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
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,
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