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Labor: stuck between a boat and a hard place

By John Slater - posted Friday, 24 July 2015


There are few occasions that shine such penetrating light on the deeply embittered ideological divide between the Labor Party's left and right factions quite like its national conference. The policy showdowns that await the weekend suggest this years event will be no different. However, the stoush runs far deeper than the politics of a binding vote for same-sex marriage or asylum seeker policy. Rather, these issues are emblematic of the existential tension between Labor's socially conservative, working class roots and its ongoing flirtation with the progressive green-left.

Take Tanya Plibersek's self-serving push for a binding vote for same-sex marriage. Despite the world being struck with rainbow fever after the United States Supreme Court upheld a right to same-sex marriage, calmer minds recognise that legislative change in the area of marriage must be made with a degree of mindful caution. In particular, there are real questions about how religious liberty should be accommodated in any proposed bill. For instance, if the definition were simply amended from 'a man and a woman' to 'two people,' would religious celebrants refusing to solemnize a same-sex ceremony face sanctions under Anti-Discrimination legislation?

As marriage equality advocate Christine Forster has pointed out, it would be far preferable for same-sex marriage to be passed with overwhelming support from the parliament than by a hard fought, close majority. Indeed, if Australia were to pass same-sex marriage amid a messy public standoff with religious groups, its significance as a victory tolerance and acceptance would be surely tarnished.

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This points to a bipartisan bill based on input and consultation across all parties as the safest option. A binding vote which conscripts Labor members to support a yet unwritten law is deaf to such sensitivities. It risks derailing would could easily turn out to be a delicate consensus.

Yet for Plibersek, the idea of negotiations is nothing but an indignity in her righteous crusade for equality and justice. Plibersek's sidekick Penny Wong is fond of saying that a conscience vote sends the message its okay for Labor members to support discrimination. Sadly, Wong's dog-whistling to left hurts the cause of marriage equality more than it helps it.

Also on the conference agenda, is an issue that has become totemic of Labor's electoral failings in recent years, asylum seeker policy; specifically, turning back the boats. In a bid to draw first blood, Bill Shorten has already announced his intention to make boat turn backs part of Labor's platform in the next election, much to the consternation of the leader's left leaning caucus colleagues.

Perhaps more than any other issue, boat turn backs expose the underbelly of Labor's internal divide. The right have become savvy to the political realities and humanitarian consequences of a border policy which fails to deter boat arrivals. They acknowledge that the people smuggling industry and lives lost at sea during Labor's last term were a result of dismantling the previous policy settings, good intentions notwithstanding. They also heed a political lesson of the last 15 years; that working and middle class voters in swing seats are inherently uncomfortable with the idea of people, whose refugee status is yet unverified, paying smugglers to reach our shores.

Meanwhile, the vision of the left is one of absolutes. The possibility of economic migrants paying their way to reach Australia is rejected as cold-hearted cynicism. Their compassion, and some might say their naivety, prompts them to believe that only the imminent threat of death or persecution could ever possibly drive a person from their homeland to seek a better here. No one denies the suffering faced by the world's millions of refugees. But for the left, the presence of human suffering is a trump card which overrides all else. Holding concerns over the sustainability of arrival numbers, facilitating an international criminal enterprise and worst of all economic migrants is explicable only by a lack of compassion.

On boat turn backs, the right's pragmatism and left's ideological purity are irreconcilable. This poses problems for both sides in the aftermath of the weekend's conference showdown. With frontbenchers from both persuasions on the record about their views, any pretence of unity once a position is decided will appear farcical to even the casual observer.

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While no visible stoush has yet emerged, a proposed motion to water down language praising Australia's alliances with the United States and Japan in favour of elevating China's "re-emergence" is similarly revealing. Headed by Tanya Plibersek, the deliberate change hints at the left's longstanding discomfort with Australia being regarded as part of the anglosphere as well as the country's British inheritance. Although the change is small, it suggests a forecast that is grim. While fashionable amongst intellectual circles, Paul Keating's sermonizing over the need to refashion Australia's anglo heritage to better reflect the continents 'place' in Asia struck a wry note with middle ground voters.

For those concerned about Labor's electability, whichever side prevails the prognosis is poor. Straightjacketed by ideology and lofty ideals, the left's seemingly innate hostility to compromise limits the party's ability to cut through to the beltway seats that won it the 2007 election. While history tells the right stand the best chance of recovering this lost ground, the risk of a move to the centre provoking an even greater exodus to the Greens looms larger than ever. The right's claim to leadership is further weakened by the stagnancy of its policy platform. During the Hawke/Keating era, Labor's right were at once economic reformers and social innovators. Today, they masquerade behind a war cry 'fairness' while largely shunning the question of how they plan to reconcile Australia's future prosperity with its panoply of social spending programs.

The face-off between Labor's left and right factions at this weekend's national conference is sure to be be newsworthy, if only because hot button issues like boat turn backs and same-sex marriage are on the agenda. More significantly however, it reveals an existential struggle that goes to the core of Labor's governing philosophy. Heading into the next election, this raises a vital question for Labor. How can it convince a sceptical voting public to support a platform that leaves its own caucus so bitterly divided?

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About the Author

John Slater is the Executive Director of the H R Nicholls Society.

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