02 December 2010

Right away

It's now or never for the Labor Right. They have to take over the Federal Government this side of Christmas, or they'll die a slow death as a political force in this country. They've had two good goes, but unless they move now it's all over.

The NSW Right saw off communism in that state during the third quarter of last century while other states wrestled with it as a legitimate part of the labour movement. It used that clarity of purpose and resilience to reclaim state government in NSW less than six months after Whitlam was annihilated at the polls. The NSW model was adopted by Labor in other states, however grudgingly, and was increasingly adopted in federal government throughout the 1980s and '90s, under Hawke and then NSW's own Paul Keating.

After Keating lost there was a second round of Labor right dominance. Labor was back in power in NSW but led by Bob Carr, a man geared around short-term announcements (he had the Olympics foisted upon him). Staffers who had done the hard yards through opposition and had seen off the Greiner-Fahey government, and who had either declined or not been offered jobs with HawkerBritton, were swamped by refugees from the Keating government. These grizzled veterans from Canberra were jaded with reform (Greiner and Fahey had done most of the heavy lifting anyway), and fearful of accusations of financial recklessness (like Victoria and SA) that they were fearful of the very kind of long-term, expensive projects NSW desperately needed then - and even more so now.

It was Carr's chief of staff, Bruce Hawker, who developed the most recent model of promise 'em anything and recant within the first six months of office, so that the public end up grateful to Labor for anything they get. This model relies upon a hopeless Liberal Party, a given until recently. Blending this model of low expectations and small-scale deliveries was people like Tripodi and Roozendaal, delivering behind closed doors for property developers, the one group of capitalists who can't decamp to a more favourable jurisdiction. Again, this model was exported around the country: people like Rann and Beattie became better examples of the new Sussex Street model than, say, Maxine McKew. This round continued when Labor's Right united in December 2006 to remove one honorary New South Welshman, Kim Beazley, and replace him with another, Kevin Rudd.

This model started to wear out thanks to the various scandals that have seen 13 NSW ministers dumped but still in Parliament, fearful of byelections even in the heartland, and equivalent examples in other jurisdictions of eyes-off-the-ball. Its last hurrah came in mid-2010 when the Right united across the country to dump Rudd for Julia Gillard. It's over, but the Labor Right - and far too many outside it - fail to realise that.

Mark Latham wrote in today's Australian Financial Review that the Right will push on against Gillard, and replace her with Chris Bowen - but he would say nasty things about Gillard, wouldn't he. Bowen denied that he was plotting against Gillard - but he would, wouldn't he.

The question is: with what? With pig-headed self-belief powered by nostalgia? While Latham may be excused for not getting it and seeking attention for its own sake (but he isn't even a blogger!), nobody in the journosphere who is sucked into this story by a total lack of sense, judgment, any understanding of recent history, or of basic political reality half-witted news editors panicked by the declining relevance of organisations that have lumbered them with miscalculated bonus targets "the 24 hour news cycle" has any excuse for believing the Labor Right can deliver on anything.

The best example of centrist Labor government anywhere in the country, the Bracks-Brumby government in Victoria, was voted out last Saturday. This occurred despite unanimous agreement from the journosphere that Ted Baillieu was allowed a few seats in a bit of a protest but nothing like the 13 he needed to win government. You can bellyache all you want about ungrateful Vics, as many Labor activists no doubt do: but if you've got a choice between recognising political reality or listening to self-serving twaddle from Graham Richardson, what are you going to choose? Watch how Tim Holding can't get the numbers and is reduced to Costello-style impotence: if Holding gets monstered by a plodder like Andrews, what is Labor Right good for?

The worst example of centrist Labor government anywhere in the country, the Princess Wonkyhair government of NSW, has played every card from the Labor Right deck only to see the heartland of Labor Right to its biggest defeat since 1904. A few days ago the papers all published pictures of her scowling uncomprehendingly at the camera, as if to say: are you really prepared to give up on this? (To which the answer is, oh yes, as soon as possible). The main gripe against this government is that it has failed to face up to the big issues in governing this state, and the exodus of sitting MPs only reinforces that. The Labor candidates replacing them are the sort of nice-but-dim people who usually get trampled when they get in the way of the big beasts: the very sort of unimpressive people who occupied the Liberal benches during the 1940s, '50s and again into the late 1970s.

Other examples of Labor Right at work, Anna Bligh, Mike Rann and the Northern Territory Shire Council, are in the departure lounge - perhaps without the sniggering contempt due to Keneally (even her own State President, a Labor Right scion, won't vote for her!), but there nonetheless.

In the Federal government, however, let's look at the Labor Right:

  • Bowen has his work cut out in immigration. Paul Howes used to have "a bee in his bonnet" about immigration when a Labor Left minister held that portfolio, but the bee seems to have gone to sleep now that his factional mate is on the job, despite little actual change to policy outcomes. Bowen's only initiative so far is to engage in a Sydney obsession - to go looking for real estate (I hear the Adelaide Hills are nice this time of year!).

  • Tony Burke has it all ahead of him in the Murray-Darling, way too busy to be hitting the phones and causing trouble.

  • Stephen Conroy has taken the nearest thing this government has to a concrete achievement, the NBN, and ruined it with his my-way-or-the-highway approach.

  • Lacking anything substantial to stuff up, David Feeney has grizzled about not getting a big white car. Someone write that self-pitying fool a letter and tell him how life could be worse: sic 'im, Desperate Houso!

  • Rod Kemp and Andrew Thomson would have come through with the FIFA World Cup, so would John Brown and Les Johnson - Mark Arbib's was set to work on an organisation that, like the Labor Right itself, is just a network of stitch-ups; his attempts to reflect some credit on himself for this whole episode can only ring hollow;

  • Arbib and Joe de Bruyn have checkmated one another over gay marriage, but when it comes to getting around the Labor Right, gay and lesbian Australians will - like love itself - find a way.

  • Billy Shorten is being very, very quiet. Too quiet, perhaps, but befitting a man whose way of operating has been publicly found wanting - and who understands that knowing when to shut up is an essential part of playing the long game. For all I know, BShort could well be doing the difficult job of explaining to Tim Holding why it's a good thing that nobody will vote for him right now.

Australia's most fearsome political machine? Makers and breakers? Pfffft.

The Labor Right is finished as an election-winning political force in this country, a statement against which no evidence exists. The idea that they are powerful enough to knock off another Prime Minister is the fantasy of men whose time has passed - including Latham, but especially including others whose careers might otherwise seem very much alive.


  1. Hit the nail right on the head if I may say

  2. Anna Bligh is from the Left faction of the ALP. But I suppose she is in office on sufferance of the right-wing factions and as a condition of doing things their way.

  3. Thanks John and David.

    Yes, Bligh is from the Left but 'left' is a relative concept in Qld! Wonder what Anne Warner would think.

  4. How much of the Right's decline do you think came from the failure of the Rudd experiment? You're right about the ALP's right being kaput, but had Rudd not been so dismal, surely it would have given the Right a stay of execution.

  5. There'd be a few more MPs for a start, and many of them would be Labor Right. Rudd took their advice, he knew they put him in place, it's chicken & egg really. Had he focused more on other policies he might have built himself a broader base. Then again, LR put him in so they must take some share of the blame.

  6. I agree with the premise of this post, though as a long time reader I note you've been prophesying the end of the Sussex Street right for a few years now, including before the 2007 state election... what makes you sure that it'll be dead and buried with the NSW state election next year? I don't have too in-depth a knowledge of NSW politics but isn't John Robertson likely to take over the NSW ALP from next March, and won't the same fuck-ups that put the party in this mess still be firmly embedded in Labor's organisational and parliamentary ranks?

    I think the performance of the Coalition in the federal election puts to bed the idea that we can make accurate predictions of the long-term effectiveness of political organisations that seem burnt-out or beyond redemption. I realise this is a fraught comparison given the Labor Right's role in making Abbott electable, but there's been plenty of examples over the last 20 years of parties sweeping to power on the back of spectacular own goals by governments (you mentioned Greiner-Fahey for one).

    Also, I think your comments about Victorian Labor are a tad reductive. From what I've read and heard, the preselection deals hammered out a couple of years ago between the bulk of the membership, to the exclusion of party figures aligned with the SDA and NUW (the latter Holding's power-base), mean the Socialist Left / Labor Unity factional groupings have lost all meaning for want of any meaningful factional divides - whether it be on policy or personality. I'm pretty sure Holding getting locked out is because the majority of the party wants to keep his power base shut out and squabble over the spoils of defeat. Of course this will probably all be redundant in a year's time when the Victorian branch gets back to showing off its historical talent for having the most inane public brawls since the People's Front of Judea, but still..

  7. I never said that the LR would end after 2007, but I have described its steady decline to the point where the NSW + Vic right couldn't knock the skin off a rice pudding let alone blast a sitting PM out of the Lodge.

    I disagree with your second paragraph. To win, the federal Coalition will need to be very different to the carping it has shown under Abbott. If a party could win by own goals alone, Kim Beazley would be PM and Peter Debnam would be NSW Premier.

    You can't say that factional divides have no meaning and then point to an example where they have a real impact.

    The Hartcher article presents the Labor Right and some sort of continuum from Richardson through to Feeney, and I still say that whole model is stuffed. The assumptions that Gillard won't chart her own path and that people will accept the message put by some LR consensus are mistakes.

  8. this is really good stuff. Normally I get riled up reading your blog but it was just the cure after reading Costa's piece in the Oz today. Keep up the great work!

    Do slightly disagree re: Bowen. Yes he has a hard spot but he is making progress slowly but surely, the only way to do so in Immigration matters. We history demonstrates, quick fixes won't work. Doesn't mean it will end positively, but he needs 18 months.

  9. I agree with you on immigration policy Henry, but it's fair to say that Bowen has too little to show for it in order to knock off the PM as Grog has pointed out.

    My point is that he doesn't have 18 months: his base will be dead by then.