A grotesque end-game is unfolding in the West

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, April 8, 2014


IT took Labor senator Louise Pratt five minutes to complete her ballot paper on Saturday, suggesting she had ignored her party’s helpful advice to vote above the thick black line.

“Am I sending a protest vote?” she asked waiting reporters rhetorically. “No. I voted for myself and I voted for Joe.”

Naturally so, since a failure to assign a number to her so-called running mate Joe Bullock would have rendered her ballot paper invalid.

The question is whether Pratt put him first, as her party recommended, or 77th, as she might have been tempted to do, given Bullock’s boorish remarks at a public meeting in November.

Pratt, said Bullock, was “the poster child for the Left” and “a spokesperson for that persuasion”. And what persuasion would that be?

“Louise Pratt is, as some of you would know, a leading advocate of homosexual marriage and a lesbian, I think,” Bullock told the Dawson Society, “although after her partner’s sex change I can’t be quite sure. But I think she’s a lesbian.”

The dispute between Labor’s top two West Australian candidates on the Senate ticket is clearly not your ordinary factional row.

Nor is it primarily an argument about same-sex marriage; that just happens to be the current cause dividing progres­sive and conservative Labor.

What we are witnessing in Western Australia is the grotesque end game in a decades-long battle for control of the ALP. On one side are members who have dirt under their fingernails, on the other those who do not.

It is a battle between the workers and the intellectuals that began in the early 1960s and flared under Gough Whitlam, a prime minister who Bullock helped vote out of office in 1975.

The truce established by Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke wav­ered under Kim Beazley, when Labor struggled to make up its mind about asylum-seekers.

John Howard’s Work Choices reunified Labor ­briefly to win the 2007 election, but it was downhill from there. The two wings were worlds apart on climate change and border ­security long before Julia Gillard signed a pact with the Greens.

By crossing the boundary between a legitimate debate about the Marriage Act and an intrusive discussion about Pratt’s domestic arrangements, Bullock en­-sured that the home truths from the rest of his 50-minute session would be ignored.

That is a pity since, while the discussion may not suit Labor’s prevailing mood, Bullock deliv­ered a cogent analysis of why the party is failing to win elections. “Labor should be interested in regular people,” Bullock said.

“When the Labor Party says to voters, ‘Trust us, we have your interests at heart,’ the voters don’t trust them.

“And the voters are right. The Labor Party hasn’t demonstrated that they are capable of being trusted to look after the interests of working people and their families. When they do, they will win and win and win and win and win, and the other side will never get a look-in.”

Bullock is a committed Anglican with Calvinist instincts who represents Labor’s socially conservative tradition.

Naturally, therefore, he was treated with derision by the bien-pensant commentators on ABC1’s Insiders on Sunday, host Barrie Cassidy urging Labor leader Bill Shorten to change preselection procedures in Western Australia.

Yet Bullock was preselected fair and square with 109 state executive votes to Pratt’s 61.

Since the Left is dominant in WA’s state executive, it was unusual for a member of the Right to snare the top spot, but Bullock was assisted by a blue-collar putsch, led by the Maritime Union of Australia, to regain control of the party on behalf of workers. When the union vote fractured, Bullock won the support of United Voice and romped home.

In a warning shot to Shorten as he tries to reform the party, Bullock insists that without the union movement the ALP is finished. “It provides significant ­financial resources and manpower to the Labor Party. But, more importantly than that, ballast,” he said.

Branch-based members, the winners from Kevin Rudd’s leadership election reform, tend to be activists. In other words, said Bullock, they were “mad”.

Without unions, “the Labor Party would fly off in a dozen ­directions following every weird leftie trend that you could imagine and there’d be no party left. To the extent that the Left within the Labor Party dominates its policy formulation, those policies are out of tune with mainstream Australia and that does damage.”

Once, Labor could accommodate working-class conservatives such as Bullock. Indeed, one of them, Arthur Calwell, used to be in charge of the party.

In a mournful autobiography written late in life, Calwell drew attention to a new faction in the Labor Party comprising “aggres­sive, assertive, philosophical, way-out people” intent on building “an agnostic, hedonistic ­society based on Freudian ­philosophy”.

“These people seek to challenge all accepted views and standards that govern our society,” Calwell said.

They were “philosophical anarchists” and there were more of them in the Labor Party than any other party. He noted wryly: “The newspaper, radio and television media have been the object of similar penetration.”

It was encouraging to see Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and ­Anthony Albanese extend an olive branch to Bullock last week, even though his views would be anathema to their inner-city Sydney constituencies.

It is important, not just to maintain Labor’s voting bloc in the Senate but also to help prevent the party sinking under the weight of its own irrelevance.

If the cost of keeping Bullock and those of a similar persuasion in the tent is an exodus of votes to the Greens, as occurred in Western Australia at the weekend, it is the price the party has to pay.

A similar defection by the moral middle classes to Don Chipp’s Australian Democrats worked in the long run to the benefit of the party, allowing Hayden to reconnect the party with its base.

That task will be harder this time around. The expansion of higher education means the progressive constituency is larger and its ­demands even louder.

Shorten and Labor must hold their nerve. Bullock’s brand of conservatism has greater support than sophisticated columnists imagine.

If the party is not big enough for Bullock, it will struggle to govern in its own right.