Unity – an update

Monday, 14 October 2013 

I don’t think most MPs – the vast, vast, vast majority – are out to do anything wrong. If there is this confusion and there is this uncertainty, then it does need to be cleaned up for the public confidence in the system.

Bill Shorten on expenses

The rules are pretty clear.

Anthony Albanese on expenses

It was quite appropriate that about the only difference that emerged in Labor’s leadership election was on expenses since it went to the very heart of what the leadership contest was about. For Labor, expenses are intimately linked to the factional system – as was made clear when Rudd told (former) Senate nobody, but (still) factional somebody, David Feeney, to go and have sexual intercourse with himself when he, along with other factional bosses, complained about Rudd’s cutting back of taxpayer subsidies to their printing allowances in 2009.

Mark Kenny writes that the leadership contest was conducted “more tightly along factional lines than in any leadership ballot since the early 1990s” (actually it wasn’t that tight, there was a fair bit of leakage to Shorten from the left, probably from Plibersek fans), but such comparisons are nonsense for since when did the left challenge for the leadership? In reality, it didn’t much this time: there was no sign that this was a contest between two opposing factions that was supposed to have driven all the conflicts in Labor over the last century.

But as we saw during the Rudd-Gillard period, there is only one conflict in Labor these days, not ideological, but an internal one over the structure of the party. From this angle, the real contest over the Labor leadership this time had actually occurred before the ballot was even announced, when the right made a half-hearted attempt to trash the idea of a party-wide leadership election as a challenge to the factional system of appointing leaders, and the left put up a candidate to make sure that it went ahead. The push for the election was a legacy of Rudd’s alliance with the left, which given they were the perennial losers of the factional system, would have most to gain from it being overthrown. With the Great Destabiliser now out of the picture, the left insisted the election went ahead but much of the point of it had gone.

The contest showed that there is now no content to the left-right factional system other than a procedural one over the factional system itself. The problem is that neither now is there anyone immediately apparent who is prepared to present themselves against the entire factional system and the “old politics” and get electoral support from the public as Rudd did in his heyday. At least Shorten has shown he is prepared to break off from his chums in the AWU if need be, and seems a bit more sensitive to the dangers of being identified as an insider, but not to the point of challenging something dear to the power brokers as the ethos of the expenses system.

But nevertheless, that might not be necessary. Since if Labor wins the next election it will not be to do with whomever it choses as leader, but more to do with the Liberals – and here the government’s reaction to the expense furore highlights their problem.

Of course, taxpayers subsidise not only Labor’s factional system but the internal workings of the Liberal party too. But whereas for Labor the internal workings are institutional, for the Liberals internal politics is conducted through what can best be described as Strategic Socialising (not everybody might have been at Sophie Mirabella’s wedding for a “good time”). Printing allowances probably look more justifiable than a wedding jolly but in reality, given that the taxpayer is being asked to subsidise internal party machinations, neither are. Unfortunately, given the way the Liberals conduct their internal affairs, the Liberals are more vulnerable.

Yet the response by Abbott to the expenses furore shows his two chief political weaknesses. The first is his deafness to the anti-political mood that is surprising for a Liberal leader. Successful Liberal leaders in the past, such as Howard and Menzies, were adept at playing the battlers and the “forgotten people” against the “elites”. It was precisely for that reason that Howard brought in a strict ministerial code of conduct when he came in (later dropped).

Yet Abbott finds it difficult to respond to it: as shown by his justification for claiming expenses to Macquarie that “it was a marginal seat” (it wasn’t), as though political campaigning would somehow be seen by voters as an activity they should pay for. Abbott appears more sensitive to the problem of authority, and as Rudd showed, adapting to the anti-political mood with mea culpas while maintaining authority is a difficult balancing act, but Abbott seems to be leaning too much the other way.

But Abbott’s second weakness might prevent him from striking the right balance even if he wanted to – the legacy of the Howard Ministers. Just as Downer unhelpfully escalated tensions before Abbott’s Indonesian visit, so Reith unhelpfully flared up the expenses row with an imperious assertion on the right of politicians to spend taxpayers’ money as they see fit. The irony is that far from upholding the Howard legacy, both former Ministers are displaying less finesse than they did when Howard was actually in government. What they are more doing is carrying on the project of asserting the “brand” of Australia’s last political party that became urgent after Howard left.

As the expenses row hinted, they are unlikely to succeed. In reality neither Shorten nor Albanese were right on expenses. The rules are not clear, but nor is there “confusion and uncertainty” from politicians. The lack of clarity was because it was left to their discretion, as it has for decades, on the view that our elected representatives know best. This has never sat that comfortably with the Australian electorate but especially not now. Unless Abbott can control the pressure from behind him, Australia’s last political party might just find out why it is the last. Into such a vacuum could step somebody that has never made a point of standing for anything (or behind anyone) in particular. From that angle, Labor might have just found its best candidate.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 14 October 2013.

Filed under Political figures, State of the parties

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15 responses to “Unity – an update”

  1. Kate Emerson on 14th October 2013 10:17 am

    Yes, me again. I like your article and I agree with most of it. I voted for Albo but am absolutely fine with Bill. He’s smart, he is a fighter and he’s not far Right. I think you are rather wrong (can someone be ‘rather’ wrong?) anyway, about Kevin. He got ousted and be ought not to have been. Being human myself, I think hanging around in a revengeful mood, while not good for the Party is understandable. Julia was fine, to a point, but in the end, it ought to have been Kevin all along and I don’t believe he would ever have taken away that single parent’s pension. That did me with Julia finally, not Mr Rudd. You see, you can’t blame everything on Kevin nor on Rupert. In the end, Labor itself, Julia as PM, did plenty of her own damage and that needs to be acknowledged.

  2. David Rohde on 14th October 2013 11:20 am

    Its interesting that the purpose of this sort of rule was to make it harder for people like Shorten, now its very likely going to keep him leader for at least the next 3 years.

    I would be interested on your thoughts on where the Rudd-left alliance leaves people like Bowen who were strong Rudd supporters from the right. I would expect that Bowen’s decision not to run would be driven from alienation with his own faction resulting in difficulty drawing votes from the right, the left or the “Rudd faction”.

    Another disjoint point: It seems to me that one of the hallmarks of the Gillard era was turning away from Rudd and towards Howard for inspiration, (for (failed) strategic reasons rather than ideological reasons). I don’t get a firm sense of where this came from : Gillard herself, or the factions. Regardless, it looks like Shorten is not going to take this route…

  3. The Piping Shrike on 14th October 2013 11:26 am

    Probably Rudd-Left alliance is not the way to describe it, more like that Rudd had some support from the left against the factional system (he was dumped by a cross factional leadership). Bowen I think is too close to Rudd for the right just now, is my guess.

    Gillard reflected the thinking right across Labor during the Howard years that Howard “tapped into” their base (she was shadow Immigration Minister). It was not unique to her by any means – and of course, Rudd was susceptible too. I think though that strategy has been shown up by Gillard’s failure.

  4. F on 14th October 2013 11:53 am

    There’s grumblings afoot that the current leadership election process will be changed come the conference. They don’t like having the those dirty members interfering with their anointing process. Do you think the current process will ever be repeated?

    Also, Isn’t Shortens ascension(with the factional and union support it entailed, and the coming factional argy bargy over shadow cabinet positions) another example of the “dead hand of the party” rising to re-claim its control(like the Gillard years)? Shorten only got in on union funds and pressure. It was pretty clear who the powers that be wanted for the ‘top’ job.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 14th October 2013 4:48 pm

    Given both sides have gone on about the fabulousness of the election process, I would be surprised if they got rid of it, although the unions may want a vote as in the UK. Also the factions may want to maintain control over the leadership by lowering the level necessary to change it.

    But yes, we are back as business as usual in a way, with the Shorten – Plibersek combo being what would have happened under the old rules. Nevertheless, the election process has reminded everyone of the taint of illegitimacy of the old way, as witness Shorten’s act of penitence that he must do more to reach out to the membership. We are all Jesuits now.

  6. Craig on 15th October 2013 4:09 pm

    I’m not too fussed who won the ALP leadership.

    What is interesting is that broadly the membership are more “left” that the caucus.

    Also it’ll be interesting to see what Shorten makes of the repeal of the carbon tax. Voting for its removal will be suicidal IMO.

    At least the ALP is locked into its leadership…

    From Abbott’s perspective their agenda is primarily negative. Rolling back ALP stuff: NBN, Carbon, Mining.

    I think the ALP will be successful if they can stall these for 12 months or so as it will be easy to paint Abbott as a do-nothing which killed Ballieau here in Victoria.

  7. Craig on 15th October 2013 4:20 pm

    Of course, if the US defaults, a good crisis could provide a mission for the Libs…

    Options are:

    1) Keynesian stimulus to keep afloat.

    2) And this worries me, based on Hockeys comments today about a nation living with its means – whatever that means: Austerity which undermines growth, interest rates drop close to zero, unemployment rises, and they use it as cover to remove entitlements/rights/services… urk! Save us all

  8. The Piping Shrike on 15th October 2013 5:25 pm

    The Libs would do exactly what they agreed with during the GFC, throw money at it.

  9. F on 15th October 2013 6:02 pm

    We will never see austerity here until the rest of the world drags us kicking and screaming into it (which may be sooner than we all think if China continues to sputter, and our housing *not a bubble* market crashes)

    I agree with you Craig on the Carbon Tax. Politically it would be best for Shorten to keep that albatross around Abbott’s neck for as long as possible, and then if Abbott really insists on scrapping it he can get his hands dirty in the coming dogs-breakfast of a senate. I think he will come out of that covered in the proverbial.

  10. David Rohde on 17th October 2013 12:29 am

    You probably have already seen it, but I think this summary of recent factional maneuvers (invigorated by Rudd’s change of heart in allowing caucus to select the front bench) is interesting… It seems to be one step forward, one step backwards…

    It also confirms your commentary that the factions were breaking down in the Rudd-Gillard era.


  11. F on 21st October 2013 9:24 pm

    After watching Vanstone disparagingly answer a bush fire/climate change question on Q&A, does the coalition have a looming problem with “the environment” beyond the complicated politics of repealing the Carbon Tax? I thought they had a problem going into the 2007 election. Can extreme weather events, like the bush fires around Sydney, change the fundamental voter concerns of economy/health/education?

  12. atomou on 22nd October 2013 7:26 am

    F, the coalition has enormous problems with anything that requires thought or concern beyond wealth creation for the here and now and for their select (en)titled.

    However, I saw not much more thought or concern than that, afforded to this topic, or to the topic of asylum seekers from the ALP when they had the keys to the parliamentary dunnies.

    Of course, what I suspect that we are likely to see henceforth, is an enormous energy expanded by the “new” labor (a la “new” Gillard) to show thought and concern on these issues as if they have always been the thoughtful and concerned ones.

  13. Scott Paker on 27th October 2013 7:20 am

    Labor must overhaul its factional system but that’s like weaning an Ice addict.

  14. atomou on 27th October 2013 10:20 am

    “weaning an ice addict…” or toilet training a shit-scared toddler!

    Perhaps in a geological eon…

    I think it might happen when they suffer even worse electoral results, due to the influences of, say the Greens and a senate, burgeoning with non-entities and unknown cavaliers.

    As much as I think this goven’t is as low as Oz can go in terms of political quality, Labor, like an ice addict (and what the fuck do about that lot?)or a toddler, they need to hit their bottom hard so that the shit will be truly felt, before they shed this fecal system.

  15. atomou on 27th October 2013 5:07 pm

    Shite! My last paragraph reads as if written by an iced brain. Profuse apologies.

    Should read:

    As much as I think this goven’t is as low as Oz can go in terms of political quality, Labor, like an ice addict (and what the fuck do I know about that lot?)or a toddler, they need to hit their bottom so hard that their shit will be truly felt up around their jugular, before they shed this fecal system.

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