Inside Story

Trouble on the left of the campaign trail

It’s not surprising that Labor won’t rethink its relations with the Greens in the heat of the battle, writes Paul Rodan. But avoiding the longer-term problem is a major error of judgement

Paul Rodan 25 May 2016 1232 words

Ready to help? Greens leader Richard di Natale campaigning in the inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler last week. Paul Miller/AAP Image

Those hoping for a rational policy debate during this lengthy election campaign have predictably been disappointed. In the opening days alone, two perennial, emotionally charged issues resurfaced for Labor, threatening to disrupt the party’s preferred policy agenda between now and 2 July.

Asylum seeker policy, an area that has bedevilled the Labor Party since 2001, was first off the rank. While it can be argued that the vote-changing effect of this issue is exaggerated, it certainly seems to play with the collective Labor mind – and that probably means it’s a case of the perception becoming the reality, at least as far as Labor’s capacity to respond goes. As a political minefield it has now been around for twice as long as Australia’s Vietnam war/conscription controversy (1965–72), and it isn’t going away unless war itself suddenly loses its appeal as the preferred tool of conflict resolution in various parts of the world.

Labor’s weakness is accentuated by the revelation that several of its candidates are on the record as opposing the party’s asylum seeker policy, hardly a good look from the campaign team’s point of view, but no real surprise given the ongoing lack of due diligence in the preselection process. This is a curious shortcoming given that social media often provides the opportunity to find out the views of candidates seeking party endorsement. Of course, this presumes that parties are seeking to nominate the best-qualified, most electable candidate available, rather than give a seat to the next factional aspirant in the queue. This is not a uniquely Labor ailment, as shown by the experience of the (now ex-) Liberal candidate for Fremantle (who withdrew his candidacy, neatly complementing the disendorsed Labor candidate) and some other recent preselection history.

The second diversion from Labor’s preferred policy script concerns the relationship with the Greens. Convinced that Julia Gillard’s “deal” with the Greens was a key component of her government’s unpopularity, the Coalition has sought to use the prospect of a close election to scare voters into believing that another Labor–Greens deal is imminent, and that the only way to avoid such horror is to re-elect the government.

Labor’s response – that it would seek a new election rather than enter into any arrangement with the Greens – may sound suitably macho, but ignores the complexities of a hung parliament. It smacks of a refusal to accept the judgement of the electorate and poses the question of how the party would respond to an identical result: send the voters back to a third poll, until they get it right?

Importantly, such a reaction ignores the role of the governor-general. A hung parliament is one of those rare occasions on which, in the absence of a party leader commanding a clear lower house majority, scope exists for vice-regal discretion and independence. Certainly, Peter Cosgrove would be under no obligation to call a new election on the advice of a party leader who hadn’t won a lower house majority. He would be entitled to seek alternative ways of avoiding a new poll so soon after the one held on 2 July.

In such a scenario, for all its bluster, Labor could be forced to at least consider a limited agreement with the Greens. This could involve support for a Labor minority government on matters of supply and confidence, but without any commitments on policy. In the event that the Greens sought policy undertakings, and Labor called their bluff, it would be open for the Greens to offer a supply/confidence arrangement to the Coalition, perhaps for a limited time. While such a deal may well be anathema to both the Coalition and the Greens, it can also be argued that the desire to retain office, or secure office, will trump everything else. It is worth remembering that the Greens supported a minority Liberal government in Tasmania in the 1990s.

None of this is to argue that, given a hung parliament, a fresh election might not be held sooner rather than later. But it is important to remember that the idea that Bill Shorten, without a lower house majority, could advise a fresh election some time the following week is fanciful.

Labor’s frustration, while understandable at one level, seems to contain a fair element of denial about the modern party system in Australia. Put simply, the two-party system is dead, and has been for some time. The conservatives had to confront this reality on their side nearly a century ago, giving rise to the coalition agreements that characterise non-Labor politics federally and in most states. Even then, the Coalition church is not broad enough to encompass the entire conservative congregation, with other right-wing alternatives securing support from time to time, especially at Senate elections.

Historically, Labor did much better than the conservatives, retaining a virtual monopoly of the progressive/left vote long after the disappearance of the class system that had underpinned this dominance. But, as in most parts of the democratic world, it is simply not possible for one party to represent the totality of (sometimes conflicting) interests on that side of politics. This is not necessarily a reflection of some inadequacy on the part of Labor, any more than it is for the equivalent party in other comparable democracies: it is a reflection of social reality.

An intelligent discussion of this difficult truth is unlikely in the heat of an election campaign, but the problem for Labor is that it seems incapable of dealing with it at any time in the political cycle. Perhaps the party needs to balance its focus on strategy and tactics with a cool, dispassionate, intellectually informed analysis of relations with the Greens.

Still, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Labor partisans aggrieved at the way in which (apart from the Murdoch press’s incessant preaching to the converted) the Greens are treated with kid gloves by much of the media. By way of illustration, contrast leader Richard Di Natale’s promotion of his party as more mainstream and ready to help govern with the utterances of Jim Casey, the Greens candidate with a realistic chance of defeating Labor’s Anthony Albanese in the seat of Grayndler. Casey is credited with suggesting that it would have been preferable for Tony Abbott to retain office in order that his oppressive policies could provoke the oppressed masses into some form of street protest and civil disruption. How this burst of Trotskyist nostalgia is compatible with Di Natale’s “ready to help govern” theme is not readily apparent, but the leader seems to have escaped the scrutiny that should have resulted. This is probably a more important question than are his problems with the parliamentary interests register and his creative approach to the payment of his au pairs.

While all of these issues are of interest to those who follow elections closely, it seems that none has been important enough to produce a significant change in voting intentions, as measured by the polls. In a campaign this long, it is likely that the uncommitted voters who decide election results have simply not tuned in yet, and may not do so for quite some time. •