An (almost) classic Labor power play

Wednesday, 7 March 2012 

They've still got it - sort of.

NSW Labor would have loved to see Bob Carr in the Senate. Unfortunately his answer to us is still no.

– Twitter last Tuesday by Sam Dastyari – NSW Right general secretary.

Just signed Bob Carr’s nomination form for the ALP Senate pre-selection – Awesome!

– Twitter last Friday by Paul Howes – NSW Right union hack.

The NSW Right is the group that gives Labor governments strength, stability and campaigning ability. When the NSW Right is weak, so is the party.

– Mark Arbib at a NSW Right do this week.

There were two limitations of the Australian media exposed by its coverage of the events of the last fortnight. First it has a tendency to get tangled up into the events to the point where it thinks its own reaction constitutes a political event in itself. Secondly, it tends to mystify what are the normal internal workings of political parties. This is not an intellectual problem of journalists. It simply reflects the way that the media is being used by an increasingly dysfunctional political system to conduct even its most internal functions.

Take its coverage of the Carr appointment as an example. Let’s leave aside the question of whether one of the ALP’s most outspoken opponents of “Big Australia”, and current immigration levels, might make the best first ambassador to a region where Australia’s attitude to immigration remains a sensitive issue. Gillard’s “masterstroke” came not from the appointment, but from blind-siding a media that was caught out because it also became caught up in the events.

It is perfectly natural that the NSW Right would want to replace Mark Arbib with another of its own. It would almost be just as natural that if the plum job of Foreign Affairs came up at the same time, it might want to fill that as well. Carr was ideal because it would have allowed the NSW Right to do precisely that. It also helped of course that Gillard would have no problem with Carr either; after all, his “Little Australia” views are perfectly in line with hers and Sussex St’s Howardesque world-view.

This is not to say that by this being primarily a NSW Right appointment that Gillard is a “prisoner” of the factions – anymore than Hawke, Keating and Whitlam were – it’s simply the way the ALP works. Indeed other than a certain Queenslander, Gillard is probably less beholden to the factions than any Labor leader for some time. The problem for her is that the factional system that she, like most other Labor leaders, is relying on, is starting to breakdown.

That the NSW Right, historically Labor’s most important faction, would be overseeing Carr’s appointment is not unusual. What was less usual was that instead of it going through on the nod, the NSW Right lost control of it.

One of the products of the Rudd challenge was that it not only highlighted the disarray of the NSW Right, but brought into prominence individual Ministers playing a much more upfront role as they took to the airwaves on an internal issue as though only Labor members were paying any attention (which to be fair, was probably the case). How much it was newly-empowered Ministers or just the naughty Victorian Right playing up, is hard to tell. But by Tuesday, the Carr push looked to be dead.

So what to do? Well, funnily enough, suddenly on Wednesday we had a raft of articles simultaneously appearing in the Fairfax and Murdoch press all saying what a disaster it would be for Gillard and the government if the Carr appointment didn’t go ahead. It would also have been a disaster, apparently, if Smith had been moved from Defence.

The spin on all the articles was the same, the Carr appointment was a major test for Gillard’s authority … Labor MPs wringing their hands … test of leadership … doubts return … hum-te-dum-te-dum. The themes were the same, but not for any obvious reason. Gillard giving it to Smith would apparently show she couldn’t stand up to the “faceless men”. Why? Ministers like Crean and Smith may be non-descript, but to call them “faceless” sort of goes against the whole point of the tag. According to Shanahan “if Smith now gets the job of foreign minister, Gillard’s impotence on ministerial selections and renewal will be confirmed” – when going against the wishes of the NSW Right might just have easily confirmed the opposite.

Where had these stories, especially with such a spin, come from? With the Evil Ming now out of the picture it couldn’t be him. Maybe it was just good investigative journalism, with the simultaneous slanting in favour of Carr just being a coincidence. Surely it wasn’t the NSW Right leaking it? Surely one faction wouldn’t be pushing its own interests to the press, even if it meant damaging the Prime Minister and the government in doing so? That would be something completely unheard of for the NSW Right – except, of course, the last time they did it.

What we do know is that the NSW General Secretary’s tweeting to the world about it on Tuesday night was not especially helpful. And we do know that by Friday, the NSW Right had got what it wanted and “faceless man” par excellence Howes could tweet victory to the world. The press had been so ready to interpret the appointment of Smith as the inevitable collapse of Gillard’s authority that the appointment of Carr had to be hailed as a political “masterstroke”. Of course, it wasn’t a masterstroke, just the way the ALP works, but a little more clumsily than before.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 7 March 2012.

Filed under Media analysis, Tactics

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8 responses to “An (almost) classic Labor power play”

  1. Riccardo on 7th March 2012 7:56 pm

    KeeP it up TPS i come here for my regular fix of real poliitical opinion, not the rubbish in the MSM.

    I thought the diffence between the Calwell/Whitlam era faceless man and the ersatz ones of today was the former groups illegitimacy was imposing party doctrine at a time when the ALP left had no social base, and the power of the Victorian branch was illegitimate becausae the states had no role in selecting national leaders.

    Wheras todays crop would have been ok in the late 60s, as this was understood to be the way the ALP worked.

    Rudd would have been happy to run australia from a plane, or over a mobile phone from Geneva or Copenhagen or Beijing if it came to that. As such even a party such as he had was not good enough, the party that legitimated hawke and keating could not legitimate him. Hence he sought his own authority from foreigners.

    I always laughed when staffers complained about being dragged onto Rudds plane at short notice. If west wing is to be believed, this is normal in the US, and such staffers are naive if they think australia must be run from australia.

  2. dedalus on 8th March 2012 9:36 pm

    Not sure that the media are being used by the political system – at least consciously. But you’re right that it was blindsided over the Carr affair. That to me was the entire fun in the thing. As usual, the knowledgeable hacks got it wrong, and Shanahan’s face must have hit the floor when Carr walked on stage.

    It’s fascinating how the government and the media are engaged in a kind of dance – albeit a deadly one. I’m starting to believe that Gillard is actually leading her hapless partner out onto a dark balcony from where just a slip or a gentle push will result in a pratfall into the sodden rosebushes.

    She now even has the old Whitlamite Spigelman on board with aunty. Fascinating times ahead.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 9th March 2012 10:49 am

    I would argue the media is being used by the political system and very consciously. The leaking during Rudd’s time of the ETS delay and the internal Labor polling to friends of Labor like Bolt clearly came from internal party sources and had clear political purpose.

    On that basis I think much of the reports by Shanahan and Coorey were spot on because their sources were impeccable. The reports in the Oz that Carr was being considered and then it was off were true because the General Secretary of the NSW ALP later confirmed it to the Twitter world.

    They got carried away with the momentum of it, but I don’t think there was any mis-reporting other than the conclusion that it was a “masterstroke”.

  4. Graeme on 11th March 2012 8:31 pm

    What’s really new here, other than a sped up media cycle? The media has been foregrounding political process over policy or outcomes since at least the Watergate era. Filling an unexpected vacancy, least of all in foreign affairs, wouldn’t usually be a chance to signal changes in overall direction. The only thing of significance here is the reaffirmation of the dominance of personality over substance in politics; and to a lesser extent Labor’s obsession with the search for some magical leadership cloth.

    Carr’s ‘not-a-big-Australia’ position is environmentally driven, not xenophobic; doesn’t it fit quite neatly a (western) internationalist position?

  5. The Piping Shrike on 11th March 2012 9:44 pm

    What is unusual is that the party’s most powerful faction had to resort to external media avenues to get what it wanted. Although it’s not new, the dumping of Rudd was also an example.

    It is true that Carr’s “little Australia” position is fashionable around the world as a right-on way for being anti-immigration. It’s hardly “internationalist” though.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 11th March 2012 10:09 pm

    Actually while we’re on this environmentalist bit, it’s so neat how it works. Don’t build dams for environmental reasons, (as much of other infrastructure was neglected in Carr’s time) and then later turn around and say you can’t have immigrants because there isn’t the infrastructure! Neat.

  7. Graeme on 20th March 2012 2:42 pm

    I’d have thought the population stabilisation, ZPG, call it hat you will position – as a development and foreign policy interest or global aim (which is I meant by ‘internationalist’) – was within the mainstream (if not the dominant) position for large parts of western europe.

    As for painting the green position as ‘don’t build it and they won’t come’… Well that’s as much cute as neat. I fear I’m unable to judge objectively: the La Roucheans make similar if more rhetorically rich arguments in their conspiracy-rich paper, which they keep distributing around my workplace.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 20th March 2012 7:59 pm

    I agree probably more unintentionally cute than neat. No one could be that much of a hypocrite intentionally, surely.

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