Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the Hustings . . .

I've been writing a daily campaign journal for the Canberra Times, called (perhaps unoriginally) 'From the Hustings . . . '

I'll try to put the pieces up each day in future.


The senior Labor staffer -- normally so polite -- scoffed. "Go on then, you do that", he said. "Why don't you just check with the Greens and make sure exactly what you should write."

Later that day there may have been any number of perfectly legitimate reasons that he avoided catching my eye as we nearly passed each other in a parliament house corridor. Nevertheless, I had the distinct impression that he'd had enough of talking about the frustration and anger that was being exhibited towards his party by people on the "left".

Earlier the same morning I'd been speaking to a politician who'd specifically fingered this issue: one that's increasingly agitating Labor. "The polls are currently showing this government should be returned", he said, "but that means that more people are increasingly likely to feel free to lodge a protest vote. This is becoming a very real danger for Labor."

It's no idle concern. On Monday night’s Q&A program Graham Richardson, the architect of the 1990 strategy that delivered a further term of government to a tired Hawke government, vehemently denounced the individuals on the left who refuse to toe the line.

"There are a lot of people in the Labor Party who don't agree with this stuff", he insisted, talking about issues like the government's refusal to allow gay marriage. Referring to the (gay) Penny Wong he confidently asserts that if she broke with Cabinet solidarity to fight for Lesbian rights on this issue, "she gets nowhere. You'll lose someone who fights for your cause. That my friends, is dumb. Big time dumb."

The same argument is also used to silence the voices seeking genuine action on climate change, rather than the placebo of a citizens assembly. Labor’s putting the simple and effective argument that change can only be achieved once you're sitting on the government benches. That's why the party wants to ensure it pitches its policy agenda to win over the swinging voters of the middle ground. The danger the party’s now facing is that the polls are demonstrating that it can expect to win. It's been too successful dominating this contested terrain in the centre. The more confident people are that Julia Gillard will actually be returned to office, the more they'll feel free to abandon Labor. That puts the entire strategy at risk.
So too does the probability -- the near certainty -- that the Greens will obtain the balance of power in the Senate. Labor knows that this means the Liberals won't be able to implement their agenda in an unfettered way, even if they gain control of the House of Representatives. The naturally ‘conservative’ electors of middle-Australia have demonstrated a preference to hand control of the upper and lower houses to different parties. The danger for Labor is that it’s own core constituency might abandon it unless the party makes some real commitments to action. The trouble is there’s nothing the party can do – apart from warn, increasingly stridently, that it must, absolutely must, receive the preferences of everyone who’s angry about the squandered opportunities of the past three years.

Tony Abbott, meanwhile, was busy securing the preferences of the hunting, shooting and fishing industries with a sudden outbreak of balanced reasonableness. "All of us want to see appropriate environmental protection," he insisted, "but man and nature have to live together." And how better to demonstrate how the species should be interacting than by gutting a 4 kg barramundi?

One of Abbott's daughters was also present as the opposition leader inspected a mine in Mackay. Completely incidentally, this offered him the happy opportunity to emphasise he's supported by a loving family. Not that he is seeking to draw any contrasts with the PM. Abbott will rest content leaving any comparisons to the voters.

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