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Gillard's compromise, Turnbull's Kadima

By Tom Clark - posted Wednesday, 11 July 2012

There is a radical problem for the Australian Labor Party, which has a lot to do with its unwillingness to be radical. Centrism means standing for being sensible, for behaving professionally, for acting like adults - in other words, even when Labor manages to represent its chosen values convincingly, it stands for very little that drives political support.

In its attacks on Coalition and Greens alike, the ALP's constant effort to paint them both as radical shows how much it wishes it was more like either of them, even more like both of them, than it currently is. Whatever the party decides about its preferences – Greens, Family First, or otherwise – that envy of clear thinking will continue.

Tony Abbott, Christine Milne, and their respective henchpersons are relatively shallow operators (as career politicians generally try to be), but they are so much clearer about what superficialities they stand for than the pink-stained capitalists who make their careers in Australia's oldest party.


Labor's biggest problem with centrism is that it implies an end to Labor. True centrism relies on an anti-factional approach to government. It holds that political parties are a conspiracy against the parliament, that they should break up or reconstellate in response to the needs of the day, that countries need to be governed by talent and not by coteries.

Israel's parties went through a revealing crisis in 2005, when the Likud Party prime minister, Ariel Sharon, left his own party because it refused to compromise on policy. He teamed up with the dumped leader of Israel's Labor Party, Shimon Peres, to form the centrist party called Kadima, which then won the 2006 national election.

Readers familiar with Israeli history will be aware that, eventually, the centre could not hold. Kadima lost power back to Likud and the hardline right in 2009, after a stroke suddenly incapacitated Sharon. Subsequent politics in that country look bound to get more bitter before they can get better.

Australia's version of a Kadima moment would be for Malcolm Turnbull to become prime minister. Wise heads in the Liberal Party would approach wise heads on the left, offering to install Turnbull in power in return for guarantees of election support. Something sensible would have to be agreed on carbon pricing, something suitably ineffective agreed to re-brutalise boat people, but the rest would just be joining the dots.

If the Liberal Party had the crazy creativity to try this, if its number crunchers could believably propose to Labor voters that Turnbull would become its leader in return for their first preference votes, they would overwhelmingly support it. Some would do so because they actually prefer him to the incumbent, Julia Gillard, others just for relief at a way out of Abbott taking the crown. No matter what the "true believers" may say about maintaining faith, there would be a stampede of them wanting to sign the deal. Gillard's staff would advise her to hop on board, just to look like she gets the national mood on something.

Of course, the Liberal Party will not make such an offer. Partly, that is because it is a genuinely right wing party, partly because Turnbull is a true centrist stuck in a factionalists' parliament, but most of all because they feel no need to.


Everyone knows that Abbott is going to win. He is going to win, win, win, win, win-win win.

Understandably, when there is nothing anyone can do to stop this, few are bothering to try. Some of the struggle in Australian progressive politics now is the struggle to find ways of fireproofing the carbon price and disability insurance, as well as trying to keep a denticare option alive - plus the inevitable trade union struggles to slow down whatever nasties Tony's Tories will heap upon that sector.

Most of the progressive struggle in Australia, though, is a struggle against the drag the major parties place on people's efforts to live according to their consciences: same-sex couples finding ways to live through and around a culture that refuses to work for them; terminally ill people finding their own ways out; private and state schools finding ways to teach subjects that really affect quality of life, like music, when all the key stakeholder impact indicators point to resourcing initiatives in terms of completely different best practice learning areas.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Clark is a senior lecturer in Communication at Victoria University, Melbourne, and the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing).

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