It was a week in which Australian national politics moved quickly.
The lead story in this paper last Saturday was Greg Brown’s exclusive that Scott Morrison has indicated that Australia will work towards net-zero emissions but is in no rush to sign up to a target to achieve this by 2050.
For a while, it seemed that the Coalition’s disinclination to take new 2030 or 2035 emission reduction targets to this year’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled to be held in November in Glasgow, would cause controversy.
But no. By Thursday the big story was that Mark Butler, the opposition climate change and energy spokesman, was to be moved in a reshuffle by Labor leader Anthony Albanese.
In a sense, the political winner of the week was Joel Fitzgibbon, the MP for Hunter in NSW. Fitzgibbon is one of the few prominent Labor members to represent a regional or rural electorate and who has a background in small business. In a series of speeches and interviews since Labor’s defeat at the May 2019 election, Fitzgibbon has been calling for the ALP to junk the policy that Butler designed for the last election and to adopt a policy on climate change and energy that is more understanding of one-time traditional Labor voters who work in energy and rural industries and their families.
If any Australian gets their news from ABC television, radio and online outlets they would be under the impression that climate change and related matters are essentially a political problem for the Coalition.
Sure, the Coalition faces problems in this area. The likes of Dave Sharma (the Liberal member for Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs) and Matt Canavan (the Liberal National Party senator based in Rockhampton in central Queensland) have different views on what should be the Coalition’s response to climate change.
However, so far at least, such divisions in the Coalition have been well managed by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer (and Liberal Party deputy leader), Josh Frydenberg. Certainly, it’s easier to handle conflict when in government than in opposition. But there is more to it than that. The divisions on climate change appear to be more substantial within Labor.
The essential problem is that Labor appears to be losing its traditional supporters in the suburbs, regional towns and rural areas. This is a reaction to Labor’s focus on the inner-city vote, since this is capable of drifting to the Greens.
Already the Greens hold Melbourne and the Labor machine in NSW is worried about inner-city seats such as Sydney and Grayndler when their current members — Tanya Plibersek and Albanese respectively — stand down. Labor faces similar threats in the inner city of Brisbane, Perth/Fremantle and Adelaide. Clark (based in Hobart) is held by a Green/left-inclined independent.
It is unlikely that the Labor Party will split again in the foreseeable future. The consequences of the splits of 1916 (over conscription for overseas service), 1931 (over economic policy) and 1955 (primarily over the party’s attitude to communism at home and abroad) live on in Labor’s memory today.
However, no one anticipated these earlier events and there was good reason none should have occurred. But all three did.
What appears to be happening within the Labor Party is a resurgence of its right-wing faction.
Until recently, Fitzgibbon was the faction’s national convener. Last Sunday in Melbourne, former leader Bill Shorten launched an edited collection of essays by Labor parliamentarians and operatives. Titled The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future, the book is edited by Nick Dyrenfurth and Misha Zelinsky.
In a forthcoming review of The Write Stuff to be published in The Sydney Institute Review Online, Keith Harvey has written that “the ALP Right has lost its sense of purpose and core beliefs”. Harvey, a former union official and non-factional member of the Labor Party in Victoria, believes “the problem is not factions in the ALP but the lack of ideas and values”.
In his essay, Dyrenfurth writes that “today, people of faith are made to feel unwelcome in the ALP or compelled to hide or apologise for their beliefs”. It’s a long time since the Labor Party was replete with Catholics and Methodists. But these days Labor’s alienation from some believers extends to the Christian Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic faiths.
Social conservatism has diminishing support among the increasingly secular, well-off inner-city residents. However, it remains strong in the suburbs and regional and rural areas where Labor needs to retain traditional supporters and win new ones.
It’s not only the Labor Right which is into self-reflection. Plibersek had a piece in The Australian on Thursday calling for a fresh approach to economic policy after COVID-19, evoking Ben Chifley’s leadership in the aftermath of World War II. She also has edited Upturn: A Better Normal after COVID-19, a collection of essays from a different perspective from that of The Write Stuff.
All this has led to leadership speculation. To be fair to Albanese, the lot of an opposition leader is even more difficult at a time of pandemic than usual. In any event, right now, no one has stepped forward as a challenger.
Vibrant political parties contain articulate and argumentative members who want to have their say. This is the case within the current Liberal and National parties. The task of leadership is to manage internal disagreement enough to present an attractive policy to voters whose support is needed for an electoral victory.
Most Australian elections are close and it would be foolish to rule out Labor’s chances at the next election based on current polling. However, oppositions in Australia have won government on only seven occasions since 1945: namely 1949 (Coalition), 1972 (Labor), 1975 (Coalition), 1983 (Labor), 1996 (Coalition), 2007 (Labor) and 2013 (Coalition). All the successful opposition leaders who made it — Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott — appealed to their party’s political base and beyond. That’s Labor’s task today.