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Carmen's cry from the heart challenges the ALP to find some spine

By Natasha Cica - posted Friday, 27 December 2002

It's that time again, when we sit back and reflect on the year that was. Politically - again - race issues were the ones that had us hottest and most bothered. From Woomera to Lakemba to Bali, it was a mean, cruel year.

Right at the end of it came the resignation of Carmen Lawrence from Labor's front bench, over its new asylum seeker policy. The reaction from most commentators was in keeping with the tone of 2002 - harsh and unforgiving. Strangely, perhaps, some of the most unbending criticism of Lawrence has come from people like Gerard Henderson ('what a luvvie!') and Nicola Roxon ('what a rat!') rather than the usual suspects of the New Right.

But many punters saw it differently, as the deluge of supportive mail to our daily newspapers and to Lawrence's own office showed. These people sensed that Lawrence's departure from Crean's front bench was a pivotal moment in contemporary Labor and Australian politics.


They were right. Lawrence's return to the backbench was no naïve, ill-disciplined dummy spit. It was no cry for attention of the "look at me, Kimmie, look at me!!" kind. It certainly was an expressive cry from the heart, but it came equally and steadily from the head and the soul. That's what the Australian Labor Party needs to get working on pretty damn quickly: its heart, head and soul, all together now. The litmus test of Labor's new asylum seeker policy doesn't show that any of these is in great working order. It's a policy shift in the right direction, yes - but only from C minus to C plus.

It took a brave woman to point this out. The hostile, muckraking response was probably predictable. It's tempting to think that's because Lawrence is female. By comparison, Mark Latham's own return to the backbench was very much a kid glove affair, inside and outside the party. And who accused Brian Harradine of pointless vandalism when he said in the wake of the stem cell result that he'd contemplated leaving politics entirely?

But hang on - the kickboxing sisterhood hasn't exactly jumped to Lawrence's defence. Julia Gillard is a woman. So is Nicola Roxon. What of Jenny Macklin, now the highest-positioned Labor woman in Federal Parliament, so happy to tell the world that women on the High Court might deliver better justice, but so silent on the real implications of losing her most talented frontbench feminist? And why was Geraldine Doogue so very unlovely in her Morning Luvvie Lifestyle radio interview of Lawrence after the event?

Something else underlies the wholesale lambasting of Lawrence: guilt and denial. There's no getting round it any more with euphemism,
misrepresentation and outright lies: the Howard Government has redefined Australian race politics, at home and abroad, to be mainly about licensing latter day stormtroopers to whack weak brown people. And Labor hasn't been willing enough and skilful enough to stop enough of that. . Labor is still choosing to buy into some of the most damaging elements of Howard's perversion of 'the Australian way'. Labor's contemporary leadership is prepared to shed a tear for the non-white dispossessed if they are Indigenous, but not if they've come on boats, and especially not if they wear headscarves. The disparity is obscene, and Lawrence has outed it.

In doing this, she has chosen to remain inside Labor's tent. Constructively, she has loosened a critical peg and replanted it further to the principled, humane left. It is currently deeply unfashionable across Australia, and within Labor, to be seen to believe in anything much beyond self-promotion and personal material advancement. That might work for many gut-level Coalition supporters. But it doesn't resonate with people across the formal political spectrum, and from a wide range of backgrounds, who are committed to taking Australia forward by working for collective social justice. Lawrence sees the value in Labor's long-standing relationship with this constituency and understands that Labor cannot afford to alienate it further.

The key challenge Lawrence poses is to every man and woman still inside the Labor tent, who must take responsibility for building better opposition to Howard, especially in the battles he stages in Australia's increasingly toxic culture wars.


By these actions Lawrence has proven her commitment to her party, and to the wider community she serves. This is what has moved her rank and file supporters to put pen to paper. As those Late Night Luvvies are no doubt murmuring into their bedtime cocoa - way groovy, Carmen.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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