The strain within Labor’s Left and Right bubbles over as the party wrestles over its future – Politics





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November 01, 2019 05:48:57

A few weeks back, some senior Labor figures were discussing whether to back a Greens Senate motion expressing support for school children engaging in “civil disobedience” at climate emergency protests.

It sparked an unexpectedly heated debate.

According to those who heard of the exchange, Victorian right-winger Kimberley Kitching was adamant Labor shouldn’t support the motion but instead amend it to the effect that the Senate support “peaceful assembly”. No more, no less.

A witness says Kitching told colleagues it would be an exercise in futile “virtue signalling” to support the Greens motion, observing that some parents might want their kids in school during school hours.

A senior member of the Left shot back at her: “Well if you had children, you might understand why there is a climate emergency.”

It was an uncomfortable moment. But one that perhaps neatly sums up the strain inside the Labor Party as it wrestles with a progressive instinct and the strong view held by some in Labor that the only way back to Government for the party is to mainstream itself.

Kitching has long been an ally and friend of Bill Shorten, which makes her attitude somewhat ironic, given the former Labor leader is a week away from copping a lot of the blame for Labor’s election loss in May.

Shorten’s inability to resolve and articulate a coherent position on the Adani coalmine, which damaged the ALP brand among blue collar voters and in regional Queensland, and his insufficient defence of Labor’s ambitious climate change policy will probably be subjected to sharp critique when Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson deliver their review of Labor’s election performance next Thursday.

Shorten and the Labor leadership acceded to the internal demands of the ALP’s inner city progressive elite, goes the thesis, an elite that’s intolerant of working class traditionalism and anyone else who doesn’t share its views on same-sex marriage, climate change activism, race or gender politics.

Kitching’s somewhat of a controversialist in the ALP, less afraid than most to call it as she sees it.

So it wasn’t that surprising that when four MPs were pictured down a Mt Isa copper and nickel mine this week, one of them brandishing a lump of mineral, Kitching was among them.

With protesters continuing their agitation against those attending a mining conference in her home town of Melbourne, Kitching pointedly remarked to The Australian: “In the next 25 years we’ll use the same amount of copper that we have in the last 5,000. This sector is vital to our quality of life and to the Australian economy.”

Was she speaking to those who disregard or deny Australia’s resource-based prosperity? Or was she speaking to those quick to use copper-rich hi-tech devices to tweet their disdain? Probably both.

But right now, Labor has reached a day of reckoning with its progressive membership.

They’re all talking about it, or talking about others who are talking about it. Even Barack Obama’s challenge to the “woke” culture this week seemed to echo Labor’s existential contortions from afar.

Nick Dyrenfurth, a former Shorten staffer, now director of the John Curtin Research Centre, says modern Labor’s problem is itself: an “aggressively secular, ‘small l’ liberal party” that preaches change in the language of equality, diversity and inclusivity that jars with large sections with the population.

“Even when its policy settings are right, the internal culture of the Labor Party and the values it projects are at odds with how many Australians feel,” Dyrenfurth writes in his book Getting the Blues.

“A Labor Party that defines itself primarily as ‘progressive’ will no longer have a broad cultural base of people who can appeal to workers, ‘small c’ conservatives, non-ideological voters, a diverse middle class, people of faith and rural and regional voters.”

Labor frontbencher Clare O’Neil, who like Kitching is a member of the Victorian Right, said Labor’s problem at the election was its sanctimony, that voters felt “progressives were talking down to them”.

“When our own people — Labor people of a lifetime — tell us that they feel they are not allowed to question new social standards that seem to be reset every other week, I think we need to listen,” she said in a speech to the John Curtin Research Centre on Thursday.

“There is a culture developing in the progressive movement where membership is granted with a box of ideas. And if you don’t accept one of the ideas in the box, you do not merely have a different opinion, you are obviously wrong, probably stupid and possibly subhuman.

“For what it’s worth, I probably support most of the ideas in the box. This is not about content. It’s about tone.

“Not everyone with a concern about the immigration rate is a bigot. Not everyone with a hesitation about changing gender roles is sexist. Not every social change is inarguably a good one.”

If being more mainstream or at least more tolerant of the mainstream is the agreed solution for Labor, how to do it?

This is unresolved, but as someone from the Left, Anthony Albanese may be best placed to do it insofar as he might sway more of the progressives.

But there’s a lot of work to do.

Judging by the first of his “vision statements” on Tuesday, Albanese doesn’t see Labor’s climate change policy as having been the electoral problem, so much as its emphasis.

His Perth speech implied that if Labor better argued the economic opportunities and jobs that come from a carbon-constrained world, in hydrogen exports or in lithium batteries, for example, the party could still advocate ambitious emission reduction targets.

It was as if Shorten, or folk like Kim Carr, hadn’t attempted to do just that, with their talk about batteries and electric vehicles.

Albanese’s analysis was a bit like O’Neil’s, that it’s not about content per se, but about tone.

But what if it is about policy, not the sales pitch, as Labor MPs such as Joel Fitzgibbon contend on emission targets?

A voting public that’s distrustful of radical change and anxious about the future will continue to baulk at a bold Labor option unless it feels safe.

That was Kevin Rudd’s secret in 2007. He was the economic conservative from Queensland who was here to help, an unthreatening, younger version of John Howard, even if he did have some ideas radically different to the Liberal PM he slayed.

The Australian public never warmed to Shorten, nor did enough trust him. Consequently, Labor’s ambitious tax-and-spend agenda was marked down.

For Albanese to have a chance against Scott Morrison in 2022, he’ll need to be trusted on the economy and on national security.

That prescription sounds simple enough.

But diagnosing whether Labor’s malaise comes from its messages, or their marketing, is the necessary first step its leader must take.

Topics:

government-and-politics,

political-parties,

federal-elections,

alp,

australia



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