Illustration by Matt Adams.

Illustration by Matt Adams.

There has to be a strategy in telling about 1.7 million Australians, predisposed to vote for the Greens, that they are fools and idiots, loopy, extremists, deluded, idealists rather than realists, and dangerous to the modern polity, to sensible economics to industry and jobs.

That's not simply abusing a party, but those who vote for it. A good many of whom are defectors that Labor wants to come home. Perhaps, given the rhetoric, for a jolly good smacking for being so naughty as to desert Labor in the first place.

Is abuse and punishment a variation of Raft of the Medusa, with Labor thinking that it might better survive its thirsty voyage better by eating the Green cabin boys rather than the first class passengers? An easier type of war than confronting the actual enemy? Or perhaps a factional war game in internecine bastardry, treachery and accidental seppuku?

Even a total collapse of the Greens - which is hardly going to happen - and a complete return of the prodigals to the Labor fold can make no difference to Labor's prospects. Labor's problem is not desertion to its left, but to the coalition. If the polls are any guide, more than a million of the 3.8 million voters (of about 12.7 formal voters) who gave Labor their first preference in 2010 have lost the faith and switched their loyalty to the coalition.

Without that lost million, Labor is toast - it faces a landslide of Queensland or NSW proportions. It will be lucky to have 30 seats in the House of Representatives. Even if that million came back - but only that million - Labor might not be returned to government. Last time that total gave it only 72 seats of 150.

Are the Labor tacticians bagging the Greens - and Greens supporters - because it thinks the million defectors - or more - have abandoned it because they think that it has swung too far to the left, or become some sort of tail wagged by the Green dog? Hardly? Labor's problem is not being thought to be standing on the left, but not being seen to stand anywhere on anything.

Is it, as some have suggested, Labor's revenge because the Greens have refused to be pragmatic over refugee policy, compounding with coalition intransigence to make parliament, and necessarily the Gillard government, look impotent and weak ? Or is it, as coalition leader Tony Abbott suggests a confected squall, designed to create a false appearance of serious ideological differences between Labor and the Greens - the combination that Abbott suggests, somewhat wrongly, makes up the capacity to govern? [It is true that Labor needs the support of the Greens to get legislation through the Senate, and that Labor has a deal with the Greens about Supply and motions of confidence. But Labor's capacity to govern is rooted in a working majority in the House of Representatives, and the sole Greens member does not, of himself, hold any sort of guillotine over Labor].

Is it, in short, just a put up job, designed to con the public into thinking, wrongly, that the parties are independent of each other? Great theories, but with no evidence whatever.

Another, intrinsically more plausible, theory sees it as a tactical plot by the NSW Right wing Labor machine, designed both to give it some flexibility on the floor of the NSW Labor conference at the weekend, and, perhaps, to give Labor machine men some room to manoeuvre in negotiating preference deals at forthcoming elections and by-elections. And perhaps an alibi, with defeat blamed not on those who failed, but on people so pure that they were unable to compromise.

By rights, one might not expect that Sam Dastyari, in charge of the Sussex Street machine, or the machine itself to be dominating the agenda of this conference. Or to be getting such a charmed run (as one always does) from the Murdoch Press in making the conference issue seem to be the supposed wickedness and folly of the Greens. Are the public, or the Labor faithful, so dumb as to be distracted by such theatre from the basic problem of the ineptness and incompetence and contagion of the Sussex Street machine?

Dastyari, at the top of the NSW machine, and his mentors, particularly Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, are the geniuses whose political management of NSW caused a utter collapse of Labor support in the state. The scale of voter rejection went far beyond a commonsense judgment that Labor, after more than a decade in government, had run out of ideas and needed the purification of a period in opposition. It involved a verdict on a style of cronyism, corruption, insider deals, and the abandonment of party democracy for rules by professional suits. It involved rejection of the secret deals by factions - including of the deals and operators who saw Kevin Rudd replaced in Canberra - and of the rorting of unions and abuse of union power by leading party figures. It involved the contempt shown to voters by players such as Bob Carr, who moved from the premiership to work for a merchant bank and developer, and Bitar and Arbib, now lobbyists for James Packer and the gambling industry.

What happened in NSW has been repeated in Queensland. Few doubt that voters are preparing the same treatment for a Gillard-led Labor Party - widely perceived as being in thrall to just the sort of factions players voters so emphatically rejected. Gillard has more problems in being perceived (rightly) as a creature of the Labor Right, than of being thought (wrongly) a catspaw of the Greens.

A fake crusade against the Greens has some promise of providing the appearance of ''outcomes'' at the NSW conference. Some - such as the appearance of party democracy in a few carefully chosen plebiscites and party primaries - will be said to be ''reforms.'' What will not be addressed are continuing cancers of the type seen in the Health Services Union, the power and reach of the AWU, Bill Shorten, Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes, and whether Labor should get itself a whole new team of organisers and a new type of organisation.

Labor is fundamentally different from the Greens. It does need to differentiate itself from them. It also needs to compete with them - about ideas and ideals, about policies, and, (because this is fundamental to Labor's view of itself) about power and holding on to it.

Labor's problem, so far as its left is concerned, is that it has let most of the argument go by default. This was not only by being ''pragmatic'' on what many in the party have seen as moral issues, including refugee and indigenous policies, and respect for human rights, but by progressively shutting out any sort of debate in the party. In the process. Labor seems to have lost not only much of its moral appeal, particularly to younger voters, and much of that emotional and social appeal which, over more than a century, saw thousands of men and women meet, plan and organise great campaigns, as well as tedious jobs outside polling booths. They won't come back for mere abuse, or threats of retribution - from suits whose political lifespan seems certain to be shorter than Green Senators. Would anyone follow Dastyari anywhere? Or Paul Howes? It's hard enough persuading anyone that Gillard is leading us going to.

Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times editor-at-large.