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Brand-new TBS writer Ben Zerbe saw the progress at the Labor National Conference not on policy, but the internal politics shifting change from within.
Finally, a serious concrete policy has emerged to separate the Liberal and Labor parties in time for the next election. There have been a lot of no’s from Labor, but there haven’t been many serious policy proposals over the last twelve months. The opposition has been dining out on the failure of the Abbott Government’s first budget since May 2014. The party has been over for a while, but policy generation has been stilted and most of Bill Shorten’s doorstops have been savage attacks on the missteps of the Abbott Government. It’s hardly surprising for a first term opposition to be in this position.
However, Labor considers this next election winnable. Polling is polling. Moods can change. But the cold hard facts are: firstly, this iteration of parliament is being led by two of the least popular Australian political leaders in history and that secondly, the Liberals are finding it very difficult to make headway into Labor’s substantial lead in the polls. Labor would probably like to learn the lessons of the 2007-2013 edition. Namely, having something to do when they get into government. To do that, the party needs to have policies that prepare them to govern.
It makes sense then that this week has seen a flurry of announcements in the face of Labor’s National Conference. These announcements serve to illustrate the shifting sands of Labor’s internal politics. For the first time in a significant period, Bill Shorten’s right side of the party lost control of the national executive to part of the left earlier this year.
This has coincided with an apparent rise in Tanya Pilbersek’s public stocks. It is in this light that we must view two of the most contrasting announcements that have emerged this week.
The first policy announcement apparently served to cash in on the hubris surrounding the Shenhua mine in New South Wales and growing concerns around Australia’s growing reliance on coal as a commodity. Labor’s commitment to a reinvigorated Renewable Energy Target acted as a rolled gold certification of its status as a valid option on climate change.
The commitment to increase Australia’s renewable capacity to 50% of total energy demand in the next 15 years (more likely 13 and a half by the time they are sworn in, should they be victorious at the next election) is aspirational politics at its best. However, it is a clear policy differentiation from the “Coal is good for humanity” government.
The sheer magnitude of this commitment was mind boggling. But only until Labor made its next announcement. Bill Shorten announced that Labor would effectively bring itself into lock step with the Abbott Government on boat turn backs and the Pacific Solution mark II. The compromise politics at play was obvious. Courting the imminent outrage from their base over its attempts to turn the current government’s strongest portfolio into a non-issue, the opposition threw the left of the party a huge bone. Unfortunately for them it hasn’t played out as they might have hoped. A quick look at Bill Shorten’s Facebook page will tell you that the base are not happy at all. Renewable Energy Target or not.
Now not only is Bill Shorten a hypocrite, he also faces the horrifying prospect that he might not be able to get the immigration policy up at National Conference. The left wing of the party are outraged at this backflip which they see as a betrayal of the party’s core values. The numbers are going to be tight whichever way the vote goes. Shorten’s saving grace might be the Labor party’s desperation not to see The Killing Season 2 on our TV screens in the next few years.
While the showdown looms and internal tensions break out in public, the other major parties are laughing all the way to the bank. The Liberals get to pontificate on Bill’s inability to control his party or make up his mind. The Greens on the other hand know that if Labor moves closer to the Liberals on immigration then left wing voters could find themselves taking green how to votes instead of red ones.