation, too. Labor has given up on 2016, absolutely. It’s aiming for 2019, and Shorten is aiming to convince Labor to keep him as leader after the ’16 defeat, and see the process as one of consolidation, and re-establishment as a viable party of government. Everything Labor is doing now is oriented to one thing: rebuilding their low primary vote by getting sections of their lost progressive vote back from the Greens.

Labor knows that an epochal shift is underway on the left side of politics. If it can’t reclaim a solid primary vote, it’s finished as the single party of mainstream centre-left politics. Richard Di Natale and team have turned the Greens into a post-left progressive party, an outfit of “smart” politics, oriented to rationality and solutions.

Over the next year, a lot of the Greens’ old left-wing social-democratic economics will go. Rather than being a party wholly projecting a universal message and a universal call — we are the world; everyone’s a Green — they’ll keep the universal message and combine it with a specific call to their class base, the culture-knowledge-policy (CKP) class. Tax policy, home ownership, education funding will all be oriented to the individual material interests of this class, while maintaining a strong welfare safety net, etc.

With such policies in place — a tax system that allows for a good tax take, without penalising the “100-200 club”, those CKP professional households whose dual income falls around that mark — the Greens can not only grab chunks of what remains of Labor’s left, they can take a new breed of potential Liberal voters. Many of these people in their ’20s and ’30s are what you might call semi-CKP. They’re finance, law and marketing professionals, who now need a global outlook, a social and cultural orientation, etc. In a wider cultural sense, they’ve grown up and gone to uni, with the climate crisis, the neocon Iraq folly, same-sex marriage, etc. They’ve done drugs and gone on holidays that look like one of those bank ads, where people seem to go straight from Diwali to a Spanish tomato festival, and then sit on a rock watching the sunrise, as the small print about the interest rates come up.

Their parents were the old bourgeoisie, and time was, they would simply vote Liberal as a matter of course. Now, looking around, they may be more likely to go for the Greens than for Liberals — and they wouldn’t go near Labor, this retro-chic right-wing union party of NSW c.1961. And if the conservative right of the Liberal-National coalition destabilise Turnbull and make another play for power, the semi-CKP will depart the Liberals in droves.

So, with the capacity to take both Labor and Liberal tranches of voters, and no one to lose them to, the Greens are in a position to cross two thresholds. The first is around a 16-17% primary, at which point they have more than half Labor’s primary. The second is crossing the 20% threshhold, at which point we no longer have a two-party system (counting the Coalition as one). We have a three-party system and the maths of exhaustive-preferential single-member-seat voting becomes verrrrry interesting, indeed.

So Labor is trying for these transitional Liberal voters as well, to head off the Greens. It won’t get them. Di Natale looks more like Turnbull than Shorten does. Both the PM and the Greens leader are solid self-confident professionals, who’ve had a life outside politics, and regard the defeated and self-absorbed post-student-union personae of people like Abbott, Shorten, Pyne with the same contempt as most of the public do. They respect Albo but won’t vote for him, unless the poll is to choose a new character for Peaky Blinders. They’d vote for Plibersek, but only because they think her partner wrote Shantaram. They’d vote for Julie Bishop, if this were the Armidale Kiwanis Social Club, c.1985. I better stop here.

Maybe Labor’s got private polling, saying that they can keep a suburban vote, and get back a CKP/semi-CKP professional vote, but I doubt it — and I’d doubt the polling, too. Some of their moves appear suicidal and delusional, and one can’t help believe that, beyond trying to hold onto inner-city seats, a lot of it remains sheer pique at the Greens “stealing” their voters. What’s the deal with doubling the price on cigarettes, for example? Has anyone in history devised a more effective vote-repellent for a suburban working/working-middle class party than a $32 pack of cigarettes? It’s anti-genius — it seeks out the most apathetic, beaten-down low-income Labor loyalist, slumping to the primary school every three years to tick the box, and gives them something to vote against.

It is the essence of the sinister desire sections of this cut-off political caste have to manage the lives of others. It makes the addicted consumer bear the cost of the private health disaster of smoking, while the corporations enjoy the profits. Having minimised smoking uptake, it seeks to penalise those who’ve been addicted for decades. People aren’t going to stop smoking for a $32 pack of fags. They’re going to stop eating. Those whose behaviour it does modify, it does through misery and privation, not by offering access to quit programs and support.

The policy is a shitty one, and symbolic — it’s something politically the Greens could get away with, but it will cost Labor votes. They’ll deserve it. They remain all over the shop. They don’t even have a shop. Their shop’s now a cafe, called “The Old Shop”, with $18 Turkish breakfast eggs. Or it’s a shop in the suburbs, which used to offer a family a good independent living, and has closed down now, since Coles got planning permission and a waiver of parking place rates.

Labor really has to get its shit together fast — for 2019 now, so that they don’t have to start planning for 2022. Whatever late-Whitlamlite dream of total representation they retain, they better get rid of it. They need to have a policy that offers a broad swathe of the Australian middle the possibility of immediate improvement in their lives following a change of government (i.e. a Whitlamite form and determination, but not a Whitlamite content), twinned with broader policies concerning the world. At the moment, all one sees is the promise of more costs and higher prices for simple pleasures.

The Labo(u)r Right laughs or groans at the self-inflicted difficulties of the Corbyn Left leadership in the UK — but the self-styled practical political types on the Labor Right here appear to be equally inept. And lack the excuse even of a passionate cause. They look like defeated people, hopelessly out of touch with a changing country. Labor will live as a compact suburban and regional party, in communicative relations with the Greens, or it will be cannibalised further — by a genuine working-class party to its left, and by the political wing of Reclaim Australia to its right. One applauds the emissions policy, now bundle it with something that makes a deal worth voting for, not an exercise in masochism. Whoever gets the thing in hand, set the controls for the heart of Sunbury.

Peter Fray

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