It’s time: Labor must stop, look and listen while walking both sides of the street | Australia news


This week Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson challenged Labor to be a bit more like its opponents. In case this feels a bit bracing, they didn’t mean like its opponents in tone, or substance, or values, or ideology. The challenge was to learn to walk all sides of the street.

Let’s linger here for a minute so I can be clear. The Coalition is a diverse and highly regionalised political movement. Internally there’s a significant spread of sensibility. Just think George Christensen and Simon Birmingham playing on the same team and you’ll get my point. The coexistence isn’t always comfortable, but there is coexistence.

Because world views clash internally, the Coalition can look messy in Canberra reasonably frequently, and the scrappiness persists even in the “shut up and eat your peas, dad is talking” era of Scott Morrison, miracle prime minister.

But the diversity allows the government to empathise with a bunch of constituencies at once, and that can be helpful at a time when various interests in society are inclined to be grossly intolerant of one another, fuelled by the shots-fired culture of social media and egged on by the Balkanised cheer squads of the mainstream media.

Viewed in Labor terms, being able to bundle up the competing points of view and craft a message that speaks to the post-material, values-driven progressive and the worker deeply anxious about wages stagnation and their job security is the central challenge in Weatherill and Emerson’s campaign review. They suggest Labor needs to empathise and connect with more people, validate more concerns – which is harder than it sounds.

You’d venture it’s even impossible, given how fractious and unforgiving everything is, until you look at Morrison, who manages to walk every side of every street simultaneously and talk out of both sides of his mouth and suffer no apparent penalty. Lest I appear gratuitous, let me step you through some recent examples.

Readers will likely remember the hectoring and slightly sinister outburst last Friday about environmental boycotts. The prime minister took himself off to a resources industry lunch in Brisbane and flagged the government’s intention to disrupt the activism of people deeply concerned about the Coalition’s lack of action on climate change. While railing heartily against the illiberalism of woke progressivism, Morrison went full illiberal himself, presumably hoping no one would notice.

The message he wanted to convey to the resources sector (and more pertinently the people who rely on mining jobs to pay the bills, who swung to the Coalition or Pauline or Clive in May) was the government would shield carbon-intensive industries from the zealotry of ferals, be they litigation funders, activist shareholders or citizens with Keep Cups and homemade placards.

Heartwarming stuff.

But just a few days earlier, the same prime minister – intent on projecting to the blue-collar workers in Queensland that nothing has to change – handed an extra $1bn to the organisation Tony Abbott was fond of deriding as “Bob Brown’s bank”, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

This injection was for new transmission infrastructure, which will smooth the inevitable transition to firmed renewables. If you think about this for, I don’t know, about 60 seconds, you’ll tumble to the fact the “nothing must stop coal” government is the same government that is also preparing for the inevitability of carbon constraint in the economy.

Preparing for carbon constraint makes perfect sense, given it was the Coalition that signed Australia up to the Paris agreement. It wasn’t the alleged ferals with the placards, or the litigation funders, or the activist shareholders who took that decision. That was Abbott and his then cabinet.

Morrison boosting the corporation wasn’t the only hint that the future is a teensy bit more complex than the apocalyptic parable articulated by him at the podium in Brisbane. As well as arming the corporation for the future, Morrison also promised to help underwrite the main interconnector between New South Wales and Queensland.

In case you aren’t fortunate enough to be fluent in the fiendish dialect of national electricity market, what Morrison is doing with that underwriting is preparing for an energy future minus the clapped out Liddell coal-fired power plant in NSW – behaviour Abbott and Craig Kelly once would have categorised as a thought crime.

Just to round out The Adventures of Eddie Everywhere, the government also quietly pushed out a quickie consultation process to try to make its deeply suboptimal emissions reduction fund actually reduce emissions. It is hard to keep up with these plot twists but a reminder: this is the same government telegraphing it wants to limit the capacity of civil society to exert pressure for emissions reduction.

Given all this, it’s passing strange that Morrison rarely cops thunderous commentary about being all over the shop, flaky, or just that bit shifty – which, let’s be honest, is the kind of feedback Labor gets routinely when it attempts to empathise with the interests of coal communities while at the same time trying to fulfil the expectations of metropolitan voters deeply concerned that the world is hurtling towards a reckoning too terrible to contemplate.

Sometimes I do ask myself this question: why is Morrison permitted to shape-shift, and be deemed a genius for it, pretty much every day of the week, while a Labor leader trying to straddle constituencies is a sell-out?

Rather than pondering the imponderable, let me return to briefly to Morrison and his contradictions. But let me say this first: THANK YOU Stephen Day, who is the Morrison government’s drought coordinator. I’ve never met him, but do feel free to thank your deity of choice that he exists because this week he delivered a long overdue statement of the obvious.

Day’s report (handed to the Coalition in April, but released only this week) says drought is not a natural disaster but the new normal. Climate change, he says, means more droughts, more frequently, across more of an already arid country: “Ultimately, the nation could see some areas of Australia become more marginal and unproductive.”

But despite the coordinator stating that basic fact clearly, and the National Farmers’ Federation saying tentatively now might be the time to have a conversation about exit packages for people whose farms aren’t viable, the Coalition won’t hear it. The drought response needs to be about keeping people on their properties. The end.

As well as not wanting to hear the advice that rationalisation may need to happen, there is also that central circularity: droughts are getting worse because of climate change, and the Coalition has spent two terms either being destructive or dragging their heels. When the community responds to policy failure by getting active, the government says #StopTheActivism.

I want to track back now to where I started: with walking all sides of the street in the way that Weatherill and Emerson suggested. This next bit is very important.

Weatherill and Emerson were not suggesting Labor get shifty, or bluster through contradictions until the questions stop coming. The walking everywhere, hearing everything credo was presented to Labor’s class of 2019 as the core challenge of political leadership: bringing the country together.

Morrison’s oft-repeated talking point is the Coalition has the same message for the baristas in inner-city Melbourne as the high vis folks in Gladstone. But it doesn’t really. Even though he’s continuing to hedge all bets, trying to do all things, Morrison has been escalating post-election.

During the election, Morrison presented to voters as a leader who would keep everything nice and calm. Post election he looks like a political leader who has caught the populism virus, like a leader on the hunt for profitable division rather than synthesis.

You can win this way. Of course you can. But I remain hopeful he’ll grow into leadership and see it as an opportunity to try to bring people together, rather than carve the country into electorally advantageous enclaves and set them up in mortal conflict with one another. The country really does need someone to be a grown-up.

Anthony Albanese, meanwhile, is experimenting with some fusion language. Climate change means jobs and opportunity in the traditional industries and the new ones. Nobody has to feel like their interests are irreconcilable.

Can the Labor leader pull this pivot off and not be pounded to death by all sides? Honestly, I have no idea. But it will be interesting to watch him try.



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