Labor must find a strategy to defuse Coalition bullying

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (Screenshot via YouTube)

It isn’t difficult to grasp the argument put forward by The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy on RN Breakfast that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten capitulated to the Morrison Government's highly controversial Assistance and Access Bill (AA Bill).

This may have been in order to neutralise a potential weapon that Morrison and the Murdoch media could have employed against Shorten's party through the summer.

Labor began the day holding out for the inclusion of various amendments to the Bill. However, at the 11th hour, Shorten called a dramatic presser to announce he would pass the legislation as it stands and introduce the amendments when Parliament reconvenes in February 2019.

For reasons this writer is unable to fathom, Shorten apparently believes that by February, the Government will have decided to halt its national security-based attacks on him and allow untrammelled discussion and revision of its Bill.

Readers can be forgiven for suspecting this apparent optimism on Mr Shorten’s part is, at the very least, disingenuous. It’s far more likely that with an election looming, Morrison will only intensify his attacks on Shorten’s security credentials, making the issue of amendments to the AA Bill even more fraught with sound and fury than it was last Thursday (13 December).

We are sickeningly familiar with the Government’s weaponised narrative against the Opposition on the matter of national security. For example, there’s the allegation, made every time such an issue arises in the House, that Labor is putting the safety of Australians at risk by equivocating on the passage of a bill or amendment that allegedly ensures our safety.

Or, as Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne so eloquently expressed it  on Thursday in a tweet he later deleted:

'Labor has chosen to enable terrorists and paedophiles to continue their evil work in order to engage in point scoring.'

Or this, from Prime Minister Scott Morrison:

'"Labor are [sic] quite happy for terrorists and organised criminals to chat on WhatsApp, leaving our security agencies in the dark," Mr Morrison told The Australian on Monday. "There is no excuse for this type of weakness."'

And also:

“It’s not about what happens on the floor of the House or the floor of the Senate. This is about Australia's safety. And Bill Shorten is a clear and present danger to Australia’s safety.” 

The direction the Government intended to take, undoubtedly enabled by the Murdoch media, is absolutely clear. Paint the ALP as terrorist-friendly and recklessly oblivious of the danger to Australian lives if they baulked at the legislation. It’s an eye-wateringly familiar narrative and one that Shorten has now nipped, albeit temporarily, in the bud.

But at what cost to Australia? The ramifications of this Bill are extremely serious, as a quick look at the links provided will demonstrate. Sadly, it has not proved to be the habit of governments to repeal legislation that gives them powers of surveillance. If a Labor Government attempted any such repeals, would not a brutally adversarial LNP in opposition launch precisely the attacks Labor has just managed to avoid?

There is every reason to believe we will be stuck with the most far-reaching legislation in the Western world — legislation that has the potential to render us pariahs in the global IT industry and that major tech companies agree will likely result in an undermining of security for everyone. This is not everyday legislation that can be amended with ease. It is legislation that is loaded with significance and thoroughly weaponised. It will not be easily wound back if it can be wound back at all. And should Labor attempt that winding back, they will be subjected to an attack of such ferocity that what has happened thus far will pale into insignificance.

We are in this situation because Labor seems incapable of standing up to attacks from the Morrison Government and the Murdoch media. The Opposition did not stand its ground on proposed amendments because they could not sustain themselves against a Coalition attack. They did this at a time when they are in an excellent position in the polls and hailed as a shoo-in to take out the next election. Even under these favourable conditions, Labor chose to pass horrendous legislation with a reckless undertaking to fix it later, rather than deal with the LNP.

Once again, voters have been held hostage by the tired old “the LNP is so much worse” narrative. This narrative asserts that however disappointed we might be in Labor, the LNP is always worse. We’ve seen this play out for years in the matter of refugee and asylum seeker policy. The narrative has given Labor a "get out of gaol free" card more times than this writer would care to count. Today, even though Labor has helped usher in the most draconian national security legislation in the Western world, the narrative still dominates.

This is the wrong argument. This is the argument of individuals held captive by abuse. This is an argument that never holds Labor to account and always portrays the party as the victim of overwhelming odds. Last week, Labor again decided to put its own welfare in front of the welfare of the entire country, by supporting legislation that will damage all of us.

The only way Federal Labor knows how to deal with the LNP is to capitulate to its demands, and this has been the case, over and over again for decades. The message Labor sends to Australians by its behaviour is that the bullies win. It is a message of despair. Now they have gone too far. The Labor Party is beginning to resemble the eternal victim in an abusive relationship, so battered they lack all will to take a stand against their abuser.

The LNP and the Murdoch media and the shock jocks are not going away anytime soon. Must we contemplate a future of ongoing cave-ins from the Labor Party? Is this all we can look forward to? Is Federal Labor incapable of learning how to deal with bullying? Because if that is the case, of what use is it as a government, or an opposition?

In Australia, we admire those who strive to overcome overwhelming odds. Give us a chance to admire you, Australian Labor.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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