PAUL SHEEHAN July 23, 2012
The most beautiful part of Melbourne is the area around the University of Melbourne, the suburbs of Parkville, North Melbourne, Carlton, each lovely in their own way and, nearby, the Melbourne Cricket Ground and East Melbourne. Politically, all these elements are encompassed by the state seat of Melbourne, which Labor has held, unbroken, for 104 years. Labor also now has a federal leader and Prime Minister who is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and a habitue of this area.
Yet Julia Gillard was rarely to be seen in the byelection campaign for Melbourne, which culminated on Saturday. As I write, Labor is ahead by 2 per cent and is expected to squeak home on preferences against the Greens.
Rather than use the big cannon of Australia's first woman Prime Minister, Labor's champion in this campaign was another woman lawyer, Jennifer Kanis, 42, a former teacher, former city councillor now specialising in anti-discrimination law. In other words, yet another product of Labor's key support base of white-collar public sector workers.
The notable absence of the Prime Minister underlined the absence of public confidence that her government endures even as it runs a country in better condition that almost any large economy in the world.
The problem for Labor goes deeper than policies. All the speculation about leadership, personalities, polls and policies does not capture the fundamental issue in Australian politics in 2012, that the electorate has turned against Labor on matters of principle.
Even as the alternative prime minister, Tony Abbott, has not gained traction as a popular leader, he does not suffer, like Gillard, from a crisis of illegitimacy, which is reflected in the polls.
The basis of this aura of illegitimacy stems from the destructive and corrosive impact the Greens have had as the federal partner of the Gillard government. The Greens are at the root of Gillard's politically disastrous decision to impose a carbon tax. The Greens also fanatically supported the folly of dismantling an effective anti-people smuggling regime, which remains an ongoing debacle for Labor.
Exasperation at the corrosive influence of the Greens on its credibility has begun to find expression within the Labor Party. During the Melbourne byelection, Labor's Leader of the Opposition in Victoria, Daniel Andrews, described the Greens as purists with no desire to govern. He said he would not countenance a coalition government with the Greens.
This followed two Labor machinists, the secretary of NSW Labor, Sam Dastyari, and the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, both describing the Greens as ''extremists''. But the most pungent attack by a Labor figure on the Greens came from Sandra Nori, a former minister in the NSW Labor government. In a recent opinion piece published on a women's online forum, The Hoopla, she wrote:
''I have seen the Greens up close in the NSW Parliament, in local government in inner-city Sydney and … regard them as destructive opportunists, not interested in governing and, fundamentally, gutless.
''Regardless of denials to the contrary, they never concern themselves with the exigencies and complexities of governing. No going to a budget committee and preparing a submission for the Greens. No explaining why the treasurer and or cabinet colleagues should cut an important portfolio's budget to fund their project du jour. When you're Green, money just grows on trees.''
She is talking about the party on which the Gillard government depends for its agenda and its survival, a government which exists because of the combined unwavering support of five people, each of whom serves as a reminder of the government's tenuous grip on legitimacy:
1. Kevin Rudd. Had Labor kept Rudd as leader they probably would have won the 2010 election outright, avoiding minority government, though that can never be known. Labor learned the hard way that the public did not appreciate the insult to the electorate, which, having voted Rudd into office, saw union goons remove him from the leadership, and install a complicit Gillard, while he was still in his first term.
2. Craig Thomson. Let us not forget the man who was saved from bankruptcy by secret payments by the NSW Labor Party, saved from criminal charges by the foot-dragging of Fair Work Australia, saved from civil charges by the ineptitude of the Australian Electoral Commission, still sits in Parliament supporting the government. Thomson belongs in a federal or state institution, but it is not Parliament.
3. Tony Windsor. Mr 8 per cent. This is the ex-National who turned an 8 per cent primary vote for Labor in the 2010 election, and a 28.7 per cent Senate vote for Labor in his electorate, into a mandate for a Labor government. The Nationals have selected a heavyweight independent, Richard Torbay, to contest his seat. Windsor lives on borrowed time.
4. Robert Oakeshott. Mr 17 per cent. Another ex-National, who turned a 17 per cent vote for Labor in 2010, and a 30.3 per cent Senate vote for Labor in his electorate, into a mandate for a Labor government. Polling inside the electorate of Lyne indicates he is facing electoral oblivion. He has begun to talk about having health issues. This can be read as a prelude to a departure from politics which avoids electoral humiliation.
5. Adam Bandt. During the byelection campaign for Melbourne, Bandt, the only Greens member in the House of Representatives, campaigned strenuously against Labor, describing the Victorian party as ''unfit'' to be the opposition. Yet when he's back in Canberra, the former Trotskyite doggedly supports the government.
This grab-bag of dubious alliances, this spectacle of opportunism trumping principle, is the basis of the Gillard majority. If Bandt believed what he was saying about burgeoning support for the Greens he would help tip this government into an early federal election. But he won't. Sandra Nori got it right.
Correction: This article originally said Adam Bandt was the first Greens member of the lower house. Michael Organ held the seat of Cunningham for the Greens between 2002 and 2004.