Wednesday, 09 March 2016
Nick Cater's weekly column in The Australian:
Joe Bullock versus the modern Labor Party was never going to be a pretty fight. Nevertheless, the West Australian senator’s resignation last week after barely 19 months in parliament was an unsettling moment.
“The ALP is a party of tolerance,” Bullock declared in his maiden speech in August 2014. “It is a broad church that tolerates and encourages members with a wide range of social and economic views.”
Last July delegates to the party of tolerance’s national conference voted to deny MPs and senators a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. Bullock believes he cast the only dissenting vote. The motion allows a period of grace but from the parliament after next, it will be a non-negotiable matter.
“I walked away from the conference shocked, alone and in deep despond,” Bullock confessed last week. “How could I reconcile my position on this issue with my obligation to the party?”
The promotion of gender diversity is regarded as an admirable cause in the modern Labor Party in every institution except marriage. Bullock has been smeared as a homophobe and a relic from another age. Yet millions of Australians share his view that the Marriage Act should remain unchanged.
“How can I, in good conscience, recommend to people that they vote for a party which has determined to deny its parliamentarians a conscience vote on the homosexual marriage question?” he asked last week in his valedictory speech. “The simple answer is that I can’t.
“If your job requires you to do something which you believe to be wrong, there is only one course of action open — resign.”
The parliamentary party Bullock leaves is more insular, intolerant and illiberal than the one he joined, not least because of his departure. Bullock was an authentic outsider who voiced the concerns of the socially conservative majority, ordinary Australians whose views are frequently derided by the insider class.
Labor’s Martin Ferguson argued in the late 1990s it would be a profound mistake “to repackage ourselves as the party of the ‘progressive, activist’ middle class, or the ‘rainbow coalition’ of special interest groups”.
“We must ask whom we truly represent,” wrote Ferguson, “and what is needed to recapture the trust of working-class people who once looked to the Labor Party for hope and inspiration.”
Now Ferguson is gone from the political arena, along with other espousers of common sense like Simon Crean and Dick Adams. Gary Gray is quitting at the next election.
The union movement, despite its mischief, could once be relied upon to focus the parliamentary party’s attention on the workers. Now the union movement itself has lost its bearings, its interests only occasionally aligning with those of the people it purports to represent.
Changes in the party’s voting structure shifting power towards the branches have hardly helped. Bullock warned before his election that much of the membership is “mad”, and that without the unions “the Labor Party would fly off in a dozen directions following every weird leftie trend that you could imagine”.
It is hard to disagree. Consider the progressive causes the Labor Party will pursue if it wins the next election.
It will introduce a carbon tax. It will scrap the proposed plebiscite on gay marriage and, if Bill Shorten is true to his word, it will set about scrapping the monarchy.
It will intervene to control “the extremes of capitalism” and reintroduce welfare for the car industry. It will rewrite anti-discrimination laws and push for a human rights charter, policies that concentrate more power in the hands of the insiders.
It will set up a National Gender Centre “for support and advocacy for transgender and intersex Australians” and “to promote awareness about transgender and intersex issues to the wider public.”
This human-rightsy moral vanity might play out well in Northcote and Newtown but it leaves most Australians utterly bemused, particularly in the absence of a credible plan to pay for its utopian schemes.
The most troubling sections of Bullock’s valedictory speech touched on the suffocating intolerance within Labor, a party hamstrung by political correctness.
In his maiden speech, Bullock defended the right of free speech, liberality and an open mind. To be tolerant, he said, “was to accept that you have a perfect right to hold a view I believe to be wrong, even if I find your view offensive”.
Sadly the party did not extend him the same courtesy. Bullock considered quitting the party but remaining in the Senate on the cross benches.
Honourable to a fault, he decided against it, concluding that most of those to whom he owed his election had not voted for him but the ALP.
The narrowing of the party that Bullock’s departure represents must be of concern for those who put electability above purity. As Bullock said last week, to win elections the party must secure the votes of people who do not routinely vote Labor and that “preselecting a few more candidates who might actually change people’s vote might not be a bad idea”.
It raises the question of whether Labor can ever expect to govern in its own right by pursuing causes that play to the consciences of the political class but fail to move the masses.
There are ominous signs in Europe where mainstream centre-left parties are in decline. The latest evidence comes from Ireland, where the Labour Party lost 30 of its 37 seats at last month’s election. It has been overtaken as the third largest party by Sinn Fein, which has successfully reinvented itself as the party of the populist left.
The studied indifference of Bullock’s colleagues at the news of his departure, and the unseemly haste with which his replacement Pat Dodson was announced, even before Bullock has written his official letter of resignation, suggests the leadership is unaware of the dangers.
The fact is that Labor needs Bullock more than Bullock needs the party.