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The paranoia of partnership: The ALP shuns Green support

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Bill Shorten at a Labor rally earlier this year (image via Facebook).

The Labor Party's refusal to deal with the Greens and other parties is political shortsightedness, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY (ALP) has, at its core, an unsettling contradiction. When pressed, its social conservatism seems bright and assertive. On the outside, a gooey film supplies an unconvincing membrane of progressivism. But as not all can be pure and impotent, it has become standard practice for Labor hacks to pronounce their claims to the Canberra palace by shunning political alliances in Parliament.

Go it alone, or not at all.

That most obscene of words in the Australian political lexicon remains "coalition" and even the partnership between the Liberals and Nationals remains, at best, one of testy accommodation and self-interest rather than loving endorsement.

This is an election for the ALP to lose. Having been warming opposition benches for some six years as leader, Bill Shorten, is fraying. The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is playing the merry buffoon before the call for last drinks, and behaving accordingly. 

Neither should be entitled to remain, or be brought into the Lodge, without a good number of hawk-eyed independents and smaller parties overseeing them.

That is not the way Shorten sees it. Showing occasional signs of "entitlement disease", he has assumed that majoritarian impulses in the Australian electorate will come through. Like union formations, factions will battle it out but ultimately reach a uniform, if bruised stance. The resentful will bide their time. 

For that purpose, any attempt to work together with, for instance, the Greens, is to be eschewed.

In his Wednesday National Press Club address, Greens Leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, wished to scold and advocate in equal measure. 

His Party were“deeply concerned that Labor has taken a weaker climate policy in 2019 than what they proposed in 2016, which was weaker still than what they took to the 2013 election.” 

But he was also keen to keep some matters on the table. “I’m not going to say there should be no carbon permits under any circumstances.”  The point was to avoid turning permits into apologies “for not transforming the Australian economy".

Suggestions by Di Natale that Labor work closely with his Party on developing a strong climate change policy have been treated as overtures by sexually degenerate felines or, in Shorten’s words, “trailing their coat and saying, ‘Look at me’".  For the Labor Leader, there was only one source of policy, and one instrument of implementation: the ALP in all its glory. 

Shorten proclaimed:

“The fact of the matter is that if we get elected we’ll be making decisions in a Labor Cabinet and the decisions will be made by Members of the Parliament of the Labor Party.” 

As with previous Australian leaders aspiring to government, a threat always follows a policy promise.  Should we win, do not stop us over the aisles and in the chambers; forget debate and keel over. 

Following through, Shorten has had this to say:

“I do not expect the Senate to stand in the way of our Government, if we are elected, when we clearly outlined all our policies and have such a strong mandate in the event that we are elected.”

Ifs, buts and maybes, and yet, the ALP leader remains myopic to the true purpose of the Senate, which is to watch, guard and ensure that decisions made in the Lower House are not rubber stamped with irresponsible agreement and robotic inclination. His Party, it should also be said, has been a periodic supporter of the view that the Senate, that place of “unrepresentative swill”, should be abolished altogether. 

Memories of 1975 continue to sting.

Such sentiments are best done away with. 

As historian David McCullough would note in his work on John Adams, one of the U.S. founding fathers and second president of the fledgling Republic:

“Reliance on a single legislature was a certain road to disaster, for the same reason reliance on a single executive – king, potentate, president – was bound to bring ruin and despotism… [T]here must, in a just and enduring government, be a balance of forces.”

Shorten, without knowing it, seems more of the Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot persuasion, a philosophe of the European tradition who saw an unsullied democracy as 'collecting all authority into one centre, that of a nation'.

Other ALP machine men such as former Gillard and Rudd minister Stephen Conroy have become the shock troops for assault against any Green effort to placate.  They remember the at times testy Labor-Greens association under the stewardship of Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The recipe here is the smokescreen rather than the principle, the attack rather than the argument; the forum is Sky News, a true theatre for the reactionary. 

“I’m staggered,” observed Conroy in response to Di Natale’s address, “not one person bothered to point to the utter chaos inside the Greens. They’re a warzone in NSW and in Victoria and they’ve had employees resign over bullying.”

Senior Labor Senator Penny Wong, who fancies herself as a future Australian foreign minister, has also made any arrangement with the Greens syphilitic in its dangers.

Remember 2009, she warns, when the Greens voted down Labor’s climate change policy for not being ambitious enough. 

Ditto Labor’s climate change minister, Mark Butler, whose authoritarian sentiments extend to threatening other parliamentarians that not voting for his Party’s policy would be existentially grave and damnable.“If the next Labor government is not allowed to make serious changes in this area, I hate to think where Australia is going to be in 2030.”

Shorten and his colleagues forget one vital thing. It is not government but parliament that makes laws.  There is no such thing as an irrelevant or redundant member, one distant from the machinery of power hiding on the margins.  Some might try to, but that is hardly the point or purpose. 

All representatives, something more relevant in the upper Senate chamber than the lower house, must endeavour to make deals, paper over differences and forge policy. ALP senators will find themselves in tight sessions negotiating with their Green counterparts after May 18. 

Shorten’s petrified approach to parliamentary politics, couched in faux strongman’s lingo, is not only regrettable, but something to remind him of should the election result be deservedly closer than he hopes.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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