Tuesday, 24 July 2012

At last Labor takes fight to the Greens

When Bob Brown left the Parliament only a few months ago, many predicted the demise of the Greens.

Although the counting in the Melbourne by-election is not finished, it looks like that prediction is coming to fruition. But because the Greens have a swag of Senate seats, it will take time before their influence is reduced.

If ever the Greens were going to win against Labor, then this was their best chance. Despite the proliferation of minor parties, it was a straight contest: Labor versus the Greens.

It was a wise move by Ted Baillieu to let them fight it out without the distraction of a Coalition candidate. It is the second time he has made the right call on dealing with the Greens.

The point about the Greens is that they are further to the Left than Labor. They have a wide policy agenda. They probably spend just as much time on gay marriage and asylum seekers as they do on the environment.

And on workplace relations, they have been more closely associated with militant unions than unions more committed to workers on low pay.

They get very little scrutiny. And they are zealots, as exemplified by the fact that they voted against the first attempt to introduce climate change policy. If that policy had been enacted, then it may well have stayed on the statute books, but instead, as a result of the controversy that followed, including the axing of PM Rudd, the carbon tax is now virtually certain to be repealed.

That does not worry me, but it demonstrates that zealots can play political havoc with the major parties when people like PM Gillard give them too much say and when they are not prepared to accept that in a democracy, there are times when it is sensible to acknowledge other points of view, even if you think they are wrong.

Melbourne may be more Left than some seats, but the result showed they still support sensible policies like funding for local Catholic schools and they still think that a little pragmatism to stop asylum boats is better than doing nothing while hundreds drown on the perilous trip to Australia.

Daniel Andrews, the Victorian Labor leader, is claiming that Labor's win in Melbourne has sent a message to Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. He could not be more wrong.

The by-election result was forged by Labor's NSW Right aggressively attacking the Greens. Thank heavens the state secretary in NSW, Sam Dastyari, and Paul Howes and others finally did something to protect the mainstream of the Labor Party vote.

No-one can say for sure it made the difference, but Labor internal polling suggests that it was not without influence in a close contest.

In a way, the win was against the tempo of the play. Under Gillard, policy has been run by the Greens on issues like climate change and the mining tax.

The relevance of the outcome for federal Labor is real enough but nuanced. The decision to intervene by NSW demonstrates that there is a vacuum at the centre of Australian politics. The Right know that if they don't challenge the Left, then they are finished as a political party.

Labor has had these internal fights before. Their problem now is that PM Gillard does not understand that if she won't do the job, then the NSW Right will have to do it for her. So when Dastyari took up the cudgels, he reinforced Gillard's weakness.

No wonder the unions have certain doubts about Gillard, even though on workplace relations policy, she gives them everything they want, even at the expense of the broader economy.

Only when Labor was defeated by the Greens on asylum seeker policy did they start to realise how bad things have become as a result of Gillard's decision to team up with the Greens after the 2010 election.

Of course, it was an easy decision for Gillard to deal with the Greens, because the real Gillard has always basically been a leftie. The Victorian Parliamentary party is generally to the Left, although they usually appoint more moderate types like Steve Bracks as the human face of their team.

The truth is that Andrews and Gillard were both too weak to stand up to the Greens. They were both in the same camp as the Left. They were on side with John Faulkner and Doug Cameron, the leader of the Left in the Federal Labor caucus. Gillard and Andrews should have backed the decision of the NSW Right to take on the Greens.

So the lesson for Gillard is that whatever her real views are on politics, as PM her mainstream support is still the centre Right, and if she keeps giving way to the Left, whether within the caucus or with the Greens, then she will have to be removed (regardless of the polls).

Because if the Labor Party is too far to the Left, then it will never win enough votes to form government.

One Nation comparisons
One senior Labor member said that the Greens were the Coalition's One Nation. Of course, such comparisons have their limitations, but it is true that, like the Greens today, One Nation aimed to displace a major political bloc, especially the National Party.

The "Joh for Canberra" campaign also had delusions of supplanting the federal Coalition and, like the Greens today who are constantly undermining PM Gillard, it fed off dissatisfaction with the Federal Coalition at the time.

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