Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Tanya Plibersek’s corridor encounter with Craig Kelly may have been contrived, but it was no less welcome for that. Quite the contrary. As Plibersek’s inner-city progressive visage towered, Kelly had the demeanour of a wombat pulled from its hole by scientists to have its arse microchipped.

Jamming up Scotty From Marketing by further exposing Kelly’s backwoods craziness may or may not have been a cheap stunt, but at least it was landing a blow on the government. That was enough to make it a rare moment — something arggggh we’re talking about Labor again. Yes, it can’t be avoided.

The year must have started. The holidays are over and the true business of Australian politics — going “whut?” at Labor — has begun.

Before the gotcha of Kelly, Labor’s first go of the year had been Anthony Albanese’s intervention on January 26, to wit: we should honour it by having a referendum on the day of it, about what day to change it to.

Well that got our attention at least, because amid the bitter clashes over the meaning of the day, Labor found a solution guaranteed to please absolutely no one. This was unerring, heat-seeking.

Reaction was near unanimous: they had found the one answer to this vexed question which could unite the country, by despairing of the opposition. OK, by everyone we mean a few hundred Twitter degenerates.

Nevertheless it seemed designed to exasperate those looking for a clear position and irritate those who didn’t much care. Bewildering it was, as any sort of outward-facing strategy, yet also clearly not, as an act of internal party signalling by the leadership — a feint to the right to show that Albo wasn’t going all “Invasion Day”, a message to the left that he was keeping the faith.

All done as a new push against his leadership gets under way, with pot shots from the op-ed pages of the Oz, the Otis group piping Bill Shorten on board, Jim Chalmers getting soft-focus features, etc.

Once again, Labor’s external actions are a product of its internal conflicts, a continuity with the 2016-19 period that the mere fact of losing an election hasn’t put a stop to. Then the problem was a grab bag of policies, some quite leftish, adopted by a right-dominated leadership without much conviction and no core narrative.

Now the prospect of winning an election appears to have been abandoned altogether, as all attention is turned to blasting Albanese out of the leadership, roadrunner-coyote style.

This would be easier to condemn if Albanese’s leadership had not been, to many of us, well, bewildering is the word again — a period in which Labor has launched no substantial or striking initiatives program- or policy-wise, has failed to take the fight to the right, and has hedged its bets all the way from emissions to JobSeeker to jacked-up tertiary fees.

After refusing these chances to make a stand, it’s now rolled out the slogan “On your side”. It doesn’t feel like that, to umpteen swing voters. “We’re right behind you, you go ahead” is more the mood.

This is all said more in sorrow than etc, because the accession of Albo could have been a chance for a more fighting party to come off the block.

What happened? OK, Albanese couldn’t be, in leadership, the drive-by shooter he had been in the previous period. But after the living death of the Shorten era we expected some sign of life. Instead some fake idea of gravitas seems to have been imposed.

As Morrison leaned heavier on the ScoMo thing, the blue singlet, the daggy grin, etc, Albanese, like Shorten, appeared to retreat into a suit, like they were both aldermen from 1910, pictured in sepia.

From Labor’s brains trust — which appears to consist of ex-movement figures who have started up consultancies when they didn’t win power, and are then hired by the people they lost with — this seems to be a basic misunderstanding of what’s required by the era in a politician.

Progressives repeatedly bemoan Morrison’s have-a-go image, as they sneer at his social piety (“The promise of Australia”), failing to understand that they work in tandem. No one really believes Morrison is a weekend DIY tradie type. But they respect his commitment to pretending to be one, which is seen as a politician’s job.

The test of commitment has become a postmodern one, and the Coalition is well ahead on the twists and turns of an image society. Labor’s boomer/gen X crew have fallen behind.

But underneath that there has been no reckoning in the past two years as to what Labor should be for. First and foremost to work it out for their own sakes. After all, Australia has become — under 25 years of only briefly interrupted Coalition rule — a land of broken promises. Prosperity and social mobility for a core 50% or so has obscured the steady grinding down of what our mission appeared to be from the ’40s into the ’90s: to build an equal and good society that left as few as possible behind.

Now an acceptance of stratification, corruption and decline has set in. The professions have once again become dominated by the elites. Your birth class dictates your life conditions. Even those in the middle ranges who do well live lives perpetually squeezed by high costs, from health to childcare.

Security demands mortgage enslavement. Regional living is a passport to exclusion. The future is being desperately underinvested in. The continent’s natural bounty is being trashed by apathy from the top. And so on.

There should be plenty to join up into a narrative, a prosecution case. Labor has renounced that on the grounds that such big picture stuff makes them a target given the hostile media sphere. Yet there seems no other way for Labor to succeed but to tell some sort of story about what we are not, about what didn’t happen here.

This is not simply a question of electoral strategy; Labor needs to tell this story in order to continue to exist as any sort of movement as such.

If its leaders can’t bring forth anger at what a large section of the population is not getting from decades of prosperity, is it a sign they have accepted and internalised a great complacency, have renounced one task of progressive parties: to inspire an idea that life could be better, fairer, richer in experience for the mass of people?

If you thought what we had was basically alright, why wouldn’t you vote for Scotty From Marketing who’s delivering it?

Maybe the corridor gotcha against Kelly is the start of something — other than Plibersek’s leadership drive, which of course it is.

But as the possibility of an early election draws close, it feels like two wasted years, with more to come, and no clear sign as to how social democratic parties here or across the world shake their complacency and their torpor and offer people something they might really want from a government except more of the same.

On your side? At the moment, still, sadly, on their arse.

Peter Fray

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