CANBERRA OBSERVED by national correspondentNews Weekly
Labor's deputy leads party to dead end
, May 9, 2015
Bill Shorten’s promise of making 2015 Labor’s “year of ideas” has already thrown up some problematic proposals, not the least of which is that of his own deputy’s proposition that seeks to deny Labor MPs a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.
Tanya Plibersek’s provocative rule-change proposal argues that Labor can no longer tolerate dissent in any form on any kind of discrimination including but especially same-sex marriage.
It is expected to create friction in the lead-up to the party’s all-important triennial national conference in July.
The conference was already having to deal with seriously contentious issues such as the treatment of asylum seekers and the re-imposition of a price on carbon dioxide before Ms Plibersek’s same-sex marriage grenade.
Some Labor critics have described Ms Plibersek’s proposal as poorly timed and not smart politics, while others see it as a long-game pitch for the Labor leadership.
Others say she is being self-serving in using this issue to shore up her own inner-metropolitan vote, against the backdrop of severe vote haemorrhaging to the Greens.
Whatever her motivations, a rule that forces all Labor MPs to vote in favour of same-sex marriage would make life difficult for many, and not just those with strong religious positions on the issue.
It would also be a sign that, in the ideological tug-of-war between chasing the mainstream vote and the progressive vote, Labor is opting for the latter against that of the former.
Several Labor MPs, including those strongly in favour of same-sex marriage, have rejected the proposal for a variety of reasons.
For Bill Shorten the issue is particularly irksome because he has been urging Tony Abbott to permit all Coalition MPs to be able to vote with their conscience on the issue, and would then have to have a different rule for his own MPs.
Ms Plibersek argues that, unlike abortion or euthanasia, same-sex marriage is not a life-and-death issue, and that Labor should have a higher ideal in treating all people equally. She will win plaudits in her own inner-city seat of Sydney for this view, and will be hailed by media commentators as the Labor leader of the future.
But at a more practical level, if carried in July, the motion would have serious consequences for the party. Many MPs who have a fundamental issue with the broadening of marriage beyond the traditional concept of a man and a woman, would have to cross the floor, thereby setting themselves up for expulsion from the ALP.
There is already an absurd instance of ALP self-harm in making in the attempt to hound Martin Ferguson (who is no longer a member of Parliament) out of the party after he dared to question the NSW branch’s opposition to the privatisation of electricity poles and wires.
But expelling all opponents of same-sex marriage would result in self-immolation on a grand scale.
There are also several ALP members who, whatever their own position, are mindful of the views of the religious and ethnic groups in their electorates, and who do not want to provoke them unnecessarily with what is largely a side issue.
Ms Plibersek’s proposal will almost certainly fail at the first juncture, but it can be expected to be part of a long-term campaign to have same-sex marriage enshrined as Labor policy.
Meanwhile, Bill Shorten also has to deal with several other divisive issues, including Bob Carr’s bid to have Australia recognise Palestine, thereby abandoning Australia’s long-time bipartisan support of Israel.
Labor’s year of ideas is also producing several proposals to fix the budget deficit. So far there are no savings measures, just extensions to the tax take.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen knows he could be dealing with an intractable budget deficit within 18 months and is working overtime to find painless ways to source more revenue.
These include hammering trans-nationals such as Google and Apple, and initiatives to tax wealthy superannuants whose earnings in retirement are currently tax free, courtesy of former treasurer Peter Costello.
Both measures are likely to produce less income than Mr Bowen forecasts but will be electorally palatable.
However, they won’t get Mr Bowen even to first base in terms of finding his own alternate path to repairing the budget.
Labor remains well in front in the opinion polls, and Joe Hockey’s second budget is unlikely to change this. On current trends there is every likelihood that Labor will be back in power in late 2016.
But as the next election approaches, more and more attention will be
focused on Labor’s actual policies and Mr Shorten will need considerable political skills to minimise self-promotion such as his deputy is currently engaging in, as well as producing the serious policies required to run an economy in the wake of the mining boom.