Tuesday, July 17, 2012


The aim of politics is to build a winning coalition, but unfortunately this insight appears to have escaped the Labor Party. 

The other political requirement is compromise, but this time it's the Greens that appear to be unaware of   the requirement . . . 


The first great Labor split occurred on 15 September 1916. Billy Hughes was a Prime Minister in the middle of a World War that was consuming soldiers like a mincing-machine every time the whistles blew and they charged across the mud and into the bullets of the enemy. He wanted to conscript more Australians so the ranks would be replenished in time for the next futile assault. Others, particularly the Irish Catholics who made up much of Labor’s base, didn’t want to see their children fed uselessly into the maw of the living hell that was the Western Front.

The party allowed one referendum on the issue. But when it failed Hughes continued fighting and the split deepened. Finally he’d had enough. Realising he was being frustrated, Hughes stormed out of a party meeting shouting, “those that think like me, follow me”. Labor was out of office for the next thirteen years.

The party regained power in 1929, just in time to be in office during the great depression. The question then (as today) was how best to reinvigorate the economy. Was it best to cut spending and slash debt; stimulate the economy with government programs; or embark on a truly radical program and simply repudiate repayments to the “wealthy British capitalists” who’d provided investment funds in the past?

Joseph Lyons was an acting Treasurer who had no time for radicals, and he soon fell foul of a party that couldn’t unite behind his ideas. As soon as his fingers were prized from the levers of power, he walked from Cabinet and shortly afterwards crossed the floor of parliament, leaving Labor behind. This time the party remained out of office for just a few months less than a decade.

The third major split occurred in 1955. Again, it began as a dispute over a policy issue: should the government provide assistance to private (and particularly Roman Catholic) schools? The “Groupers”, a collection of anti-communist, conservative Labor supporters disagreed with opposition leader Bert Evatt, who was steadfastly against the provision of state-aid.  When he attempted to shovel responsibility for his defeat the previous year onto the Groupers, they broke away and formed the Democratic Labor Party. A Labor leader didn’t see what the inside of the Lodge looked like for another twelve years.

The art of politics is defined by both persuasion and compromise. On the assumption that the party leader actually believes in something – by no means a given in the current political scene – their aim is firstly to persuade their own differing constituencies of members to agree on a policy and then negotiate to implement it. This was the conceptual breakthrough that allowed Gough Whitlam to finally bring the party back from the political wilderness. He elevated himself above the sectional interests and presented ‘the Leader’ as the figure who could broker the deals to achieve the best outcomes for the party and the country. He acted like Moses, holding the engraved stone tablets of the party platform above his head like a talisman that would unite people who actually possessed very different ideas about the right way to go forward.

When he became PM, Bob Hawke created a similar mythology. “Consensus” was the buzzword and it worked, too. He used ideas as a means of keeping his own personal project, living in the Lodge, on track. But Hawke was always very careful to ensure he sold the policies he’d brokered to the public as the best, or even the only, possible response to whatever conundrum he was facing. This allowed the party not just to occupy one section of the field, but also to possess the best alternatives to resolve any problem. He owned all the ideas, because he kept searching for the best ones.

And so to today. Over the weekend the clever people in NSW Labor who earlier steered that branch of the party to such an overwhelming defeat at the last state election decided they’d finally worked out who is preventing the party from regaining power. As it turns out it appears as it isn’t the coalition at all. It’s the Greens. The entire party conference – the one opportunity that was guaranteed to give Labor a bit of free publicity so it could present itself as a united and dynamic force for good – was squandered with infighting and blame.

And do you think the one person who could have reached above the squabble to offer a united path forward did so? Do you think the Prime Minister was capable of addressing these concerns and bringing the different sections of her own party together so they could approach the future with a confident and united front? Hardly. She didn’t even seriously address her problem. Although none were present it was the Greens who overshadowed the conference proceedings. They-who-must-not-be-named.

If her government were functioning properly, if Gillard could offer the scintilla of a suggestion that she might be able to recover, this debate would not be occurring.

Labor appears to have abandoned any effort to form its own coalition that could advance a broad agenda. It’s unfair, however, to blame Gillard alone for this. The Greens have never had a better chance to get some of their policies implemented. But instead of using their crucial numbers to bargain with Labor, many are simply fixated on blocking compromise. The inevitable result will be a Liberal government. The Green agenda will be consigned to the margins as they lose any ability to ameliorate policy settings.

That’s why their expected victory next Saturday in the state seat of Melbourne will be the worst outcome possible for the Greens. It will strengthen the arm of those opposed to working with the government: the non-politicians who see purity as a substitute for compromise and stridency as a replacement for persuasion.

As the broad left has fractured. Tony Abbott is surging forward to occupy the uncontested middle. In the past, no government’s been able to secure a commanding majority without at least pretending they’re representing the centre. Labor appears willing to let him.


  1. Tony Abbott is surging forward to occupy the uncontested middle ? Really ? Perhaps a better use is the word 'centre' as in Tony Abbot is surging forward to occupy the uncontested centre right. There is not much middle ground available at the moment.

  2. Thanks. I accept the correction.