It’s no secret that the gathering of the Labor Party faithful at this weekend’s national conference is a big test for the party’s national leader Bill Shorten. Less obvious are the precautions the Opposition Leader is taking in an attempt to minimise the damage.
Mr Shorten has taken a hit in the opinion polls and is looking a bit shaky as Labor leader. If he mishandles the national conference debate on contentious policy issues like asylum seekers and climate action, voters may start marking down the Labor Party as well as its leader.
And if Labor starts to tank in the opinion polls, Mr Shorten can kiss his leadership goodbye.
To head off some of the unruliness, Mr Shorten has taken two risky actions this week. The first was to flag an ambitious goal for Australia’s use of renewable energy, and the other was to reverse Labor’s long-held opposition to the Government’s policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers.
Both actions pre-empt debates at the national conference that might have veered in directions other than the decisions announced by Mr Shorten. To head off an expected push at the meeting for adoption of a climate action policy that includes an aggressive and electorally poisonous emissions trading scheme, the Labor leader has attempted to steer the party towards the more popular clean energy solutions.
One media report suggests the proposed voter-friendly climate policy will also include a commitment to never introduce a fixed carbon price. Whether Labor members will be prepared to make such a commitment, and the public to buy it, are yet to be determined.
Much more controversial is Mr Shorten’s unilateral decision to announce that Labor has seen the error of its way on boat turnbacks, and will now include the tactic in its own suite of measures to disrupt the people smuggling business and stop asylum seeker deaths at sea.
While the ALP’s progressive left may be prepared to accept the softer approach on climate action to make Labor more electorally palatable, it’s unlikely it will quietly accede to the leader’s decision to fall into line with the Coalition Government’s harsh approach to managing asylum seekers – even if this is what a majority of voters want.
Some members of the left are reportedly calling Mr Shorten’s move an ambush, and may not be placated by his reported intention to commit at the conference to an expanded refugee intake of 27,000 people each year.
Labor left MPs will be doubly concerned – firstly by the prospect of their party adopting yet another element of what is seen as the Coalition’s inhumane approach to deterring asylum seekers, but secondly by the implication that such a move has for marginal Labor seats with a high proportion of Green votes.
The left has been instrumental in pushing Labor to have a necessary but painful internal debate on gay marriage, partly because the right to marry should be extended to all Australians, but also because it is an iconic issue that could persuade progressive voters in marginal Labor seats to stick with the party.
State elections in Victoria and NSW have shown that the election (and re-election) of the Greens’ Adam Bandt in the formerly-Labor held seat of Melbourne was not a fluke and that, when the minor party targets prospective seats with their carpet-bomb style of grass roots campaigning, they can take lower house seats from the major parties without having to grow the Greens’ overall vote.
Tertiary-educated voters living in inner-city seats are the new and growing generation of Greens voters; ABC election analyst Antony Green calls them the “knowledge elite”. With higher education usually comes increased income, and so this cohort of voters can also be quite affluent, which gives them the time and money to care about issues that lower-income voters would be more likely to dismiss as having little relevance to their everyday concerns.
When the growing number of potential Green voters is clustered in safe seats, they are of little concern (and interest) to the major parties. But it is a different story in the marginals – such as the seats belonging to marriage equality champions Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese – and other seats where the Green vote is potentially larger than the Liberal vote, such as that held by Labor MP David Feeney who has changed his tune on marriage equality, and by Kelvin Thompson.
In addition to climate action, boat turnbacks and marriage equality, Mr Shorten faces a battle at the national conference with the unions over their calls for greater influence in ALP decisions and pre-selections at a time when the labour movement represents less than 20 per cent of the work force.
While it is essential for the party to debate and reach consensus on these issues, an ugly public debate on any of them is something the Labor leader can ill afford.
Voters aren’t impressed when a political party behaves like a rabble and its leader appears weak. Mr Shorten will be hoping the Labor left are politically smart enough to realise this, and avoid doing anything to create such a perception this weekend.