Bill Shorten’s back flip on midsize business tax cuts generated a torrent of ink last week, but almost none of it focused on the real reason for both the initiative itself, and its embarrassing reversal at the hands of shadow cabinet. Which is, of course, that the policy had nothing to do with policy at all. It was simply another in the increasingly humiliating series of ritual dances that the would-be next prime minister must perform in order to satisfy his unlikely alliance stablemates, the CFMMEU and related “industrial left” groupings.

The push for a bit of old-skool class warfare was wholly internally focused: a test shot to see how much authority Shorten has. The killing of it in shadow cabinet was an equally abrupt response — not a lot. That a Labor leader from the Catholic right has a high-corporate tax policy knocked on the head by the Victorian Socialist Left and National Left shows how devoid of content the war of position is.

That it’s happening before a series of by-elections is not despite the inconvenience of the timing, but because of it. It wouldn’t have mattered whether the issue before parliament had been tax, IR or widget diameter regulation. Hey, Bungler Bill (why hasn’t Scomo done that one yet?) would have taken an ultraist position on anything to get an idea of the balance of forces. In equal measure, Anthony Albanese’s Whitlam oration about snuggling up to business was simply a signal to the non-Shorten right, with whom the left remain in alliance, that the left will not be embarrassing them with any bolshie bollocks anytime soon.

The Centre Unity-Industrial Left alliance — “Cuil and the gang” — have been buoyed of late by the fusion of the MUA with the CFMEU, and the victory of Wayne Swan in the party presidency election, against the Left’s Mark Butler, whose moral crusade against the power of the factions seemed by an incredible coincidence to have the evisceration of one faction in particular in mind, Cuil and the gang.

But Shorten’s gestures leftwards suggests that the faction is still unbalanced, with little permanent right support beyond Shorten’s AWU, the organized crime section of the health sector, and various Amalgamated Frittlers and Worryworts type outfits. They say their numbers on the right have grown since the last headcount; we’ll see. But whatever happens over the next few weeks, none of it will have anything to do with what’s happening outside the mighty Australian Labor Party.

Peter Fray

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