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Shorten’s ideas year shot to pieces

11 July 2015 199 views No Comment

The rise of the Labor Left — and its expected ascendancy to con­trolling Labor’s powerful national executive committee — could not come at a worse time for Bill Shorten.

The Opposition Leader is already feeling the heat internally from members of the Labor caucus who are embarrassed to go back to their communities and sell Labor’s weak — indeed, virtually non-existent — economic narrative.

Although the fallout from his appearance before the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption remains to be seen, Shorten certainly is feeling significant pressure in the lead-up to the Labor national conference this month, especially from the party’s rank and file.

These are the thousands of teachers, ambos, police officers, call centre operators and bookkeepers who joined the ALP thinking it was the party of workers but who have discovered Shorten doesn’t really seem to stand for anything. The lack of ideas during Labor’s supposed “year of ideas has left Shorten in charge of the most irresponsible and unfocused opposition in more than a generation. It is irresponsible and unfocused because it offers no alter­native to government plans.

Moreover, what Shorten stands for and actually believes is not even clear to members of his own party, let alone to the community at large.

When questioned about the lack of ideas, Shorten often responds that Tony Abbott never had any policies in opposition. Not only is this claim completely irrelevant to the present political situation, it is also wrong.

People may not have agreed with Abbott’s plans, but there is no denying he had strong principled beliefs, backed by a range of policies. As opposition leader, by this time in the election cycle Abbott had announced many key policies, including abolition of the mining tax, abolition of the carbon tax, getting rid of the schoolkids’ bonus and a mental health policy engineered in consultation with the mental health industry sector.

Many citizens may have disagreed with Abbott, but voters at the time knew where he stood on virtually all key public issues.

So, if annunciating key policies worked so well for Abbott in opposition, why does Shorten seem so scared of putting forward anything substantial in the way of policy statements himself?

The reality is that Shorten is controlled by key factional ­interests whose leaders are playing their cards very close to their chest. This is because these factional players are not sure if Shorten will be leader of the Labor Party next month, let alone at the next ­election. This means Labor’s key factional players are likely to play their hand very close to the election to get exactly what they ­demand.

The likes of Kim Carr — colloquially referred to by some of his colleagues and the Coalition government during question time as Kim Il-Carr — are likely to demand new subsidies for old manufacturing industries that should have been phased out years ago. Such subsidies would have the likes of Paul Keating reeling and aghast.

As well, the likes of Tanya Plibersek are likely to demand a return to old-style, quota-based politics, where caucus members are not promoted to key positions based on hard work, knowledge or skill, but on gender, sexuality and union allegiances.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because of the power of the factions, Labor leaders need to pretend to be all things to all people.

With such dominance by the Labor Left, the Right will insist on having its say as well, in return for continued support of the leadership status quo.

Thus Sam Dastyari — the self-appointed showman of the Australian Senate — is likely to insist that he be allowed to go after multinational companies, seemingly unfettered by economic and fiscal rhyme or reason.

The truth is that Shorten must keep Dastyari happy because Dastyari controls key votes among NSW Right caucus members. The NSW Right is one of the last factional groupings that is still behind Shorten as Labor leader.

With so many vested interests, all of whom seem to have ­some­thing over Shorten, it’s no surprise that he may well be on his last legs.

But this division and factional dominance also means that whoever would replace him is likely to suffer the same or similar challenges. No matter who is selected as the next federal Labor leader, powerful factional bosses are still likely to regard him or her as their property and as someone who will do their will.

These key factional bosses and their respective views haven’t changed for decades. These bosses stand for old Labor, not for new ideas. This means the reformist Labor zeal of Bob Hawke and Keating will be confined to the garbage dump of history.

If Labor is elected next year, it will be a return to the policies of old Labor. This means big-taxing policies will be front and centre.

This means big-spending policies will be announced and implemented with little regard for fiscal prudence or intergenerational fairness.

But, perhaps most concerningly, under an elected Labor government, unions would be at the forefront of making key policy and political decisions.

If we need proof of this, look at what has happened in Victoria since the election of the Andrews government last year.

Shorten was actually on to something when he proclaimed that he wanted 2015 to be the year of ideas. But the first rule of opposition is to make promises that you can keep. Shorten had no chance of having a year of ideas in 2015 ­because he seems to be a wholly owned subsidiary of conflicting factional interests.

Sadly, with the possible exception of level-headed and independent-minded opposition Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen, it seems clear that no matter who becomes leader of the federal Labor Party, this is likely to remain the case.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, July 11-12, 2015, p 24.

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