Carmen rolls the dice

Carmen Lawrence sports too many scars and has too much history, not least the undying enmity of Brian Burke’s old mates, ever to contemplate a future leadership role in the Labor Party. But she has certainly set the cat among the pigeons (in the process initiating the endgame for Simon Crean) and has also probably guaranteed her place in the party pantheon. Indeed, those in the party who are bagging her hardest admit that a majority of party branch members support her views on refugees, and her frustrations with the leadership’s incapacity to strike a moral note. That incapacity has become almost a
political virtue—proof that the leadership is now so hard-headed and focused that it ignores its members and responds instead to what the electorate ‘feels’.

‘We need to tell Australians a story about the sort of  country we want this to be, what we hope for them and how we think their lives can be improved,’ she said as she marched off the front bench.

‘Certainly we have to be aware of the community’s needs and interests. But we can’t keep responding to what is the short-term view of the most audible section of the community. To develop good policy, Labor has to start with set values and ideals to which we aspire as political activists. Otherwise, why bother? Values and ideals shouldn’t be for decoration; they are not just a preamble to the policy statements. They should be embedded in it in terms of the decisions and the language. And they shouldn’t be abandoned at the faintest whiff of grapeshot.

‘As long as Labor tries to argue the case on Howard’s territory, then he’s the one dictating terms about the political contest and how it’s played out. After all, Labor played along with the moral panic surrounding the boat people instead of getting out there and persuading Australians to a different point of view.’

Throw in a few words about timid leaders promoting policies designed with one eye on the polls and the other on media impact, about forelock tuggers and a lack of a compelling leader, and it was pretty mutinous stuff. Pretty disloyal, too, coming from a person who was a political liability for all of her period as a Keating minister, who was hardly a stunning example of adherence to core values as West Australian minister and premier, and who had made little impression as either a Beazley or a Crean shadow minister. But, oh so right, articulating the despair felt by so many in the Caucus and the rage inside the party at large.

Nicely fitting, also, into a major struggle within the Labor Left, in which the NSW-based Albanese faction (to which she belongs) is head-to-head with Martin Ferguson over ideas, ideals and all of the perks of office. Ferguson is entirely unsentimental about refugees and a leading defender of Labor’s flirtation with pragmatism. In standing beside Lawrence, the Albanese faction was signalling not only that the push is now on against Crean, but that at least some within the party are searching for some moral authority with which to woo back defectors to the Greens.

Meanwhile, a rattled but unmoved leadership sees appeals to morality or to ideals as entirely the wrong way to go. Let the bleeding hearts go. They may go to the Greens, but their preferences will come back to Labor, after all. No causes. No campaigns. It’s a search for the middle ground and the underlying values and beliefs (as revealed, of course, by polling and focus groups rather than leadership or intuition), and for the middle class and the middle-income earners. A middle way, undercutting Howard (it is hoped) by better articulating many of the traditional values, if with a more caring touch.

Were Crean more personable, and quicker on his feet, he might do better with this policy model than Kim Beazley did before him. Except, of course, Beazley was better at this—if only by being more avuncular and sounding rather more sincere. And Beazley failed, being completely outmanoeuvred by a John Howard in only half the form that Howard is in now. And in the process he trashed his party’s capacity to appeal to the heart as well as to the brain. Crean himself can’t do it and his party knows it. But it cannot think of a more attractive salesman or a more attractive strategy, especially while the party remains in the thrall of those who have made such strategies work so well, with leaders who are at least as
unimpressive as Crean, in the states. That the only people who have signalled—subtly—their readiness to lead, were Crean to fall under a bus, are unsellable hacks such as Wayne Swan or unappealing technicians such as Kevin Rudd, underlines the crisis. John Faulkner, alas in the Senate, has the heart and the brain to lead, but not the sense of duty. As someone once commented of the 1930s Tories ‘It was the usual collection: those who have been tried and found wanting; those who are wanting to be tried; those who are manifestly wanting and those who are manifestly trying.’

That’s Crean’s best chance, in fact. Foundering he may be, but there are no other strong swimmers, least of all ones anxious to lead the party into what is shaping up, against  either Howard or Costello, as almost inevitable defeat. A  defeat, moreover, that would leave most of the party faithful—who hear other sirens, not least those suggested by Carmen Lawrence—fairly unmoved. 

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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