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Labor playing with fire in its rush to burn the Green witch

By pouring vitriol on an ally, the government only fuels confusion and cynicism.

SUDDENLY Labor, or at least many in it, have decided they must burn the Green witch. Prominent players have been stoking the fire all week, tossing the vitriol like kindling onto the pyre.

In most cases a Labor-Green mutual exchange of preferences in the Senate will be to both parties' advantage. 

It's easy to understand why Labor figures see the need to mark themselves out from the Greens, and the reasons for their anger with their alliance partner. The Greens' refusal to compromise over asylum seeker policy has triggered an outpouring of frustration about the wider relationship.

The ferocity of the attack is something else. It's confusing to the public, another example of the ALP not getting its message out in a way that people can readily understand. Does Labor really want voters to draw the conclusion that the ABC's Annabel Crabb reached: ''If the government is really so convinced the Greens are loopy … then it should tear up its agreement''? Of course not. It wants people to simultaneously accept that the Greens are mad and bad, but that it's necessary and sensible to be bound to them by a formal agreement.

The Greens are trading off their victim status. In an email to their 60,000 supporters list that appeals for donations, leader Christine Milne says it is ''no coincidence'' that Labor's aggressive tactics have ramped up just before the byelection in the seat of Melbourne where the Green candidate is ''on track to win''.

The desperation of the hung parliament produced the formal Labor-Green alliance. There is some question as to why it was needed, given the Greens were never going to back Tony Abbott. But having them formally locked in was attractive to the embattled Julia Gillard, even if the subsequent dance was always going to be dicey.

The price of alliance was that the PM had to act quickly on carbon - which caused Gillard to break her pledge of ''no carbon tax''. It is intriguing to contemplate how things would have played out if Gillard had not made an agreement with them, and had stuck by her promise for long consultations on carbon pricing. She might now have more public trust; she wouldn't be defending a carbon tax.

If he'd been around, former finance minister Lindsay Tanner, who retired at the election, might have warned of the danger of entanglement. Tanner, who held Melbourne (now occupied by Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt), saw the juggernaut coming - in his seat, in the state seats in the area, and more generally.

In 2010 Tanner wrote that the Greens ''are harvesting growing support from a particular demographic that first emerged as a key part of Labor's support base in the late 1960s''.

The rising Green vote was a product of increasing tertiary education, he said, with their support concentrated among ''tertiary disciplines that are focused on much more than just making money''.

''Unlike most Australians, these voters tend to be secure and comfortable enough to be able to put aside immediate self-interest when assessing their political options. Unfortunately for Labor, their viewpoint is increasingly at odds with the perspective of Labor voters who aren't tertiary educated. On issues like asylum seekers, gay marriage, forests and civil liberties, such differences can often be stark. It's these differences that the Greens seek to exploit.''

While Gillard herself had some sharp words about the Greens in a speech last year, given the alliance and their sole balance-of-power position in the Senate, Labor previously hasn't been inclined to have a robust face-off. Indeed, for a long time it was notably understanding about the Greens' refusal to consider offshore asylum seeker processing.

Last week, things changed. Government whip Joel Fitzgibbon lashed the Greens in an opinion article about the asylum impasse: ''Labor's best chance is to call their actions for what they are and to tackle them head on.'' This was followed by New South Wales Labor secretary Sam Dastyari denouncing the Greens as ''extremists not unlike One Nation'' and foreshadowing he will move a motion at this weekend's ALP state conference calling on Labor to ''no longer provide the Greens party automatic preferential treatment in any future preferential negotiations''.

The motion also says that ''extreme elements'' of the Greens economic and social agenda are at odds with ''the values and needs of many Labor voters''.

Some Labor sources claim Dastyari's timing was driven by a desire to divert attention from controversial party reforms that he has been pushing, notably having the party membership elect state Labor leaders.

Maybe he just thought the time had come to take a stand and doing it around preferences underlined the point.

At one level, the preference stance is odd. The ALP can preference against the Greens now - there is not a binding party position saying it can't. And wouldn't it be expected to just act in its own interests?

The ins and outs of preferences can be hellishly complicated but in most cases a Labor-Green mutual exchange of preferences in the Senate will be to both parties' advantage.

The thought that Labor would preference against the Greens if that was likely to help produce an Abbott-leaning Senate seems ridiculous. In the lower house, while Labor preferences are not likely to be of much use to the Greens, the (small) difference between the Greens favouring Labor or running an open ticket can be important to the ALP in a close result.

On one interpretation, Labor's talk about preferences is partly designed to pressure the conservatives to preference against the Greens, as happened (to the Greens' great disadvantage) in the Victorian election. This might see off Adam Bandt (but no guarantee), and would help protect the NSW seats of ministers Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek, which could be under threat from the Greens. The NSW Nationals are already headed to preferencing against the Greens everywhere. Tony Abbott has so far been evasive on the issue.

What Gillard thinks about the great Greens debate is unclear. When asked about preferences she has said it's a matter for the organisation (which forgets former leader Kim Beazley's strong declarations about putting One Nation last).

While it is undoubtedly necessary for Labor to separate its ''brand'' from that of the Greens, this should have been the approach right from the start of the minority government, even at the cost of sometimes making Labor-Green relations testier. Given that it is being done now, however, a more subtle approach was necessary. If you throw insults of ''extremism'' and ''loopy'' at people after giving voters the impression that they are your friends, you can't blame the electors if they are cynical.

Michelle Grattan is political editor.

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182 comments

  • Interestingly One Nation is introduced finally into that media blackhole... media's inconvenient memory. That particular Crabbe piece, or childish tantrum, was a further observation where certain shapers of political debate simply lack memory, lack revisions of their previous involvements, lack an ability to relate that once accepting a precedent so obviously dangerous,this is to set a trend which is never to be undone.
    Now my memory is jogged every single occasion when certain shapers of debate handpick delicately one player and conveniently ignore mentioning the mob of bottom feeders also involved. “Target Hanson”, regardless of her beliefs, has inspired a political discourse of opportunistic flaming and absurd headline grabbing hysteria that a witless nation now believes relevant to the day to day management of running this nation. Now let me jog my own memory of that time.... you remind me Mitchie of Beasley.... I respond with the youthful shock jock media darling who set up camp in a Sydney radio station which drove a city to despair with endless tirades all based on a handful of Hanson remarks until a youthful shock jock media darling sought to seek to profit himself. Bad luck Pauline. And comparing “loopey” to Brown's “bloodsucker” remark must seriously challenge the shallowness of The Greens claims of virtue. Covered in muck. So please spare the long winded catholic church and ADF styled emotional venting from The Greens. Up to their chins in muckraking with the rest.

    Commenter
    RgRedfern
    Date and time
    July 13, 2012, 9:16AM
    • Yes the attack on Hansen by Abbott was the height of any Malleus Maleficarum in this country, he learned a lot of old tried and tested tricks in the seminary didn't he?
      He's giving Gillard a good witch hunt hammering too. But he will never succeed as he did against Hansen, having her jailed on false charges and leaving all his confederates and conspirators in the lurch.
      It's amazing he's still in parliament, most people would not trust him as far as they could kick him after that one.

      Commenter
      HFR
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 12:19PM
    • Surely the ALP is well within its rights to argue the Greens are our rivals and the Libs are our rivals. Who are our bigger rivals in each seat? If the Greens aren't going to preference us we are going to preference them, and what effect will that have on us given that we will get their preferences over the Libs anyway.

      One could argue that the Greens will lose out more given only 3 of their Senators got in due their own primary vote, hence the rather large outrage from Milne and Hanson-Young (who will definitely go if she doesn't get ALP preferences at the next senate election)

      Commenter
      Carstendog
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 12:32PM
    • I say be careful before throwing out the comments made by Paul Howes about the Greens being extremist like the Hansonites.
      To be balanced and not led astray remember that a lot of the commentariet know or have friends in the Greens therefore the Greens have access to a voice and are given empathy and favourable treatment by them.
      Whereas the commentariet didn't know people who were attracted by Pauline Hanson therefore its was an anathema to them and easy to criticise. Hanson gathered support from people who were not participating or actually excluded from the benefits of economic growth.
      Under a true democratic world each should be treated equally. Be a democrat and look at their policies and how they propose to implement them i.e. can they make a compromise. You'll find both are loopy..
      What i find amusing is both movements have their Hansons (sic), Pauline and Sarah. One is just "Young"er than the other.

      Commenter
      Strike a Balance
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 2:15PM
    • Tigermoth - "We have a special ANZAC relationship with NZ, so we have a valid reason to treat them differently."

      Okay Tigermoth, what if it were 5,000 English refugees? Would we lock them up behind razor wire? Or would be let them in.

      I'm guessing we would let them in. Don't try to argue we have a special relationship with England, as that is side-stepping the issue.

      In essence, and I believe this too, I think if asylum seekers were white anglo saxons then they wouldn't be locked up behind razor wire for years. Draw any conclusion you like from that, but I don't believe that Australians would stand for people just like them being locked the way we lock up asylum seekers now.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      Preston
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 2:19PM
  • Hopefully Labor will have some votes to preference out!
    Maybe the Greens could do a similar tantrum and the result an early election - wouldn't have to worry about the umm, who were they - oh yes Labor mob

    Commenter
    Ted
    Date and time
    July 13, 2012, 9:17AM
    • It beggars belief that the ALP is denigrating its better-educated and less self-interested supporters - the ones who are drifting to the Greens - as loopy, ignorant, and not acting in the best interests of the nation.

      The ALP was traditionally the party of human rights and was formed to promote the welfare of shearers during the strife of the shearers' strike. If it still represents the poorer and less powerful in our community, the narrative of the fair go and the advance of human rights would be easy to promote to its supporters of any educational attainment..

      That would be a more constructive approach than to fall-in with the scare campaigns of those who want us that believe that human rights destroy rather than protect individual privilege.

      The ALP shook off the White Australia Policy and the sky did not fall in. Why does it want to return to it?

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 9:18AM
      • Much of the government's behaviour beggars belief Ross but it's a bit unclear what you mean about the return of the white Australia policy.

        Commenter
        Hacka
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        July 13, 2012, 9:53AM
      • Better educated people know that the Greens are loopy and if they took the reins of power that the country would be broke...but I digress....They would also know that...............
        In 1966, the Holt Liberal Government introduced the Migration Act, it effectively dismantled the White Australia Policy and increased access to non-European migrants, including refugees fleeing the Vietnam War.
        The Fraser Liberal government's review of immigration law in 1978 ensured that all selection of prospective migrants based on country of origin was entirely removed from official policy

        Commenter
        shemp
        Location
        melb
        Date and time
        July 13, 2012, 9:53AM
      • Ross - spot on. I am one of the ex-labor voters now voting Green. The current Labor attack on the Greens just confirms my choice and demonstrates that the ALP are no longer worthy of my vote. While I would never preference Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull would get my preference now (if I could be confident the Coalition wouldn't knife him again). And, yes, I have read all the Green's policies; no problems there.

        A sad ALP government; policy development and implementation mostly excellent and in all cases far superior to the alternative; politics, dreadful (admittedly this is in the context of a hostile and ignorant media and a grossly irresponsible opposition, pandering to peoples' worst instincts and prejudices).

        Commenter
        MW
        Location
        Doncaster
        Date and time
        July 13, 2012, 10:09AM

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