When Labor announced on Friday night it was only going to allow crossbench members and senators one senior adviser rather than four, it may have been a textbook case of taking out the trash — but also a potential self-mugging.
The decision to give independents a skeleton parliamentary staff will undermine their capacity to be effective representatives. Labor seems to be hoping that they will be positioned to succeed after the teals fail. It also presumably thinks that because it won the formerly blue-ribbon seat of Higgins, it can next time win seats like Warringah, Goldstein and Wentworth.
If that’s Labor’s thinking, the party is not only suffering a shocking case of wishful thinking but making a major strategic error, missing an opportunity to build a strong working relationship, particularly with the Climate 200 candidates, and to keep the Coalition in the wilderness for at least a decade.
Labor should give a role to the teals, and not just for the optics. It needs to keep Liberal heartland seats out of the Liberal column for as long as possible. The likelihood of a Labor win in such seats is very outside to start with and, if they do win, more likely to be short-term — like Maxine McKew in Bennelong, rather than Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines in Indi.
A lot was said during the recent election about Labor’s poor federal results since World War II. The reason Labor was kept out of power for 26 years was because of the DLP split. This could be such a moment for the Liberal Party, which seems to be on a trajectory of Trumpism and irrelevance. Labor could make a surety of that by finding common cause with the teals and their base.
The other factor at play here is the increased fracturing of the two-party system in Australia and nations like Germany and France, who also not so long ago had a two-party divide between social democratic and conservative but have since splintered into about six political formations, with major parties now attracting around 25% of the vote.
Any hope Labor holds of Australia returning to a two-party political split is forlorn. We know that from developments overseas, and from the long-term trends in Australia over multiple election cycles as well. This is an age of liquid modernity, hothoused by a decentralised and ubiquitous social media information system.
While class is still important, there are now different fault lines and political formations. Winning power in the future is increasingly going to be about forming tribes and coalitions. The teals belong to the small-L liberal tradition and are potentially closer political relatives to Labor, certainly on major policy and social questions, than what is now a highly conservative Coalition.
Labor should be drawing a teal curtain, creating a cordon sanitaire that the Coalition will find hard to breach and which will also conveniently free Labor’s hand and resources to win seats in the inner city and outer suburbs.
Being parsimonious with advisers and resources in order to starve the teals out and make them appear ineffective will — if successful — just see those seats returned to the Coalition, not Labor.
And by building a genuine working relationship with independents, Labor is much more likely to appeal to the constituents in these seats and therefore be better placed if it does want to challenge the teals than it would by essentially saying to those voters “you got it wrong and we’re going to punish your chosen representatives”.
If Labor is serious about its own long-term reform agenda, it needs to be in office for the long term — and that means getting used to forming new political alliances.