Gasp: Answering the call to faction

To no one's surprise, loose lips continue to sink Labor's ship, in what should have been a banner week for the party.

In science, it’s called the fight or flight response. In the ALP it’s known as faction or function, and this week, with the ascension of a new chief, the Labor tribe once again finds itself at crossroads.

Faction Avenue emerged as an early frontrunner after the seemingly re-unified Labor mob splintered within days of Bill Shorten’s election as leader.

The squabbling by warriors of the left and right over the carcass of the Federal Labor caucus, undermined a tweet from defeated leadership aspirant Anthony Albanese after Shorten’s victory: “from today our party is united.”

Had he known what was to come he might have had the good humour to include the hashtags #lol #jks #thisagain?

Yes Albo, this again.

Shorten’s announcement of his frontbench was the symbolic beat on the tribal drum that awakened from within the mob and the not-too-distant villages those scorned dissenters with their sights set on familiar targets: Kevin Rudd, faceless men and gender inequality.

Proving the adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – and God help you if that woman is the former Speaker who patiently presided over one of the nation’s most toxic parliaments – Anna Burke blazed a bitter trail of barbs.

“Caucus voted on factional lines for the leadership and then sub-factional lines for executive positions, so whilst the party has embraced democratic change, the caucus has not,” she wrote.

Burke’s assertion that appointments were rooted in deals rather than merit is given considerable credence by inclusions such as Don Farrell, who will form part of the frontbench despite failing to win re-election as a senator in the September 7 election.

In Burke’s eyes, there’s no carving up of just-caught boar for communal consumption under the stars — just the carving up of cabinet positions by “a couple of blokes”.

It was fortuitously calamitous then that the next day Burke was entrusted with the duty of introducing new members of parliament to the rules of the chamber. Confessing to being in a “bitter and twisted” state, Burke rolled out confronting Justin Beiber metaphors, sage advice about swimming costumes and tips for drinking your dinner in the Captain’s lounge. You know, the essential day-to-day MP stuff.

GASP hears her masterclass on correctly claiming taxpayer-funded expenses was unfortunately delayed by a last-minute cabinet meeting, which Burke was compelled to eavesdrop on from the other side of a locked door.

As if unleashing a chain reaction of mental anguish, Burke’s lone voice in the wilderness soon became a chorus as familiar faces took aim at familiar targets – Labor, factions and one former leader in particular.

Highlighting the extent to which the ALP has adopted ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ as its unofficial mantra, Kevin Rudd loyalist Maxine McKew turned on her former mentor, hitting out at his recent election strategy.

While Burke lashed the faceless men, McKew went after their most famous scalp – Rudd himself.

McKew described Rudd’s plan for preferential tax rates in the Northern Territory as “idiocy”, lampooned the recruitment of Peter Beattie as the “worst” decision and likened the ongoing Rudd-Gillard feud to being “as reflexive as acid rising in the gullet".

Her Tales From The Political Trenches quickly resembled Memoirs Of Forgotten Relevance as she clamoured to hold on to the coat-tails of Burke’s far more interesting dummy-spit.

Not to be outdone, and keen to prove Labor hasn’t completely abandoned its propensity to heed the call of its long-time media chieftans, another retired MP ceded to a request for more blood to be spilled.

Please welcome Nicola Roxon.

“We should never, ever as a party be ashamed of our past,” the former Attorney-General declared, before launching into a scathing assessment of life under the tribal Rudd regime.

She didn’t so much let some of Labor’s excess blood, she tapped the party’s major vein and let the crimson river run. And run. And run. {link to Roxon news story)

The remarks satiated, to some extent, the desire for vitriol in this uncommonly pleasant Labor leadership transition, but it will do little to heal the swelling wounds of disunity in the party itself.

The all-too-familiar bickering overshadowed what really should have been a banner week for Labor.

Firstly, the fact that the ALP has ten more women on its frontbench than the government should be a point of pride, and yet it’s the divided tribe who turned a moral victory into yet another divisive brawl.

The coalition may have an appallingly low representation of females in its cabinet, but at least it has the sense not to bang on about it.

Secondly, the wide reportage of Shorten ascending to leader with only the support of 40 per cent of rank and file members, all but ignores the fact that, this being the first time a vote of this nature has been conducted, he now enjoys the direct support of 40 per cent more members than any parliamentary Labor leader that came before him.

It just shows Labor still hasn’t addressed one of its fatal flaws during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era – unlike its soul, Labor still can’t sell its political narrative.

This failure, as well as sentencing the party to a long term in the political wilderness, almost certainly points to the fact that the tribe seems destined to choose faction over function. 

One-line wonders

– “Removing Kevin Rudd was an act of political bastardry, for sure, but this act of political bastardry was made possible only because Kevin had been such a bastard himself to too many people.” Former Attorney-General Nicola Roxon wasn’t backwards in coming forward about her assessment of the 2010 leadership change.

– “We have no positions on anything.” Right, well now that Clive Palmer has cleared that up…

– "One of the first things you have to learn in parliament is how to give a speech to nobody.” Former Speaker Anna Burke quickly shattered any delusions of grandeur being harboured by the new kids on the parliamentary block.

– “One of the things that I have always admired about our most successful people is their fiercely competitive spirit.”  Clearly Tony Abbott’s free-market worldview extends to how he selects his role models.

Tweet of the week

Graph for Gasp: Answering the call to faction

The last gasp

The question of mandates looms large as parliament prepares to resume on November 12. The coalition believes it has the mandate of the Australian people to repeal the carbon tax, Labor says it is bound to represent those who did tick ALP in the September 7 election and stand by its commitment to carbon pricing.

All that is clear in the muddled debate is that there is much confusion over what constitutes a referendum.

The AEC defines a referendum as “a vote of the Australian people on measures proposed or passed by the Australian parliament.” The implication being a vote on a specific matter.

An election goes much further than this. It’s a three-yearly assessment on the performance of government as a whole, not just it’s the measures passed in parliament.

Just as the coalition would have been unlikely to yield their position on same-sex marriage if Labor won in September and claimed its victory as referendum on marriage equality, the ALP is under no obligation to roll over simply because the coalition took back government.

Labor would do well to hold the line on the carbon tax, if for no other reason than to acquaint itself with an increasingly foreign concept in its party room: a backbone.

Follow @mitchneems on Twitter.

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