This week, Labor leader Bill Shorten repeated his offer to meet Malcolm Turnbull in the “sensible centre” on energy reform. Well, at least that’s the headline. In reality, the Opposition Leader was tightening the screws on the PM, who is already under pressure from the arch right of the Liberal Party to do the opposite.

Far from wanting to work with Labor to establish Finkel’s Clean Energy Target, the conservatives want Turnbull to abandon the Finkel reforms, scrap the renewable energy target and withdraw from the Paris agreement to make it easier for voters to see the policy differences between the Coalition and Labor.

Echoing Tony Abbott’s claim that Liberals “want something to fight for”, the conservatives claim to want the next federal election to be fought on electricity prices. This would, in effect, be a reprise of the carbon tax battle of 2013, with renewable energy instead of the tax being held responsible for the razing of cities and the slaughter of innocents.

In offering to “help” the PM by finding a way forward on Finkel, Shorten would know full well that the only assistance he was actually giving would be to hasten Turnbull’s progress to a leadership showdown with Tony Abbott. It would appear therefore that Labor has made an assessment that it can beat Abbott or a proxy such as Peter Dutton at the next federal election.

And maybe it can. But has Labor really thought this through? What would be the cost to the community of another federal election campaign, inspired — if not directed by — Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin?

[Finkel review reveals coal fetishists’ struggle with basic maths]

Anger and abuse are by no means the sole province of conservative politics, but there is no doubt that public discourse has become more nasty and antagonistic since Abbott commenced his campaign to tear down Julia Gillard in 2009. (Take a look at the comments beneath any Andrew Bolt blog post if you need convincing.)

Just this week, the online editor for ABC’s Radio National Alex McClintock tweeted “if the [Facebook] comments we moderate are anything to go by, Australia has become a much uglier, far less tolerant place in the last year or so”.

McClintock then noted it was perhaps more likely that “some people now feel empowered to speak the ugly things they thought all along”.

This is why members of the LGBTI community want to avoid the plebiscite on gay marriage; turning a simple matter of human rights into a debating point for political opponents implicitly encourages the rest of the community to get aggressively combative over the issue.

We could expect that to happen anyway on marriage equality if Malcolm Turnbull is deposed. Abbott would make it an election battle between the Liberals defending the community’s right to have a say, and Labor wanting to impose the parliament’s “elite” view on everyone else.

Similarly, the freedom of speech debate would be ripped open again, with renewed pressure to scrap 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. Immigrants, refugees and Muslims would likely be demonised even more than they are at present.

Labor would be a willing partner in this zero-sum game. Bill Shorten has mouthed the words of collaboration, but Labor’s actions have been more about wedging Turnbull and achieving product differentiation from the Coalition than any willingness to find authentic common ground.

The Coalition’s Abbott-led scare campaigns would be met with Labor’s, tit for tat, despite the seemingly obvious threat of mutually assured destruction.

Even as he called for “a better, bipartisan energy and climate policy” in this week’s speech, Shorten continued to play the blame game. “People are angry, and they have every right to be,” the Opposition Leader said of increasing electricity bills, “because every time the Prime Minister puts his head on TV to say he’s fixed the problem, the prices go up again.”

“We have a government with the means to be able to do something, just not the will,” he concluded.

Labor’s determination to continue its ultra-combative approach sits at odds with what voters claim they want from political parties. This week’s Essential poll found 71% of respondents wished “both sides of politics would try to ‘meet each other in the middle’ more often”, while 45% agreed that political parties in Australia were too ideological and 12% disagreed.

Waiting in the wings is Labor’s former leadership contender Anthony Albanese, who, in recent weeks, has been encouraging the opposition to take a more constructive approach to its pre-election positioning.

[Matthewson: Turnbull should crash through on Finkel — he’s crashing anyway]

After the federal budget in May, Albanese stood apart from the senior Labor MPs who denounced suggestions that the economic statement was Labor-lite. Instead of also rejecting the assertion, Albanese argued that Labor should recognise and celebrate the adoption of its policies by a Coalition government.

This week, Albanese took that case a step forward, reportedly saying that while negative campaigning was “fertile territory for oppositions” it was “wrong and self-defeating”. Albo argued that “both major parties clearly have a vested interest in renewing faith in mainstream politics” given that voters were exhausted by the constant environment of negativity.

The benefit of resisting uber-adversarial politics, according to Albanese, would be the chance to focus on the implementation of policies that had previously been contested ground. “Moving on from old arguments should also permit greater consideration of the long-term challenges which face Australia,” Albanese said.

Regrettably, these helpful words will likely be ignored by Shorten as he searches for other ways to be “helpful” to Turnbull. If the Labor leader has indeed concluded that a hyped-up, aggressive and vocal community is a small price to pay for winning government, then we are doomed to be a society that tolerates bullies in the name of “democracy” and is governed by a stagnant parliament incapable of passing any meaningful reform.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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