It's time to recover from the Labor addiction

Now Labor's in opposition, its factional ructions and dummy spits don't matter so much to Australia. Journalists, and the party itself, will have to learn to adjust.

Thank heavens for the Labor leadership contest. Without it, what would the press gallery have done this past month or so since the federal election?  And now that the Labor leadership election is over and decided, there’s the selection of the shadow ministry to mull over and all that factional maneuvering and dummy spitting from those like Anna Bourke who couldn’t get her Right faction to support her for a shadow ministry position.

All this is manna from heaven for journalists who for the past six years – if not longer – have been addicted to covering politics as a never ending leadership contest in which journalists are not just observers but active participants, the eager recipients of leaks from MPs who seemed to spend all their time either undermining their leader or undermining the leadership contender.

Kevin Rudd of course is mainly responsible for all this but others learnt to play the game from Rudd and played it with great relish. Most of them remain in the parliament and indeed, now occupy senior positions in Bill Shorten’s shadow cabinet.

The leadership addiction, from which labor has suffered for at least the past six years, like any addiction, cannot be cured overnight and certainly not while Kevin Rudd remains in the caucus with, on the face of it, not much to do for the next three years as a humble back bencher. This is not an ideal circumstance for treating an addiction, one symptom of which is compulsive leaking to journalists.

As Labor heads into what inevitably will be three years at least of hard political toil, the dummy spitting of the past few days – Anna Bourke, Warren Snowdon and Laurie Ferguson all complained about factional warlords subverting democracy in the party – is not a good look.

This is especially so, given that Bill Shorten is a Right Faction heavyweight or if you like, a faceless man, though it does seem rather strange to call him faceless given that his face has been plastered over the front pages of virtually every Australian newspaper and every television news bulletin for months now.

But Labor is now in opposition and the factional ructions and dummy spits – assuming Kevin Rudd and his supporters in the caucus and the media have truly given up any hope of a triumphant return to the leadership in order to once again rescue Labor – are unlikely to matter all that much.

What will matter and what the journalists have failed so far to examine for us – despite all the coverage of factional disputes and factional power plays – is what it means in 2013 to be a member of a faction in the Labor Party.

In ideological terms, in terms of policy positions, both domestic and foreign, what are the differences between the Right and the Left in the Labor Party? Bill Shorten is a leader of the Right and Tanya Plibersek a leader of the Labor Left, but it’s totally unclear what that means in terms of ideology and policy. If anything.

For a month, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese travelled around Australia campaigning for the leadership as key players in the Right and Left factions of the Labor Party, and yet on policy, on ideology, there was no disagreement and indeed, no discussion.

Bill Shorten was asked by a journalist at one of these meetings about the differences between the Right and the Left and his response was that the factions had formed as a response to the Cold War – presumably with the Right anti-communist and the Left anti-American – and that with the Cold War long over, there were no differences.

This is astounding. And probably not true. At least it is to be hoped that it is not true. Labor is inevitably going to go through a period of soul-searching which will involve a painful examination of what it means to be a social democratic party with trade union roots at a time when the era of rapid economic growth may be over and as a result, some aspects of the welfare state will come under pressure.

A party of the left which no longer has factions based on differences over what it means to be a progressive party is surely doomed to a never-ending search for the ‘best’ leader and to  factional squabbles that are only over the spoils of office.

As for the squabbles over positions in the shadow cabinet and the factional deals concocted by the ‘faceless men’, journalists may find this fascinating but for many people, it’s pretty irrelevant when Labor is confronted with long years in the political wilderness.

Journalists will soon have to adjust to the fact that the coalition is in government and that Tony Abbott is the prime minister. On the evidence of their coverage of the Abbott government’s first weeks, they have not yet come to terms with the fact that what’s happening in the Labor Party is not very important.

Tony Abbott’s first weeks have been interesting. Abbott the opposition leader seems to have vanished overnight. It not yet clear who Tony Abbott prime minister might be, though in his first weeks, Abbott has travelled overseas and offered apologies on Australia’s behalf to the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia, changed his tune about some of the harsher aspects of his asylum seeker policies and promised a free trade agreement with China within 12 months, despite the deep suspicions of his coalition partners about what this might mean in terms of Chinese ownership of Australian agricultural land.

And Tony Abbott has made it clear that unlike Rudd and Julia Gillard, he is determined not to be a slave of the 24/7 news cycle. Unlike Rudd and Gillard, who were both slaves to the media, determined to be seen to be constantly ‘doing something’, Abbott has been mostly invisible except when he was overseas.

For journalists, this is disconcerting. But it probably won’t last because Abbott’s strategy requires an iron discipline – by him and his cabinet and the outer ministry and even among his backbenchers.  No government over time can maintain such discipline. In the meantime, journalists have had Labor to fill the news cycle. This too won’t last because in the end, oppositions don’t matter that much.