Labor fighting for very life on two fronts

STATE Labor is fighting for existence. It is an existential battle, and its biggest enemy is not the Coalition, but the Greens.

STATE Labor is fighting for existence. It is an existential battle, and its biggest enemy is not the Coalition, but the Greens.

Polling and preference deals with independents suggest the Greens candidate Cathy Oke is the odds-on favourite to win the July 21 byelection for the seat of Melbourne.

The ramifications of a loss for Labor, which has held the seat since 1908, would be significant.

Aside from the obvious humiliation of defeat for the first time in 104 years, a loss would present powerful evidence that Labor is failing to capitalise on growing dissatisfaction with the performance of Premier Ted Baillieu.

This could in turn potentially destabilise Daniel Andrews, who, for a first-term Opposition Leader, has done a good job holding his party together.

Andrews is cognisant of the danger. Unlike his colleagues in Federal Parliament, he has no choice but to tackle the Greens head on.

The Greens, Andrews argues, may be policy purists, but they are also impractical, inflexible, arrogant, self-indulgent, impotent and economically illiterate. Labor may not be perfect, but at least it lives in the real world, with an understanding of the need for compromise.

To emphasise the point, Andrews highlights the refusal of Greens last month to yield ground in Federal Parliament to tackle the arrival of asylum seekers by boat, despite public support for a non-partisan compromise.

"I would hope that people voting in the Melbourne byelection would look at what occurred in the Federal Parliament and the . . . inflexibility, the arrogance, the self-indulgence of the Greens on display up in Canberra," Andrews told The Age.

"They'd see that as a very good reason to vote Labor. That's the only way you get things done, particularly in the context of a state campaign where surely, surely, all progressive Victorians want to get rid of Ted Baillieu. The only way to do that is to vote Labor."

The argument is that politicians can indeed make compromises without actually being compromised. The alternative is a form of feel-good absolutism, which is a recipe for inaction and failure.

"Having a holiday from reality doesn't do anybody any good in Noble Park, or Dandenong, or high-rise estates in the centre of Melbourne people who need the support and attention of government.

Nor does Andrews subscribe to the argument aired in some federal quarters that the Greens are necessary to mop up disaffected voters on the left as the party grapples to win swinging voters in the centre.

"We don't need some add-on as the faux-conscience of the Labor Party. We know how to make Victoria stronger and better and fairer, and we did it for a long time and we can do it again, but only if people vote for us."

In some ways this is a compelling argument. If Labor has any hope of surviving, it must be self-contained. It is essentially a case for compromise over idealism. In the absence of detailed policies, this is the best argument state Labor can muster at this relatively early stage in the political cycle.

But will such arguments be enough for state Labor, which has been forced by circumstance to fight on two fronts, against the Greens and the Coalition?

As an alternative government, it eventually must release a detailed and fully costed suite of credible policy alternatives. Its agenda will be scrutinised.

The Greens, on the other hand, with no chance of winning the 45 seats in the Legislative Assembly needed to govern, have the luxury of being purists while facing little scrutiny.

Oke has been able to present a seemingly attractive policy agenda for voters in Melbourne, including promising a "world class" public transport system, investment in public housing, the restoration of funding for TAFEs, making Victorian teachers the best paid in the nation and a reduction in school class sizes. How this would be paid for, or even delivered with one seat in Parliament, remains unclear.

Labor, on the other hand, has made virtually no policy pronouncements. Offer voters a choice between a "world class" public transport system and nothing much at all and many will probably vote for the former even if they don't think it's credible. At the very least, it might send a signal about what matters.

Rather than attempting to tackle the Greens on policy, Labor is hoping that growing dissatisfaction with the performance of the Baillieu government, and emerging concerns about the Greens federally, will polarise voters.

Labor's toxic brand at the federal level will also do little to help its chances in the pending byelection. Andrews says even the most senior members of the federal party acknowledge they could have done better selling important reforms such as increases to pensions, superannuation reforms and spending on health, education and infrastructure.

Andrews' arguments against the Greens are compelling, but the case is only half complete. Without a policy agenda Labor will face an uphill battle to win in Melbourne on July 21.

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