Resistance is futile

With Bob Brown gone, Labor’s relationship with the Greens was bound to come to grief. But given Labor's lack of moral and political capital, distancing itself from the Greens won't be enough against a relentless Tony Abbott.

On Sunday, Tony Abbott finally submitted himself to an extended interview with Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders program. A couple of days earlier, Malcolm Turnbull gave the Michael Kirby Lecture in Sydney.

Watching Abbott with Cassidy, it was clear why Abbott had refused all invitations to appear on the program. His preference was to grind away with those daily visits to an assortment of manufacturing plants where he could wear a hard hat and a safety vest and, if possible, goggles and repeat his one liners on the evils of the carbon tax or people smugglers or Gillard the liar.

There is something almost admirable about Abbott’s doggedness, his willingness to endure the mindlessness and what must be the bone aching boredom of these factory photo opportunities. Day in, day out, there he is in fancy dress repeating the same slogans over and over again.

Tony Abbott has managed to transform himself from an edgy, sometimes passionate, sometimes self-deprecating politician into a kind of one tone political automaton whose main quality is a humourless, relentless self-discipline.

Abbott was right to refuse all previous requests from Cassidy to appear on Insiders. It was a shock to see how nervous he was during the interview, how uncomfortable, how he could barely control his anger at some of Cassidy’s questions. And his answers, frankly, were clumsy at best – once he was forced to go beyond his rehearsed slogans – and nonsensical at worst.

On the carbon price, on the asylum seekers in particular, Abbott was all at sea. He had buried himself – the 'old’ Abbott – so deeply in self-control and sloganeering and working people’s fancy dress, that anything beyond slogans has become just too hard for him. Too hard and too politically risky.

That he can get away with the nonsense of his position on asylum seekers is stark evidence of the fact that this Labor government has no political – let alone moral – capital left and the sooner it loses office the better.

Two days before Abbott’s woeful performance, Turnbull’s Kirby lecture was a cogent, well-written, nuanced speech setting out a conservative defence of same sex marriage. Turnbull has been giving speeches like this – well researched, well argued, well delivered – on a range of issues since he was deposed by Abbott as opposition leader.

Indeed, Turnbull is the only senior Australian politician nowadays whose speeches are worth listening to and worth reading. On gay marriage, on media policy and the challenges facing newspapers, on Australia’s relationship with China – to name just a few of the areas Turnbull has covered in his speeches – Turnbull has substantial things to say. He is a small 'l’ liberal, perhaps, just perhaps, even a social democrat. Social democracy is not what it once was. The Labor Party is no longer the political wing of the industrial trade union movement. Malcolm Turnbull might be the only person in federal parliament capable of repairing Labor after it is annihilated at the next election.

It won’t happen of course. Turnbull won’t jump sides for various reasons, but one has to be that he has not yet given up hope of one day being a Liberal prime minister. In some ways, he is the most substantial politician in the federal parliament and the only one who was prepared to risk losing his job by refusing to abandon a policy position in which he deeply believed.

That’s not saying much on one level because all the leaders of our political parties are political pygmies. That’s certainly true now that Bob Brown has retired. Too little has been made of the consequences of Brown’s retirement. Brown was a politician of great skill and great tactical nous.

And like all great politicians, there was an authenticity about him, about his language that can’t be taught or learnt – look at Gillard and Abbott and for that matter, the new Greens leader, Christine Milne.

The sudden rupturing of relations between the Greens and Labor might have been coming for some time, but it may not have come now and so violently had Bob Brown still been the leader of the Greens.

With Brown’s retirement, one of the most successful politicians of the past couple of decades – and a national figure of standing for more than 30 years – left politics and with his leaving, left the future of the Greens uncertain and left uncertain too the alliance between Labor and the Greens that he had forged.

All it required in these circumstances for a major fall-out between the Greens and Labor was a trigger and that trigger was Milne’s handling of the asylum seeker issue and her steely unwillingness to countenance any compromise in the Greens’ position on offshore processing.

In politics, in life, language is important, words matter, tone matters. Milne sounded morally superior. Brown would have put the Greens position in such a way that it left open the possibility of giving Labor, the Greens alliance partner, a way out of the political morass in which it found itself.

At the very least, he would have recognised, and taken into account, the fact that a significant number of Labor MPs are deeply uncomfortable with Gillard’s Malaysia solution. Moral superiority, he would have known, would just enrage them.

With Brown gone Labor’s relationship with the Greens was bound to come to grief. The Greens, having lost the leader who more or less created the party, held together its factions and who in reality embodied what the party was and stood for, are at a vulnerable point in their history. Brown is not easily replaced and it may well be that his political passing marks the high point of the Greens’ electoral success.

For Labor, there will be no better time than now to end the alliance, to try and seriously distance itself from the Greens, to try and win back some of the votes of disillusioned Labor supporters who turned to the Greens because they supported a Greens Party led by Bob Brown.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Turnbull will remain the most substantial politician in the parliament, Tony Abbott will never again submit himself to the sort of grilling he received at the hands of Barrie Cassidy – it’ll be back to the hardhats and safety vests and slogans – and Julia Gillard will continue to hope for a poll turnaround that won’t come.

Labor might be able to seriously damage the Greens at the next election, but damaging the Greens won’t save it from an election rout. Nothing will. Not even Tony Abbott’s shortcomings.

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