It was unusual to see a generally sensible journalist write such an astonishing article. But there it was, Peter Hartcher writing in the March 19 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald: Labor's end - that's all, folks.
You may care to read it before reading this commentary.
A recent article by Annabelle Crabbe, Kevin, um, it seems, ah, we (shuffle) sort of, ah, owe you an apology
in the 18 March issue of The Drum
set hares running. It energized Andrew Elder, on Politically Homeless
, to forensically dissect and destroy her article. You might be interested to read Elder's March 19 analytic piece: Sorry for what?
Hartcher’s article deserves similar analysis.
At first I thought that the title, Labor's end - that's all, folks
, was that of some sub-editor seeking to attract attention, but the first paragraph left no doubt that this was exactly what Hartcher was saying: “The party's looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.”
Later he says: “The Prime Minister is like someone under a death sentence, carrying on breezily as if everything is normal. Let's be realistic. As things stand, Labor cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”
He ends by saying: “…even if she can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”
No ifs or buts, Labor and Gillard are finished – ‘that’s all folks’. In fact it’s worse than ‘finished’, it’s ‘oblivion’ – ‘the state of being forgotten; destruction or extinction’. Kaput!
This is Hartcher’s opinion, derived from the facts, but opinion nevertheless. Journalists are adept at slipping in opinion so that it appears almost as a fact.
Why would a usually balanced journalist writing for the moderate Fairfax press declare Labor and Gillard headed for oblivion years out from the next election? What on earth got his dander up? It looks as if it might have been Julia Gillard’s brief farewell comment, which Hartcher labeled ‘glowing’, about Karl Bitar: “The Prime Minister thanked Karl Bitar for his efforts that ‘helped us be re-elected in 2010 allowing us to deliver our plans to make Australia a stronger and fairer society’.”
Hartcher goes on: “In just 20 words, Gillard said so much, and so much wrong.”
What was wrong? Why is Hartcher pinning his story so strongly on a Gillard statement that most would deem innocuous?
Well Hartcher disputes the word ‘re-elected’: “The first glaring problem with this statement is Gillard's assertion that Labor had been ‘re-elected’. It was not.”
He insists: “Labor did not win the election. It failed to win a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. It was unable to form government in its own right.”
So Julia better get her words right or Hartcher will jump on her with both feet. It could be argued that Hartcher is technically correct, but why such angst over a word? All members of the House were elected, but no party could form government without support from the independents, which Gillard managed eventually to achieve, so one could argue that since her supporters too were elected, her Government was ‘re-elected’. But why anyone would want to get into such an angry semantic argument begs the question: ‘What is it meant to achieve?’ Maybe Hartcher felt better getting this off his indignant chest.
But that was not all he had to criticize in Gillard’s twenty words: “The second problem with Gillard's statement is her claim that Labor is delivering ‘our plans’. The biggest item on the government's agenda is a carbon tax. This was not ‘our plan’. It was the plan of the Greens and the independents.”
So what are you saying Peter? That Labor has become a puppet of them? Yes that is it: “…the Gillard government is a vessel for delivering the ambitions of others.”
One can reasonably assume that he disapproves of such an arrangement, despite it being the only one available, other than doing nothing. Again opinion has been subtly slipped in among the facts.
Hartcher then goes on to describe Labor’s ‘state of denial’, and insists that “As things stand, Labor cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”
He ‘backs’ this up with an account of the election stats, and goes on to assert that: “Under her slogan of ‘moving forward’, Gillard is taking Labor backwards at a dizzying clip.”
Again we have a Hartcher opinion, but no evidence is advanced. I suppose we are expected simply to swallow this, despite many of us believing just the opposite.
Then repeating his ‘Labor is finished’ opinion he adds a curious caveat: “Unless, of course, it can engineer an extraordinary resurgence”
, only to talk in the very next sentence of Labor’s 'looming death’. So what is it Peter? Is Labor’s death, oblivion, as dead a cert as you have said all through your article, or are you hedging your bets, so that you can write later about Labor’s ‘extraordinary resurgence’. This political gymnastics is dizzying for we consumers.
Hartcher then rehashes the ‘greatest moral and economic challenge of our time’ story, talks about a ‘quick and dirty deal with the multinationals on the mining tax’ (more Hartcher opinion), berates the ‘Timor solution’ and castigates PM Gillard on “…a total abandonment of serious action on climate change with her ’citizens' assembly’.”
– a curious statement in the light of the feverish action now extant on climate change, a carbon tax and an ETS. Where have you been Peter?
He talks of the two pillars on which Labor’s vote depends: the working class vote and the progressive vote, and goes on to insist: “Labor self-destructed as the party of the progressive vote”,
backing this assertion with the increase in the vote for the Greens. He sees this flight to the Greens as being established and that Labor’s task is to regain the progressive vote, but dismisses that possibility because the ‘Right’ in Labor is not interested and the recent polls show this is not working. Maybe so, but isn’t it a little early to be casting the destiny of Labor on the result of polls in the first six months of its second term. Has he forgotten Coalition polls in the early years of the Howard Government? I wonder what he thinks of the latest Newspoll
? Why is he so quick to judgement? Is he seeking the status of a prophet? That’s pretty dangerous for one’s reputation so early in the piece. Still that’s his right.
He summarizes his position with: “Gillard Labor seems to have got no political credit whatsoever for embracing the tough task of championing a carbon tax. Rather, the party seems stuck in the worst of all possible worlds. It's under ferocious attack from Abbott and the ‘people's revolt’ on the right. Yet it's winning no new support from the green left.”
Note the words: “no political credit whatsoever”
; no ifs or buts, and still more Hartcher opinion. Elsewhere in his piece he talks about Labor’s "total abandonment of serious action on climate change"
. How does this line up with his words: "...embracing the tough task of championing a carbon tax."
And what of Abbott’s 'people’s revolt' – has he not seen the numbers ‘revolting’, or should it be ‘revolting numbers’?
He goes on to PM Gillard’s Don Dunstan speech and says that Gillard took: “…the extraordinary step of denouncing the Greens”.
Curious, because I didn’t hear her ‘denouncing’ the Greens; it was the Coalition she denounced. Hartcher actually quotes what she said: “The Greens are not a party of government and have no tradition of striking the balance required to deliver major reform."
Hardly a denouncement, even if one throws in Gillard’s word: ‘extreme’.
Then he re-asserts: “…Labor has yet to squarely confront the fact that it is on track to bring the two-party system to an end as Australia witnesses the rise of a three-party system.”
Well that’s consistent with his earlier statements, even if contestable.
Then towards the end we see more gymnastics: “…if Gillard is carrying on in a blithe state of denial, as if she were not under a political death sentence, then Abbott is becoming the cartoon villain of Australian politics.”
That’s the first mention of an alternative to the ‘doomed’ Labor party, the one headed for ‘oblivion’. As one read the piece it would not have been surprising if Hartcher had pointed to the Coalition as the alternative. But instead he gets into Tony Abbott: “Abbott is a bit like Yosemite Sam. Noisy, angry, quick to reach for his six-shooter, full of bluster and threats, he is terrific with the threatening theatrics. But he never actually manages to get his hands on his prey. Remember the flood levy, the end of modern Australia as we know it? Remember Abbott's angry fulminations? The levy was ‘the opposite of mateship’. It would impose an unconscionable burden on the hard-scrabble families of Australia. The moment the flood levy passed through the House of Representatives, Abbott fell silent on it. Now he's busy ranting and fuming about the next great danger. The theatrical bluster conceals the hard fact that 72 bills have been voted through the House of Representatives since the election. How many has Abbott successfully opposed? Zero. If Yosemite Tony can't stop the carbon tax, his one-trick oppositionism will be terminally exposed as a failure.”
Goodness me, so Abbott is no good either! Where does that leave us? Labor doomed and Abbott an ineffective ‘Yosemite Sam’. It seems Australia is doomed.
But in case you somehow missed his central point, he concludes: “But for Gillard, the task is harder. Because even if she can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”
So gloom compounds gloom – no matter what Labor does, no matter what PM Gillard does, she and Labor are doomed, headed for ultimate oblivion.
So what do you make of Hartcher’s gymnastics? He insists over and again Labor is finished, but gives himself an out: unless of course she ‘can engineer an extraordinary resurgence’. He then looks at Tony Abbott and gives him the flick, and he doesn’t seem overly enamored with the Greens. So how are we to be governed? By a doomed party, lead by a PM under a ‘death sentence’, or by Yosemite Sam? It’s an exercise in nihilism the like of which I have not seen.
So I ask: ‘Why does Hartcher seem to be so angry? Why did he write the piece at all? What was it expected to achieve except perhaps giving him the Nostradamus touch? Why did his editors think it worth publishing? Was it the ‘shock value’ of the piece? Why does Hartcher cavort like a gymnast, from the Roman rings to the pommel horse to a floor display to horse vaulting?
After reading ‘Labor's end - that's all, folks’
several times, I still came away dizzy with Hartcher’s gymnastic moves, but none the wiser about what the future holds for Australian politics – perhaps he’ll tell us in his next piece.
But I did feel that a new term for political gymnastics might be coined – Hartcherism.
What do you think?
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