On the night of the Wills by-election in 1992 there was much excitement amongst members of the left who saw Phil Cleary’s win as the start of a new wave. Some people discussed the idea of running progressive independents in a swag of Labor-held seats. One individual proposed “We should run someone against Lindsay [Tanner]” who had been preselected for Melbourne at the next election. This shocked some people. “But Tanner is the hope of the left” someone argued, to which the proposer responded, “Yes, that is why we should run someone. The Labor Left’s hope need to be crushed.”
I found this obscenely sectarian then. Melbourne was certainly an obvious choice for a left-of-Labor campaign, and if Tanner was defeated as a result that might be a price worth paying, depending on who beat him. But the idea that he should be targetted because he offered a chance to move the party leftwards from within was, and remains, appalling.
Tanner of course duly got elected with no great threat, and stayed in parliament for more than 17 years. In that time he was definitely a force for competence within the Labor Party, which is no small thing, and on some issues he probably did drag them a little to the left. However, any hopes he might be some sort of left-wing champion were well and truly gone by 2004, the first time the Greens seriously tried to defeat him*. Moreover, on at least one issue, whether income on capital should attract lower taxes than on labour, he won the ALP over to a position I can’t see as anything other than deeply right-wing.
I’m reminded of the these events because of the enthusiasm of some members of the Labor left for defeating Tanner’s successor, Adam Bandt. To varying degrees of explictness they seem to be saying that they want Labor to win the seat because Bandt is the only voice consistently to the left of the Labor Party in the House of Representatives. No doubt some people are campaigning for Cath Bowtell because they genuinely think she will do a good job, but in lots of cases that seems to be secondary – all alternative routes to working within the ALP must be crushed. It’s an attitude every bit as sectarian as that of the one who wanted to run against Tanner because of the hopes placed in him. And every bit as wrong.
The question of whether to work inside or out of powerful institutions is a perennial one for anyone who wishes to see a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world. It is all to easy to demonise those who take the other path. Those who choose to work within are labelled as sell-outs taking advantage of the salaries and perks often on offer. Outsiders are stereotyped as intransigents, more interested in self-righteous fury than achieving real change. There are certainly times when these are true. When one Labor insider satarized a group I was in alliance with as saying “we have to smash the state by lunch time or we aren’t really trying” it hurt because it was so true. On the other hand, history is littered with those who assured everyone they really just wanted to work for change in the most effective way, only to end up propping up the exact positions they had condemned because it paid so well.
However, there are many cases where these allegations are quite unfair. Real change usually comes through a combination of efforts within and pressure from outside. Most of the time we need more people doing both. It is fair enough to ask hard questions about where one can be most effective, but I think we should go easy on the moral judgements of those who choose the other route.
Often the different paths are complimentary, or at least not conflicting. When it comes to electoral politics, however, this is only rarely true. In Batman, one of the strongest Green seats in the country, the Labor candidate David Feeney is usually taking the party in a right-ward direction. If somehow Alex Bhathal could defeat him it would be a win for both paths. However, this is the exception that proves the rule. Most of the seats with the highest Green votes have Labor candidates who are more sympathetic to the Green policies than the party as a whole. In part this is a deliberate Labor strategy to neutralise the Greens, but a larger factor is the membership of the branches that do half the preselecting.
In many cases I think all that can happen is for Greens and Labor left figures to campaign for their preferred candidate and try to avoid too much bitter finger-pointing. However, this rule breaks down where the candidate for one side or the other really does offer the best chance for that strategy to have some bite. Labor figures might want to make that case for either Tanya Pilbersek in Sydney or Anthony Albanese in Grayndler, although by definition it can’t be true for both at once.
However, I doubt anyone would make the case for Cath Bowtell. By all accounts Bowtell is a nice person who genuinely holds positions to the left of the party, unlike quite a few other Labor lefties of convenience. However, I don’t think anyone thinks she will ever be a major figure within the party or one who can achieve major change.
Bandt, on the other hand, has already forced Labor to put a price on carbon pollution and include dental treatment for children in Medicare, amongst a swag of smaller reforms that would not have happened without his presence in parliament. Certainly his capacity to achieve such change was enhanced many times through his good fortune in holding the balance of power. Nevertheless, even in a majority parliament he would have been a more forceful, articulate and thoughtful voice for change than anything else on offer. Which is exactly why some members of the Labor left want him gone – for them, it is my way or the highway, even should that highway be, for example, a disastrous road tunnel through the heart of the electorate that Labor initially supported, and then took years to reluctantly decide they didn’t really like, at least while in opposition.
*The Greens ran in Melbourne in 1996, 98 and 2001, but in each case pretty much everyone in the campaign saw it as about supporting the Senate campaign, building a base for the future and giving people a chance to express their view. Winning was so improbable no one had to think about the implications.